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Ballroom blitz

Cheryl Burke of ‘DWTS’ opens up about show, tour and wardrobe malfunctions

It’s no doubt that reality TV is pretty much the epitome of what America watches. For some reason, we just love watching people be “real.” We love voting contestants off their 15 minutes of fame. We love listening cattily to bad singers. And we especially love watching people whore themselves out for “love.”

But one reality-based show is cutting up the competition — and by cutting up we mean cutting up the proverbial rug. ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars” has spearheaded a phenomenon since its 2005 debut in the United States. The show, based on the format of the BBC’s “Strictly Come Dancing,” pairs celebrities from the sports, musical and acting worlds with professional dancers. It will return in March for its eighth season.

“DWTS” has not only opened the door for other dance-related shows like “So You Think You Can Dance” and “America’s Best Dance Crew” — it’s even made celebrities of its own: The professional dancers that make every paso doble look easy.

Local fans of the show won’t have to wait until its return in March: On Tuesday, Feb. 3, they’ll get the chance to see some of the show’s celebrities and dancers in the flesh when “Dancing with the Stars: The Tour” stops at the Wachovia Arena in Wilkes-Barre Twp.

Last week, the Weekender caught up with Cheryl Burke, a “DWTS” veteran, about the differences between the tour and the show, living in a fishbowl and what it feels like to now have “Emmy-nominated” precede her name.

“It’s so unreal for me being nominated for an Emmy! It still is,” Burke said before a show in St. Louis.

Burke was nominated for the prestigious awards for two dances she choreographed for herself and her partner, 98 Degrees member Drew Lachey, in Season Two — Burke’s first on the show.

“It was really one of my best dances I’ve choreographed, and I was really proud,” she said.

Burke and Lachey then went on to win the disco ball trophy at the end of Season Two. The following fall, Burke earned the disco ball again with her Season Three partner, retired football player Emmitt Smith. She’s also been partnered with “Beverly Hills, 90210” star Ian Ziering, Las Vegas entertainer Wayne Newton, actor Cristian de la Fuente and most recently, Olympic sprinter Maurice Greene.

Burke still dances with Greene on the tour while singers Toni Braxton and Lance Bass and actress Marlee Matlin round out the other celebrities on the road this year.

While one might think the tour is easier than competing on the television show, Burke assured it is no cakewalk.

“It’s definitely less pressure, but more physically demanding,” she explained. “But we’re used to it, and it gets us in shape.”

So what can fans in the audience expect to see at the arena?

“You’ll see some of the numbers that we did on the show, as well as lots of different numbers where it’s just the professional dancers and lots of group numbers where we’re all involved,” Burke said.

A girl’s dream to the small screen

Like many little girls the world over, Burke, a San Francisco native, grew up wanting to be a ballerina. The 24-year-old put on her first pair of ballet slippers at age 4, switched to ballroom dancing at 11, and began competing at 13.

“I wanted to take it seriously since I was a little girl,” she said.

When asked if she had been a fan of the BBC version of “Dancing with the Stars,” Burke admitted that she didn’t have a lot of time to watch TV — she spent most of her time competing.

“I did watch the first season of ‘DWTS,’ and that was it. After that, I was on it for the second season,” she said.

Switching from ballet to ballroom was nothing compared to another transition: shifting from a competitive dancer to a cast member on what was ABC’s most-watched Thursday night show since “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” in 2000. (“DWTS” is now broadcast on Mondays.)

“I wasn’t used to being on television or anything like that,” Burke said. “That was never my goal. … It was hard for me to be in front of the camera and communicate in front of the camera, I was really shy.”

Show producers and Lachey helped her work through her stage fright.

“You just get used to it and learn different things as [time] goes by — how to do interviews and get more on-hand experiences.”

In a fishbowl

One thing Burke might not have been prepared for was what came at the beginning of Season 7. After having the summer off, the dancer returned to “DWTS” slightly curvier. She soon found herself — and her weight — the subject of harsh tabloid headlines, bloggers and some nasty comments in the press from her male castmates Louis Van Amstel and Maksim Chmerkovskiy.

“It was difficult,” she recalled. “It was hard because at the end of the day, this is what I do, and for people to judge me on my weight instead of what I do with dance just totally takes away from everything.”

With the criticism also came an outpouring of support from celebrities like Jennifer Love Hewitt and Burke’s Season 7 celebrity castmates Brook Burke and Greene. But the condemnation still left a bad taste in her mouth.

“It’s a dangerous message to send out to kids — and women in general — because what are they supposed to think when they see me dancing my butt off every day?” she questioned. “I’m healthy. I’m an athlete, and I feel comfortable in my skin, but it was difficult for sure. Any tabloid or anything that comes out about you negatively, you try and stay away from. This one was hard to stay away from.”

Especially when her own colleagues helped fuel the fire. When asked if she now looks at Van Amstel and Chmerkovskiy differently, Burke paused before replying.

“Well … you just kind of have to ignore it, move on and keep your friends close to your heart — it’s kind of hard to answer that question,” she said, pausing again. “You just have to move on; I’m here to work, and this is my job. If someone has a problem, that’s their problem. I try to just focus on what I do best.”

Always dancing

Last April, Burke opened the Cheryl Burke Dance Center in her hometown — something that had been a dream of hers. By March, she hopes to open two more.

“It’s very important for me to reach out to all my fans [this way] and to promote physical fitness to kids and adults since dancing is such a great form of exercise. You see all the celebrities lose lots of weight doing the show, even if you dance for a couple hours a day or a couple hours a week, it’s really great for you.”

Her students, ranging from children to adults, learn different dances for fun, weddings or to become serious competitors.

“I always enjoy [teaching] the Latin dances — that’s what I competed in, and that’s where my passion is definitely more,” Burke said, “but ballroom is just so much fun.”

She finds it easier to train regular people than celebrities, mostly because of the time crunch.

“To teach a regular student in my studio, they’re not trying to perform everything in five days. They have time to learn actually how to dance,” Burke explained. “On the show, we don’t get a lot of time to really get into detail — we’re under a lot of time pressure. It’s very important that we practice long hours and get it right by show day.”

Getting it right can take anywhere from four to 10 hours a day, “depending on who your celebrity is,” Burke said. On the tour, however, the pros and the celebrities don’t need to rehearse as much.

And as for downtime?

“We don’t really have much downtime,” Burke said. “This tour ends on Feb. 9, and we start training for the next season Feb. 10.”

Despite Burke and her fellow dancers competing for that disco ball at the end of the season, she described the backstage scene as non-competitive.

“We’re not competing as we normally do, it’s a television show. We’re there for our celebrities, so it’s very important that we have fun, take it lightly and make sure everyone feels comfortable.”

Having been on six seasons and four tours of “Dancing with the Stars,” it goes without saying that Burke’s seen her fair share of wardrobe malfunctions — including her own.

“Oh my God, on this tour I had one,” she shared. “My whole top came off by accident, and it was on the big screen. I think we were at the Staples Center or something in Los Angeles.”

And what does a consummate professional do when she finds herself in such a compromising position?

“You just pick it up, put it back on and laugh at yourself a little bit and continue on with the show.”

w

“Dancing with the Stars: The Tour” Tuesday, Feb. 3, 7:30 p.m. at

Wachovia Arena, Wilkes-Barre Twp.

Tickets: $52, $67, $127, $195,

at arena box office, all Ticketmaster outlets, charge by phone and www.ticketmaster.com. Info: www.dancingwiththestarsontour.com

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