Denise Neil

The pros are the real stars on ‘Dancing With the Stars’

Derek Hough, with partner Maria Menounos in 2012, is one of the main reasons to tune into “Dancing With the Stars.”
Derek Hough, with partner Maria Menounos in 2012, is one of the main reasons to tune into “Dancing With the Stars.” Courtesy of ABC

The “stars” on “Dancing With the Stars” come and go. And, let’s be honest – in a lot of cases, “star” is a stretch.

The only constants on the ABC dance competition show, which premieres its 20th season Monday on ABC, are the pros – the professional dancers who coach the contestants toward the Mirror Ball trophy.

Each season, I find myself more interested in them than in the B- and C-list stars who get top billing. The pros are the real stars of “Dancing With the Stars.”

I remember the first time I heard the words “Dancing With the Stars.” It was 2005, and a commercial touted the premiere of a new show – a dance-off between a soap star, a sitcom actor, a boxer, a bachelorette, a supermodel and a New Kid on the Block.

It must be a joke, I thought, instantly deciding that a more ridiculous premise had never been proposed. (It prepared my nervous system, though, to be able to accept the far more ridiculous Diving with the Stars, aka the short-lived “Splash,” when it premiered eight years later.)

I cynically tuned in to the first show, prepared to mock it mercilessly. But I couldn’t. I was cha-cha-charmed by the beauty of the various ballroom and Latin dances, which I’d never before seriously studied. I watched, along with the rest of the country that summer, wondering if I could tango if I tried. Most of all, though, I found myself intensely curious about the gorgeous young dancers who were tutoring the stars.

They were beautiful, they were fit, and they had careers in a field that I had never even considered produced careers: professional ballroom dancing. I marveled at the 0 percent body fat on Polish pro Edyta Sliwinska, who was partnered with boxer Evander Holyfield. American dancer Jonathan Roberts, paired with supermodel Rachel Hunter, was a fascinating combination of grace and masculinity.

And the dancing. It was so … sexy.

I can admit when I’m wrong, and I was wrong about “Dancing With the Stars.” I kept watching, and the pros kept getting better. In season 2, Russian studboat Maksim Chmerkovskiy entered the picture. Yes, he was an egomaniac, and yes, he wore his dance pants hiked up far too high on his perfect waist. But he used his sex appeal to make his dances with star Tia Carrere sizzle. Spunky and gorgeous Cheryl Burke showed up that season, too, and her playful “freestyle” dance with eventual winner Drew Lachey to “Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy” set the tone for seasons of freestyle dances to come.

That was also the season we met fiery redhead Anna Trebunskaya and learned that she was married to Roberts. Married gorgeous ballroom dancers? I enjoyed Googling facts about their personal lives as much as I enjoyed saying “Trebunskaya.”

Then, in season 4, “Dancing With the Stars” found Julianne Hough. Oh, how I loved Julianne Hough. She was pretty and down-to-earth and looked great in the show’s skimpy backless dresses. The choreography she came up with for her pro partner, Olympic ice skater Apolo Anton Ohno, was more inventive and edgier than what her co-pros were coming up with.

Julianne had star quality, and she became the first “Dancing With the Stars” professional to translate her gig into outside fame. Hollywood soon snatched her away from the show, gave her a recording contract and starring roles in the “Footloose” remake and “Rock of Ages.” She appeared in five seasons and was gone (she’s now back as a judge), and I would have been more sad than an out-of-sync samba if she hadn’t left her brother, Derek, behind. He joined the show in season 5, and his choreography was even better than Julianne’s.

The romantic story of their lives, leaving Utah as teens to study dance in London with pro Mark Ballas’ parents, Corky and Shirley Ballas, was captivating. (Corky also was a pro on two seasons.) My fandom for the Houghs grew to levels that I actually paid to go see them dance together last year on their tour at Hartman Arena. Worth every cent.

As the seasons wore on, the pros also became the stars of several scintillating love stories, like the sudden engagement of Chmerkovskiy and Karina Smirnoff in 2009. They broke up after just a few months, leaving fans to watch the fascinating awkwardness as they continued to have to work together. (Who hasn’t been there?)

Then there are the implied trysts between the pros and the stars they tutor, which I’ve become more and more skeptical about. It’s easy to imagine these lithe young singles falling in love as they rub and grind their way through daily rehearsals in barely-there outfits. They’re always coy – are they or aren’t they? I’m going with “aren’t” because you never hear word of these intense loves after the Mirror Ball trophy has been awarded. Famous examples: Chmerkovskiy and Olympic gold medal skater Meryl Davis. Pro Peta Murgatroyd and boy bander James Maslow. And most recently, Chmerkovskiy’s younger brother and fellow pro Val and actress Janel Parrish.

Many of the pros have even have been rumored to have dated A-list stars. Last year, there were rumors circulating that Chmerkovskiy was dating Jennifer Lopez. (Is there anyone he hasn’t dated?) And Derek Hough is said to be in a relationship with Kate Hudson.

Yes, the pros are the real stars of “Dancing With the Stars.” Not only are they fun to look at, but they’re talented enough to make performances by the most left-footed stars bearable, just by shimmying around them until the music stops. (I’m looking at you, Emma Slater and Michael Waltrip.)

As season 20 draws near, I am fine admitting that I’ve never heard of nor do I feel any draw to “stars” Charlotte McKinney, Robert Herjavec or Riker Lynch.

But you can bet I’ll tune in Monday to see Mark Ballas, Whitney Carson and Tony Dovolani.

‘Dancing With the Stars’

What: The 20th season of the dancing show, featuring a new cast of stars and several pro favorites

When: 7 p.m. Monday

Where: ABC