It was a jaw-dropping semifinal, the best in the four-season history of ABC's Dancing with the Stars. Apolo Anton Ohno, Laila Ali, Joey Fatone and Ian Ziering on Monday night each pulled off grand finale-quality dances — and earned multiple "10s" from the judges — like it was no big deal to polish two entirely different routines. Plus, the routines themselves were longer: a minute and 15 seconds last week, one minute and 30 seconds this week.
The dances' length is not a question of keeping head judge Len Goodman — who's been scolding the pros for not bringing enough "content" to the routines — happy. It's the producers' mathematical equation for filling air time with fewer dancers left in the contest. "It depends on where we are in the season," says musical director Harold Wheeler. "We started at a minute, 10 seconds early on. We'll go as long as a minute, 40 by the time it's over."
Wheeler holds a lot of power in that baton. It's his job to match the performance of his live band to the records the dancers have been practicing to all week. He knows he's got to get it spot-on or he'll have a dance floor full of confused hoofers. "I know they're all nervous," says Wheeler. "So my job is making sure that the tempos I set for them — and the arrangements I do for them — complement what they've been rehearsing to all week. We're in the fourth season now and I don't want to say that I've got it down to a science, but I've got to get each performer down to a science."
Listen to this: Even after Wheeler has exactly matched the tempo of a couple's rehearsal music, he'll sometimes change that tempo between Monday afternoon's dress rehearsal and the Monday night live performance — without the dancers knowing it. "I'll kick it up a notch," says Wheeler, sounding like spice-friendly chef Emeril Lagasse. Why? Because a couple of the remaining dancers, namely Ohno and Fatone, are "adrenaline junkies," says Wheeler. When these performers are in the spotlight and surrounded by an audience, their hearts race a little faster and their feet move a little faster. "So I'll make the tempo just this much [he shows a pinch with his fingers] faster than at dress rehearsal during the live show." And the dancers really don't know he's doing it? "No," says Wheeler. "It's my thing. I have to make it a little faster because I know that's the way they are."
John Ratzenberger, on the other hand, required the opposite kind of tinkering. "The biggest thing there was never to make it too fast," says Wheeler. "Too slow would always be OK."
Once he's got the tempo problem licked, Wheeler also has to figure out whether to make his band sound exactly like the demo — or not. Think back to last week, when Ian Ziering and Cheryl Burke danced to John Lennon's "Imagine." "The song was originally done with piano, base and drums," says Wheeler. "That's it. But we have a 16-piece band and Ian was following a dance number that made use of all 16 instruments. So for his number, you can't just drop down to three. If I gave him just piano, base and drums, the audience at home would say, 'I don't know if it was all that great.' And they're not talking about the dance steps. [The music] has to be competitive with the other performers."
Did Wheeler's solution make Ziering uneasy? You bet. "In dress rehearsal, he said, 'Whoa, I gotta stop and listen to this, because this is totally different,'" says Wheeler. "And I explained to him why using just three pieces wouldn't work."
Many viewers wonder why some of the music is chosen for the show. The very first song for Season 3, for example — danced by Joey McIntyre — was Beyoncé's "Crazy in Love." Not the kind of thing that you would automatically peg for a ballroom dance cha-cha. "At the time, I thought that was the most absurd thing they could ever do," says Wheeler. "I said, what? But now I understand it. It's about attracting a wider audience. I have to take Beyoncé [records] and make them work."
It's working. And one big reason it's working is because the audience is rediscovering the thrill of live music. Wheeler and company have performed an astonishing 427 songs since Season 1. His attitude? Bring it on. "This used to be the standard," says Wheeler. "Live music. Now it's coming back — on American Idol and here. So we have fun. We're embracing live TV."
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