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Peta Murgatroyd — Ankling Her Way to Ballroom Stardom

dancing-with-the-stars-543After studying ballet for 12 years, since the age of 4, Peta Murgatroyd had ambitions to be a prima ballerina with a major dance ensemble.

     That plan was derailed when Peta injured her ankle while dancing.

     “I could no longer go en pointe,” says Peta by telephone from San Diego, where she was rehearsing to go on tour with Derek Hough and other of her “Dancing with the Stars” co-stars in a show conceived by Louis van Amstel called “Dancing with a Twist 2.” Peta and Derek would be partners in their numbers.

      “A ballet dancer who cannot stand en pointe is not going to find a lot of work, so I had to quit ballet.

     “That didn’t mean I had to quit dancing. I was 16 and loved to dance. I saw there was a salsa class being given at a recreational center near where I lived in Perth, Australia. (Peta was born in New Zealand, but she moved with her family to Australia at age 4 and identifies as an Australian.)

      “I took the class, and I was dancing again. I loved it. I began studying more dances with a mind toward enrolling in ballroom dance competitions. Ballet gives you a strong core. It teaches you discipline, flexibility, and strength, three things I look for and try to teach all of the partners I’m assigned on ‘Dancing with the Stars.’

       “With my ballet background, I took easily to other forms of dance. I was used to responding to music, and the rhythms also came easily.”

        Peta says the reason she took ballet lessons was because her mother took her for them when the family moved to Australia.

        “It was what little girls did. Boys played sport. Girls went to ballet class.

        “What mother could not know is how much I’d love dancing and that I would be taking classes 12 years later.”

        Peta took to ballroom dance with the same alacrity she did as a child to ballet. Within months of taking that initial salsa class, she was performing in competitions and getting noticed for her style.

         Success in competitions led to Peta being noticed by casting agents for “Burn the Floor,” an hit musical that has toured internationally since 1999 and has been lavished with praise in London and New York as well as its country of origin, Australia. “Burn the Floor” featured all of the classic and Spanish dances that are included in international competitions. The show brought Peta Murgatroyd to Broadway, an experience she continues to describe as a pinnacle of her career.

        “Dancing on Broadway was my dream, even in the days when I thought I would arrive in New York as a ballerina.”

         Peta made a splash on Broadway in 2009 in one of “Burn the Floor’s” most dazzling numbers, a rumba called “Weather Storm,” in which she is the lone female dancer performing with several men. The remarkable thing is Peta is blindfolded. The skill, and the trust, that went into “Weather Storm” made it a highlight of ‘Burn the Floor” and earned Peta attention and ovations from more than the New York audience.

        “I finished every performance on Broadway and went home wondering how I was going to top the experience of dancing in a Broadway theater. That was my dream. Here I was at 23, and I had accomplished what I thought would be the highest achievement of any career.

        “Performers are always challenging themselves. That’s one of the beauties of ‘Dancing with the Stars,’ isn’t it? I adored going to stage every night, yet I wondered what I would have to do next to top the dream I was living.”

         The answer came in the form of another proposal from a casting director who saw Peta do her blindfold dances.

         “‘Burn the Floor’ was set to close on Broadway early in 2010. Shortly before the last performance, I was offered the chance to join the cast of ‘Dancing with the Stars.’ I don’t have to tell you how long it took me to say ‘yes’ and sign the contract,”

        Peta’s first season on “Dancing with the Stars” was the show’s 13th and began airing in the fall of 2011. Her initial partner was the professional basketball player, then called Metta World Peace, and the couple was the first eliminated  in that season.

        Peta was luckier her second time around. She was assigned football star Donald Driver, and the pair prevailed above all other couples to win the “Dancing with the Stars’s” ultimate trophy, the Mirrored Ball.

         Athletes in general, and football players in particular, have usually been successful when competing on “Dancing with the Stars.”

         “That’s because they’re accustomed to taking direction and being coached,” Peta says.

        “Donald was amazing. He learned dances the way he learned plays on the football field. He always mastered his steps, and he always did his homework.

         “Athletes tend to have the three things I mentioned when we first talked about dancing. They are disciplined, they are flexible, and they are strong. They have the stamina to go through a rehearsal period and to do the dance in performance. They are accustomed to doing their job with tens of thousands of people watching them. Dancing is a good fit for them.

        “The important extra is rhythm. I can tell the minute I meet a partner what I have to work on first, the minute I see him move, actually. Usually, it’s rhythm, seeing how he responds to music.

        “Also early on we work on flexibility. For some reason, men have a problem with flexibility. Often, they have none. A football player like Donald gives you a bit of a headstart in that area. He knows how to move.

        “Oh, and there’s the big question, the first question, ‘Do you know your left from your right?’ You’d be surprised at how many people don’t. Especially men. I tell my partner, ‘Ok, the dance begins with putting your right foot forward two times, like this, right foot, right foot.’ Then he begins moving, and I have to say, ‘No, the right foot. Stop. I want you to begin with your right foot. The right foot!  That one, there!’

