'Dancing With the Stars' Sees Pushback From Fans About Contestants' Dance Training

Kristyn Burtt

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Photo credit: ABC/Eric McCandless.

"Dancing With the Stars' already wrapped season 29, but one particular controversy is continuing to echo on the ballroom floor beyond the show. Fans are criticizing producers for continually downplaying a celebrity's dance training before they enter the competition. They think it creates an unlevel playing field — and one season 29 finalist agrees with this assessment.

Nelly, the singer who placed third in the competition this year, revealed that his lack of training made the season even more difficult than he anticipated. He found the entire experience "bittersweet" because the odds were stacked against him the moment he signed up for the show.

"Of course you want to win," Nelly said to 'Entertainment Tonight.' "You've been doing this for three months, you've been putting yourself through training that you've never had a day in your life, you're trying to go against people who basically studied this in college."

In season 29, Nelly went up against eventual winner Kaitlyn Bristowe and runner-up Nev Schulman, who both had professional training.

The hardest part about the prior training issue is that "Dancing With the Stars" often downplays the fact that many contestants come in with top-notch experience, not just childhood recreational dance lessons. It's an aspect that has plagued the reality competition show for years.

When the show began in 2005, the contestants were taught pure ballroom technique. As the format evolved over the years, the styles became more ballroom fusion, while adding jazz and contemporary dance into the mix. With those dance-style lines blurred, casting for the show attracted more celebrities whose careers involved a high-level of performance. In Season 10, there were loud cries from fans about how unfair it was to cast Pussycat Dolls singer Nicole Scherzinger, who eventually won the show.

“This Nicole Pussycat person won. Imagine that? A professional dancer won ‘Dancing With the Stars.’ This is why I do not watch it anymore," Season 8 contestant Gilles Marini told Page Six in 2010.

Longtime fans have gone on to call contestants like Scherzinger "ringers," celebrities who have a leg up on the competition before the season even begins. There are countless names of former contestants who came to the competition with a highly specialized set of dance skills — from winners like Jennifer Grey to Alfonso Ribeiro. Yet it was Season 24 contestant Heather Morris, who not only drew the ire of viewers, but also another pro.

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Morris had a successful professional dance career as a backup dancer for Beyoncé, a series regular on "Glee" and making it as far as Green Mile on "So You Think You Can Dance." A source told E! News in 2017 that one of the pro dancers on the show "complained that it isn't fair" and the contestants for that season were also uncomfortable with the situation.

"There has been some joking and a little snark about it among the other contestants," the insider revealed. "but it's just because there is literally no doubt she's a professional dancer. It takes the others days or even a full week to learn a routine. She gets it down in a matter of hours."

Of course, the only one not complaining was her partner, Maks Chmerkovskiy, who was excited about the possibilities with choreography. But he also understood the judges would probably be harder on them. "I'm ready for us to be scrutinized a little different and judged a little different and rightfully so, we'll do our best," he explained.

Chmerkovskiy even acknowledged that he's been in this golden position before with his Season 18 partner, Olympic figure skater Meryl Davis. “I won with Meryl [Davis] on the season where there were other great dancers, including her partner who has the exact same training as she has,” he said to Hollywood Life. “That was the most sort of advantageous situation that I’d been in."

The pro mentioned that he had other celebrities who had a natural talent for dance, like season 10 partner Erin Andrews, who he called "amazing." Yet he thinks their run was thwarted by someone with professional dance training — yes, you guessed it, Nicole Scherzinger. He said, "Next thing you know, Derek [Hough] gets Nicole Scherzinger and the competition is over. She’s a singer. Really?”

For what it is worth, Morris didn't make it to the finale and was shockingly eliminated in the sixth week of the competition. The best dancer doesn't always win on "Dancing with the Stars," but the training sure helps.

That's what Nelly was trying to say about the unlevel playing field that the show continues to skirt around. "Why would I get in a boxing match with someone who's been boxing since they were 12? Why would I go play basketball with somebody who played in college? There are certain things that you're basically setting yourself up for?" he told 'Entertainment Tonight.'

Nelly might be underplaying his skills since he did manage to get himself in the finale without ever being up for elimination. The fans responded to his journey of improvement and his fun-loving personality out on the dance floor, so maybe he shouldn't sell himself short. He doesn't want people to underestimate how hard he had to work to even try to compete against Schulman and Bristowe.

"Obviously, it's still a competition and you use whatever you have to win. So it's not a bad thing, it's just a thing," he continued. "So you want to work that much harder because the odds are stacked up against you."

What resonates the most though is the fact that he would "probably not" have said yes to "Dancing With the Stars" producers had he known what he was up against during the season. Will ABC think about this element of the show when they cast for another season? Probably not. The show is looking for newsmakers to draw headlines, so any controversy about dance training only adds to the water cooler (OK, Twitter) talk.

For future contestants with dance skills similar to Nelly, they might think twice about signing that contract on the dotted line. "I just would have liked to have known that coming into it. That's all," he summed up. "You don't want to get sideswiped once you get in."

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Kristyn Burtt is a commercial dance journalist, TV host and producer. She was the West Coast correspondent and host of "To the Pointe" on Dance Network for five years. Her coverage of "So You Think You Can Dance," "Dancing With the Stars" and "World of Dance" is popular with dance fans across the globe. Kristyn's love of dance began early in her life. She trained at the Boston Ballet School, danced with Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre in "The Nutcracker" and won a dance scholarship to New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, where she graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts. She currently serves on the American Dance Movement’s Marketing & PR Committee and is a member of the Television Academy and SAG-AFTRA.

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