Dancing with the Stars concluded last week with Kristi Yamaguchi and Mark Ballas crowned as the new champions of ballroom. It was a very exciting season of mambos and tangos, lots of injuries and tons of high-level ballroom dancing.
What’s great about Dancing with the Stars is that we can all play judge from the comfort of our living rooms and call in our votes to the teams we deem worthy of the mirror ball trophy. But let us take a look into the mind of the real judges. Carrie Ann Inaba was kind enough to talk to BuddyTV and share her expert thoughts about this past season. She talked about the judging process, which dancers really impressed her, and what a heel lead is and how to execute one. Below, you will find an audiofile and a complete transcript of the interview.
This is Debbie at BuddyTV, and today, I’m talking to Carrie Ann Inaba, one of the judges for Dancing with the Stars. Hey, Carrie Ann.
Hi. How are you?
I’m good. So, it was quite a season! Were you pleased with the outcome of the season?
Yes. I was. You know, I’m always pleased with how things turn out on that show because I think it’s such a great experience to have the judges vote as well as the audience vote. And I’m never disappointed, and this year, once again, I was not disappointed. And I was really happy that Kristi [Yamaguchi] won.
Yeah, Kristi and Mark [Ballas], just right out of the gate, they were really great. You know, at least on TV, it looked like they were just so much better than the competition. What was it like live?
I think that throughout the competition, it was pretty close between Jason [Taylor], Cristian [de la Fuente] and maybe Mario, and Kristi. Those were the top four couples. And then, the last night of competition, when they did the head-to-head cha cha, where they all danced part of one routine to the cha cha, you really got to see that Kristi was kind of head and shoulders above the rest, you know? She made it very obvious that she was the one who deserved to win the competition.
I don’t know if this is accurate, but I got the feeling that maybe you guys were giving the rest of field higher scores to make it look like Kristi wasn’t as good. Was there any of that going on there?
No, not at all. I think everybody deserved their scores. What happens is, when they do their routine alone, like not like the cha cha where they were all part of one routine, you get to factor in, sort of, their personality, how they do the whole performance. There are a lot more elements that come into play when you give a score. But when you’re all doing the exact same routine and the exact same dance to the same song, you really only notice the dancing. Like, none of the other, sort of, emotional factors with their performance or the way they are able to get the crowd going, all of that, sort of, goes away and it really just becomes more about the technique and the actual dance of choice. That was the cha cha.
Which other teams really surprised you?
Which other teams surprised me? I was really surprised by Cristian. He was having a hard time until he hurt his arm and then, I guess, by hurting himself, he got very focused, and he was able to channel all his energy into not letting his partner Cheryl [Burke] down. People do amazing things when it’s about not letting somebody else down, and he knew that Cheryl really wanted to win the three-peat, so I think he gave more than he would have normally.
Yeah, it was so shocking when he got hurt. Have you heard if he’s alright, if he’s had his surgery yet?
Well, I got invited to a Dodgers game last Saturday, which was the Saturday after the show – no, Sunday – after the show. And I know he was supposed to have surgery Friday, and I hear he attended the game. I wasn’t able to because I got sick, but I guess that means that he’s okay.
Oh great! That’s great to hear.
Yeah, I know. I was really happy. Because you don’t anybody to hurt themselves in the long-term just because they were on Dancing with the Stars. It’s supposed to be all in fun.
I really like that segment they had one week in which they focused on you and Len [Goodman] and Bruno [Tonioli], about how difficult it was to score the routines. And so, I just wanted you to maybe give us some insight on judging. Like, what do you look for in a good routine? What do you automatically deduct points for?
Oh, as far as judging goes, all three of us come from a slightly different background, so it’s all slightly subjective, and we all have different points of view. But the things that we were all the same on, I always take a point off if there’s a lift, an illegal lift. Always, no matter what, because that’s part of the rules. Of course, because we’re out there and it’s live, we can do whatever we want. Bruno is a little softer on the lifts. Len and I are a little harder on the lifts. As far as technique, they must have the proper technique for that dance.
