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I don’t know what it is about the show.
I will admit that it’s one of those things I simply can’t control, be it the phases of the moon this year or the fact that Tom Bergeron is one of the better television hosts out there, but I can honestly say that the enjoyment I derive from the program is partly due to my four-year-old’s manic transformation when the show is supposed to come on. Thanks to TiVo I can now lord that saved program over her little toddler head but, like Life cereal, dad likes it too. Her exuberance in wanting to see this show (driving me crazy with every day that passes after the Tuesday Results show, asking when the show is coming back on. “Monday! Get that through your non-English reading brain…”)
I believe this reality show trumps many others in its class from the standpoint that it’s not enough to just be a celebrity and be part of the show, they actually have to do something, they have to earn their keep. Will this program change collective perspectives of our Middle Eastern policy or will it raise the bar for television production? No, but that’s not the point and that’s certainly not why this program is the 2nd and 7th program most widely watched by those in America last week, its consistent performance in the ratings only being matched by their creative celebrity choices.
It’s a juggernaut of a show and when approached to interview one of the show’s dancers, Tony Dovolani, I took it as an opportunity to try and get a true insider’s take about why this show works as well as it does. Tony actually got his limelight start on the big screen with his turn in 2004’s SHALL WE DANCE and has since performed in over 50 episodes of Dancing With The Stars.
From being born in Kosovo, Serbia, Tony worked his love for dance into a professional career since arriving in America decades ago and has won his share of World Rhythm championships to demonstrate his prowess as an accomplished performer. His partner, Jane Seymour, suddenly coming down sick with food poisoning to the heartbreaking loss of her mother did not stop the duo from overcoming near elimination a couple of times and the two continued to battle it out on the floor before being leaving the competition almost two weeks ago. Tony took a brief respite from his schedule prior to that to give me an idea of what he’s been up against and tries to explain why America can’t stop watching this program.
When I spoke to Tony he had been spared yet another week of being booted off and was beginning a fresh week anew with getting himself back into the competition. I commented on how everyone was nearly expecting his exodus.
DOVOLANI: It’s been crazy. The amazing thing about it was that I was not expecting it. When it happened I was so stunned. I think everybody in the whole world could see how stunned I was.
CS: I think everyone was. I don’t think anyone was expecting that but how has it been for you this season? How’s the experience been this year?
DOVOLANI: The good thing about it is that it is a feel good show and everybody enjoys it. Dancing is a very interesting thing. God works in mysterious ways and sends joyful things to people who need it the most. And in this case, obviously Jane, a little dancing in their lives and the trauma that has gone on this season. Dancing has been such an escape for her…such a joy…something she has always wanted to do but never gotten to it. I just think this is the right thing for her to go through.
CS: She has absolutely been through a lot since it started – food poisoning, her mother…
DOVOLANI: Yes, the food poisoning and then Marie passed out in front of her – it just seems like it just keeps going. You know things come in three’s and hopefully this is the last and everyone can just enjoy the competition.
CS: And I watch the program. I have to tell you I have a wife and daughter who hooked on this show and I cannot explain why.
DOVOLANI: The funniest story that I tell everybody, is that I was in Las Vegas and this guy who’s about 6 foot 8, about 350 lbs…full of tattoos, and he walks up to me and I’m just like thinking he’s going to just get into a fight with me, I was just scared shitless, and he goes, “Are you Tony?” And I said, “Yes.” And he goes, “I gotta tell you, you guys are just awesome.” And I’m going, “What???” Our audience is so wide – A to Z as you call it. It’s an amazing thing. Dancing has taken this country by storm.
CS: You have obviously danced for a long time. You love, you breathe it but what is it that people seem to be attracted to? What is it that made this show so popular? And why can’t I turn away?
