Dancing with Cheryl Burke

 

Dancing with Cheryl Burke by Barbara Neal VarmaShe's one of the professional dancers on ABC's ratings darling Dancing with the Stars, the one deliciously paired last season with tall, dark and French Gilles Marini of Sex and the City's full-frontal fame. She's the pixie brunette nominated twice for prime-time Emmys for choreography, and who, in back-to-back wins, was DWTS's first two-time champion, partnered with season two's Drew Lachey of 98 Degrees and football star Emmitt Smith in season three.

She's ballroom belle Cheryl Burke and lest anyone think she's done all there is to do on the dance floor, think again. Burke has launched a handful of pro-fitness projects designed to inspire others to get down and get in shape. She's opened three Cheryl Burke Dance studios in California and produced an aerobics DVD series unapologetically dubbed "Disco Abs." Over the summer, Burke signed up to serve as a marketing spokesperson forJazzercise, Inc., the mother ship of dancer-ercise programs that boasts healthy amounts of satisfied customers and fiscally fit profits even after 40 years. "I look forward to working with Jazzercise to promote the value and importance of health and fitness," Burke was quoted as saying in a news release, coming full circle from when young Cheryl would tag along with her mom to J-class." 

These days, an all-grown-up Burke and other Dancing stars and pro partners are entertaining audiences from both the small screen and onstage during the show's post-season promo tours. Yet speaking with her, one gets the sense her focus isn't spot-on the fame. When asked, just for giggles, what other reality series she'd like to be on, she quickly poo-poos the idea. "I don't think of it as a reality show," she says. "It's more like a variety show." Ah…so no auditions coming up for, say, Survivor, then? She laughs. "Oh no. Besides,I'm not the type to go out there and talk about myself. I'd rather be dancing."

Dancing with Cheryl Burke by Barbara Neal Varma

Burke is on the relaxing end of a long-overdue summer break before starting her ninth go at Dancing's disco-ball trophy come September 21. As one of television's latest dance-fan shows to follow in the two-steps of Dick Clark's American BandstandDWTS is breaking ratings records. An estimated 22 million tuned in for last year's season eight finale when Olympic gold medalist Shawn Johnson and her partner, Mark Ballas, won with less than a percentage point over runners-up Burke and Marini. Burke, who's been with the program since it debuted in 2005, attributes its success to good old-fashioned voyeurism of the G-rated kind. "You get to see people who've never danced before yet are willing to give it a try," she says. "And it's a live show. You see everything happen as it happens."Like when Marie Osmond fainted or Heather Mills fell off her fake leg?

"Yeah," Burke laughs - but just a little, careful to laugh with the stars, not at them. No matter how the celebs sink or samba, props must be given to the parade of famous and not-so-famous folks daring to cha cha in front of millions weekly, not to mention the long hours put in off-camera to get the moves just right come judging time. Burke, who's been rumored to be a bit of a taskmaster, says the perfect partner is one who's hardworking but "wants to have fun. Someone who's ready to try something different, something new.

Immediate past partner Marini told KGO TV he has a message for Burke's next Samba-man: "You better be nice, because she takes you there like no one else," he said, prompting the question: takes you where? "I think he meant that he trusted me," Burke says, sounding pleased to comment on Marini's remark. "That if they [future partners] try their best, they will be able to get far in the competition."

It might come as a surprise to many of the estimated 18 million per episode that the pros don't meet their celeb partners until their on-camera first meeting, and they find out who they are only very shortly before. Burke said she doesn't envy the producers' task of teaming up the star talent with the dancers to make a good - and entertaining - match. Nor are the dancers-as-coaches guaranteed their choice of music. "Before the show starts," Burke told AOL Television, "they ask us to suggest about 100 songs so they can get everything [legally] cleared. They are looking for more modern songs that people can relate to or have heard before. Sometimes we get them, sometimes we don't."

That "show must go on" attitude has helped Burke, who celebrated her 25th birthday last May, gather an impressive list of creds at a relatively young age. Ballet began at age 4, ballroom by age 11 and competitions by the tender teen age of 13. Honing her skill in her parents' in-home dance studio while growing up, Burke, who is of Filipino, Russian and Irish descent, went on to be a budding star within the ballroom circuit. In 2005 she was crowned World Cup Professional Rising Star Latin Champion, San Francisco Latin Champion, and the Ohio Star Ball's Rising Star Latin Champion. She was competing in L.A. when Dancing producers first spotted her talented turns and twirls and asked Burke if she would care to dance? For their new TV show, that is? She said yes, and the rest as they say - "they" being the legions of viewers watching and waltzing vicariously from their living rooms - is prime-time history.

