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Johnny Weir and Dancing with the Stars

            I started watching Dancing with the Stars when Cricket was a puppy, as a way to unwind after her training classes every Monday night. Even after we gave up on the classes – Cricket hated being told what to do – we kept on watching the show and practicing our Waltz and Tango together. In our version of Dancing with the Stars, lifts were always allowed. Cricket thought we should allow biting and scratching as well, but even I have limits.

“Help me!!!!!”

            I’ve kept up with the show ever since, even though I’ve been annoyed by the voting for years, with beautiful dancers being voted off early in favor of crowd favorites without much dance ability. Honestly, I should have given up on the show a while back, but I still love the dancing, and I record each episode so I can fast forward through the silliest parts. When the change in hosts was announced over the summer I was ready to give up again, because you need a host with a sense of humor to puncture the pomp and melodrama of the show, and they went in the opposite direction, but after the entertainment-starved Covid summer, and the announcement that Johnny Weir would be on the show this year, I decided to give it another chance.

Johnny Weir (not my picture)

Johnny Weir is a classical balletic-style figure skater, one of the first openly gay figure skaters, after Rudy Galindo opened that door with a bang in his U.S. Nationals win in 1996. Figure skating, maybe because of its reputation as a feminine sport, has spent many years forcing its gay male skaters to stay closeted, but Johnny Weir, who won his first Nationals in 2004, was ready to be himself, no matter what. I was excited to see how he would handle the ballroom styles on Dancing with the Stars, but especially the partner dancing. And he didn’t disappoint. As the season progressed, I was more and more compelled by Johnny and his partner, Britt Stewart, and how they negotiated their male and female roles, using both their costumes and their choreography to push past the expected into something less familiar and more equal. They were often at the top of the leader board, based on the judges’ votes, but the audience votes kept putting them in danger.

            I never thought I would be this compelled by Johnny Weir. He was always a beautiful skater, but as a young man he could be catty and stinging in his comments about other skaters. And when he pushed boundaries on gender norms back then, he did it in a sort of obvious way, like the teenager and young adult he was at the time. I was always impressed with his courage and his talent, but not his maturity. In his interviews on Dancing with the Stars he explained some of the snarkiness as the result of being a young skater who was surrounded by adults critiquing how he expressed his sexuality in his skating, long before he knew that that’s what he was doing.

            He started to grow on me when he and Tara Lipinski began commentating together at the Sochi Olympics in 2014, as the second team on a faraway channel. I didn’t expect to like their commentary at all, honestly. Tara Lipinski had never been one of my favorite skaters (as a Michelle Kwan fan, I am still bitter about the way Tara-the-jumping-bean came in and won so easily). But Tara and Johnny were fun to listen to together. They were playful and honest, and much kinder than I’d expected them to be. Johnny, especially, was funny and insightful and more compassionate and vulnerable each year. Tara was still Tara, but I appreciated her enthusiasm and how well she responded to Johnny’s playfulness. At some point I decided that if Johnny Weir liked her there might be something there worth liking.

SOCHI, RUSSIA – FEBRUARY 14: Figure skating champions Johnny Weir and Tara Lipinski comment for NBC the Figure Skating Men’s Free Skating on day seven of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics at Iceberg Skating Palace (Photo by John Berry/Getty Images)

            With Britt, on Dancing with the Stars, Johnny was exploring another male/female relationship, based on mutual respect and vulnerability, and quietly breaking stereotypes of what male/female relationships have to be in dance. But I guess the rest of the audience didn’t see things the same way. Johnny and Britt’s last performance in the semifinal was a jazz routine that, to me, seemed to be bursting with hope and strength and trust, but they were still voted off.

            I want to give the audience the benefit of the doubt. Maybe other dancers who made it to the finals had more intense fan bases. Or maybe the viewers preferred to watch the journey of someone with no dance experience, rather than someone coming from a similar field, like figure skating. But I’m afraid the reason Johnny Weir didn’t make it to the finals is simple homophobia, or more specifically, fear of the way he was attempting to widen the scope of what it means to be male. I wonder if people would have been more comfortable with him if he were a transgender woman, or if he had refused to identify with either gender. Instead, he was saying that there are more ways to be a man, and that there are more relationships worth exploring in dance than the heteronormative romantic partnership, and I think both of those things scared people. But, for me, there was something fascinating, and challenging, and full of potential in what Johnny and Britt were exploring together, and I wanted to see that continue. At the very least, I wanted to see their freestyle dance in the finals.

