DwtS Extra: Front Row at DwtS

When I envisioned attending a taping of Dancing with the Stars, I never dreamed I’d wind up as a VIP in the front row, seated next to the President of Zambia…

What makes me a VIP? Well, nothing, except that I know some very generous people. Imee DuBose, webmaster of StrictlyCheryl.com and MOIB’s occasional behind-the-scenes reporter, had arranged for four seats to the show in the name of Dr. Kenneth Kaunda, the former President of Zambia. When his party only needed three of the seats, Imee graciously submitted my name for the fourth.

Dr. Kaunda, an 82-year-old ballroom aficionado, was in Los Angeles representing the Kenneth Kaunda Children of Africa Foundation. His organization works to end the scourge of poverty and AIDS in Zambia, and he was brought to California to address those issues by Project Concern, a not-for-profit organization working globally to prevent disease.

But Tuesday night was for lighter things, like watching celebrities dance.

I arrived at the CBS Studios at 3:05 p.m. PST. Once past security, my husband/chauffeur, Greg, dropped me off at Studio 46. I got my hand stamped and turned over my cell phone and camera to the security agents guarding the audience holding area. While seated on a bench, I started to get the feeling I wasn’t in the right place.

I was with the general audience (gasp)!

So I grabbed my electronic devices, headed around the corner to the VIP entrance, and checked in again, receiving a red Dancing with the Stars stamp on the inside of my wrist (so it wouldn’t show up on camera, I presume). I was handed a bracelet allowing me access to the Green Room after the show, and I stood in line with my fellow VIPs, waiting to enter the studio.

Other folks in line with me included a couple of contest winners from Nebraska and the mother of one of the camera operators.

During this time, I called Shawn Ruggiero from Project Concern, who assured me that Dr. Kaunda was on his way to the show, and that I was welcome to wait for them to arrive before entering the studio.

I checked with Heather the Audience Coordinator, and she told me I’d be seated with Dr. Kaunda at one of the floorside tables across from the judges. I decided to wait a bit longer for my companions, so I found a bench in front of the studio entrance.

As the VIPs with whom I’d been waiting filed into the studio, I noticed that it wasn’t until after 4 p.m. that the celebrities — like Ryan Seacrest, Elizabeth Berkley, and George Lopez — started to arrive. Just because they’re rich and famous, they think they’re entitled to skip the lines. They’re right.

Taye Diggs arrived and joined up with three gorgeous, thin, young women in short dresses and high heels — the kind of women you want to hate on principle. After checking IMDB, I’m pretty sure that one of the beautiful girls was Diggs’s Day Break co-star, Moon Bloodgood.

Then Adam Baldwin (one of Hollywood’s few non-Baldwin Brother Baldwins) showed up and joined the unofficial Day Break cast party. I confess that, at the time, I was secretly perturbed that Baldwin couldn’t psychically sense how much I’d liked him on Firefly. Some part of me expected him to come over and talk to me about the show. Not that I would’ve been able to speak.

It was closing in on 4:15, and I decided to enter the studio and find my seat. I stopped in the ladies’ room to ditch my nylons, which had inevitably ripped. Besides, it was 95 degrees in L.A., and no one else was wearing them anyway.

A page took me to my seat at the back of one of the floorside tables. I know it was my seat because it had my name on it. It seemed gauche to put the sign with my name on it in my purse. But, in retrospect, odds are pretty low that Elizabeth Berkley would have outed me as the Midwestern plebeian who stole the sign with her name on it. I should’ve taken it.

Noticing that I was alone at my table, a kind soul named Bill Virchis — who was sitting with George Lopez at the "Fans of Mario Lopez" table — took pity on me. Bill’s involved with the production of the upcoming Tango Ball in San Diego, and he was Mario’s high school wrestling coach. We talked about the studio’s deceptively small dance floor, and the special efforts the lighting crew takes to make sure the floor doesn’t reflect light into the dancers’ eyes.

During our conversation, Heather the Audience Coordinator came over and told me that she and her crew were rearranging some seats, and I’d be moving to the front of the table, right next to the dance floor.

It seemed to me that Heather and her crew have one of the hardest jobs at DwtS. Celebrities arrive later than the rest of the VIPs and regular guests, and it’s Heather’s job to make sure that there are good seats available for the bigwigs, but that none of the seats near the floor go empty if those bigwigs don’t show. She’s constantly considering possible scenarios, and adapting as necessary.

As I moved to the front row, I shot Bill a terrified glance, and he encouraged me to just have a good time.

Space near the dance floor is at such a premium that my legs were tucked behind a huge light fixture at the edge. My chair was placed right next to the one reserved for Dr. Kaunda, and there was just enough room to my right for a cameraman to sneak in between my seat and one at the next table.

It was already 4:30, a half hour before showtime, and barely half of the VIP table seats were filled. I was still the only attendee at my table.

Around that time, the warm-up emcee came out to entertain the audience and get us in the flow of the show. He introduced the judges, specifying that we give an especially huge welcome to Len. Apparently Len was concerned that Bruno and Carrie Ann had been getting bigger rounds of applause of late.

