By Jill Rosen, The Baltimore Sun
8:17 AM EDT, March 18, 2013
In a bit of an ego blow to Ravens fans, Karina Smirnoff, a dancing professional who knows all about the cha-cha, the tango and the waltz, has never heard of "the squirrel."
"What's that?" she asks Jacoby Jones, a Ravens wide receiver and her partner on the upcoming season of "Dancing with the Stars," who'd like to work it into one of their routines.
It's only Ray Lewis' signature move, he tells her.
"Oh," she says. "You mean the slide, slide, knee, knee kick? I've never seen a squirrel do anything like that."
Jones laughs, but Smirnoff gets it — and knows exactly what such a move would mean to Baltimore. "Oh, yeah," she says. "We're totally putting that in."
Whether it's the squirrel dance, costumes in a certain shade of violet or B-roll spotlighting Charm City, team Jones/Smirnoff will surely be courting the Ravens faithful, in one way or another, as "Dancing with the Stars" kicks off its 16th season Monday night.
"We want to start off representing the Ravens Nation," Smirnoff says.
How long the pair competes will depend, at least in part, on the success of their routine, honed in Baltimore over the past couple of weeks.
Jones and Smirnoff spent days in town refining their dance, holed up — or at least trying to — in a studio at the Owings Mills Jewish Community Center. Despite the room's remote location, down a long hallway at the far end of the complex, word of the pair's presence leaked instantly, and starry-eyed fans in workout gear were soon pressing their noses against the glass.
At one point, a mother with five toddlers burst in, saying, "They'd just like to say, 'Hi,' " and motioning to the kids, who seemed more interested in Smirnoff's stretch bands. Even so, the pair posed gamely — Jones letting one boy climb onto his back while Smirnoff hoisted a girl.
When the brood cleared the room, the producer asked for a blanket to cover the door.
This was their second day of rehearsal. Smirnoff arrived first, hair in pin curls. Waiting for Jones, she gazed into the wall of mirrors and brushed on thick coats of mascara. She confided that when she first saw him the day before without a shirt on, his cut, tattooed physique made her want to head to the gym.
"Whassup, mama?" he says, finally strolling in and wearing a black T-shirt with writing on the front.
" 'I'm not a gynecologist'?" Smirnoff asked, incredulously reading the message. "Change the shirt."
Without protest, but with perhaps a wink, Jones slipped into a plain white one, treating his partner — again — to a glimpse of his abs.
The two share an easy rapport. They laugh a lot, and when Jones calls Smirnoff his female mini-me, he means to say she's a woman who can dish out and take her share of locker-room humor.
"She's so quick and flip at the mouth," he says with appreciation. "Listen to her."
They'll be attempting the cha-cha on Monday. And in "Dancing with the Stars" fashion, it will be a very modern cha-cha, set to a youthful radio hit. (They want the song to be a surprise.)
Jones knew nothing of the cha-cha before the other day — except that it was a dance. Worse yet, all the other teams had nearly a two-week head start on practice while Jones recovered from knee surgery.
The Raven — known for his end zone victory dances — has danced all his life, though never formally. Growing up in New Orleans, he says, his family would buy a mess of crawfish and crabs and head outside, "just regular country people in the backyard, dancin'."
Smirnoff, who has danced on the show for 13 of its 16 seasons, has partnered with actors, singers and athletes. She won the contest in 2011 at the side of Army veteran J.R. Martinez. Jones, though, will be her first football player.
Gridiron stars tend to do well on the show. Emmitt Smith won his season. So did Hines Ward and Donald Driver.
"They have the discipline," Smirnoff says. "They know what hard work is, and they're not afraid of it."
They also typically bring to the table a solid fan base — a critical element when viewer votes determine the winner.
If Jones has a handicap, it's probably not his knee. It could be his lack of national name recognition. Jones has about 17,000 Twitter followers. Among his competition on the show, Olympian Aly Raisman has more than 455,000, singer Kellie Pickler boasts more than 716,000 and comedian Andy Dick has 136,000. Even soap opera star Ingo Rademacher, whose name doesn't exactly roll off the tongue, tops 43,000.
Still, Smirnoff feels good about Jones. He believes he can win, and she suspects that's at least part of the battle.
"Jacoby is confident, and to be an athlete you have to be — and I want him to be," she says. "Do I think we have what it takes to go all the way? Absolutely."
But first she must get him to stretch. Jones doesn't care for stretching. In fact, he informs her, he doesn't do it and even Ravens coaches can't make him.
"I'm not a stretcher," he says, spread-eagled on the floor and not happy about it.
"Stretch!" Smirnoff commands. "It's for your benefit. Stretch!"
"No," he says. "It's not going to happen."
She leans forward, pressing on each of his feet. "Do you feel it?"
"I do," he says.
"I don't think so," she says.
"Trust me, I do," he says, lapsing into a riff about how his coaches — who until now have been convinced of his stretch-free ways — will see him doing it on the show and make him start.
"You talk so much [bleep]," she says, laughing. "The [bleep] you talk walks into the room five minutes before you do."
He cracks up. "That's good. I haven't heard that one before."
When the pair finally start dancing, Jones doesn't look half bad, especially considering his one day of practice. He knows the moves and keeps up with Smirnoff, who's already encouraging him to refine his technique — asking for extended arms, straightened fingers, and steps from the balls of his feet, not the heels. She wants big and exaggerated movements. She wants it all clean and controlled. And she wants sexy. Suave hip thrusts and brazen booty rolls.
"Roll it! Roll it!" she demands. "Use what the Lord gave you."
When Jones attempts a spin, Smirnoff grades it "one out of 100." But, she says, that's an improvement because before "it looked like nothing."
Jones' mother has already booked her flight to Los Angeles to see the show live, and the wide receiver expects a few of his teammates to show up at some point during the season. He says Torrey Smith and Ray Rice have told him they'd like to be there.
When Smirnoff tells Jones he's giving her "about 10 percent of what she needs," he doesn't get angry or frustrated. He just mildly says, "I dig it."
Soon after, though, with sweat starting to shine on his brow, Jones has a little confession for his would-be audience.
"I gotta talk to the camera right now," he says, turning right into the eye of the lens. "This is real."
'Dancing with the Stars' premieres at 8 p.m. Monday on WMAR/Channel 2.
Copyright © 2013, The Baltimore Sun