How to understand the Darwinian spectacle that is Dancing with the Stars

by Diana Wichtel / 13 May, 2018
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In a society busy mortifying its over-indulged flesh with paleo diets and CrossFit, Dancing with the Stars almost makes sense.

The other night, we went to a charity boxing match. I’d never been to a boxing anything before, but a family member was in the ring. Watching through a haze of shameless bias, epic ignorance and beer, I was convinced she’d win. Though she put up a brave fight, she had her first loss on a split decision. We still went nuts.

There are sound evolutionary reasons that we were caught up in a spectacle that, contemporary gender diversity aside, is as old as humankind. Survival and such. Who knows when a perfect left hook might come in handy?

It’s less clear why our species has adapted to sit, slack-jawed, watching Act leader David Seymour lurch around a spectacularly tacky set on Dancing With the Stars. True, dancing, like boxing, involves fancy footwork, impassioned clinches, blood, sweat, tears … In a society busy mortifying its over-indulged flesh with Hot Pilates, paleo diets and CrossFit, it almost makes sense.

In boxing, at least you can see the action; on DWTS, with all those flashing, blinding lights, it’s like watching a couple try to samba while being strafed. Still, they get fit. This season has already generated this evolutionarily significant headline: “David Seymour’s pants won’t stay up after his Dancing With the Stars weight loss.”

And it’s not for sissies. In the first episode, that scary survivor of The Real Housewives of Auckland, Gilda Kirkpatrick, had her partner on the mat by the end of a gritty tango. You wouldn’t want to face her in a boxing ring.

Here is further proof that the gleefully despised genre that is reality television can be as mad, excruciating, unintentionally comic and, occasionally, inspiring as real life. This season is worth watching for Jess Quinn alone. She has one of those jobs I don’t understand – “social-media influencer” – and buckets of attitude. Facing the added challenge of a disability, she took to the floor and never looked back, except when required to by the arcane rules of ballroom dancing.

In the end, like life and boxing, DWTS can be brutal. Gilda soon had a chance to fix co-host Sharyn Casey with her most withering scowl as she was asked how it felt to be the first one voted off. Her samba actually wasn’t bad, despite the impediment of a costume that was less carnival dancing queen, more hen in a high wind. She leaves having produced the pronouncement of the show so far: “I hope they don’t smell,” she mused, of her prospective dance partner, “because if I smell something my brain just shuts down.”

And yet David Seymour remains. In art, as in politics, that’s enough to shut your brain down. He gets to recycle lines from the last election campaign: “There’s only one way to go from where we are!” His dance partner has a perpetual look of impending migraine. “If you were in love with a woman, would you bend your knees and kind of creep backwards?” she wailed. Around the nation, viewers rose as one to answer: yes.

Seymour redeemed himself in the eyes of the judges with a performance that resembled a tango performed by a burgundy-upholstered cyborg. Never mind. It’s quite endearing how, whenever he spots a camera, he instantly defaults to the sort of “pick-me” expression seen on doomed puppies at rescue centres. Well, it seems to work for him in Epsom.

Will it be a knockout for him next week? Ask not for whom the bell tolls; DWTS is way too random for that. This is a show on which “Feet! They need to stay connected to the floor!” counts as expert advice. It’s going to be a long few weeks.

This article was first published in the May 19, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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