HOT TO TROT

The Baltimore Sun

When Baltimore singer Mario takes to the dance floor tonight with partner Karina Smirnoff to launch a new season of ABC's Dancing with the Stars, he will find himself on one of the two largest and most influential stages in American popular culture.

Last year, with audiences topping 25 million viewers on some nights, Stars and Fox's American Idol not only dominated prime-time TV like no series have ever done, they changed the way America watches television.

In an era of niche programming, when parents and children have few network programs that they can share, the two shows bucked the trend, bringing millions of diverse families together in front of the screen. And this despite one of the seemingly great contradictions at the heart of Dancing with the Stars: that such a sexually charged production full of grinding hips and scantily clad dancers has become such a happily accepted staple of family viewing.

Yet, while the appeal and deeper meaning of Idol has been analyzed endlessly, Stars has been treated like a flashy, lightweight cousin, selling only sex, sizzle and schadenfreude - another reality-TV guilty pleasure that fans seemingly have to apologize for enjoying.

Sex is always front and center.

It's there in the network promotions that feature the contestants posed under headlines that read: "Sexy, Sexier, Sexiest!"

It's there in the words of some of the contestants, like Mario who promises, "We definitely will be dancing hot stuff. Karina's definitely spicy - for lack of a better word."

But thinking that's all there is to Stars is a big mistake, say performers and pop-culture pundits.

The ABC series, which starts its sixth season tonight with its most diverse cast of competitors ever, is plugged into currents that reach every bit as deeply into the changing societal landscape and national psyche - particularly when it comes to matters of diversity.

"Thinking of Stars just as entertainment, you can start to explain its appeal to all the different demographics by saying it is something for everybody - a Marie Osmond for one taste, Emmitt Smith for another - a kind of postmodern variety show," says Sheri Parks, an associate professor of American studies at the University of Maryland, College Park. "But in a parallel and deeper way, it's also a very diverse show, with the producers being very careful that they start out with a pretty broad range of celebrities that often go against stereotypes. And that's where it really starts to get interesting."

Mario (born Mario Dewar Barrett) says it was the diversity of the contestants that initially drew him as a viewer to the series and ultimately led to his decision to compete this year.

"That's the first thing I noticed when I started watching - and I immediately liked it," he says. "Now as a contestant, I like the fact that I will be carrying the torch for my generation - and doing it with such a diverse and accomplished cast of other performers this year."

In addition to Mario, this year's celebrity cast includes telenovela star Cristian de la Fuente; Academy Award-winning actress Marlee Matlin, who is deaf; Miami Dolphins defensive end Jason Taylor and Olympic figure skating gold medalist Kristi Yamaguchi.

Joining them are tennis champ Monica Seles, comedian Penn Jillette, TV show host Adam Carolla, actor Steve Gutenberg and actresses Priscilla Presley, Shannon Elizabeth and Marissa Jaret Winokur (Tony Award winner for her role in Hairspray).

Explaining one of the ways that the show "goes against stereotype," Parks says, "They usually have a black athlete who is not a particularly good dancer, and I think going against racial type that way is interesting to some people."

Lots of people, both black and white, based on Nielsen ratings - and that's another way in which the show has altered long-held TV viewing patterns.

Historically, black and white audiences have gone their separate ways when it comes to prime-time viewing, with the two groups rarely having more than one or two favorite shows in common.

But last season, thanks to their mutual mania for Dancing and Idol, black and white fans came together to share the TV experience like never before during the 20 years that Nielsen has measured ethnic preferences.

Parks, author of Lion Mother of the American Soul: The Black Maternal Figure in Popular Mythology, says she believes even more drama and viewer involvement is generated when gender is added to the mix - usually in the form of a woman serving as dance instructor to the man. For the couple to succeed, a power exchange must take place in which the man, who has no training in ballroom dancing, places himself in the hands of his experienced female instructor and follows her lead.

Analysts trace the arrival of Dancing with the Stars as a mega-hit to its third season, when just such a narrative was played out when former Dallas Cowboys all-star running back Emmitt Smith was teamed with professional dancer Cheryl Burke. The pair won the competition, thanks in large part to Smith winning the hearts of female judges and voters.

"What's so great about you is, you are the everyday man who became a dancer in our eyes in the past 10 weeks," judge Carrie Anna Inaba told Smith when his victory was announced.

Along with Taylor, this season's football star, Mario finds himself playing a similar role to Smith's - and he's looking for the same kind of happy, transformative ending.

"I have never done any ballroom dancing, so learning to do that is a big challenge - but I'll be ready," says the youngest contestant in the history of the series. "I've had challenges all my life. At the end of the day, if you dedicate yourself, there's nothing you can't do. I am going to follow Karina's instruction and show viewers what you can accomplish with hard work and total dedication. And I promise, I won't embarrass myself out on the floor with a hottie like Karina."

The male-to-female transfer of power is a central trope of romance fiction that results in the man being not only loved, but redeemed by the woman's response to his "surrender." In the show, the transformation to a higher plane is seen in the dance.

But as the term "hottie" suggests, beyond any subtexts of power, gender, race or transcendence, there is one very obvious uber-element also firing up viewer interest in the show: sex.

"I wouldn't argue for a second against the gender dynamic, power exchange and all the rest," says Shirley Peroutka, associate professor of popular culture at Goucher College. "But for lots of viewers, I think, it's all about the sex - from the dresses that look painted on, to the grinding hips."

Parks, who says she watches the show with her 12-year-old daughter, believes that Dancing with the Stars is not so much about sexuality as it is sensuality.

"Yes, I've had to answer a few questions about how some of those dresses stay on," she says. "But I think the performance is essentially encased as art on Dancing with the Stars."

Relating an anecdote about how she and her daughter discussed the difference between a sculpture of a female breast that they had seen at the Walters Art Museum versus what they were exposed to thanks to Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction" at halftime of a Super Bowl game, Parks says, "Dancing with the Stars is not exactly scepter at the Walters, but it is sensuality that I at least think of as being in the service of art."

Not that everyone will it see it that way, of course, or that every young viewer will have a parent on hand to explain it.

"Now, does ABC know that there are some people who are looking at the bodies of the dancers without thinking of art? You bet," she says. "But in my house, at least, it's encased as art."

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

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