17 million people watched Dancing With the Stars on TV last week. Maybe you were part of the home audience–lounging on your couch in comfy clothes, popcorn at the ready. I saw it, too, but from a different vantage point. Two years after throwing my name in the hat, I scored two tickets to a live performance!
The accompanying email laid out all the how-to’s and don’t-you-dares: A limited number of people will be granted admission. Arrive by 3:00 p.m. to increase your odds of entrance. Security is tight, and parking is restricted. If you get turned away, you’ll get vouchers for another day. “This is an upscale, elegant event,” the message said, “and the following attire is MANDATORY; men must wear a button-up shirt and slacks (coat and tie optional) and women must wear upscale/formal attire (pant suits are fine). Do not wear jeans. You will be on camera so it is very important that you dress nicely. When you look great, the show looks great!”
SoCal girl that I am, I like to dress casual. Flip-flops are my shoe of choice, and jeans are my go-to favorites. But with stars in my eyes and spring in my step, I slipped into a pair stilettos and a long, flowing skirt. I climbed into my roadster before noon, with my sister Sheryll riding shotgun. Hollywood, here we come!
The skies were cloudless, the freeways, unobstructed. When I pulled into the parking structure, it was only 1:30. Whew, plenty of time to spare! I hoofed it past several long blocks of production trailers, as fast as my high-heeled feet could carry me. You know: just in case.
Good thing, because when we rounded the corner to Beverly Boulevard, the line was long and deep. We tucked ourselves into position, and a crowd formed behind us. I leaned against the bougainvillea-draped fence, as if to hide my wobbly ankles. It was only then that I heard about the VIP line, cloaked in anonymity on the other side of the studio. Didn’t matter that we were 88th and 89th in line: People corralled inside the red velvet, roped-off area? They always get cuts. It’s an unspoken rule.
A couple of entrepreneurial hipsters rolled up in a beat-up Nissan. They taped a cardboard sign to the street lamp. “Chairs for rent: $5.00 apiece.” We declined the offer. “Thanks, but I think we’ll stretch our legs. We’ll be sitting soon enough” It was only retrospect that I realized my mistake…
A security guard paced the length of the sidewalk, opaque sunglasses a foil for watchful eyes. Sometimes he’d tug on his earpiece or speak into a mic, beefy arms straining against the seams of his custom-fit suit. He chatted up the ticket-holders…keeping us in line, keeping us safe. He was an off-duty member of the LAPD, I heard him say–a transplant from Littlerock, California; Mexico, before that. ( Only later did I learn that Littlerock is a tiny town in the Antelope Valley–so small, in fact, that they smoosh the two words together .)
When he left that conversation, I called him over. “Hey, aren’t you from Littlerock?” I asked.
His eyebrows lifted, just slightly, and he tipped his sunglasses onto his forehead. “Oh hey! How are you…?” He acted as if he recognized me, but the puzzled look on his face suggested otherwise.
“I’m just playin’,” I said with a laugh. “I heard you talkin’ about that with someone else.”
He laughed long and hard, wiped his sunglasses on the hem of his jacket. “Ha! You got me good!” he finally said.
From that point on, I called him Littlerock. Translation: Friend. I wasn't looking for special treatment, but our budding friendship had its advantages, as you'll soon see…
At 3:00 precisely, we were shepherded into a secure area. “You’ve got guaranteed admission,” someone said. Take a seat on these cement benches. We'll be bringing you inside shortly." None too soon, they allowed us a quick visit to the Star Waggons.
Shortly after I took this picture, we had to relinquish our cell phones. It’s a real shame, because Derek came out the stage door soon afterward. Here’s where I go all fan grrrl on you: Derek hugged me, people! I’ve got no physical evidence, not a speck of stage make-up on my cheek or collar. But can you imagine the stars in my eyes, as I recount that experience for you now?
Littlerock had predicted that we’d end up on the top tier balcony, but the stage manager pointed us toward a dark corner in the first balcony, adjacent to and immediately above the DWTS marquis. And in the opposite direction? A thick cement pillar. Not that I minded the fact that I wouldn’t be on television; I’m camera-shy, anyway. But wedged as we were, between two immovable objects, our view of the dance floor was seriously obstructed.
