ABC Takes It to the Pros With 'Dance War'

It's one thing to judge celebrities on their amateur dancing.

It's another to get away from the desk and show your own stuff.

Bruno Tonioli and Carrie Ann Inaba do just that as their popular series "Dancing With the Stars" spawns the ABC spinoff "Dance War: Bruno vs. Carrie Ann" with a two-hour debut Monday, Jan. 7. Accomplished dancers and choreographers, the title stars assemble teams to compete in song-and-dance numbers of various styles.

Holding to the parent show's tradition, "Dance War" will let viewers decide (following the audition phase) which team fares best each week; the lower-scoring squad's captain -- be it Tonioli or Inaba -- will have to give one of his or her performers the figurative boot. Drew Lachey, the second-season winner of "Dancing With the Stars," serves as host.

During the past season of "Dancing," England-based Tonioli jetted back and forth between Los Angeles and London, where he simultaneously was a judge on the BBC series "Strictly Come Dancing," which inspired the American version. He says he and a colleague devised "Dance War," which also has had a British forerunner in the BBC's "DanceX."

"There always have been shows that were either about singing or dancing," says movie-musical devotee Tonioli, "but I'd never seen the two in a way that combined them in production numbers. I want to see young kids doing a whole range of things, almost like 'The Apprentice' of show business.

"Adding the sportslike element of two teams is very exciting. These are kids who haven't done anything major, let alone prime-time television, so this is a process of discovery. We don't actually know how they will respond."

The "Dance War" idea sits well with Inaba, who explains, "This is more of what I usually do. I normally work with people in the studio, grooming them for the stage. That's what I have been doing for about 15 years, so it's nice to get back to what I do best and where I feel the most comfortable.

"Learning from people as well as teaching them is one of my favorite things, and I've really missed it, as much as it's been wonderful to have a voice on 'Dancing With the Stars.' I miss the physicality of working with people, being the catalyst to encourage them to test their own boundaries through movement and singing and performing. It really is amazing to be able to use your body that way, so I'm really excited about this."

"Dance War" probably wouldn't exist had "Dancing With the Stars" not come first, Tonioli admits.

"It was the same way in the U.K.," he says. "With the BBC having known me from 'Strictly Come Dancing,' it makes people more willing to listen to you than if they don't know who you are. ABC saw what we did there with 'DanceX,' but this isn't identical. I think we've made it even better."

Tonioli considers Inaba his ideal opposite number for "Dance War," reasoning the show needs "personalities people are familiar with. We're introducing a lot of people you've never seen before, and Carrie Ann is very well known, so you don't have to introduce another 'character.' Also, our chemistry works, and that kind of relationship is easier when you know somebody already."

Inaba claims she was "very up" for the show "immediately. As soon as they said, 'We want you and Bruno to have different teams,' I said I'd be the first one there. Then as I found out more, with America voting each week and one of us having to cut somebody, I was a little less thrilled. I've never done anything creatively in a competitive way, so the idea was nerve-racking, but this is something that hasn't been done before. I'd never, ever pass up an experience that is new and unique."

Slated to run six weeks, "Dance War" will let Tonioli and Inaba be ready to sit for the next round of "Dancing With the Stars" starting March 17. All the twists and turns of the recently concluded season, including Jane Seymour's food poisoning and Marie Osmond's on-camera fainting (and both contestants' loss of a parent), would seem hard to top. Now, the judges are ready for anything.

"The casting was fantastic," Tonioli says. "I think they all excelled, really. Everybody was very competitive but in a sportsmanlike way, plus you just could not predict all that drama. Look at the shock of Sabrina (Bryan, the 'Cheetah Girl' eliminated earlier than expected). The first week, they had said, 'This girl is going to be in the finals.' Something like that never happens."

Formerly a Fly Girl with Jennifer Lopez on the FOX sketch-comedy series "In Living Color," Hawaiian-born Inaba also was surprised and pleased with the way "Dancing" went last time.

"I felt like everybody upped their game and rose a level throughout the show," she says, "and it was really exciting to see. The audience rose to the occasion as well. I think they have learned what good dancing is, what works and doesn't work, and it's interesting to see them kind of grow with the show. It's a huge opportunity to share my opinions on dance. And for me, dance is everything."

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