By: Jaclyn Kotora, Editorial Staff (‘23)
On November 21st, the 31st season of ABC’s Dancing with the Stars wrapped up with a riveting finale to the lively 11 episodes, aired live on Disney+. This ballroom dancing competition show offered a respectable cast, unprecedented representation, high-quality production, touching moments, and breathtaking choreographies. This season showed an inordinate level of vulnerability and emotion when compared to past seasons. Previously, the show seemingly focused on generating drama for viewers; however, this season took a different approach, producing a feel-good show that celebrates the art of dance and the charming cast that makes up the show.
This season offered a charismatic selection of celebrities and pros. Big names like Charli Damelio, Cheryl Ladd, Jason Lewis, Jordin Sparks, Wayne Brady, and Selma Blair, were paired with returning admired pros such as Cheryl Burke, Witney Carson, Val Chmerkovskiy, Mark Ballas, and Sasha Farber. These 16 celebrities fought in their celeb-pro couples for the Mirrorball Trophy, the ultimate prize. The cast was diverse in professions, backstories, ethnicities, identities, and personalities. Stars like Selma Blair, Daniel Durant, and Shangela break barriers and show viewers the definition of strength and perseverance. RuPaul’s Drag Race star, Shangela became the first drag queen to compete on the show, dancing with professional Gleb Savchenko, becoming the first male-male partnership on this dance floor. Meanwhile, actor and CODA star Daniel Durant, who was born deaf, along with his partner Britt Stewart and translator Gabriel “Gabe” Gomez (aka “Team Sign To Shine”) collaborated through language/communication barriers to produce stunning performances every week. Also, this season featured the Legally Blonde actress who continuously left viewers in awe as she pushed past adversity and limitations from multiple sclerosis, an unpredictable disease that affects the nervous system, often causing the body to suddenly experience numbness, tingling, and pain. Since diagnosis, Blair has often used a cane to help her walk, yet she and her partner, Sasha Farber, found innovative ways to perform. Although a beautiful dancer, Blair, unfortunately, had to take an early departure from the show due to health concerns as a consequence of her chronic illness and the toll dancing takes on the body. However, Blair was able to perform one final dance, and eventually feature in an additional dance at the finale of the season, showing her strength in ways more than one, dedicating the performance to “everyone that has tried and hoped that they could do more but also the power in realizing when it’s time to walk away.” The responses of both immense love and grief from the cast upon hearing the announcement of her departure were also quite touching, once again emphasizing the close relationship of the Dancing with the Stars community. Every celebrity had a unique backstory and motivation to compete on the show, and this season highlighted that internal motivation phenomenally. There were so many figures of inspiration, many emotional moments from the heart, and many instances of advocacy and representation, allowing more audiences to feel represented.
The professional judges, Carrie Ann Inaba, Derek Hough, Bruno Tonioli, and head judge Len Goodman, returned for another season. Unlike many of their earlier appearances, the judges were more kind, constructive, and supportive. Perhaps it is due to the greater sensitivity and awareness of the 21st century, even so, it was refreshing to have judges validating and encouraging the dancers rather than continuously putting them down with overly harsh criticisms. Even more importantly, all of the celebrity dancers this season proved that they were willing to put in the hardwork and put their best foot forward, both figuratively and literally, in this competition. Despite setbacks, health issues, and fatigue, all the performers continuously gave their best effort and pushed themselves to learn and improve. The audience could tell that the stars enjoyed dancing and that a nurturing family was forming between the cast.
In addition, the relationships between the couples were intimate, understanding, and genuine. Dance is a sport of vulnerability that requires partners to confide in and trust each other. Audiences also see partners support and empathize with each other through hardship. For instance, pro-dancer Britt Stewart learned how to communicate with Durant through ASL, gaining a greater appreciation for the life of a deaf person while teaching Durant musicality and rhythm, knowing that he would essentially be dancing without music. They even turned off the music during a powerful performance, sending viewers and judges into tears and “give[ing] the audience and the judges an idea of what it’s like to dance from a deaf perspective,” said Durant. Season 31 champions Charli D’amelio and Mark Ballas also exemplified the deep friendships and empathy that stemmed from rediscovering their love and passion for dance together. The pairing put together breathtaking performances that highlight the intricacy, intimacy, vulnerability, and beauty of dance. In addition, it was even rumored that partners Trevor Donovan and Emma Slater were dating due to their intense chemistry on the dance floor. Overall, all the couples were constructive and supportive of one another, and the clear connection between them allowed for a great viewing experience that had watchers rooting for everyone.
