Eight hours of practice and an utter lack of common sense have brought me here, poised to descend 19 steep steps to the ballroom floor of "Dancing With the Stars."
I lean heavily on a backstage railing, hyperventilating, and await the cue. Outwardly, I have undergone the transformation from entertainment reporter to salsa dancer, ready to perform before a live audience in strappy heels and a zebra dress with a plunging neckline and beaded fringe that sways with every teetering step.
Inside, I am a knot of anxiety.
I ask my professional dance partner, Jonathan Roberts, whether he'd be able to carry me down the stairs should I faint. He laughs and says there's a bucket at the bottom in case I feel sick.
As the audience begins to applaud, Roberts takes my hand and we make a grand entrance. Mercifully, the lights blind me to the 720 people seated in Studio 46 in the Fairfax district -- and to the panel of three judges who will evaluate my performance. Paddles and all.
Host Tom Bergeron greets us onstage and asks: "What possessed you to do this?"
It started as a dare.
A few months ago, an ABC network executive told me about a team-building exercise he'd gone through: a crash course in ballroom dancing similar to what the celebrity contestants on "Dancing With the Stars" endure. He challenged me to take the same test of stamina and nerves, and I quickly accepted. Having never watched the network's top-rated show, I had no idea what I was in for.
"Dancing With the Stars," whose ninth season concludes Tuesday, chronicles a 10-week competition between dance pairs, each consisting of a professional dancer and a celebrity. Every week, the pros teach their partners a waltz, fox trot, cha-cha or other dance routine, which they perform live on Monday nights before the judges. The couples are scored on technique, footwork, posture and overall theatricality. Then viewers vote by phone or online. The results are revealed live on Tuesday nights, when contestants with the lowest scores are eliminated.
Camera crews capture the whole stressful stew: the six- to eight-hour rehearsals, the frayed nerves and the sheer nakedness of stepping outside one's professional comfort zone.
I agreed to five days of training over two weeks, about the amount of time the pros and their partners have to master a new routine. At the end, Roberts and I would perform before a studio audience. The only difference was that our Latin number would not be broadcast to 17 million viewers.
Like the musicians, entertainers, sports figures and others who risk their dignity on "Dancing With the Stars," I had no ballroom training. I'm also bereft of coordination, and worse, I'm a control freak who can't allow a partner to lead.
So it was with more qualms than confidence that I arrived at Roberts' optimistically named You Can Dance Ballroom Studio in Hermosa Beach on a Thursday afternoon last month to start training.
Roberts, the 2008 U.S. and world smooth ballroom dance champion, is regarded as one of the show's most talented and patient instructors. He tells me we'll perform the same salsa routine he danced in fall 2007 with singer Marie Osmond -- "minus the fainting," he adds, referring to the entertainer's on-camera collapse after a dizzying samba.
It soon becomes clear that I have my own issues. My posture is rigid, my movements stiff, like the toy soldiers in Tchaikovsky's "The Nutcracker." Balance is another challenge. I'm taking awkward giant steps, instead of the dainty ones called for, and it throws me off-balance, making me sway precariously -- and I've not yet strapped on my 2 1/2 -inch Latin heels.
Roberts and I spend 90 minutes walking through the opening of the dance, in which we circle one another and cast suggestive glances. Later that night, I watch Osmond's performance on YouTube and come to a disconcerting realization: We'd spent an hour and a half learning 21 seconds of a dance that stretches on for another minute. We hadn't gotten past the easy introductory part.
What have I gotten myself into?
I arrive at the studio at 9 a.m. Friday, over-caffeinated, eager and an hour early. Roberts greets me with the news that he's cut the routine down to 50 seconds.
He takes me through the three major sections. Then, he adds a new element: music. We've been rotating around the dance floor, counting out the steps to a 1-2-3 rhythm. Adding the brisk "Mambo No. 8" -- even at a radically slowed tempo -- proves overwhelming. I lose count and forget everything we've just rehearsed.
Roberts talks about the importance of using mnemonic tricks to recall the segments of the dance. Typically, women construct a narrative -- you're rejecting me here, you're drawing me in there, you're stopping me now -- to carry them through. Alas, I'm one of those people who learns through repetition. He says this means we'll be dancing the routine over and over, until the salsa becomes a reflex.