            I missed out on the chance to really see him grow as a professional skater, because by the time his generation retired from Olympic skating, the golden age of professional skating on TV was fading, and the shows that were still on TV were overproduced, with the same skaters in each show, doing programs with the same choreography just set to different music. But for years before that, there were shows and competitions for the professional skaters, where they could showcase their growth as performers, beyond the triple and quadruple jumps. I feel very lucky that I got to see skaters like Torvill and Dean, Scott Hamilton, Katya Gordeeva, Paul Wylie, Kurt Browning and so many others as they pushed skating into new directions. I wished for the same with Johnny Weir’s generation of skaters, but if they were building their artistry in their professional careers, it wasn’t being shown on American TV. Dancing with the Stars was a chance to see Johnny Weir perform as an adult, and I loved that his style challenged my idea of what’s possible and what’s beautiful.

I hope that Dancing with the Stars will learn from this season and find a way forward that honors both the hard work of the dancers and the range of emotion that comes up as they learn how to dance. They’ve created a valuable platform for exposing audiences to all kinds of non-traditional dancers of different sizes, ages, abilities and backgrounds. It’s a show that can be silly and over the top one minute and then deeply resonant the next, and it’s worth saving, but it really needs saving. More than that, though, I just want to see more of Johnny Weir’s dancing. Maybe someone will hear me and give him his own show: a series where he can train with different choreographers and build his style as a dancer, or a let’s-put-on-a-show-in-the-barn kind of show, or a return to the more varied and complex skating shows of the (recent) past. That would be a nice way to say good bye to the toxicity of 2020 and move into 2021 with more hope.

I also think there should be a Dancing with the Dogs spin off, but I’m probably the only one. Cricket and Ellie are skeptical.

“Don’t even think about it, Mommy.”

Just in case you didn’t get to see Johnny Weir on Dancing with the Stars: https://youtu.be/jTLtCj-Hcj4

Or during his Olympic eligible skating career: https://youtu.be/5FVrjUIcCuQ

            And, just because, here are some of the great performances from those professional skating shows:

            Torvill and Dean: https://youtu.be/4OWk5a0I1BA

Kurt Browning, Paul Wylie, and Scott Hamilton: https://youtu.be/QCapfwISfAU

Katya Gordeeva: https://youtu.be/QdkFS3R30-8

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

About rachelmankowitz

I am a fiction writer, a writing coach, and an obsessive chronicler of my dogs' lives.

62 responses »

  1. That was a fun trip down ice skating lane; thank you! So many hours I spent watching the competitions to choose Olympic teams, then the winter Olympics, ice skating my favorite sport. That video of Torvill and Dean was magical.

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  2. I really have enjoyed Johnny Weir. I did not see any of Dancing with the Stars. I am also happy to see you have Torvil and Dean in the selection of things to see. I was still living in England when they were skating and it was very exciting!

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  3. Thanks for the link to Johnny’s dance. We don’t see the USA’s Dancing with the Stars in Australia.

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  4. I love Johnny Weir. I didn’t keep up with Dancing with the Stars this season–but I could see how what you are saying could be true. Great post!

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  5. Excellent, as always! Plus a video of Torvill and Dean… Shavua tov!

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  6. There are similar dance shows the world over but I don’t watch because it’s rarely the best dancers who win. I thought Jonny Weir was a fantastic skater and it’s interesting to hear your considered take on him. It’s a shame that so many sportspeople have to suppress their sexuality to fit in, even now.

    PS I think Dancing with Dogs would be a massive hit!

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  7. I’ve never really watched talent shows with singing and dancing. It’s great to know you really enjoy watching these sorts of shows.