In terms of production, viewers have got minimal complaints. The lighting, makeup, music, props, set design, and costumes were phenomenal, complimenting the dances very well. The production efforts throughout this show have been worthy of Emmy nominations and awards in the past, this season was no exception! The production value and quality of the show created a lively, energetic atmosphere that left viewers amazed, yet did not overshadow the performers that make up the production. One of the best performances was choreographed and performed by judge, six-time Mirrorball Trophy champion, and winner of 3 Outstanding Choreography Emmys, Derek Hough. He danced alongside his fiance Hayley Erbert, all the pro dancers, and Michael Bublé singing his new song “Higher” live. The dance amplified how hardworking, talented, and passionate the dancers are and the production value of this show, with mesmerizing choreography, cutting-edge technique, impressive vocals, and noteworthy lighting and filming. This level of quality and creativity was demonstrated throughout the season, especially on the fun theme nights. This year introduced some new themes and brought back favorite familiars, featuring Elvis Night, James Bond Night, Disney+ Night, Michael Buble Night, Prom Night, Stars Most Memorable Years Night, Halloween Night, and ‘90s Night. Also, the show’s live band and musical guests performing on the show adds to the overall quality of the episodes. The music they craft is amazing, as they can replicate popular songs one hears on the radio or TikTok to fit the rhythm, atmosphere, emotion, and overall aesthetics of certain dances such as waltz, Argentine tango, Cha Cha, or contemporary.
Although there is a lot of high praise for this season of Dancing with the Stars, there were also some complaints from fans regarding “fairness”, eliminations, and certain cast members. There was some remaining resentment for Tyra Banks coming back for a third season to host the show, but the introduction of Alfonso Ribeiro as co-host seemed to compliment Tyra’s energy well. However, their commentary was often overly cliche, cheesy, and cringy, whether scripted or improvised. In addition, it seemed like the whole season was a race for last place. From the first episode, Charli D’amelio distinguished herself as a clear forerunner, along with Gabby Windey and Wayne Brady along with their corresponding partners. It was just a matter of who would be eliminated next, not who would be the finalists or champions. Even so, eliminations were arguably unfair and unfortunate, as many talented and motivated dancers were let go too early in the season. For instance, actor and bodybuilder Joseph Baena, son of Arnold Schwarzenegger, was eliminated in the 6th episode, despite having higher scores than two other couples and being a fan favorite. Baena demonstrated his passion for dancing and exhibited continuous progress throughout the season, so when he was eliminated early in the season, it gave viewers quite a shock and caused some controversy. Similarly, Jordin Sparks was also eliminated shortly after Baena in a similar fashion, with Vinny Guadagnino outliving a majority of the couples on the show despite producing some of the lowest scores of the season and lacking clear progress and talent. To give Guadagnino credit, however, he was loved by fans and earned popular votes for his charisma and the energy he brought to the dance floor. Still, it is regrettable that better dancers have to get let off the show before getting the chance to prove themselves and develop into more skillful dancers. One last criticism was in terms of the judging. There was some favoritism revealed both in their comments and scoring, and occasionally sob stories found themselves getting higher scores despite final results and technique. The judges seemed overly cautious and hesitant about giving criticisms to the celebs in the conscience of being booed by the in-house audience. People booing in response to constructive criticism from the judges was simply annoying when the judges were simply doing their job and respectfully providing feedback.
The show wrapped up with a few shocking announcements and some exciting news for the future. For one, the iconic Len Goodman will be retiring from Dancing with the Stars after 17 years. Despite having a reputation for being a harsh judge, Len is truly admirable and respectable. In the end he was extremely likable due to his dedication to both the show and ballroom dancing. Thus, this announcement sparked tears, well wishes, and praise toward Goodman from his fellow judges, dancers, and audience, and their gratitude for his influence on the dancing world was shown through heartfelt video messages during the season finale.
This year the show also announced that Dancing with the Stars will be going on tour for the 2022-2023 year (more info at https://www.dwtstour.com). Some tickets and venues are already sold-out in anticipation of viewing electrifying dance performances and meeting celebrity guests and world-renowned dancers. And to wrap up this 2022 season, Charli D’amelio was announced as the champion of Dancing with the Stars. Although Charli exhibits natural talent, stirring some resentment over her arguable advantage, it became apparent how much work she put in, and she deserved to win.Season 31 of Dancing with the Stars had viewers falling back in love with the show. The show simultaneously offered an escape from reality to enjoy the arts, as well as a glimpse into how reality affects individuals in their personal struggles and the groups they identify with. Every Monday and/or Tuesday DWTS fans get excited to watch the latest episode due to its “feel-good” nature and figures of inspiration and admiration as they put their emotions out on the dance floor. Although an immensely difficult sport, if one is looking for an expressive outlet, dancing is a great way to channel your energy positively, dive deep into your emotions, and bond with peers. To watch professional and naïveté dancers pursue this in Dancing with the Stars was a touching marvel.