Monday, March 09, 2009

Who Knew?

I mean seriously. Who'd have thought that you were more likely to get hurt on a show like Dancing With The Stars than on Survivor?

I think I've been pretty good in not writing about reality shows this year – this calendar year that is – and believe me it's been pretty hard. I mean there's a part of me that has been dying to express my opinion about "Coach" on Survivor (a real blowhard), how the group that Ramsay himself says is the best bunch of contestants ever to appear on Hell's Kitchen still can't cook the bleeping risotto, how the great challenges on The Amazing Race are exceeded only by the colourful locals – who frequently behave like they've been indulging in the local potables – who smile and laugh at the crazy Americans, or how one of my favourite poker players – Annie Duke – has so annoyed Joan Rivers (and therefore endeared herself to us all in the process) that Rivers compared her to Mussolini. But until now I've been holding off, holding my fire for the really bad reality shows that are going to be filling the summer schedule. (Okay, so I'm going to have to make an exception for Chopping Block. The host – Marco Pierre White – was Ramsay's first boss and made Gordon f'ing Ransay cry! And he has the pictures – in his autobiography – to prove it! How can you not write about that!!) Still I can't let the spate of injuries that have plagued the cast of Dancing With The Stars pass without some notice.

Let's face it. You'd expect people to get hurt on a "macho" show like Survivor. They're out there, isolated in the wilderness fending for themselves and then competing in those competitions where people are running and grabbing at each other, so obviously they must be getting hurt. What could happen on a "girly" show like Dancing With The Stars beyond the occasional blister on your heel thanks to an ill-fitting dancing pump?

Ah, but you would be wrong my friends. Looking at the list of serious dance related injuries – injuries that either involved broken bones, forced contestants (celebrities or pros) to leave the show before or during the competition or required them to have surgery after the show – on Dancing With The Stars and you come up with an interesting list:

  • Cristián de la Fuente – ruptured tendon in left bicep; kept dancing but needed surgery after show ended. Season 6.
  • Misty May-Treanor
    – ruptured Achilles Tendon during in rehearsal; forced to withdraw from show. Season 7.
  • Susan Lucci – apparently sprained ankle during rehearsal; in fact she had broken two bones in her right foot. Season 7.
  • Lance Bass – broken toe. Season 7.
  • Jewel – initially diagnosed with tendonitis, later discovered she had broken her tibias in both legs during practice; unable to dance. Season 8.
  • Nancy O'Dell – torn meniscus in one knee; surgery required. Season 8.
  • Karina Smirnoff – professional dancer, suffered neck injury requiring surgery. Season 6.

This doesn't include a number of other injuries that weren't serious enough to need surgery, illnesses, or events that injured participants outside of the context of the competition:

  • Li'l Romeo – injured his leg playing basketball; replaced by his father Master P. Season 2.
  • Marie Osmond – fainted while the judges were critiquing her during a live performance show. Season 5.
  • Jane Seymour – food poisoning resulted in her missing a results show. Season 5
  • Kristi Yamaguchi – injured ankle; did not affect her participation on the show. Season 6.
  • Kim Kardashian – cut her foot on a piece of broken mirror in her hotel room day before being named as a contestant; doctors okayed her to participate. Season 7.
  • Jeffrey Ross – suffered a scratched cornea in his left eye during rehearsals; didn't last long enough to know if it would have taken him out. Season 7
  • Brooke Burke – injured foot during camera blocking rehearsal. Season 7.
  • Maurice Greene – hyper-extended leg during rehearsal for group Paso Doble. Season 7.
  • Kym Johnson - professional dancer, hyper-extended leg during rehearsals. Season 3.
  • Mark Balas – professional dancer, dislocated shoulder during encore dance. Season 5.
  • Derek Hough – professional dancer, injured neck while rehearsing a routine for the results show; forced to miss that night's results show. Season 6.
  • Derek Hough – professional dancer, suffered food poisoning after drinking a protein shake. Season 6.
  • Karina Smirnoff – professional dancer, suffered left ankle sprain in rehearsals morning of performance. Season 7.
  • Derek Hough – professional dancer, blacked out after tripping and hitting his head. Taken to hospital but cleared to continue dancing. Season 7.
  • Julianne Hough – professional dancer, initially thought to be suffering a bad stomach ache, she was subsequently diagnosed with Endometriosis and was required to have surgery to remove her appendix; missed two weeks of dancing. Season 7.

