"Wow," says Helio Castroneves, getting his first look inside Indianapolis' massive Conseco Fieldhouse. The auditorium is home court to the Indiana Pacers and the place where Dancing with the Stars' Season 5 champ will return to the dance floor — for the first time in almost two months — in a matter of hours.
It's the morning of Jan. 18, and the cavernous auditorium is a beehive of activity. The stage, T-shaped and almost as long as a basketball court, has a dance floor that reaches deep into an audience estimated at roughly 8,000. The production crew is doing its almost nightly magic act of setting up a complete theater: Workers scurry this way and that, unloading enormous crates that house everything from the bandstand to the dance floor itself. Castroneves, who hasn't strapped on his Latin heels since the end of November, looks a little stunned. "Now I'm nervous," he says, unusually subdued.
He should be nervous. Castroneves and his partner, two-time Dancing champ Julianne Hough, won't be meeting up until 3 o'clock, their first rehearsal since they competed in the show's finale at the end of November. "She says I only need 45 minutes [to get back up to speed]," says Castroneves. "Maybe [Season 4 champ] Apolo [Anton Ohno] could do this in 45 minutes, but he was a quick learner. I need an hour and a half, at least. With the quickstep I feel very comfortable, but the cha cha? It's like, 'Man, what is that move, again?!'"
Castroneves and Hough have barely laid eyes on each other since the Dancing season wrapped, but they have kept in constant communication. "I've been telling him to watch our videos [from the show] on YouTube," says Hough, who turns up later in the day, flying in from Nashville where she's putting finishing touches on her first country album. "I've been reminding him to watch his frame, his hips, to practice in his head."
Hough is glowing with excitement about the next stage in what has become a rocket ship of a career. She hopes to compete again on Dancing's sixth season, then spend next summer touring as an opening-act singer. "I'll always do this," she says, gesturing toward the dance floor. "Dancing will always be a passion. But I'm ready to move on to the next chapter of my life. I've been dancing since I was 10 years old. But I always wanted to sing. I actually moved to L.A. to become a singer. If I would've shown up in Nashville without the exposure of this show, it would've taken me three years just to get started. I owe everything to Dancing with the Stars."
Castroneves has a lot to be grateful for, too. He is suddenly well known far beyond the racing world. "People come up to me and say they like watching me dance," he says. "And then they say, 'I voted for you, too.'" On Friday morning, he was greeted by a large and familiar gaggle of local and national TV and print reporters, many of whom have been covering him on the car-racing circuit for years. "I'm sure I'm going to be feeling those muscles again," he tells them, referring to his underused calves. One reporter, IndyStar.com's Kate Johnson, asks him for a demonstration dip. "The dip was a lot less painful than I thought it was going to be," she reports later. Then she smiles. "I wouldn't mind another one."
But the day is waning and it's time for the moment of truth. Will muscle memory kick in? Will Castroneves and Hough be able to reproduce the magic that propelled them to the winners' circle? Tour choreographer and dance pro Louis van Amstel has cleared the floor, hoping to give them a two-hour window to review their two solo numbers without interruption. Hough, breathing hard, corrects Helio's mistakes in the cha cha. "Gosh, you can tell I haven't been dancing for two months," she says. "The stamina is not there." But the speed, the exuberance and the smiles are intact, and despite some rough edges, these two appear to be back in business in a matter of minutes. "Are you sure you two haven't practiced since the finale?" asks Van Amstel, impressed.
It wasn't always such smooth sailing. Castroneves confides that he and Hough came to serious loggerheads during Week 4 of the competition. "That was the week of the rumba, the week the judges said we had no chemistry," he says. The problem? "She was giving me too much information," says Castroneves. "And I said, 'Is there anything I'm doing right? Because it sounds like everything that I'm doing is wrong!' And she said, 'When we get to the finals, we've got to learn three dances.' And I went, 'When we get to the finals, that's a good problem. We need to get there, first.'"
Castroneves, frustrated and upset, called his friend Apolo Anton Ohno. "And I said, 'It is me? Or is she crazy?' And Apolo gave me the whole speech. He said that he went through it, too, but he went through it later. Because I have a short temper, I think it happened earlier. I said, 'You're 19 years old and you're not listening to me!'" Hough, says Castroneves, finally backed off from her steep learning curve "and after that, Julianne and I were working harder together, but smoother. And it got better and better all the way until the end."