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  8. Thank you so much for this article!! I remember the name popping up somewhere, but it’s been a long time since I watched the Olympics (the winter olympics have never been my favourite for some reason). His dance is great, but I watched his Jive performance afterwards, and I have to say that I loved that even more, because it’s obvious that he is having a blast, and his partner as well! Jive is so fun to watch anyway and he is so comfortable in his body and with how he expresses himself, and it’s just beautiful. It’s a shame he got voted off for sure!

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  9. We have the same show here, but it is called ‘Strictly Come Dancing’. My wife loves it, so we watch it on Saturday nights during its season. I often get annoyed that talented people are voted off in favour of ‘sympathy contestants’. (We have had one with one hand, and another with one leg) This year, they had a female boxer dancing with a female professional. They didn’t mention if the boxer was gay or not, but the couple suddenly had to withdraw when the professional tested positive for Covid-19. I couldn’t help but think that was vey ‘convenient’.
    Best wishes, Pete.

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    • Wow! I remember hearing that there had been discussions about same sex couples on Dancing with the Stars, but nothing came of it. We also have a show called So You Think You Can Dance, for aspiring professional dancers. On that show they’ve started to experiment with same sex couples, but generally not in romantic situations. Societal change takes an incredibly long time.

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      • In the show ‘Dancing On Ice’, there were two openly gay men. It didn’t really cause a fuss at all. They did well too.
        ‘Dancing on Ice star Ian ‘H’ Watkins has made a huge vow ahead of the talent show final. The former Steps star, 43, is more than determined to win the show with his partner Matt Evers and become the first same-sex couple to do the Bolero in the final.’

  10. My appreciation of figure skaters began in 1965 (I believe). Winter Olympian, Peggy Fleming was touring after the 1964 games. Her troupe stopped in Lincoln, Nebraska. Our family saw her skating performance at Pershing Auditorium. She was so graceful and quick.

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  11. Whay a well-written and interesting piece (as always, Rachel). I noticed how you “explained” the possible motivations of the audience without attacking, criticizing or justifying them. I don’t have network TV – just Roku with a few paid channels like Netflix and Amazon Prime – so I am looking forward to following your link to watch Johnny on Dancing with the Stars when I get home with our little away time and have decent internet!

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  12. Rachel, You and I are on the same page regarding figure skating in general, Tara in particular, and Johnny and Tara as commentators. I started watching Dancing with the Stars 8 years ago and now only watch sporadically, so thanks for the link to Johnny’s jazz number.

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  13. Hi Rachel! I used to watch Dancing with the Stars too, but now I don’t have cable. I always thought the judging got a bit much too, but the dancing is great. I am curious what two gay dancers would look like and yeah, how do you define who is the female? What is gay anyway? And right now I am dog sitting my mom’s rescue from Cuba. She has been a lot of fun to have around all weekend. She looks at me with dreamy eyes sometimes like she is in love with me, lol! Too bad, a man isn’t more like a dog…

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  14. If you’d like to see another insanely talented skater, I’d recommend Yuzuru Hanyu from Japan. Arguably the greatest male figure skater of all time; ridiculous number of world championships and gold medals. One favorite is his short program to Chopin’s Ballade No 1 at the PyeongChang 2018 Olympics. His memorial tribute and fund raising skate to people lost in the 2011 great tsunami (which affected hm directly) is also a personal fave: search YouTube with “hana wa saku” and “Hanyu” to watch.

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    • I haven’t seen him skate yet this year, but two Olympic gold medals make him pretty noticeable. Johnny Weir has done a bunch of skating tours across Japan so he’s a big fan of Yuzuru Hanyu himself.

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  15. I go definitely go for “Dancing with the Dogs”! My mother while she was still w/ us taught our lab to dance. The dog was enormous and Mom tiny. But they had a blast together. ❤

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  16. This may be your first post in the years I have read you where I don’t know a single thing about what you are writing. I love to write a thoughtful comment each week, but you have stumped me. Any time you want to write about the “Great British Baking Show,” however, I will be right there!

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  17. I used to love watching the ice skating and ice dance championships. We saw Torville and Dean on their Let’s face the Music tour of the UK. Fabulous.