       “I have been luckier than some of my colleagues in the men I have been assigned. I have never had to deal with anyone who said he wouldn’t take orders from a woman, let alone a 27-year-old woman who is younger than he is. So far, I have not been partnered with anyone who would not at least try to do what I asked. Starting every Tuesday, when we begin preparing for the next show, everything is intense. There’s no time for coaxing or being a nursemaid. I have been fortunate in not having to deal with uncooperative partners. But other have. It’s unfortunate, but it happens.

        “I think the public understands the amount of work that goes into a preparing for and doing a performance each week. What they don’t know, what even surprised me, is how much the professional dancers are responsible for doing.

         “Every Tuesday, I have to construct a new dance. The rules dictate we are not allowed to ask for help with the choreography, but the choreography is only one part of the job.

         “Each professional dancer chooses the music, blocks out the set, and designs the costumes for that week’s dance. There is a wardrobe person you can consult, but that is the only help you’re allowed. Everything else is up to the choreographer to decide and to make happen.

         “Every Tuesday during a season, the process begins again. Once I know the dance my partner and I will be doing, I go about choosing the music that goes with the choreography I envision.  A recent change in policy helped in this area of the show. We can now use canned or recorded music for our dances. Before, we had to use the band and the singers that work on the show. I love working with them, but we don’t get to rehearse with the band until the Monday the show is going to air. Sometimes their rhythm is different from the recording I used in teaching the dance to my partner and rehearsing it. I have danced enough to adjust, but it is difficult for the partner. The difference usually throws him off. The new policy makes this easier. If the dancer is uncomfortable with the band, I can go to recorded music.

       “Costumes and sets are also part of my job. Yes, when my partner dances without a shirt, that is my choice.

       “I love dancing and making dances. And I love challenges, so I am suited to all that is involved with being a professional dancer on ‘Dancing with the Stars.’

        “I also enjoy dancing with the male professional dancers. My partner in “Dancing with a Twist 2” is Derek Hough, and I can’t wait to get on stage each night and dance with Derek.

        “Usually when we are on break, I like to rest and lower the level of tension. But I’d be kidding myself if I said I didn’t like to work and that I especially enjoy performing for a theater audience. Hearing that Derek would be my partner clinched it.

        “I enjoy all of my partners on the show, but I like the occasional chance to dance with one of the professional men. The funniest times are when one of the men is doing a dance I choreographed. Unlike in usual ballroom dancing, I lead my partner. It works better. The professional men grumble a bit when they first realize they’re doing a dance a woman choreographed and that she will lead. Luckily, they get over it quickly enough.”

      One aspect of “Dancing with the Stars” is the judging. Peta says she takes what the judges say seriously but she plans her dances based on the skill and learning potential of her partners.

       “By the time it comes to the judging, I usually know what each judge will say. Len (Goodman) is looking at technique. Carrie (Carrie Ann Inaba) is looking for feeling. Bruno (Tonioli) is looking for showmanship. As I dance and realize what is going right and what could be better, I picture what each judge will say. Most of the time I’m right.”

       Because of her career, Peta has lived in many places. She says she adored performing in  New York but found the city a little too frantic, a little overwhelming. Los Angeles, she says, suits he because “it reminds me of Australia. It has similar weather, and where I live is only 20 minutes from a beach..

       “Los Angeles can also be fast-paced but not in a way that compares with New York. I like living here.”

       As she did when she was in “Burn the Floor,” Peta looks ahead to the future.

       “The most difficult thing to face when you’re a dancer is you’re career has a limited time. At some point, you won’t be able to do all you could. The discipline, flexibility, and strength that got you attention is harder to muster and doesn’t look as graceful or exciting.

       “It’s a sad fact, but it’s better to own up to the truth and be ready for it.

       “I’m 27, so I’m not expecting to face a dancer’s age issues any time soon. But I will have to face them some day. To prepare, I am taking singing and acting lessons. I would like to return to Broadway some day in a musical.”

        Peta and I did not discuss her personal life. She is known to have had relationships with dancers Damian Whitewood and Maksim Chmerkovskiy. In recent months, she has been photographed as being on the town with her latest “Dancing with the Stars” partner, Brant Daugherty who plays Noel in the ABC Family series, “Pretty Little Liars.”

        In addition to Peta and Derek Hough, the “Dancing with a Twist 2” cast includes “Dancing with the Stars” professionals Cheryl Burke and Tony Dovolani. Others in the company are alumni of “American Idol” and “So You Think You Can Dance.”

        “Dancing with a Twist 2” plays through Sunday, January 26 at the DuPont Theatre, 10th and Market Streets, in Wilmington, Delaware. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m.  Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday. A 5 p.m. show has been added for Saturday, Jan. 25 to make up for a performance that was canceled because of Tuesday’s snowstorm. Tickets range from $85 to $20 and can be obtained by calling 302-656-4401 or going online to www.duponttheatre.com.

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One comment on “Peta Murgatroyd — Ankling Her Way to Ballroom Stardom

  1. Where to Ballroom
    February 27, 2014

    Whoops I think I used the wrong form..let’s try this again.. Although I agree football players are going to have a possible advantage because they are used to being coached I think their bigger advantage on the show is that they have a big and active fan base. I think sports fans identify more closely with their team/athlete. Sure we might like Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie but most of us don’t have bumper stickers and t-shirts and watch them on a weekly basis.

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