So good, in fact, that they were able to insert a playful kiss in one of their routines, the quickstep, setting off rampant speculation that the pair had become a couple. Reporters are still asking them about it. But romance did not blossom. "My heart was taken," says Castroneves simply.
Castroneves says now that he is still recovering from his broken engagement to Miami businesswoman Aliette Vazquez, which was announced the day after he won the mirror ball trophy. He doesn't blame the show or his on-air chemistry with Hough for wrecking his romance. Rather, he says, his long absence during the competition raised doubts that the relationship was on solid footing. "I care a lot about her," he says. "She's a great person. But I would say that the show was probably a wake up call. If I'm not getting the support that I thought I should have, it's a red flag. I don't blame anybody. There is no one to blame. I made a lot of mistakes, too, which is part of life. It's definitely going to help me with future relationships."
Just this morning, in fact, a local reporter slipped Castroneves her phone number. But Castroneves says he isn't ready for another serious flame. He is, however, ready to cut a rug again in night clubs. "I said to Julianne, 'Listen, teach me something simple [to teach others], because people are asking me to dance.' I know routines, but I don't know the basics." Did she teach him? "No," says Castroneves, laughing. "She said, 'You'll be fine.' I think she's done with me, for sure."
As for Hough, she's been quietly cheering for her former fiancé, pre-dental student Zack Wilson, who has landed a spot in the semi-finals of ABC's Dancing spin-off, Dance War: Bruno vs. Carrie Ann. It was Julianne's brother, Derek Hough, in fact, who encouraged Wilson, a multi-talented Utah-based singer and dancer, to audition. "He said, 'Dude, you'd be perfect,'" says Wilson.
But when Wilson actually made it, says Julianne, the two — who remain close friends — couldn't share the happy news. "They're in lockdown!" says Hough. "The producers took away their phones, their computers, everything." Hough could've used his support, she says, because with all the excitement over the release of her first single in mid-February, she's hit a few emotional walls, herself. "I think I'm staying skinny because of all the nerves," she says.
Hough has been living in Nashville and will stay there until Dancing calls her back to Los Angeles. She loves Nashville, she says, but the whole experience "has been so overwhelming. I was in the recording studio and all of a sudden I stopped and my producer was like, 'Are you OK, Julianne?' Because usually I'm Chatty Kathy. And I just broke down. And he comes in and he says, 'Are you OK?' And I'm like, 'This is really happening and I never thought I would really get a record deal and I can't believe it.'"
But it's happening, she says, because of all of the exposure from Dancing with the Stars. Which brings us back to Indianapolis, and a night of celebration. With the audience finally settled in, the announcer calls the names of Friday night's stars, including Wayne Newton and Monique Coleman. When he gets to Castroneves and Hough, the crowd roars, many of them welcoming the conquering home-town hero with a standing ovation. He's an Indy 500 star. He's a dancing star. He's their star. Even in that cavernous setting, Castroneves' smile reaches the back rows. "Oh my god, it was so much fun," he says after the show.
"It's so great for the tour to have that star power here," says van Amstel, who was more than happy to splice the pair into the two-month tour for a solid week. Stars come in and out on a rotating basis. And the pros do, too, but with them, it's more a matter of who's injured or out sick. Tonight, Kym Johnson is out with a slightly torn muscle in her shoulder that will put her on the bench for a couple of days. But Mark Ballas, recovering nicely from his dislocated shoulder, is almost back to full strength and has rejoined the cast. "I can do almost everything with my arm again," says Ballas. "I was worried there, for awhile, but now I know it's going to be fine."
The pros won't know if they've been re-upped for the show — much less whom they will be partnered with — until mid-February, just before the new line-up is announced to the public. So for now, it's back on the buses as the tour moves on to Nashville, Tampa and Jacksonville. The dancers are buoyed by the news that in many upcoming markets, the show is a complete sell-out. "I can't wait for tomorrow," says Castroneves, "to do it all again."
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