Did Hines Ward REALLY Deserve to Win "Dancing With the Stars?"

Okay, this is a choral blog, but how could anybody with an ounce of Pittsburgh blood think of anything but Hines Ward's glorious win on DWTS?  (And there was a faint choral component to the final results show, as they brought out a kid's choir to sing for Romeo and Chelsea's reprise dance.) 

I never watched DWTS before this season (actually, I don't watch TV at all, except Steelers games, as noted on my earlier DWTS post about Classical Night, which you can find here.) But I was sucked in immediately - first by my Black and Gold pride, but also by the general interest. I've found out bits and pieces about how the show works as it progressed, partly by osmosis and partly by actual research, which I began doing as I wrote up the season for Behind the Steel Curtain. If you're interested in those articles, you can find links at the end of this. The finale recap can be found on SB Nation Pittsburgh here, albeit a bit edited. 

This post is to discuss the much-mooted question of whether he actually deserved to win. And that brings us to the purpose(s) of the show. Purpose #1 is unquestionably to increase viewership for ABC's Monday night time slot, and it succeeded on that level, in spades. I'm guessing that some amount of that was due to Hines and the fierce partisanship of Steeler Nation. Here is a quote from a comment to one of my BTSC posts: 

"Not a fan of these kind of shows….

I’ve had a ball watching Hines and Kim. Had no Idea I’d have so much fun watching this. You’re a fool if you pass judgement before experiencing it (like me). If you’re a Steeler [fan], you’ll take the time to vote. If you’re not afraid of your sexuality, you’ll check out the show."

 

This was only one of many sheepishly told tales. Some of the guys would have their wives call them when it was time for Hines to dance, and so on. I noted that Hines and Kym's turn to dance came later and later in the show as the season progressed. I'm guessing that too many TVs were getting turned off after he and Kym cut the rug. But this doesn't answer the question. In terms of the dance competition, did he deserve to even be in the finals?

 

So as long as Hines was still in the competition, ABC was winning. I don't mean to imply that he was the sole reason for their bump in viewership. Kirstie Alley proved to be a polarizing figure (no pun intended) on the show, and that's always good for ratings. She also had a large and vocal fan base. She is certainly someone that many felt didn't belong on the show in the latter part of the season. On the other hand, many felt, quite passionately, that she should have won.

 

But if you put aside the commercial aspects of the show, I would guess that the primary purpose would be what you might call dance advocacy. What we see on "Dancing With the Stars" isn't exactly ballroom dancing. As part of the actual research component for my articles I interviewed Andrew Pueschal, who is the Artistic Director and a Resident Instructor at Absolute Ballroom, a Pittsburgh dance academy. (You can find their website here.) Andrew was asked by KDKA radio to give a brief commentary on Hines' dances each Tuesday morning, and admitted to being a bit nervous when first asked. After all, what if he sucked? But as Andrew told me about mid-season, "As a professional trying to promote ballroom dancing, I've been very blessed with
Hines Ward, because he is talented, he is dedicated."  (The whole interview was really interesting, and contained some discussion about the musical aspects of dancing, so I will publish lots more of it later on.)


I'm guessing that dance professionals view DWTS and other such shows much the way we choral musician view "Glee" - it isn't really what we do, but we're glad for anything that raises the awareness level. And, as Andrew said, "If you think about the various
men that have done this, [DWTS] it shows that anyone can dance. The body type doesn't
matter - you don't have to be 6' tall and 165 pound Prince Charming. You can be
swept off your feet by Hines Ward, and many people would be happy for that!"


 So why aren't the dances on DWTS really ballroom dances? Here's what Andrew had to say:

"The routines they are doing are what we would call "show dances" in the
dancesport world, because they have a theme, they have props."

These dances, in other words, add 'open choreography' to the basic steps of whatever dance the couple is assigned, which makes it more entertaining for the average watcher. Obviously the 'dance advocacy' purpose is fulfilled when lots of people are watching and are excited about ballroom dancing.

But the really big question is, how do you determine who deserves to win? For the moment, let's take the audience vote out of the equation and concentrate on the judging. On a show like "So You Think You Can Dance?" there's no question. All of the contestants are professional dancers, and you judge them strictly on how well they fulfill the (strictly dance) criteria. That isn't to say that there isn't a great deal that's subjective in the judging - that's bound to be the case with any art form.

But the question is much more difficult on DWTS. After all, the point is to get people who are well-known for various things, none of them specifically dancing. So, unlike "So You Think You Can Dance," the playing field isn't even theoretically level coming in.

Athletes, like Hines, Chris Jericho, and Sugar Ray Leonard, have one set of advantages. They are accustomed to hard physical training and detail work. Furthermore, they know that they have to work very hard to excel. On paper, Chris Jericho probably had the advantage, because wrestling is as much about performance as it is about athleticism.