“Hey Littlerock,” I teased, when the security guard climbed the stairs, “These are some pitiful seats we’ve got here, don’t you think?” He nodded, winced slightly. “Yeah, they kind of are. Let me see what I can do.” Within minutes, my new friend had made arrangements for us to move to the second balcony, directly opposite the stage! We’d have to stand for the duration, he warned, but it was the perfect vantage point from which to watch all the action. We exchanged wordless winks, as old friends often do, and then he vanished.
I slipped out of my shoes, all ninja-like, and tucked my feet into the folds of my skirt. Ahhh, blessed relief! It was short-lived, however, because the stage manager snuck up behind me, “Put your shoes back on!” she hissed. Trade-offs…
Little by little, the theatre came to life. Loud music pulsed from overhead speakers; spotlights chased invisible performers across the dance floor. A warm-up host gave us the inside scoop on the VIP section, walked us through the filming sequence, and tossed DWTS t-shirts to the loudest, most enthusiastic audience members.
Mere minutes before showtime, a knot of VIPs ambled into the theatre, clutching their iPhones. Paparazzi kneeled at their Louboutined feet, long-lens cameras at the ready. Eric Roberts sat next to Sherri Shepherd, and I spotted Louie Anderson and Katherine Webb (from Splash) in the celebrity section. The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills showed up en force; even Lisa's dog Giggy made an appearance!
The house lights dimmed, and the judges took their seats. Bruno pranced and preened, as always. The co-hosts stepped in and out of the spotlight, introducing the cast members when they took their marks, and holding interviews in the kiss-and-cry area afterward. Among the constellation of stars for Season 16: Aly Raisman, Sean Lowe, Kellie Pickler, Andy Dick, Jacoby Jones, Wynonna Judd, Victor Ortiz, Lisa Vanderpump, D.L. Hughley, Zendaya Coleman, Ingo Rademacher, and Dorothy Hamill. It was a privilege to watch their practice videos, and then leave everything on the dance floor that evening! I’m not a dance expert, by any means, so I’ll leave the play-by-play to the experts. (Performance summaries here).
In one of the video clips, a dancer whined about having to practice in heels (Zendaya?). I leaned against the balcony, feet afire and ankles aching. Boy howdy, could I relate! Everyone did really well,even those who were relatively new to dancing. My heart went out to Dorothy Hamill, though. She'd only just recently recovered from spinal surgery, and she had an ankle injury, to boot. Not a word of complaint excaped her lips, though; she danced through the pain with courage and composure. At the judges' table, she deflected any compliments; she lavished praise on her dance partner, instead. She was the epitome of grace…
When the show ended, I hobbled down the balcony stairs on swollen feet. Our line converged with that of the dance teams, and I found myself standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Wynona Judd. Whoa, she's so much taller than I am! She carries herself differently, too. When Sheryll complimented her dance routine, Wynona stared straight ahead, eyes like flint and shoulders squared. “You gotta shoe up and show up,” she said, in a no-nonsense voice. And then she brushed right past us.
Other dancers breezed down the hallway behind her–a blur of glitzy costumes, athletic bodies and gleaming teeth. But when Dorothy Hamill approached, her courage was almost palpable. Though her eyes were brimming, and her face was etched with pain, she never lost her composure. Empathy spilled out of me, inconsequential words that filled the narrow space between us. “You were so graceful out there,” I said,” and so very brave. I was really inspired by your performance…” She paused, head tilted just slightly, as if she were listening to every syllable. And when I finished speaking, she smiled and squeezed my hand. Grace, again.
I limped to the car afterward, I must confess. And by the time these fire trucks rumbled through The Grove and parked in front of the restaurant where we ate dinner, my feet were blistering hot. Believe you me, I wanted to toss those heels aside and hop on one of the gurneys!
Still and all, I was glad that I went; happy, too, that my sister Sheryll came with me! It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, a memory-making experience for our scrapbooks! Bonus round: I developed a new appreciation for those dancers–before, during, and after their performances.
One more thing I'd add: My brief encounter with Dorothy taught me to stand a little taller, reminded me to approach all obstacles with dignity and grace. Given her innate talents and sparkling personality, I'd give her a solid round of 10s. Though her time on DWTS was cut short, her star shines brighter than any mirror ball ever could.