DOVOLANI: It’s amazing – I’ve watched Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies a thousand times. And I was so disappointed to see that when I came to the United States the legacy that has gone on for 50 years, since the 1920’s, through the 70’s and 80’s had died out because people stopped watching it. But realistically speaking dancing is the only type of program that everyone can watch together – kids everybody can watch together. And right now, I call it the second baby boomers, they want convenience. Something they can watch as a family everybody wants to be with the family and everyone can be in the living room and this is the only program that can entertain everyone.
CS: I absolutely agree with you and as proof I have a 4 year old girl who loves to watch this show.
DOVOLANI: Because she can dress up in costume.
CS: That’s it! That’s what she does. She mimics. She is front of the television and she dances around. It’s bizarre.
DOVOLANI: It’s truly amazing.
CS: But you are absolutely right, I can watch this show with her and I know what’s coming around each corner and when everyone reads off the scores she reads the numbers with the kind of zeal I don’t usually see in her around eight at night.
DOVOLANI: Exactly. It’s funny because it’s not just about success…it teaches kids everything from A to Z. Because a lot of times we are surrounded by “You have to succeed.” No, you have to find the positive even in the failure. When celebrities get kicked off, they always talk about how wonderful of an experience this was. They don’t talk about negative. There is nothing negative in life. Don’t talk negative then you will feel negative. You are supposed to enjoy the new experience and that’s what this show is about. About enjoying every single thing you get to do, every character you get to play, it’s fun. And that’s what the essence of this show is. It’s having a good time. Being a child again.
CS: And how is it when you get to work with somebody – I know you’ve done this for a few seasons – when you have somebody Day 1 to where they eventually go through the process of learning, moving, do you see a transformation in the celebrities themselves?
DOVOLANI: Oh, absolutely. Day 1 is like teaching them the alphabet. And then by week 2 they are starting to put some things together and seeing them much happier and then by week 4 when they do their first dance it’s almost like they are in class giving their first recital and they are talking about it. Do you know what I mean? They work really hard and, at the end of the season, what’s amazing about this is that whoever is left they start looking like dancers. They start acting like dancers. They walk around like dancers. It’s truly amazing the transformation in such a short amount of time. You have to understand they put a lot of hours in, but at the same time the fact that they embrace it and all of a sudden become dancers, it’s truly amazing.
CS: When you start working with someone, what is the core of those you teach should understand first and foremost about any preconceived thought about dancing in general?
DOVOLANI: Dancing is a sport. This is the part that people don’t realize. Dancing is a sport. It takes physical ability, it takes adrenaline, it takes so much. I remember one year Emmit Smith and Jerry Rice, they said that some of these things were harder to do that playing football. Because this is something that you use muscles you’ve never used before in your life. And all of a sudden….that’s why the body changes so much because you use parts you don’t normally use in everyday life. And it works in such a way that you really don’t feel it until you look in the mirror and 4 weeks later you say, “What’s happened to my body?” Because it changed so quickly. It’s not because they are dieting because they aren’t. They are actually eating more than before because they are putting so many hours in and dancing stretches the muscles and elongates and so on. All of a sudden they feel completely different. And it’s funny, Jane said to me the other day, since her operation on her back, and even before, she was never really able to just get off the bed. And now, she bounces off the bed. “I get up and all my muscles just feel youthful again. ” It’s really amazing.
CS: So, you just explained that dancing is a sport and when I was preparing for the interview I just happen to catch Extra last night and I saw something to the effect that you gave Carrie Ann a rule book with regard to dancing rules? I took it as a joke…
DOVOLANI: Oh, Carrie Ann and I are good friends and we joke with each other all the time. Whether there was a lift or not it doesn’t matter. She called me on it and it becomes a debate. The thing is we joke with each. I gave her the real rule book but it was not anything other than joking. She is an incredible person, a knowledgeable person and I have nothing but the utmost respect for her. And as a friend, she is a great friend. And some people took it out of context and twisted my words and made it seem that we had a problem with each other. Which we don’t.