Performers like Kirstie Alley, Chelsea Kane, Ralph Macchio, and Romeo have another set of advantages. If you were to just look at what they brought to the table, Romeo and Chelsea Kane were without a doubt the two that should have torn up the dance floor. Kane has years of dance experience - not ballroom dance, admittedly, but stage musicals. She is accustomed to learning choreography and is in great physical condition. Romeo is not only a musician and sometimes dancer but is also an athlete - he is at USC on a basketball scholarship. And indeed they did well - the difference in the end was that Kane was more focused and had less distractions. 

The remaining contestants didn't possess either advantage, and fell away one by one.  But what exactly are the DWTS judges supposed to be judging? One of the wild cards is the choreography. This is basically done by the professional partner of each 'star,' although it wouldn't surprise me if they have some help from the DWTS staff. Their goal is to showcase as much as possible their partner's strong points while minimizing their weaknesses. They have to make the dance entertaining enough to excite the general populace while still utilizing enough of the basic steps of the dance they are assigned to not be downgraded by the judges for the lack of them.

But then, the big question is, are the judges comparing each competitor to themselves, or to the other competitors? Head Judge Len Goodman likes to say "On DWTS you either grow or you go." So does this mean that someone with no dance experience, like Hines, is judged on a different scale than someone with lots of experience, like Chelsea? I'm guessing that up to a certain point the answer would be yes. And I suspect that even at the end of the season the best dancers coming in are going to have to show the judges a bit more than those, like Hines and Kirstie, with little or no experience. By that criteria alone, either Kirstie or Hines probably should have been the winner. They both had a natural feel for dance and were terrific performers on the floor. Hines had the added advantage of stamina and strength, and that carried him beyond what Kirstie was able to manage.

Another factor that they are obviously judging is the performance itself, aside from technical flaws. Andrew Pueschal commented on Hines and Kirstie that he felt like he was watching in 3-D when they were on stage. Part of ballroom dance is projecting your personality and drawing the audience in, and Kirstie and Hines did that in a way that none of the other dancers managed consistently. Maybe this is just a grumpy old person talking, but a great many of Chelsea and Mark's dances seemed almost frenetic, and yet were flat, somehow - there was little connection with the audience. In the end, they impressed people but they failed to move them. In their best dances (the Wizard Waltz comes to mind) they got beyond the one-dimensional, but they didn't do it often enough. 

Clearly the judges did have some amount of interest in technique. As the number of contestants waned the technical comments got more frequent. But one aspect of "technique" that doesn't get discussed very often is that, as every performer knows, the purpose of technique is to develop it to the point where people don't see it anymore. After Hines' Rumba in Week 5 judge Carrie Ann Inaba commented "I'm getting worried for you because you make it look so easy," which addresses this point. Hines noted early in the season that when he watched the shows from earlier seasons he thought it didn't look like a bit deal, and he was surprised at how difficult it was. The better you are, the easier you make it look.

I think that part of the reason for the Freestyle dance in the final is to allow for lots of lifts and gymnastic tricks that will make it look difficult again. They want to remind people that the contestants are working really hard. (That's also part of the point of the rehearsal montages, I think - to show just how bad things started out being.)

The most subjective of all the judging criteria is the artistry of it. Routines would sometimes be graded more highly than they might have been on other criteria just because they were beautiful. And why not? 

So, aside from the popular vote, we have the judges looking for improvement from the individual's baseline Week 1 dance, the performance values, the technical aspects, and the artistic values. I think that one could reasonably argue that Hines was the best combination of those elements. He came in with no dance experience and consistently improved to become quite an accomplished (albeit still amateur) dancer. He was able to use his megawatt smile and charming persona to connect with the audience and the judges, week after week, in a way that none of the other competitors quite managed. You had the sense that he left it all on the floor. Head Judge (and ballroom expert) Len Goodman declared late in the season that he was perhaps technically the best dancer (although that crown eventually went to Chelsea.) But the fact that he could even be considered in that light was a testament to his work ethic and, yes, to his partner Kym's teaching ability. And a big, muscle-bound wide receiver was able to let out his inner artist, and with the help of Kym's often outstanding choreography give us a piece of beauty to cherish. 

Would he have won anyhow, even if he wasn't very good, given the way Steeler Nation came out in force? I don't know - as far as I know they don't release the figures for the audience vote, which would be the only way to know just how much effect it had. But it doesn't actually matter, as he was good. He was consistently #1 or #2 in terms of judges' votes - Week 1 was the only week he fell as far as third place. Now all that remains is to find out how much improved he is on the football field, thanks to the great conditioning, and to eagerly anticipate his endzone dances.

So for all you haters and Ravens fans out there, get over it. I'll look forward to seeing Ray Lewis in a future season, and I'll do my best to judge him on his dancing alone : ) 

 

Oh, and here are the BTSC articles (which are mostly comparing Hines with Chad Ochocinco from Season 10:)

Week 1-5

Week 6

Week 7