But the way I factor in technique is, technique is the means to give an amazing performance. So, you have to have enough technique mastered to be able to give a fantastic performance. If you don’t have enough technique to do that, no matter how great and how entertaining that performance is, you’re never going to get a 10. And also, the same goes for the other way. You can have amazing technique, but if you do not, sort of, entertain the audience and connect with them, I will not give you a 10.
And to me, every single partnership out there starts off with – what’s the word? Like, everyone has their own different 10. Everybody’s 10 looks different from the next person because each person comes with their own set of attributes. I don’t know, it’s very difficult to tell because I have so much experience working with people. I can kind of tell when somebody is reaching their full potential, or when they’re just shying away from it, or they’re just kind of relaxing. And on Dancing with the Stars, it’s all about pushing your potential.
Somebody like Marissa [Jaret Winokur] can get a 10 if she really maxes out her potential. It may not look like Kristi’s 10, but that’s her 10. So I feel that everybody who comes to the floor has an equal opportunity of getting a 10. They just look different.
That makes sense.
Yeah, I think it’s fair that way, too.
Yeah. And I have to ask, what is a heel lead?
What is a heel lead? [laughs] OK. With your foot, when you lead – how do you explain it? It’s so hard. I’m showing you right now with my foot but it’s hard to explain. OK, the ball of your foot is underneath your toes. For the first part of your step, you don’t want to step onto the ball; you want to step with the back of the foot.
OK, so a heel lead is a good thing, you want to do it.
Yes, for certain dances. Not all dances, so you have to be very careful. You have to check whether you’re doing the quickstep or the tango, or you’re doing the cha cha. There are so many different levels of technique for each one that it’s ridiculous.
Also, before each dance, I review all my notes, and all of us do, actually. All three of the judges review our notes on each dance because there is so much to know about each dance that we have to make sure that we kind of are very clear about which dance we’re judging.
Have you thought about which other celebrities you’d like to see on future seasons of Dancing with the Stars?
You know, I’ve always wanted to see Craig Ferguson because he’s so funny and I think he’s got a great stature for ballroom dancing. I think he’d be really great in the holds, but he’s also really funny and so, for us, it’s kind of fun to have people with a lot of sense of humor. They entertain us out there.
I like seeing people overcome obstacles, so people that you wouldn’t naturally think to be on the show. Like, I loved having Marlee Matlin on the show. She was fantastic and such an inspiration.
Yeah, definitely. And one last question. So, the past four winners, I think, have been athletes. Do you think that athletes just have what it takes to be good dancers?
What it proves to people, which a lot of people don’t know, is that dancing is very, very physically difficult. It’s very challenging in the physical department. I think people think that it’s just a lot of fun when you get out there, but you have to be physically fit to dance well, and I think that’s why the athletes do so well.
On the other hand, I think it’s also because athletes are used to being coached. So when you give them a critique, they just listen to the critique and they go back and they work on it. They don’t get wrapped up in ego or they don’t take things personally as a lot of performers do because the path of a performer is very difficult emotionally. You’re auditioning constantly, you’re constantly getting no’s and you never quite understand why, and it’s a lot harder to make sense of. Athletes just focus on the actual sport, what you’re doing. They don’t take it personally. It’s not about you or who you are. It’s more about what you’re doing. And I think that’s why athletes do so well on our show.
And plus, they’re able to bring a physical energy to the dance floor that a lot of performers do not know how to do, especially actors. Acting is very, very small, and dancing is much larger, and it’s a full-bodied experience. Actors are used to kind of just dealing with their faces, especially if they are television actors. If they’re stage actors, maybe they know how to use their body a little bit better. But when they are stage actors, it’s harder for them to engage their body. So I think that’s why the athletes have a tendency to do better, but you know, I’ll tell you, for the past five seasons, they thought only men could win, and Kristi won. So, I don’t know. You never know what’s going to happen on the next season. It’s all about surprises, our show.
Yeah, I can’t wait for the next season. Thanks so much for being such a great judge and also for taking the time out to talk to me today.
Thank you. Thanks, Debbie. Thanks for having me.
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Photo Gallery: Best and Worst Costumes of the Season
Video Gallery: Five Best Performances of the Season
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-Interview conducted by Debbie Chang
(Image courtesy of ABC)