The following was written by Rebecca Rollett, the director of the city's most prestigious choir, the Pittsburgh Camerata. Rollet has been writing about Hines Ward's performances on Dancing With The Stars each week on Behind the Steel Curtain.
"We've had some great footballers on Dancing With The Stars. I don't think any compare with Hines Ward," said head judge Len Goodman in the pre-game analysis of Team Hines Tuesday night.
Considering that many other "footballers" (including Jason Taylor, Chad Ochocinco, Warren Sapp, and Kurt Warner) have competed, and that Emmitt Smith won the Mirror Ball trophy, that's high praise.
It's all the more impressive when one considers Ward's lack of experience.
I really didn't know what to expect when I signed up for this... My goal was to just not be the first one voted off. Now to be still standing while watching other great competitors go one by one, it's a miracle... To be able to conquer my fear of the unknown has been an incredible feeling for me.
Ward and Kym Johnson performed three dances during the finals - a judges' choice, a freestyle, and a repeat of their favorite dance from the season. The judges' choice is a dance from earlier in the season that, for whatever reason, needed improvement. The dance they chose for Ward and Johnson was the quickstep, which the pair had done in Week 2. This dance was a huge hit with the audience and the blogosphere, and really showcased Ward's sparkling personality and connection with the audience. But even as judge Bruno Tonioli praised his "nifty footwork," Goodman said that he "couldn't bear to watch [Ward's] feet."
The problem? I certainly couldn't figure it out, so I went to Andrew Pueschel, the Artistic Director and Resident Instructor at Absolute Ballroom Studios in Pittsburgh. It has to do with one of the conventions of ballroom dance. In a way, you could compare it to football. There are a lot of ways that you could get a ball into the end zone, but not all of them are going to result in a touchdown, because you have to stay within certain rules in the game. Pueschel explains:
"When you think of the human body, there's a physics to it, like yoga, or sports, or any physical activity. Ballroom dancing is the controlled movement of weight from foot to foot, set to music with emotion added in. In the first couple of weeks, [Ward] had to learn to stand up straight while moving. Everyone thinks, 'Well, okay, I'm just going to move.' But you really have to use the floor as pressure. They say you have two partners - for Hines it would be Kym, and the floor is his second partner. And the floor is always consistent, because the floor isn't human."
What matters is not just getting your feet in the right place at the right time - they have to be in the right position as well. The legs always have to be extended, with the toes pointed towards the floor, which, like so much in dance, is counterintuitive. (I'm trying to avoid saying "unnatural," but that's how it feels. Try running across the floor, fast, in time to a song, while pointing your toes straight down. Oh, and don't forget to look straight ahead as well, keeping your back straight and your arms in the "frame." Feels pretty unnatural to me.)
Len Goodman came into the rehearsal studio last week twirling a Terrible Towel to help Ward with his footwork. (He also made admiring comments about Ward's deltoids, which Ward accepted with his usual sangfroid.) Ward said, "I feel like I've grown so much since the first time I did the quickstep, and now, with Len's help, I'm hoping I can go out and score a touchdown."
The dance itself did not copy the previous routine, but instead was set to new music, with a new storyline and new costumes. They danced to "Putting on the Ritz," and Ward was decked out in white tie, tails, and a top hat, which he quickly ditched. The audience went wild, and many Terrible Towels were waving, especially by the Steelers contingent - James Farrior, Chris Kemoeatu, Lynn Swann, Jerome Bettis, and Franco Harris. (Swann could be seen saying "Wow, Wow!" at the end.) What did the judges say?
Carrie Ann Inaba:
"This was so much fun. This was the routine that earned you - the first time I called you 'Twinkle-toes' and tonight you put even more of that, like, bezaddle-do, bezaddle-dee! [Those are technical terms, I suppose.] It's so great - when you dance, Hines, you are able to make it feel like you're running for a touchdown, and the whole audience is up and down, they follow you - it's the most amazing thing! It makes me forget that I'm supposed to be judging. I like that!"
"Well, the best movies win an Oscar, the best music wins a Grammy, and the best dancer is gonna win a mirror ball. As good as that was, and it was a vast improvement on the last time I watched you do it, for me it's not quite there yet. [Outraged yelp from Carrie Ann, massive booing from the audience.] This competition is still anyone's to win or lose. Come back in that freestyle and really show me the 'wow' factor that I know you've got."
Well, you've got it for me, because it was like watching a mega-production on Broadway - full of excitement, glitz, and entertainment value. And I tell you, I agree with Carrie Ann, you just connect with the audience like no one. She's right - you forget about watching a competitor - you're just an entertainer. He's brilliant!"
