Take two parts ballroom dancing, one part celebrity watching, one part live television mishaps, sprinkle in a dash of glitter and a pinch of schmaltz, and you've got "Dancing With the Stars." The ABC reality show in which relatively famous people are paired up with professional dancers and judged on their ballroom skills was a sleeper summer sensation when it premiered in 2005 and now, after eight seasons, seems to be as alluring and sparkly as ever -- with 20.3 million TV watchers tuned in last month to see Olympic gymnast Shawn Johnson vault over French actor Gilles Marini to take home the title.
Mirror ball trophy aside, this is a show on which everyone wins. The stars have an opportunity to increase and maybe extend their luster. The pros get exposure to about 20 million burgeoning ballroom fans a week. And the viewers are treated to folks -- decked out in an inordinate amount of fringe and spray-tanned to the hilt -- trying to shake it to the beat.
"You have these celebrities that have had no dance experience dance in front of millions of people, and it's also a live show, so whatever you see on the television screen is what you get," said pro dancer and two-time "DWTS" winner Cheryl Burke. "It makes it really exciting to see how they transform into dancers in just a matter of weeks."
"You're also trying to dance and have a fun time, a great time, and entertain America," said Season 8 champ Johnson. "There's a lot to it, more than just winning. But that's definitely icing on the cake."
Season 8's rating success -- its Monday night performance episodes boasted the show's best total viewership in three seasons -- could be attributed to the tight competition among the contestants. "There were so many good contenders," said Johnson's partner, Mark Ballas, also a two-time winner. "And it was all in fun, and everybody got along really well and were supportive and great, but it was like full-on gladiators going on."
Also piquing interest was the season's ever-growing roster of the dancing wounded: Two contestants dropped out -- singer Jewel and "Access Hollywood's" Nancy O'Dell -- and were replaced even before the competition began. "I think it just shows us how physically demanding dancing is," said executive producer Conrad Green. "We're going to look at putting a limit on their training in those first couple of weeks."
All those injuries didn't hurt the ratings, however. In fact, the off-screen drama led to the series' best premiere ever. "I mean, yes, more people became aware of the show because they thought the show was in peril, but that's not how we set out to do it," Green said.
Each new season, the producers make small adjustments to keep the show fresh and the viewers tuned in.
Some tweaks, such as the introduction of new dances, were integrated as seamlessly as a well-executed waltz. Others, such as the much-heralded dance-off between the bottom two contestants, stopped short of expectations. While Green explained that the dance-off was meant to be a way to give stars one last chance to improve their scores, "as it was on the show, it was kind of mixed," he admitted. "I mean, there is an awkwardness in watching the worst dancers compete."
More successful was the competition within a competition, in which a new set of pro dancers vied for a guaranteed spot next season. "It's tough being a new dancer on the show . . . it takes a while to blend in," Green said. "The public votes for you to come in, so that gives you a bit more confidence. We're definitely looking at potentially doing that again next season."
There are perks to being a pro dancer on the show as well. The more established among them have parlayed their "DWTS" success into other projects. Burke has opened dance centers and established her own clothing line. Julianne Hough has a thriving country music career, and Ballas and Derek Hough have their own band.
With the series' ninth season set for the fall, Green hints at more new twists. "We might open bigger than ever before. We might have a more diverse cast, we might split them up," he said. "It should be quite surprising."
What if the regulars could choose their dream contestants?
"The people that all the pros want would never do it in a million years," said Ballas with a laugh. "I know Derek's like, 'I want Angelina Jolie!' "
As for Ballas himself, "I love 'Friends.' I'm a big Jennifer Aniston fan."
"Bill Clinton," replied Green immediately. "I could just picture him fox-trotting daintily across the floor. People will be fascinated to see him -- but I think he's a bit busy at the moment."