Earlier this year Burke, who grew up in the Bay Area burb of Atherton, returned to So Cal to set down roots by buying a million dollar-plus home in the Hollywood Hills. Burke can't hide her new-home buzz when talking about the place, a midcentury modern post-and-beam house with 180-degree views, not to mention two outdoor decks large enough to practice a tango or two during hot summer nights. When asked if it was 1) a planned purchase, 2) a spontaneous buy, or 3) a good investment, her happy final answer was, 4) "All of the above."

Cheryl Burke Dance studios have also taken root in California, debuting in 2008 in San Francisco, then in Mountain View, and, finally, in the O.C.'s own upscale backyard city of Laguna Niguel. All three facilities sport the healthy theme of "Dance for fitness, dance for life," and Burke doesn't shirk on the personal touch, teaching several classes herself at each of the facilities. In the "all in good fun" category, Burke came home to the Bay Area recently to serve as the leading judge at a "Dancing With the Drag Stars" event at her San Fran studio, for once keeping score instead of keeping in step for a Paso Doble. The colorful contestants were judged on their style and skill and their overall performance as a dancing drag queen (a category that hasn't quite made it to primetime yet).

Burke has also spent a fair share of her off-time performing good deeds. Over the summer, Burke was awarded the Tri-Union Diversity Award along with comedian Charlie Hill and actors George Takei and Victoria Ann Lewis for "encouraging children of all ethnicities to express themselves through movement." She and several other show-mates performed on the ABC DWTS float in New York City's Gay Pride Parade - "It was a blast and raised money for a very good cause," she told reporters after the event. Last June, Burke coordinated a charity fundraiser for the Seton Health Services Foundation, raising money for chemotherapy patients via a "Let's Have a Ball" fundraising gala. "My mom, who also loves to dance, used to be a nurse at Seton Hospital so it's very near to my heart," she says, adding with a note of pride that Mom owned her own nursing company, first launched when she was pregnant with Burke.

When in production, DWTS rehearsals often run six to eight hours a day for the pros and their protégés, not to mention the travel associated with corralling the often time-challenged stars to rehearse that week's routines. When Burke was partnered in season five with Las Vegas entertainer and icon Wayne Newton, they visited his desert horse ranch to help him practice taking up the leading man reigns for their upcoming tango. (She and Newton were eliminated from the competition soon after but no one's blaming the horses.) Then there's the rehearsal time itself, which by the celebrities' perspectives can be lightening-round fast.

"Right after the results show, whoever makes it through, they give you your music and your dance for the next week," Burke explained. "So we've got four whole days to learn it, and on Monday we have camera blocking on stage. We have to be ready with our set on Sunday."

It's a rigorous schedule that can often cause one or two injuries if not more per season, especially for celebrity bodies unaccustomed to contorting their limbs every which way while staying in step.

Several celebs such as singer/songwriter Jewel and Access Hollywood host Nancy O'Dell have had to quit the competition before the season began. Others are raced to the emergency room on live TV, the back of their ambulances seen fleeing the scene after a particularly taxing dance maneuver causes a medical mishap.

Even Gilles Marini, to legitimately bring up the shirtless wonder again, suffered an arm injury early last season but carried on despite. During a televised interview, with a sling and cast-clad Marini sitting by her side (he'd had surgery just two days before), Burke said, "He was very tough. He never told me when he was in pain, he just kept going, so I just kept on going."

But Burke and her ballroom buddies well understand the "let's be careful out there" lesson. All the more reason, in fact, for combining dance and exercise. Despite her busy schedule, Burke will continue to pop in and teach a few classes at her studios plus promote her other fitness projects including the workout videos, and the marketing partnerships with Jazzercise, Inc. and Fit Couture. She believes staying on top of her dance and fitness game is important, especially going into what's reputed to be an ambitious Dancing season nine.

The producers and powers-that-be have arranged to have an all-time high of 16 celebrities, with three double eliminations mid-season and four new dances: the Bolero, the Charleston, the Two Step and the Lambada.

Then there's the eclectic list of stars invited to join this year's ballroom lineup including Sharon and Ozzy's daughter Kelly Osbourne, former House majority leader Tom DeLay, and still-dishy singer and entertainer Donny Osmond.

But Burke doesn't let the changes trip her up, be they on the set or in life. "I always knew that I wanted to be a dancer," she says. "I just love to dance."

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