CS: I didn’t think so. But what really struck me was that there actually is a rule book for dancing. Can you talk a little bit about that rule book? In baseball, basketball, football, there are rules and such but dance?
DOVOLANI: There is a body – as in skating there is a National Dance Council of America (NDCA) and when you belong to the NDCA there are rules and regulations that you abide by to compete in events. That’s where you get your rankings. That’s where I won my World Championships and so on. You have to have rules of certain things – there are too many for me to list but it has rules for lifts, it has rules for what the content of your dance should be and so on. Basically it gives you a guideline that you should not break. It needs to have a certain amount of element in there – just like skating. Pretty much it’s just like the skating system. So I think people are surprised that there’s this secret society of dancers and it’s worldwide and all connected.
CS: Yeah, it’s global. It’s not just America. I think back to when I got married…my wife made me go to a Fred Astaire Dance Studio where I had to learn our first dance. It was choreographed and I thought it was a throwback to a bygone era but there were people there learning to dance themselves. I had never been in a situation like that.
DOVOLANI: Fred Astaire Dance Studios have been around for over 60 years. And what’s amazing about them is that they have the system to be able to teach anybody how to dance. And that’s a beautiful thing. That’s why I call it a secret society because they have been able to exist under the radar. Many people who get married know that they have to learn to dance. This is something that is a part of our culture. Part of our etiquette. It is what identifies America, I think. It’s the icons like Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly that is in our history and connects us to World War II or even World War I. During those times it connected us with dance. It is just our culture. It’s about dance.
CS: One thing you can help shed some like on is one of the connections I’ve drawn is that my teacher was from an Eastern Bloc country – what is it about the international appeal of dance? It seems to appeal to people overseas and they come here and it’s something that is prevalent in many studios I’ve been in.
DOVOLANI: The one thing about that is that I call dance the universal language. It doesn’t matter what color you are, doesn’t matter what nationality you are, what part of the continent you are, it connects everybody. You can have somebody from China, from Japan, from Russia, the United States or vise versa and we immediately have something in common. Because as human beings we need to have something in common. And dance is something that can unite everybody. It is probably the most joyful thing that anybody can ever do and I feel that our country and everybody needs that more around them. That’s why dancing has become this craze all over the world. It connects people. It connects everyone. It doesn’t matter age, color, race….doesn’t matter. Connects everyone.
CS: You got your start a long time ago – 15-16 years ago. What appealed to you to pick it up?DOVOLANI: When I was a kid, I did folk dancing when I was three years old and when I came to the United States when I was 15 I was working for Fred Astaire Studios because I watched Fred Astaire as a kid growing up and I was in America and I went looking for a Fred Astaire Studio because that is where the best dancing was. And luckily for me in the state of Connecticut there was studio and I went there and immediately fell in love and I knew it was what I was meant to do. At 16 years old they hired me as a teacher which was quite an undertaking for me but something that I so thoroughly enjoyed that I just couldn’t imagine me not doing it. So now that I’ve found the connection of how to make a living at it, I just love going to work now.
CS: When did you realize that you could do it and support yourself?
DOVOLANI: For me it was right when I walked in because they could tell I was hungry for it and had a little talent for it and all that because of my dance background they thought they could mold me into a ball dancer. They showed me all the opportunities that ball dancing has. The Fred Astaire Dance Studios is a franchise. It has a way of being able to teach you, not only how to dance but how to support yourself through dance and that way you can dance for the rest of your life. Because dancing - in Europe when you are a dancer you are an artist. Here people that I’ve come across when I was younger would say “What do you do?” And I would say, “I dance.” And they would say, “No, how to you make a living?” And I would say, “I dance.” “No, how to you make money?” “I dance.” It’s hard for people to understand that, just like in anything else, in any business, dancing has become a dance-sport business. It involves dancing, it involves sport, it also involves business. Because, as you know, there is more and more demand for it and the teachers are getting to be able to teach just like tennis, or ice skating and so on. And it has become one of those crazes that everybody wants to be a part of.
