More Than Bill Nye: A Primer for Dancing with the Stars

For the past several years, I’ve had a bit of a guilty pleasure.  Well, half-guilty anyway; everyone is entitled to a bit of junk food TV.  I don’t typically watch reality or competitive reality TV – I’ve never seen a full season of American Idol, despite knowing people who have tried out – but I have seen most seasons of Dancing with the Stars.

It’s not even an unusual leap for me to make, actually.  I’ve always appreciated those more athletic and graceful than myself – gymnasts, dancers, ice skaters – and I regularly geek out on pop culture and 80s/90s nostalgia.  With Dancing With the Stars, I get legitimate dancers plus most of the original cast of Beverly Hills, 90210.  What’s not to love?

For many geeks, however, this may their first season tuning in to DWTS.  And if they are, it’s probably for one reason: Bill Nye, the Science Guy.  If you’re between the ages of 25-35 you likely grew up with this man on your TV at some point; heck, my middle school science teacher used to feature his episodes regularly.  He was a man who genuinely got excited about science, and he had a simple theme song that got stuck in your head for ages.  All of which makes him perfect for a popularity contest that thrives on nostalgia.

Bill Nye is rumored to be a frequent casual dancer, busting out the Lindy Hop in clubs regularly, but alas you wouldn’t know it if you’ve seen him on the show.  He’s consistently scoring among the lowest, but he’s been saved thus far by the massive voter turnout (Don’t underestimate that theme song – we’re primed to chant “Bill! Bill! Bill!” without even realizing it.).

However, if you’re solely tuning in to watch Bill Nye, you’re sitting through a fairly long show for five minutes of dancing.  And there’s no reason why you shouldn’t enjoy the rest!  Here’s a bit of a primer to get you started.

Don’t think too hard about the judges’ scores.  They’re inconsistent at best.  In theory, everyone would start with pitifully low scores and work their way up – because the celebrities do tend to improve considerably over the course of the season (by the end, they’re even doing more than one dance a week).

Instead, a couple will score 8′s the first week and 7′s four weeks later, even though their ability to do the choreography has certainly improved.  It seems to be a weird sliding scale of how well the couple does compared to others, combined with how much they should be improving, and, well… okay, whatever the judges feel like on a given night.  Like I said, don’t think too hard about it; it’s the audience vote – or lack thereof – that makes the real difference.

Get to know (and love) the judges.  Some of the scoring makes a weird kind of sense once you get to know the judges and the pro dancers.  For instance, maybe a dance that looked great and got the audience on their feet actually used way more fluff and glitz than, you know, actual content that meets the requirements of that week’s dance (ballroom dancing is a sport, you know, and has very specific guidelines).  Some pros deliberately choose to risk the wrath of the judges – and lower scores – for a dance that wows the audience and brings in votes.  Pro Mark Ballas (currently partnered with Christina Milian) is a master of walking this fine line.

Many of the dance styles do not allow lifts (both feet cannot leave the ground at once), but of course everyone loves a good Dirty Dancing-style lift, so that’s a rule that’s very frequently broken.  Judge Carrie Ann Inaba comes off as the soft, gushy one who likes to squee, but if she spots an illegal lift it’s a full point off the score.

In fact, all of the judges can be “the tough one.”  Len Goodman comes off as the stuffy, British, traditional judge who often scores a point lower than the others and hears a lot of boos from the audience, but he’s really a big softy who can deal out some of the most helpful, constructive criticism.  Bruno Tonioli is over-the-top dramatic and loves his double entendres (you’ve probably seen him on The Soup), but he can be deceptively cutting and harsh.

All the judges indulge in playing caricatures of themselves, but they also all truly have dance and choreography experience.  They all truly seem to enjoy dance, and enjoy watching the contestants improve.  In some seasons, the finalists have gotten a personal “master class” from one of the judges and they’re always fascinating.

Be prepared to feel differently about a celebrity when the season’s over.  Have you ever met a celebrity – say, at a convention – and walked away with a completely different impression of them than you expected?  Maybe the guy who barely caught your attention before was so darn genuine and nice that you became an instant fan.  Or maybe the person you idolized as a child turned out to be a complete diva.

DWTS can be a bit like that.  Yes, it’s still just TV, and the magic of editing can create a hero or a villain out of almost anyone.  Still, at least some aspect of the celebrity’s true personality tends to shine through.  As such, I’ve found myself rooting for people I’d never heard of before and booing the actor who was the initial reason I’d tuned in that season.  Even this season, after only two weeks, I admit I’m finding myself rooting most for Jack Osbourne, which is entirely unexpected.

It can be a bit unpleasant when someone doesn’t live up to your expectations – especially in a show like DWTS, which, again, deals heavily in stars you probably most remember from childhood.  However, it’s lovely when you find someone new to support – and the people who tend to win the hearts of the audience also tend to revive their careers a little, so you might have even more reason to follow them in the future.

Everyone loves improvement.   I’ve often heard new viewers say things like, “That actor has dance experience – that hardly seems fair!”  The truth is, it seems hard to find someone in Hollywood who hasn’t taken some dance class at some point (or who hasn’t been on a previous season of DWTS already).  Other stars from other disciplines have their own advantages – an athlete might be better equipped to buckle down and take instruction, for instance, or might have a better sense of how far to push their body, or might just be in better shape.

Those same athletes might have a terrible time with posture, or flexibility in their hips, or grace, or timing.  It all tends to even out.  And so too for the stars with dance in their backgrounds.  Yes, there are some stars who seem a little too polished from the very beginning; however, that can actually turn off audiences.  And the votes truly do matter the most.  The people who tend to do the best are those who are definitely in the top third from the beginning – those who have some innate potential – but who make obvious improvement over time.  Personality also carries a surprising amount of weight.  And there is such a thing as peaking too early.

There’s also often a person who is literally carried by audience votes, and makes it somewhere between 5th and 3rd place simply because the audience loves them that much.  Bill Nye has the potential to fall somewhere between these two types; he has the will and the potential for considerable improvement, though he’s got a long way to climb – but the audience also loves him thus far.  My guess is that he’ll have to demonstrate some amount of improvement starting now, if he wants to be here in another two weeks.

Breaking news edit: Rumor has it that Bill Nye injured his knee during Monday night’s performance.   The severity of his injury is unknown.  He’s certainly not the first to have been injured on the show, but while many have required medical care, only a handful have ever had to drop out.  If Bill can remain, the love of the audience may be just what he needs to carry him through a few weeks while he heals.

So are you among the many who are rooting (and voting) for Bill Nye the Science Guy?  Are you testing out Dancing with the Stars for the first time?  Need someone to explain who Julianne Hough is, or are you a longtime watcher yourself?  Share your thoughts below! 

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