Dancing With the Stars professionals Cheryl Burke and Mark Ballas spoke to the Times Free Press at the She Expo on Sunday.
Q: How did you get involved with dance?
Cheryl Burke: Well, I started at age 4 - I did ballet first - and dancing was something that I always wanted to do. My mom took me everywhere - soccer, horseback riding, tennis - and dancing was the only thing I never complained about. And then I switched over to ballroom, and ever since I switched to ballroom, it was more me, it was more my personality, it was something that I wanted to pursue.
Mark Ballas: I kind of started doing musical theater when I was 3, so on weekends I would be singing, acting, dancing. I did that until I was 10, and then I went into ballroom. Then, I went to musical theater school, so I was doing it all the time.
Q: What is it like backstage at "Dancing With the Stars?"
CB: We're all there - we are like a family - it sounds so cliché, "We are a family." But we really are, because we understand those insecurities that everyone goes through, and it's like we're rooting each other on, deep down inside.
MB: I say it's more like a family reunion - everyone's related somehow. You have me, Derek [Hough], Cheryl and Kym [Johnson], we're all one kind of family. You have Maks [Chmerkovskiy] and Val [Chmerkovskiy] and Tony [Dovolani]. And then there's Karina [Smirnoff] and Inna [Brayer]. It's kind of like, "Oh, there's my aunt," and, "That's my cousin."
CB: Totally. Basically, it's all of us coming together with stepchildren coming in every season.
MB: It's like we're bringing our new significant others every season.
CB: We are a dysfunctional family.
Q: Did you know each other or any of the other professionals before the show?
CB: We all knew each other from dance. We're all different age categories. So, like, Maks was already professional. And Jonathan [Roberts] was my first ballroom teacher. All of us competed, but not at the same level. One was professional, one was amateur, one was under 21.
MB: But we were always at the same events. My mom has trained a lot of us on the show.
Q: Who is your favorite celebrity partner from the show?
CB: They all have come into my life, and they all represent something different. Like I said earlier, in my speech, there's nothing like your first. Drew [Lachey] was my first, and he brought me out of my shell. Emmitt [Smith] was like a father figure in my life. Everyone just means something different to your life. There's a reason why these people come into your life, I believe.
MB: It's hard for me to pick, too. Sabrina [Bryan] was awesome for my first one. Kristi Yamaguchi, Shawn [Johnson] - they are all wonderful. I talk to all of them, pretty much. Kim Kardashian is still a good friend of mine; I talk to her pretty often. Chelsea Kane was very fun for me, because with her I could do things that I couldn't do with other people. I could do contemporary and weird, and be an individual. And that was the year I got nominated for an Emmy, three of my pieces were nominated with Chelsea. That's because I could really dig in, she had an amazing attention to detail. I've had a really good run - I've been lucky.
Q: How do you deal with the tabloid pressure?
CB: I think, as a woman, you don't want anyone to tell you you're overweight and fat, obviously. Let alone do it in the public eye and then have to be on the cover where people are calling you fat, and next week dancing in front of millions of people in a tiny costume.
MB: Cheryl, who has an amazing body, she's beautiful and sexy, gets on the cover being called fat. She's in amazing shape, and that's out of line. For me, when I was with Bristol [Palin], that was definitely the hardest. I would get a lot of flack. People would attack me like, "Why are you allowing this?" We're there to teach these people to dance. You don't just tap out when you're contractually bound to a television show. And I love Bristol. She's an amazing person. Just because her mother's in politics, she gets burned at the stake. I've gotten used to it over the years, it comes with it. I've learned to turn my head.
Q: Do you think the show has elevated the sport of ballroom dancing in the public eye?
MB: It's definitely raised awareness. It's become popular.
CB: Oh, absolutely. I think we made ballroom dancing cool and relevant. I think before "Dancing With the Stars," no one in the outside world knew what ballroom dancing was. I think our generation has really made dancing something cool that young people can do.
MB: We're still striving to make it cooler. Finding new ways of doing old things, and making it fun and relevant.