I have had an up and down relationship with Dancing With the Stars since Day 1. I love dancing and have been fascinated with ballroom dance since the Championship Ballrooms specials on PBS. I watched all but 3 seasons (since ABC saw fit to cancel my soap operas, I saw fit to watch episode 1 of season 13 just to get JR Martinez’s number and vote him to the top–then studiously ignore the next two seasons) and have gained a certain affection for many of the pro dancers–particularly those alumni from my other favorite dance obsession, So You Think You Can Dance.
As with all competitions, I watch with a special fascination whenever there’s a black female in the mix; and with DWTS in particular, to see if we get a fair shot at something that’s not necessarily in our traditional ethnic wheelhouse. To date, there have been 14 women of African descent in all 17 seasons of the show (17 if you want to count contestants of Latino and possibly mixed heritage) out of 186 contestants. Most of them had pretty decent poise and ability but only a few have had the combination of skill, showmanship and viewer popularity to carry them to the winners’ circle. Four got very close, and two of those fell just short in second place (Spice Girl and America’s Got Talent judge Mel B and singer/actress Mya, both of whom many thought were robbed). But it wasn’t until this season when firecracker Amber Patrice Riley cha-cha’ed her way to the stage that we would finally see a copper colored gal with a silverplated mirrorball trophy.
This season’s field looked pretty interesting, and I had a slew of sentimental favorites: being a TV kid, I could count Bill Nye, Valerie Harper, Bill “Here’s Your Sign” Engvall, Leah Remini, Christina Milian and Elizabeth Berkeley Lauren as automatic faves, with Jack Osbourne and Corbin Bleu having additional sentimental and “grudge” ties for sister Kelly and HSM castmate Monique Coleman, respectively. And even with my aversion to all things Jersey Shore, how do I NOT pull for somebody short and sassy named Nicole? And all of the above put out some very respectable first efforts on the premiere show. But then, Miss Amber came to the floor:
Hot damn. Not since Mo’Nique and the Big Girls on the BET Awards out-Beyoncé-ing Mrs. Carter have I seen such fierce, confident moves. I had a feeling Amber would be the one to finally break the barrier; after all, she had a good bit on her side–fiercely loyal Gleeks as a strong fan and voting base, a sparkly and engaging personality, and as mentioned, those killer dance moves. However, this was no guarantee of a victory–ask Monique Coleman and Brandy, who despite excellent scores and judges’ critiques and a high level of fan recognition and support, fell short of the finals in 4th place during their seasons. And no offense to Christina Milian–whose dance abilities were just as marvelous to watch–but I figured even the Voice fans were no match for the Gleek Army….plus I had more of a leaning toward Amber because she didn’t fit the model-thin mold or the more universally accepted picture of Black beauty. I probably would have still had that attachment had Amber been a less accomplished dancer than she is, but I would have been fair about her abilities and probably spread my vote with a more able contestant. Fortunately, she was the total package, and despite my fan worship of the other contestants and my being impressed with all of the performances, I felt totally comfortable throwing every possible vote I could in her direction.
Amber danced well the whole competition, though she had some ups and down with injuries and judges’ criticisms casting some shadow on her potential to win. But she kept at it, putting in some better than average performances and keeping out of the bottom with the voters long enough to get through to the semifinal and final rounds of competition. I suppose having then four-time winning professional AND Emmy Award winner Derek Hough as a partner didn’t hurt, but as demonstrated in this incredible freestyle routine, Miss Amber ain’t no slouch herself:
En fuego! She threw in just about every ballroom style she learned, some stepping, some James Brown-worthy footwork AND a lift or two. And it was all casket sharp. I tell you, all three couples in the finals (Jack Osbourne and Cheryl Burke and Corbin Bleu and Karina Smirnoff along with Amber and Derek) did some incredible, eye-popping, well-danced numbers, but this was so tight it could have been a stage show of its own, and on independent view not knowing anything about the contestants you’d be hard pressed to know who was the amateur and who were the professionals.
All of that hard work amidst injuries and exhaustion paid off in a first-ever mirrorball win for a female contestant of color. A well-deserved merit victory for sure, but for girls who have very few positive and motivating images to inspire them, this is a big validation for the average girl. Black girls rock. Big girls rock. And if we set our minds to it, we can do what we dream of.