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  18. If you like dancing dogs, you must see this: https://youtu.be/lpdZFvB4-oM

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  19. Sorry, I haven’t watched TV at all for almost a decade…

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  20. It’s called Strictly Come Dancing in the UK, but known simply as ‘Strictly’. We had a same sex couple this year, with Olympic Gold medallist, Nicola Adams paired with a female dancer. To be honest, once they started dancing you just focused on them dancing and the fact that they were two women was irrelevant. There is a tendancy here to have the ‘comedy’ contestants kept in for much longer than they should be as lots of people like them. Thanks for the brilliant links – always good to see professionals at the top of their game.

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    • It sounds like your version of the show is a little more lighthearted and progressive than ours. Maybe the American producers can learn something. In the meantime, I could watch Torvill and Dean for days.

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  21. i am with you about Dancing With the Stars. I got disillusioned two or three seasons ago when they voted off the good dancers in favor of those who would keep people watching. I watched some this season but was not impressed. I moved to watching the Voice instead. Love the real music there and the interesting exchanges between the judges.

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  22. Well, you nailed it, Rachel. I was absolutely shocked and horrified when Johnny and Britt got voted off. His growth during the show was wonderful to watch and I always loved their package at the beginning of the show. You may remember I’m a former professional figure skater so DWTS is a natural fit for me as a fan although I, too, don’t like the fans having all the power. I think the judges being able to have the final say this season was a good start. I also agree that homophobia played a huge part in the results for Johnny this season. On a fun note, we are dog-sitting for Paige Lawrence-Champion who was a senior Pairs competitor for Canada with Rudi Sweigers and they competed in Sochi! I knew a few of the coaches there that Olympics and skaters and it was a happy-tear-filled Olympics for sure. (Paige is married to Richmond Champion, top bareback bronc rider competing in the NFR right now!) Skating has been good to me (I choreographed/coached Paige & her club mates for many years way back when!) Great post. Thanks for your thoughts!

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  23. M’lady watches DWTS devotedly, season after season, so I’ve seen a fair amount of it. I’ve been turned off, and stopped watching much, because of the excessive judging weight given to the ‘fan base’. Even the judges have very often been appalled. It just isn’t fair, but the show runners don’t change the system. Time after time, great dancers (and they’re generally not expected to be professionals) exit the competition long before the finals. I do think the accomplished athletes, such as skaters, gymnasts, and choreographed entertainers (football and basketball players have not necessarily made good dancers) have a distinct advantage over others. Still, the fan base weight, pro or con, is absolutely not fair.

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    • I think part of the problem is that it’s unclear what the competition values in its dancers, and often that confusion comes from the judges themselves. They grade on a curve, depending on background and dance experience, and they automatically grade too low at the beginning of the season and too high at the end. I don’t know if that explains the bizarre fan votes, but it does muddy the waters.

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  24. Lulu: “I hear that Mama and Dada, being longtime ballroom dancers themselves, were so infuriated with the voting on the first season of ‘Dancing with the Stars’ that they never watched another season of it. Sounds like it hasn’t changed much!”

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    • It’s so sad. Some of the dancing is so beautiful, and the chance to learn about the different styles of dance and watch the professionals is wonderful, there has to be a way to make it work.

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  25. Like you, I’m nota Weir fan. I’m also not a Dancing With The Stars fan since they took Juliet Hough from dancer to judge. I also hate the camera angles and cut aways when the dancers are doing their thing, so I was very surprised to say that I like the dance routine you included. I thought his movements were less in sync than they should have been given his history as a skater, but… as he was always a soloist, and meant to be the star, I guess that would account for the lack of synchronicity in some of the more pronounced moves. Thanks for this post. Very interesting.

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  26. This was written for me! My thoughts exactly about johnny Weir. I started watching DWTS when my mom was alive and it gave us something to talk about on the phone the next morning (back in the days of Marie Osmond fainting). And it seems i’ve never stopped even though i keep threatening to. It has lost something this year but i admired how well they did in spite of the year of Covid. I feel pretty convinced homophobia did Johnny in. He wasn’t a nice funny, easy gay, but one who challenged even those now accepted norms, and i think that was too much for the audience. But hopefully like shows such as Will and Grace, he startedd getting pepole just a tiny bit more comfortable with something they are not used to. Thanks for writing this.

    Reply

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