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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:

Or during his Olympic eligible skating career:

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

            Torvill and Dean:

Kurt Browning, Paul Wylie, and Scott Hamilton:

Katya Gordeeva:

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?