I get that we’re living through a golden era of television, but the hint of snobbery around prestige TV—the deluge of obsessive tweets and celebrity profiles and memes—can feel as insufferable to me as every character on The White Lotus. In this particular mood, and because I wanted to encourage my 7-year-old daughter to watch a dance-based series that was not melodramatic back seasons of Dance Moms, we rediscovered a show that isn’t cool in elite media-bubble circles so much as a weekly shot of serotonin and glitter: Dancing with the Stars. As the show crowns its winners tonight, I’m ready to pronounce this season—the 30th—its best yet.
In Dancing with the Stars’s infancy (it premiered in 2005), I was a newbie entertainment news producer at ABC, the network that airs DWTS, forced (read: paid) to record and recap the show every week for affiliate radio stations. Though I grew up dancing and performing in recitals and was dazzled by the best of the “stars” (Emmitt Smith is a consummate showman; don’t let anyone tell you differently!), it became a work task like any other. After a long break, however, I came to this season with fresh eyes‚ still spiritually beleaguered from the pandemic, and the mother of a kid getting into dancing herself—an ideal Venn diagram of scenarios, as it turns out.
DWTS is the perfect show to watch with a child: It’s wholesome and pure, devoid of violence and demanding precious little of the viewer, other than amateur opinions of Olivia Jade’s cha-cha-cha. (Close-reading waltzes and rumbas and shouting at fusty judge Len Goodman when he docks points is a great escape from caustic political sparring, as well.) DWTS offers up sorely needed literal and figurative sparkle, from the disco ball overhead to the contestants all but chicken-cutlet-battered in rhinestones: The costumes and makeup are exquisite even when they’re utterly ridiculous. (Hi, Peloton instructor Cody Rigsby’s absurd Gaston wig during Disney villains week.) The dancers—which this season included “Sporty Spice” Mel. C, gymnast Suni Lee, and Brian Austin Green dancing with his real-life girlfriend Sharna Burgess—are forced to swallow their pride and their reservations and give into ballroom dancing to the soundtrack of Grease. Viewers must also, delightfully, suspend disbelief and snobbery.
Schmaltz aside, from a technical standpoint, the talent this season is unrivaled. Lee brought athleticism, daring acrobatics, and lifts with the ease of a gold medalist; sadly, she was eliminated last week. The four finalists, Rigsby, The Talk co-host Amanda Kloots, Jojo Siwa, and NBA star Iman Shumpert are each, no pun intended, stellar. Rigsby is all heart and fitness-instructor-zeal. Kloots is elegance personified—there was nary a dry eye (mine included) after her contemporary number last week to a song written by her late husband, Broadway actor Nick Cordero, who died of COVID-19 last year. Siwa is the other ostensible frontrunner, displaying the showmanship that made her a teen idol. And Shumpert brings an innovative edge, jazz-dancing shirtless during last week’s semifinals to Kanye West’s “Dark Fantasy” and managing to balance his partner on his chest in defiance of gravity. Reader, I gasped.
“I love the dancing,” my daughter told me in an impromptu interview. But also: “I love the stories.” Dancing—the show and the art form—is never just about the moves, but what moves the dancers behind the scenes. Kloots is expressing her grief and finding joy in the ballroom; Siwa, who came out last year, is breaking ground as the first contestant to dance with a same-sex partner, Jenna Johnson, and proving to millions of people that two women can tango to perfection. Twitter can keep its fictional family dynasties: I just want to know who’s going to win the mirrorball trophy.