CS: And how did you get hooked-up with doing it on television?
DOVOLANI: I did a movie with Jennifer Lopez and Richard Gere where I was also cast as a slick willy which was a mean guy but I trained for that movie for 9 months and I was also the current World Rhythm Champion so they really came after me and interviewed me to see if I would be the right candidate and they told me that my credentials I was the top teacher in the United States for three years in a row, they were like, “OK, we want this guy.” So, they went after me and they were hard to shake off.
CS: So, you say you are also a teacher – what makes a good student? Some of these people who come on the show are obviously immediately pegged as going out the first or second round….like I’m thinking Jerry Springer…these people who are bereft of any talent when it comes to dance, what do you need to make somebody a dancer? Is it as basic as just listening skills?
DOVOLANI: Just someone who wants it. If these celebrities have desire…When desire meets opportunity and they work with the professionals we have on this show that’s all it takes to be a success. Even if they get kicked out the first show, they always learn something. I’ve been doing this for 18 years and I have yet to find anybody who cannot learn how to dance. So as long as they have the desire and they can walk – you’ll learn how to dance.
CS: When I watch the show and see the cut scenes and watch the celebrities doing their routines and watching them failing and getting back up and doing it again – weekly – how many hours are celebrities (other than last night I heard someone only put 6 hours into it) whereas others worked all week on it.
DOVOLANI: Jane and I put in 5-6 hours a day. Sometimes it has to do with a person’s ability. They need that many hours, some people don’t. It’s hard for someone to make the assumption that just because you put in the hours you are going to get the result. It’s the quality of hours that you put in. Some people need it – others don’t. As long as you go out there and perform to the best of your ability and give your mind and your body a chance to perform it properly, you’ll get the reward. But as far as rehearsing, these guys are going nuts - you got people who rehearse 250 hours so far to 180 hr. to 120 hrs. but it’s really amazing what they can accomplish regardless of the amount of hours they put in.
CS: What is it about the dancing…I read a quote that ballroom dancing is all about the women – framing a picture, as it were. What, on an artistic level, when that celebrity hits the floor what should they be exuding?
DOVOLANI: I feel it is the relationship. The man has to be the man. The woman has to be the woman and actually the man has to frame the woman, exactly. The man needs to be the strong part of the relationship or the man leads the woman across and shows her off. In any relationship…we know, the man is the man and the woman is the woman and dancing is just a reflection of that. And all this junk that the cha-cha is a man’s dance, the rumba is a woman’s dance, the swing is a together dance and on and on…it goes back and forth. There are parts where the man is highlighted and parts where the woman is highlighted but overall the man should always be the frame and the woman always be the picture because the woman is prettier. So you want to showcase her.
CS: When you are finished with the season, do you go back to competing or anything along those lines?
DOVOLANI: I just recently retired from competition. But what I’m going to do, is I’m the dance director of the Fred Astaire Dance Studios studio and I go around the country making sure the quality of the dance is up to par.
CS: Are you always going to stay with the show?
DOVOLANI: The show is amazing and if given the opportunity I would stay with the show. I love what I do and as long as I have the chance to do it I would keep doing it. It’s something…you never know. Obstacles come in the way but I don’t foresee that.
CS: What is it when people are watching, I know my own daughter actually talks about the show with great regard, what are you hoping that people are getting out of it? In the beginning it was sort of a farce just to watch the celebrities but now it’s become a real competition.
DOVOLANI: I hope people can escape from whatever trials and tribulations they have in life. I hope people get to enjoy for however long we have out there, the journey we have and the fact that we are sharing it with the country. And hopefully they are sitting there with their kids and joined together as families to get to share time together.
CS: It’s a great show and I don’t understand why I’m so hooked on it or why I just can’t stop watching it.
DOVOLANI: Thank you.
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