Toni Braxton can breathe again. The pop siren may not have added a mirror-ball trophy to her stash of six Grammys, but she went a lot further in the competition than she ever dreamed, and she's taking home something far more important: better health.

"I'm not quite back to my old self," says Braxton, "but I feel stronger. Before, it was like I was driving a car with the emergency brake on. Now I feel like I can live my life without being afraid all the time that my chest is going to get tight." Braxton's original goal was never to win Dancing with the Stars. Rather, it was to make it through that grueling first month before the show went on the air, when she had to learn the cha cha cha and – even more taxing – the quick-step. "I don't care if I get kicked off the first week," she said at the time. "It'll be a victory just to get to the show."

But she made it all the way to Week 5 and stayed healthy, while so many other stars and pros were getting injured around her. "Isn't that strange?" she asks. Braxton credits her teacher, Alec Mazo, with building her strength and confidence. "I've had to educate him a little bit, but he's very sweet. I took my blood pressure the other day and I didn't know he was standing over me. And he said, 'Oh, it's good! It's good!' And then he said, 'Let's get back to the routine.' And I said, 'Okay, slave driver.' But that made me feel really good that he cared enough to know the numbers."

In fact, no one has ever seen Mazo smile as much as he has this season. "I truly enjoyed dancing with her," he says. "I knew she was talented. But I was very impressed because I didn't expect Toni to show as much energy as she did."

Braxton says that since April, when her heart started giving her trouble, she has been terribly self-conscious about being ill. "I was depressed," she says. "I was really down on myself. You think of all the things that are important, and you find out they're not. It doesn't matter how big you are, how much money you have, you can't buy great health. It may get you quicker medical attention, but that's about it."

She's taking another six months off to fully recuperate, then hopes to return to her headlining gig in Las Vegas. "I know this has made me a better performer." Better breath for her singing? "Exactly," she says.

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