Compare that with serious injuries on Survivor (same definition as for Dancing With The Stars):

  • Michael Skupin – fainted while attempting to start a fire and fell into the fire, suffering severe burns to his hands; evacuated from the show and had to have surgery. Season 2.
  • Jonathon Penner – suffered a puncture wound to his knee, which became infected; evacuated. Season 16.
  • James Clement – suffered an injury to his finger which the medical team monitored; when the risk of infection spreading to the joint of his finger was deemed too great he was evacuated. Season 16.

That's it. While seven people have either broken bones, been forced to withdraw or had to undergo surgery during their time on Dancing With The Stars as a direct result of events that took place on the show or in rehearsals for the show, only three people on Survivor have suffered injuries that were serious enough to get them taken off the show.

The big question is, "why is this happening?" The initial reaction was that the professional dancers were forcing their celebrity partners to practice too hard and for too many hours. According to the show's executive producer Conrad Green, speaking to People Magazine the truth may be quite the opposite: "This is now three fit women, if you include Misty May-Treanor from last season, who had to withdraw from the show. Perhaps people who are fitter throw themselves into it with more wild abandon. I really feel for them and we may need to take a look at [how hard people train] in the future." In other words it is the celebrities, and in particular the fittest of the celebrities, who are driving themselves to over-train for this competition.

There are other aspects at work however. Starting in the fourth season of the show, training time was reduced from six weeks to four. According to The Ballroom Dance Channel
blog the logical result of this is that with less time to learn the same number of steps and routines the celebrities – in particular the most competitive ones, who are often also the fittest – are going to drive themselves to do more, often at the risk of injury. The blog includes an interesting statement by amateur latin dancer and blogger Tonya Plank: "I mean, for the average serious beginner, you'd probably take two hours of intense private lessons per week, then about 10-15 hours of less intense, more social-dance-oriented group classes, and about three or four hours a week on your own. So, they are basically spending about a quarter of the time each day training that these DWTS competitors are." Plank also stated that to achieve the level that Dancing With The Stars wants from the celebrities – what's known as "Open Gold" level – usually takes two to four years for most people, and the celebrities on the show are required to achieve that sort of level in not one but two very different disciplines, which most dancers don't attempt.

Pro-am competitor Jerry Bowman explained his normal training routine involves 45 minute training sessions. There are two types of open –choreographed – competition. One of these involves groups and is what is normally seen on television. The other is a "showcase routine" which sounds very much like what is done on Dancing With The Stars: "This is danced with just you and the pro taking the whole floor and being judged on a graded scale with judges comments. This is a choreographed routine that usually has been put together for an exhibition show hosted by the local studio. It then gives an opportunity for the student and teacher to get feedback on the routine. Because these are done for an exhibition/recital type program and are usually more involved then about 20 sessions are used to prepare the routine." Bowman also mentioned that he personally usually spends as much time on his own practicing the routine, at least for the Open Routines (the group dances). He doesn't specifically mention the Showcase Routines, but assuming that he maintains the same routine for those that would mean roughly 30 hour in total spent training for a Showcase Routine, spread over a period of time. And he is an experienced dancer.

So what is the answer for Dancing With The Stars. While Conrad Green seems to suggest that limits should be imposed on the celebrities the editor at the Ballroom Dance Channel blog suggests that the answer might be to give participants more preparation time – at least in terms of the number of weeks that are available for them to work in – would certainly be helpful. In fact the two ideas could work together; an extended preparation period with limits on the total number of hours that could be spent preparing. On the othe hand this might work against the weaker competitors. I'm just guessing but I think that Steve Wozniak is in greater need of practice than Denise Richards or Ty Murray.

One thing is for sure, after the spate of injuries that Dancing With The Stars has had over the years the degree of fitness needed to do well on this show shouldn't be questioned. It's about more than fancy steps and hard-bodied women dressed a few strategically place feathers and sequins – though Lord know, the latter is why I watch!

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