The judges took their seats and began looking over their notes. Len took a swig of Red Bull and then handed his can to Bruno for a sip.

Tom and Samantha came out next, and her dress was so long that she couldn’t walk without holding up the bottom of it.

When Bruno and Len left their seats for a few minutes, Tom sat in Len’s chair and talked to Carrie Ann. Even though I couldn’t hear the conversation, based on the hand gestures, I could tell that Tom was doing a dead-on impersonation of Len.

As we got closer to showtime, the remaining celebrities took their seats. The seats at the back of my table were occupied by sportscaster Rich Eisen and his wife.

Finally, at 4:55, President Kaunda and his two guests arrived — the last three VIPs into the ballroom. Tom came over and said hello, and then it was time for the show to go live.

A camera panned my row of tables as the whole studio audience clapped. This footage was inserted at the end of the dancer introductions, and then saved as insurance. It could be edited into the Pacific Coast broadcast in the event of a wardrobe malfunction.

The show began with 20 minutes of performance footage from past Results Shows, which we were able to watch on screens to the side of the stage. During the commercial breaks, the emcee acknowledged people in the audience celebrating their birthdays, including Samantha’s handsome husband, who probably sneaked into the show under his wife’s dress.

When the dancing finally got underway, the show was amazing. The colors are bright, and everyone looks fabulous. Little details, like the way the fabric in Cheryl’s Waltz gown never seemed to stop moving, jumped out at me.

Cheryl and Karina are both gorgeous in person, and all the dancers have perfect skin. But what blew me away was Edyta’s smile. Her smile lit up the whole room, and it never once faltered — whether she was on or off the dance floor. If I could emulate any of the pros, I think I’d pick Edyta, because she always looks genuinely happy.

During the commercial breaks, everyone cleared the dance floor. Tom often ran up to some seats to the right of the judges, where professionals Nick and Tony sat alongside some of the makeup artists. When necessary, the makeup techs sprinted from the audience to apply touch-ups to the hosts, stars, and judges.

Speaking of the judges, Carrie Ann had a rough night. The emcee encourages the audience to boo when they don’t like a judge’s comments, and Carrie Ann didn’t shy away from offering criticism, earning her the loudest boos.

Because the hosts’ and judges’ microphones aren’t amplified in the studio, the booing crowd couldn’t hear any of Carrie Ann’s positive follow-up comments. In the case of Mario’s Cha Cha Cha, everyone was surprised when she ultimately gave him a 10.

As soon as the show was over, the press descended on the dance floor. Tom and Len immediately went backstage and changed into jeans, while Bruno, Carrie Ann, and all of the dancers were interviewed. Samantha started her second job of the evening, interviewing her castmates as a correspondent for the E! Network.

Post-show dance floor

After retrieving my camera from security, I met up with Cheryl’s mom, Sherri Burke. When I introduced myself, she hugged me as if she’d known me for years. I think she gives everyone that impression. She knew all the security guards and pages by name, and she mingled effortlessly. It was almost as if she owned the studio, and we were her guests.

Sherri was accompanied by the Mayor of Atherton, California, Charles Marsala. He was happy to chat for a while, until he had to run off to his second shindig of the evening: Governor Schwarzenegger’s victory celebration.

Kathy, Sherri, and Mayor

Season One champ Alec Mazo was there, but I didn’t approach him, because he is very handsome and I am a coward. I did get the chance to talk with Music Director Harold Wheeler, who is quite handsome in his own right — just not Mazo handsome.

Mr. Wheeler said that the band has been rehearsing nonstop since the season began. Once the season ends, he expects a two week period of complete relief, until he starts to miss DwtS, which he said always happens.

It took over an hour for Emmitt & Cheryl to finish all of their interviews, and Cheryl had less than a minute for a few pictures, before she was whisked off to another media photo shoot.

Kathy and Cheryl

Now that the cast interviews had ended, the lights in the studio were turned off, signaling that it was time to head to the Green Room.

Sherri, Mayor Marsala, and I walked up to the Green Room for something to drink. Nick Kosovich was there, looking as "Nick" as you could possibly imagine: tall, suave, holding up a drink, and surveying the room with detached amusement. He was like an Aussie version of William Powell in The Thin Man movies.

Deciding I’d used up enough courage and karma for one evening, I called Greg for a ride back to our hotel. (Thanks to our Slingbox — which lets you connect to your home cable via the internet — Greg had watched the show’s live feed from a nearby Starbucks.)

We picked up a couple subs for dinner and arrived at the Ramada in time to catch some of the tape-delayed West Coast broadcast of the show. Tom introduced the President of Zambia, and I witnessed my television debut.

Kathy, Kaunda, and Lopez

(Thanks, Uncle Stu, for the video capture!)

As for who will win Dancing with the Stars 3, I have no idea. I generally don’t believe in momentum in sports, but I do think that Emmitt & Cheryl are the popular choice now and could have the edge.

But, after seeing the show live, I have a new appreciation for Karina. She’s such a talented dancer that, if she can create a superb freestyle routine, she and Mario have a good shot.