While it’s hardly a championship ballroom competition, “Dancing With the Stars” is prime-time television’s star-studded answer to one. It has all the glitz and glam, and after several weeks of training and weak-link eliminations, it even has a small assortment of celebrities who’ve mastered the major moves.
In reality, “Dancing” doesn’t always hit that mark. A sanctioned ballroom battle strictly follows judges’ decisions, but “Dancing” invites votes from viewers, allowing a popularity element to enter the game. That means some talented hoofers are left behind before their respective times (see season five’s Sabrina Bryan and this season’s Audrina Patridge) and others long outlast their soft-shoe skill set. (See Marie Osmond and her baby-doll getup in the fifth season’s finals.)
Still, the talent-to-popularity equation almost always balances out. The winning waltzer may not be the very best the program has seen all season, but the final star is usually somewhat deserving of the honor based on dance-floor merit. The question is, will that hold true this time around?
After all, the season 11 finals are here and one thing is evident: last-place dancer Bristol Palin could actually win the competition, taking the mirror ball trophy and “Dancing’s” ballroom credibility with her.
Casting for controversy
Of course, that’s not Palin’s fault. She’s fumbled her way through a variety of routines. Fans — both hers and those of a certain famous family member — voted her to the top even when her dances landed her firmly in the bottom of the bunch. But the fans aren’t at fault, either. (Well, most of them aren’t.) Casting their votes for her is what they’re supposed to do.
No, if the teen-mom-turned-abstinence-advocate makes it all the way to the win, the blame lies with the bigwigs who hired her. It’s likely enough the ballroom bosses never imagined Palin making it this far, but they definitely imagined her political pedigree bringing plenty of controversy to the show.
Where there’s controversy there’s attention. Where there’s attention, viewers tune in.
So casting Palin was a calculated risk. She wasn’t really a star — not even in the loose reality-TV-star sense that excused Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino’s place in the game — but she was and is a polarizing personality. And in the past, the latter paid off big without even affecting the endgame.
So what could possibly go wrong this time?
Been there, done that
We now know the answer to that. The “Kate” could go all the way.
See, the only casting decision that came close to stirring up the kind of controversy Palin packs was season 10 pick Kate Gosselin. The divorced mom of multiples served as a love-her-or-hate-her attention grabber. She couldn’t dance, but she didn’t exactly need to in order to be a benefit to the show.
Gosselin’s headline-worthy high jinks and abysmal ballroom form brought huge ratings. With the “Kate Plus 8” star added to the usual roundup of actors, athletes, singers and other famous faces, “Dancing” took over TV’s top spot, beating out the previously unbeatable “American Idol.”
But there’s one big difference between Gosselin’s stunt casting ride and Palin’s: In Gosselin’s case, eventually, the voting public decided to give their phoned-in and Internet efforts to the best dancers rather than let Gosselin continue to do whatever she was doing on the dance floor. After four long weeks, the reality mom got the boot.
Palin, it seems, can do no wrong in eyes of those voting for her. Heck, she once ambled onto the stage in an ape suit, forgot her steps and failed to follow the beat and still made it to dance another day. That’s some passionate public support right there.
Bye-bye, ballroom cred And that’s the problem for “Dancing” and ballroom fans. If Palin wins against the likes of Jennifer Grey, who’s proven herself many times over, or even Kyle Massey, who’s made major progress since his week-one performance, then the show loses.
Palin may be better than she once was, but she’s still far from good enough by ballroom standards.
It’s similar to the situation “Strictly Come Dancing” — the original U.K. version of the ballroom bash — was in two seasons ago.
After casting retired political correspondent John Sergeant, the competition took an unexpected twist. Despite the fact the then-64-year-old took to dancing like zombies take to walking, his fans never let him down. The judges, including “Dancing’s” moonlighting panelists Len Goodman and Bruno Tonioli, consistently gave Sergeant the lowest marks to no avail.
From there, Sergeant’s story splits from Palin’s. Nine weeks into the contest, the dance-impaired celebrity stepped down for the good of the show.
“I was hoping to stay in as long as possible,” Sergeant said in a statement. “The trouble is that there is now a real danger that I might win the competition. Even for me, that would be a joke too far.”
On “Dancing With the Stars,” the joke is still going strong. Whether or not anyone will be laughing after finale night remains to be seen.
If one of the weakest dancers of the season wins it all, it could have an impact on the show’s reputation for seasons to come. Currently, it’s a part-dance, part-popularity competition. Take away the dance part and “Dancing” losses its theme appeal, becoming little more than battle of the fan bases.
Ree Hines can’t wait to see what next season’s mixed bag of ballroom hopefuls holds. Follow on Twitter at tell her your future “Dancing” picks.