In addition to the usual smattering of celebrities (Chaka Khan, Gary Busey) and "celebrities" ("Vine star Hayes Grier") who sign up to dance their way to the Mirrorball trophy, the Season 21 roster for Dancing with the Stars includes two names in particular that will get people talking - for very different reasons.
The first is Alek Skarlatos, the National Guardsman who helped take down a gunman last month on a train that was traveling from Amsterdam to Brussels.
"Literally two weeks ago, he was on a train," Rob Wade, executive producer of Dancing, told TVGuide.com shortly before news of Skarlatos' casting went public. "Now he's on Dancing with the Stars. It's just insane. I get goosebumps just saying it. ... He changed the lives of everybody on that train, but also now changed his life. He's a hero. There's no two ways about it. People bandy that word around a lot, but he's an American hero."
The other is celebrity chef Paula Deen, who has generated headlines in recent months not for recipes, but for allegations of racism. However, Wade insists that Dancing with the Stars isn't setting out to tell a redemption story in casting the 68-year-old butter enthusiast.
"We don't really go into these seasons intending to tell a story. We want to see the story that develops," Wade says. "She does have a huge following and a lot of fans. I think she's doing this show because she wants to learn to dance. She's in her 60s. I think it's a really healthy thing. ... She's doing it for the right reasons. She wants to challenge herself and she wants to learn to dance, and she's a little bit scared of it. That's why I think she's doing it."
Adds Wade: "Louis [Van Amstel, Deen's partner], I think, is going to be in trouble. There seems to be a lot of cookie consumption so far. [But] with the amount of calories they're going to burn off learning to dance, I'm sure she'll be fine. ... I think she's going to surprise people when she comes out and dances."
Here are five other things to expect from Season 21 of Dancing:
1. Results shows are gone... again. Dancing's on-again, off-again relationship with results shows continues. Though the show will air on back-to-back nights some weeks this season, the Tuesday shows will not be results shows, Wade says. This week, the Tuesday episode will be a pre-taped behind-the-scenes look at Monday's premiere. In Week 2, there will be performance shows on both Monday and Tuesday, as well as hometown visits for the celebrities (on Monday) and dancers (on Tuesday).
2. No 10s from Len. After several seasons of pulling double duty between Dancing with the Stars and Strictly Come Dancing, Len Goodman has finally decided to take an entire season off. But, there's a "very, very likely chance" that he'll be back for Season 22 in the spring, according to Wade. "For a man in his 70s, flying back and forth every week from London is pretty exhausting," Wade admits. I understand his position. ... Hopefully, he'll be back in the spring stronger than ever."
3. No guest judges. Despite Len's absence behind the judges' table, the show is breaking from tradition this season and opting not to bring in guest judges to take his place. "Julianne [Hough], Carrie Ann [Inaba] and Bruno [Tonioli] are a great judging panel, and they've got a lot of experience between them," Wade says. "Sometimes if you have four judges, their comments can repeat themselves. And that's not really entertaining for the viewer."
4. New theme nights. While some theme nights (Most Memorable Year of Your Life) remain set in stone, Wade says he hopes to incorporate new theme nights this year - and throw the dancers off in the process - beginning in about Week 5. "We want to keep the whole season a bit of a surprise for the dancers and the couples," he said. "It's good to put challenges in front of them when they're unsuspecting, because then you get a real reaction to them. ... We have some really nice ideas which should hopefully cause a lot of drama and entertainment and intrigue in that back end of the season." Also, the Switch-Up will likely return, while Judges' Choice will not.
5. A couple of celebrity firsts. The Season 21 cast includes a few celebrity superlatives. At 15, Grier is the youngest male to ever appear on the show, while Carlos and Alexa PenaVega are the first-ever husband-and-wife team to compete. Also, the 5-foot-2 jockey Victor Espinoza is the shortest male dancer in Dancing's history. "How is Karina [Smirnoff] going to manage to dance with him?" Wade ponders. "We've had a guy with no arm and no leg, but we've never had a guy who's 5-foot-2."
Dancing with the Stars kicks off Season 21 Monday at 8/7c on ABC. Who are you rooting for?
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