The scores from Week 2 were eight, seven and eight (the seven coming, naturally, from Goodman.) This performance garnered them an almost-perfect 10, nine and 10, with Goodman still the hold-out.
The second dance, the freestyle, was the most-anticipated dance of the season on DWTS. Although the other dances aren't 'strictly ballroom,' they did have to contain enough of the expected moves from the assigned dance to keep Goodman (the ballroom purist) happy. But in the freestyle, anything goes, and lifts are not only allowed, they are expected. The competition was extremely close, as Goodman noted, and the competitors were hoping to make history with a memorable freestyle.
Midway through the season, Johnson came up with the idea of incorporating football themes into Ward's dances. The schtick was that because Ward never got to be in the band or even watch a halftime show at a game (since he was always in the locker room), they would reproduce one. Johnson was decked out in sort of a pseudo-cheerleader outfit, and Ward was in an over-the-top black marching band uniform, with giant fringe epaulets and a huge gold Son the front.
They danced to a song from Drumline, with a mini-drumline at the side of the stage. The expected lifts and athletic tricks were a bit problematic for the duo, especially considering that Kym was still rehearsing in a neck brace after her injury the previous week. In the end, the routine was a scary one, with Ward repeatedly flinging Johnson around. (After the show, Ward noted, "I play wide receiver, so I'm pretty good with my hands.")
Once again the audience was on its feet, screaming. But how did the judges like it?
Inaba [looking rather serious]:
"That was risky. Not really easy to dance to that [pointing to the drumline], and that wasn't really a halftime show. That was the whole damn Super Bowl! That was fantastic! Those lifts were insane! Kym, I love you for still going for it, even though you were injured. You guys are just an amazing pair!"
"This competition is about give and take. The more you give, the more points you take. You've just given your all."
"Hines and Kym, you pulled out all the stops and created a crowd-pleasing event!
Ward had finally won Len Goodman over, with perfect scores all around.
For the "results" show Tuesday night, each couple would dance once more, to a dance of their choice. Ward and Johnson chose the samba, and Ward dedicated it to his mother. In the rehearsal footage, Johnson showed him where he had gotten ahead of the music and correcting some other minor flaws. When Johnson complained that his legs weren't straight, Ward protested, "Dammit - legs you wanna see, legs you shall get!" Then, to the excited screams of the females in the audience watching the footage before they danced, he stripped out of the sweats he had worn throughout rehearsals and revealed a pair of spandex shorts. Considering all they had been through together, Johnson seemed surprisingly disconcerted.
Inaba [once she could be heard, as the audience was still screaming a good 45 seconds after the dance was over]:
"Hines, you know, in all honesty, I think you are the MVP of Season 12. You have brought nothing but consistency [and] focus; you learned how to lead, and not only did you learn how to lead your partner in the dance, but you've led your partner out of an injury. I'm so impressed with you. You dance with heart, and it shows."
"Hines, dance is the product. What is so appealing about you is the packaging. You bring every dance to life."
"A killer when you play sports; a charming dazzler [on the stage.] When you're out here, I tell you, we all fall in love. We do. Irresistible. Mr. Irresistible."
Ward and Johnson received a final perfect set of three 10s.
Pueschel is also a competitive dancer. At the beginning of the season, KDKA radio asked him to give an assessment of Ward every Tuesday morning after the Monday-night program. He was delighted to be asked, but a bit nervous at first. After all, there was always the possibility that Ward wouldn't be very good. I asked him at our mid-season interview whether he had ever found himself having to censor his comments. After all, Ward is beloved in Pittsburgh. Pueschel answered:
"I went into this knowing that it might be a challenge. Fortunately, it hasn't been - my enthusiasm is genuine. It's very easy to speak well about what he does. I can't hold him to professional standards - he's an amateur dancer. I know where he should be right now with his dancing, and he's exceeding where he should be. As a professional trying to promote ballroom dancing, I've been very blessed with Hines Ward, because he is talented, he is dedicated."
All that remained Tuesday night was to choose the winner. But Ward already considered himself a winner.
"I didn't come all this way to lose. When my marketing team brought this opportunity to me I had to think about it a little. I had never danced before and the thought of doing it in front of all of America was scary. But I always like challenges and I agreed to do the show knowing that I was gonna give it my best shot. I figured it was a great way to stay in football shape and keep my mind off the lockout. Now that I'm in the finals I want to finish what I set out to do and win that Mirror Ball. But I am going up against two great competitors in the finale and if I don't win it's still all good. I have had a blast, gotten to meet some incredible people, and made some good friends. So I have already won no matter what happens on Monday."
For Ward, taking home the Mirror Ball trophy was just gravy.