As he was gearing up for the intensive rehearsal schedule that Dancing With The Stars demands with new celebrity partner Florence Henderson, Corky Ballas spoke with me and shared his excitement about the new season and being back on the show. The last time Corky competed was on Season 7 with Cloris Leachman. Corky, the father of dancer Mark Ballas and adopted father of dancers Julianne and Derek Hough, has also trained many of the professional dancers on the show over the years, which makes him - in a very real way - the 'Father' of Dancing With The Stars.
Corky grew up in a total dance environment. His father, George Ballas Sr., owned and operated the largest dance studio in the world, Dance City USA, located in Houston. Corky's mother was a famed Flamenco Dancer who appeared in many films and studied with Carmen Amaya. Corky started out on the dance floor at the age of six, and when Saturday Night Fever hit, he became a complete fanatic for couples dancing. "I was kind of born into it, that's true," he agreed. "The great John Travolta is responsible for getting me into the dance business because I used to go to all those disco competitions, every night I had a disco partner."
When the disco fad eventually died out, Corky wanted to continue with competitive dancing. He decided to tackle International Latin Style Dancing at the ripe old age of 22. "They said, oh you're too old, you have to start when you're six, so you know what? I said I'm going to start now and see what happens...I went at it full blast." He became the undefeated U.S. International Latin Champion, not once, but seven times.
Corky's primed and ready for the 11th Season of Dancing With The Stars, which had the second highest audience in primetime last season (American Idol was the only show rated higher). "It's always exciting at the start of a season," he said. "It's great to be on the show again." How does it feel to see the show get to its 11th Season? "I think it's amazing - I've always said that the dance business as we know it has been a sleeping giant. The reason I say that is you see gold medal athletes, football players, struggle, you know, and just because we're in rhinestones and tails, that doesn't mean we're not athletic." Corky believes that part of the show's massive appeal is that "we all have our moments in the shower...people can see themselves inside of these celebrities trying to learn how to dance."
When we spoke, Corky had just started working with his new partner, Florence Henderson - America's Mom. Did she have any dance background, I asked? "Well, you know background in dance is not the same as background in ballroom dance...This is a whole different kettle of fish, ballroom dancing." That being said, "I would say her biggest strong point is her ability to focus, and she's determined and she's doing really well, actually. It's a little too early to tell how well we're going to do but so far so good!"
Corky trained not only his son Mark Ballas (who is paired with Bristol Palin this season), but also Chelsie Hightower (paired with Michael Bolton), Anna Trebunskaya (paired with NFL Star Kurt Warner), Karina Smirnoff (paired with Mike "The Situation" Sorrentino), Tony Dovolani (paired with reality TV star from The Hills, Audrina Patridge), and his adopted son Derek Hough (paired with Jennifer Grey who famously starred in the seminal film Dirty Dancing). Let's do the math - that means that out of 12 couples, 7 of the professionals learned competitive ballroom dancing from Corky - more than half.
How does it feel to compete against your kids, and the dancers you trained? "Well, that's an amazing feeling. You know, I'm not trying to compete against them. I'm just enjoying the process and it's great to be on the set with Mark and Derek...it's neat to be in the mix with all these guys again," said Corky. "Our little nest of people is very small so we all know each other very well on that set."
Unlike other reality competition shows, Dancing With The Stars has never seemed to have the bitchiness and backbiting other shows suffer from. Instead, there seems to be a real camaraderie and supportiveness between the dancers. I asked Corky if what I perceived from watching the show was actually correct. "That is absolutely one hundred percent true. We all like each other, we all respect each other. Life in the dance world is so small that we can't really afford to be tacky. We all support each other, we help each other, and that actually makes it even more fun...it's a good setting."
Corky's son Mark is Bristol Palin's dance partner. I asked Corky what he thought about Bristol as a competitive dancer. "I think Bristol's going to do pretty good. She seems to be very open minded, you know, she's 19 and as long as you try that's all that counts...I'm looking forward to see how she develops, that is going to be very interesting."
How about Mike "The Situation" Sorrentino? "I have a feeling he's going to be really good for some reason. I don't know why. That's just my gut feeling - I think he's going to be coordinated." As far as the professional athletes on this season's docket (Kurt Warner, Rick Fox), Corky agreed with me that their athletic training might hinder rather than help them. "I do think it's a little harder for these guys. Again, I haven't seen them dance but also they're big men...it's harder for the bigger people to move gracefully but it'll be something to see."
Corky's life has been a textbook example of the lesson that if you believe in yourself, you can achieve anything. When he was told he was too old to start dancing competitively, he says, "I just had blinders on. I didn't look to left or right, I just kept my eye on the target. It worked for me, I think that works for all of us. You know, what you focus on is what you become." Always a good lesson to keep in mind from this world class dance teacher and professional dancer!
The Season Premiere of Dancing With The Stars airs on ABC tonight, Monday September 20 at 8pm ET
Visit learning2dance.com for free dance lessons from Corky Ballas