There's something delicious about a show where nerves are on end and no one is a sure thing. "I have no idea who's going to win this," says dance pro Jonathan Roberts, who stopped by to chat just moments before this Monday night's competition began. He was seated in the audience with his former celebrity partner, Heather Mills. All 11 competing couples will return tomorrow night to dance in the grand finale. But for now, they were just there to watch the toughest, most important dances of the season alongside a number of famous former contestants: Harry Hamlin, Jerry Springer, and Mario Lopez, seated with his girlfriend and former dance partner, Karina Smirnoff.
Everyone was waiting to see if Joey Fatone, Apolo Anton Ohno and Laila Ali would blow the roof off in the freestyle. They all have the goods. But what the audience doesn't know is that each of these celebrities has hit the wall in terms of physical and psychological energy, screaming muscles and aching joints. "For me, this show coming to an end is a good thing," says Ali. Ali has been working through intense pain in both knees and a wrenched back from lifting Ohno in the group swing dance last month. "I actually picked him up twice," says Ali, "and I knew I hurt something."
The fatigue and anxiety about Tuesday night's final outcome had clearly seeped into this past week's rehearsal halls. Fatone was walking stooped to the left after spending a week carrying his partner, Kym Johnson, on his left shoulder in a complicated spin. And Johnson is covered with purple bruises on both arms from Fatone's intense grip on the lifts and spins. "My arms are small," explains Johnson. "And I didn't want to drop her," says Fatone.
"The last two weeks have been insane," says Ohno. "We had three times the commitment with the show, and three times the media. Less time to rehearse and more dances. So everything is just crammed. There's been a lot of frustration."
Ohno and his partner, Julianne Hough, had the additional anxiety of a total wardrobe malfunction during Monday afternoon's dress rehearsal: The white satin costumes for their freestyle simply didn't fit. "Look at this right now!" says Ohno, pointing to a four-inch extension to the hem of both pant legs. "Originally, the pants were too big. Falling down. And then in dress rehearsal, they were too short. We literally got these costumes 20 minutes before we had to come out for the second dance. We were freaking out."
"We couldn't get the bandanas to come out of the pockets, nothing," says Hough. "I was in the makeup trailer, almost about to cry. You just want to go out there and perform. You don't want to have to think about your clothes."
Hough has had the additional strain of intense media scrutiny in the past two weeks, after announcing that she called off her August wedding. But postponing the nuptials, in combination with her steamy dancing with Ohno, only fueled speculation that the two have taken their chemistry beyond the dance floor. "I've heard a lot about that," says her fiancé, Zack Wilson, 25, a pre-dental student at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.
Wilson, soft-spoken, dark-haired and good-looking, had just flown in after spending a month in China, where he had been part of a performing-arts group from the university. "I literally just got off the plane and through customs before coming right here," he says. He was sitting in the audience with Hough's mother, watching Julianne proudly. "She's incredible," he says. "I just love her so much. I knew from the moment I met her that she would be a star. There was no question in my mind."
He and Hough have known each other for 10 years. "We met and danced in the same studio in Utah," he says. "But we didn't start dating until about a year ago." When you ask Wilson about all the romantic speculation regarding Hough and Ohno, he smiles, taking it in stride. "Because I'm a dancer I know what performing takes," he says. "I've been involved in ballroom a lot, so I know there has to be chemistry when you dance together. It doesn't mean that there's any romance going on. And I know personally that there's not, because I've been with them in rehearsals and I've gotten to know Apolo really well. He's a really nice guy. So it doesn't bother me."
But Wilson understands that the show has done a great job of selling romance. "If I didn't know her and I was watching the show, I would think that they were in love," he says. "But I do know her and they're not. They're just good friends."
Wilson says that the last couple of weeks have been incredibly stressful for Hough, who is only 18. "She calls me all the time," says Wilson. "And she calls her dad. She's definitely daddy's girl. She's very close with her family." Wilson says he and Hough still plan to be married, but at a time when there's a little less chaos in their lives. He's finishing up as an undergrad and, after having decided that he no longer wants to be a professional dancer, is applying to dental schools. She's going to be featured on the Dancing with the Stars national tour this summer, and is hoping to be asked back to the show next fall. "We're going to get married," he says, "just not this summer. We haven't fallen away from each other at all."
What goes through his mind as he watches her dance? "I was totally blown away watching her do the freestyle tonight," says Wilson. "There was just so much energy. And you saw the whole audience stand up and get into it. I'm just so proud of her."
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