The highly-anticipated America’s Ballroom Challenge aired on PBS this past Friday! I lamented my sad TV antennae’s lack of PBS reception, but it turns out that the episode is available streaming online, at least for now! It’s just under an hour. This review will contain spoilers about placements, if you care about such things.
I had the fortune of being able to see all of the aired dances live at Ohio Star Ball, back in November. Hmm, guess I didn’t write up a review of it then…should have, whoops. Anyway. The pro competition was all at night, in the Big Ballroom (I can’t remember what it’s actually called…maybe the Regency Ballroom or something similar). There’s at least 3 different competition ballrooms in the Columbus Convention Center during OSB, with amateur, pro-am, and collegiate events going on. People dressed up to the nines for the evening competition and we collegiate competitors were fortunately given admission to each of the nights as part of our registration. If I recall correctly, the first night was rhythm and standard and the second night was smooth and Latin. Or the other way around. Doesn’t matter, I suppose.
They started with the normal four-or-five dances, whittling first rounds or quarterfinals down to 6-couple finals. After the finals, each style’s finalists performed a short show dance. Since this was at the end of the night and apparently most people didn’t care about them that much, a lot of the audience left, to the producers’ chagrin. They all but begged us few stragglers to remain until the end to flesh out the audience for TV. Also, we had to film audience reactions and clapping and such, which sometimes took multiple takes and hurt my palms. But hey, the more important people with nicer seats left, so we could move up and get closer to the action on the dance floor.
The first ABC episode features American style smooth and rhythm. They played brief clips of early rounds and for whatever reason aired part of the “group” Viennese Waltz first, then foxtrot. Okay? First of all, random order. Second, I’d rather have shorter rounds of all four dances, if time is so limited. I’m one of the cell phones in the audience during the VW! Totally cheesy but it looked cool. Also, they caught a really nice moment of the Perzhus interacting with the audience and each other at the end of foxtrot. They showed everyone briefly, and commentators Mary Murphy and Tony Meredith didn’t say anything particularly offensive, nor did they contribute a whole lot of insight. However, having two ballroom experts is much better than having one ballroom person and one rando who doesn’t seem to know anything about anything and offers inane comments (see the last few years of the show…). They did mention that the Perzhus were current champions eventually, but didn’t say if anyone was poised to challenge them or anything like that. Could have also mentioned how smooth originated from standard but has more freedom.
After the “two” group dances, they showed the six couples’ showdances and made them sound way more important than being simply a fifth dance that would contribute to the overall placement. Five out of six were beautiful but same-y angsty emotional contemporary-ish sorts of numbers. Mary and Tony said they were all Viennese waltzes, but some were distinctly not – they were just kind of interpretive lyrical pieces or vaguely-foxtrots (4/4 at least, definitely not danced in 6/8 timing). I enjoyed them all, but they did kind of mush together by the end of the night. Nick Cherumukhin and Viktoriya’s piece was a nice surprise – I had never really watched them before. Max and Michelle’s Viennese Waltz was refreshing with bare feet and pajama-esque costuming, but needed more polish, I think. I loved her with Mayo Alanen, but this partnership needs more time, probably. Loved the Tufts’ sassy, sexy foxtrot to “You Can Leave Your Hat On”. Not what you would expect from dancers who originated from the Mormon-dominated Utah ballroom scene. Hello, suspenders. Also no mention of how the Tufts do theatre arts as well (which is impressive in and of itself because she is much taller than most tiny theatre arts ladies) and are more seasoned in complicated lifts than the other smooth couples.
Brief break to show Mary Murphy “shopping” at all the OSB vendors. Mostly it just made me sad that I can’t afford any of those amazing dresses and pieces of jewelry. Show me more dancing!
Onto the rhythm section (the beat!). Great representation here, in terms of the best rhythm dancers coming to compete. Again, just showing two dances from the “group” section, out of order, with mambo and swing. Okay. And not paying much attention to the obvious winners, Emmanuel and Liana, until their showdance that featured a nifty costume transition. The individual showdances for rhythm were more varied and interesting, even though half were mambos. The Paramonovs were entertaining as always – I’ve seen them use this song before as a preface to a cha-cha version of the song “Why Don’t You Do Right”. Of particular note were Nazar and Irina’s ridiculously over-the-top costumes, complete with huge tri-color ruffles and Irina’s tiny Swarovski-stoned bikini bottom…thing. She was extremely naked, even if her legs/butt were technically covered with nude mesh fabric. Funny how Mary and Tony didn’t say a word about that. And that the episode was rated G. Okay. The Perzhus did the exact same matching-suited mambo as they did last year, but it was still awesome. Wish I could pull off a stoned bra and suit combo.
What was very cool was spotting people I know in the audience. It’s a small (ballroom) world after all… I even spotted some of my team members for a hot second. One of the best aspects of this program is that it’s the best TV depiction of ballroom dancing out there – a much more accurate, genuine take on the ballroom world, compared to shows like Dancing with the Stars or So You Think You Can Dance that pretend you can learn and master, or at least fake, ballroom in a week. This show seems to better appreciate how technical and complicated the dance form really is. And nowadays, it can sometimes be hard to find free high-quality video of good pro dancers that uses multiple camera angles and pretty good editing. If I remember correctly, PBS ballroom shows were probably my first exposure to ballroom dancing as a kid, though I didn’t have any personal interest in it at the time. Funding has been limited or non-existent for the past few years, so it’s fantastic that they were able to bring it back this year, even if it was just in this limited three 1-hour-long episode format.
In the end, the overall winners are Peter & Alexandra Perzhu and Emmanuel Pierre-Antoine & Liana Churilova, who will go to the “grand finale.” I still don’t know how this is really determined – how can you compare smooth to standard to Latin to rhythm showdances?
Next week: International style! Spoiler – think of how much better it would have been if only the world champions and finalists had shown up! Still some great dancing, though. Riccardo & Yulia, Arunas & Katusha, and Victor & Anastasia have all shown up at OSB in the past, but have been mysteriously absent for the past of couple years. I think sometimes they skipped because a bigger world competition was going on, but I don’t know about this time around. Mysterious. It’s basically my only chance to see them compete live, so it was too bad that they weren’t there.
Here’s an outsider’s take on the show: What happens in a ballroom can be little shocking. Uh, okay. Lovely last paragraph, though.