It's a shame the cameras weren't rolling: During one commercial break for Tuesday night's Dancing with the Stars, Billy Ray Cyrus bounded up into the bleachers to sing to a lovely, gray-haired lady from Scotland who has a thing for the "Achy Breaky" star. Branded "most improved dancer" by judge Carrie Ann Inaba, it's as though Cyrus has finally dropped the shackles of his "two left feet" mentality and is ready to cut loose.
He's not the only one. What the television audience doesn't get to see is that members of the studio audience are asked — before the show and during commercial breaks — to get up and shake their groove thing. Doesn't matter if you're 18 or 88, any kind of movement goes. And with the sound system blasting bass-heavy dance beats like "Brick House" and "Got to Be Real," you'd have to be comatose not to want to move.
The feeling is so infectious that when Bruno Tonioli is introduced, he does a funky dance en route to his judge's chair. Tonioli danced professionally for years before becoming a film and television choreographer. Is he a frustrated hoofer now? "No," says Tonioli. "I've done my dancing. I went on stage when I was 18. That chapter of my life is complete."
Now, he says, part of his mission — and the reason behind his often outrageous, colorful commentary ("The mambo is down and dirty," he tells ladylike Leeza Gibbons, "so let the tramp out") — is to make dance more understandable to the masses. "I try to be kind of human in my descriptions, to make dancing approachable so that everybody can get it. I don't want to play the kind of judge role where everything is formal."
In fact, the dancers couldn't have a better audience than the three people — Tonioli, Inaba and Len Goodman — sitting at the judges' dais. When the pros come out and dazzle the crowd, their fiercest critics clap throughout the performance. "I just love it because I understand what it takes," says Tonioli. "Dancers have always been — of all the performing arts — the Cinderellas, never invited to the ball. You adore singers. You adore actors. You [in the United States] make this big fuss over people who shop, and give too much space [in the media] to talentless people. If those people were here I would really be tough. But these dancers? They're the least paid, the least celebrated and the hardest-working."
And Joey Fatone is trying to join their ranks. Fatone hit the jackpot again with the judges and was asked to do an encore of his Star Wars-themed tango. In the audience was his older brother, Steven, who broke away from touring with Justin Timberlake (he's the tour's video director) to root for his sibling. "The biggest thing now," says Steven Fatone, "is that everyone is saying [Joey] has so much more experience than everybody else. But I don't think I've ever seen my brother two-step across the dance floor during the 'N Sync days. I think the stage helped him, but the dancing didn't help him. The dancing he did was a lot harder and sharper. This has a lot more precision and you have to make sure everything's in the right place at the right time. [On Monday] night, you could tell his butt seemed to be getting in the way a lot."
Steven says his whole family was on pins and needles when Joey performed the first night. Though Steven was in Pittsburgh, backstage at the Timberlake concert, he wouldn't budge from the television monitors until he could see his brother boogie. "So we waited a while to start the show," Steven says. "I wasn't even at my post, where I was supposed to be. I'm like: 'I'm not moving! I'm waiting until he dances!'" Fatone laughs. "I wasn't doing my job."
How could he be so nervous when Joey's had so much experience? "Oh, we were all a wreck," says Steven. "It's like taking Christina Aguilera and telling her, 'We want you to be an opera singer now.' She'd be like, 'That's not what I do.'"
But it is now. Steven says that it's been great watching Joey bust some completely new moves — and slim down in the process. "It's been four or five years since Joey did any dancing with 'N Sync," says Steven. "I mean, he did some Broadway but it wasn't that rigorous and he kind of sat around and did nothing at home. It was a lot of time with bonbons and TV. That was the big joke with my family when he got picked to do this show: Oooh… time to start working out!"