Carrie Ann Inaba
Carrie Ann Inaba

During my conversation with Dancing With The Stars judge Carrie Ann Inaba, we mostly spoke her language, the language of dance. In that respect I felt almost as though I were a translator, converting all of my questions into this universal expression that everyone can relate to. Dance and movement spans across every socio-economic and cultural cross section and brings joy to so many, a notion that Carrie Ann Inaba has centered her life’s work around. It was inspiring to step into her vantage point for a bit.

With a dancing and performing career spanning two decades, and a resume sprinkled with projects that include working with Madonna, Mike Myers and Keenen Ivory Wayans, Inaba has certainly earned the right to assert her strong but fair opinions as the sole female judge on Dancing With The Stars. Carrie Ann Inaba is tough and honest but also encouraging. Celebrity contestants and their professional dancing counterparts on Dancing With The Stars want to impress Inaba during each performance. Her seal of approval has meant quite a lot over the past seven seasons.

With an eighth season headline making cast that is more diverse and outrageous than ever before, Carrie Ann Inaba is anxious to see what this new crop of celebrity contestants can produce on the dance floor. (Allison Kugel): As a judge on Dancing With The Stars, when do you find out who the new celebrity cast will be each season?

Carrie Ann Inaba: One year I did the announcements so I found out ahead of time, [but] I read it online with everybody else. When you find out who the cast is, do you already start sizing them up in your mind, deciding what you think each contestant will be like during the show?

Carrie Ann Inaba: I can tell you who initially excited me, because we haven’t had that sort of person on the show before. Lil’ Kim I’m really excited to see, and Steve-O. Oftentimes in the past they’ve used certain archetypes. This time they’ve kind of gone beyond the archetypes that they’ve normally used, like an athlete or a very young up and coming star, or an older seasoned star. This year I feel like they’ve kind of broken the mold and gone for some unique and very interesting characters. Outside the box.

Carrie Ann Inaba: Yeah, they’re definitely going outside the box, and I think that keeps it exciting for our viewers, and it certainly keeps it exciting for me as a judge.

Bruno Tonioli, Carrie Ann Inaba, & Len Goodman of Dancing With The Stars
Bruno Tonioli, Carrie Ann Inaba, & Len Goodman of Dancing With The Stars Are you allowed any contact with the celebrity contestants during the rehearsal period, or in between performances?

Carrie Ann Inaba: Nope. In fact our trailers are outside on the other side of the parking lot at the studio where we tape. We’re not allowed in the building while they’re rehearsing and we’re kept very far away from them. And we have different makeup artists and different hair people to keep us separate. Once in a while when we’re walking to the stage there’s this little, sort of bottle neck area where they’re coming from one direction and we’re coming from the other direction, and sometimes it’s awkward. Can you at least say hello?

Carrie Ann Inaba: Yes. I used to be nervous about saying hello. I didn’t know if we could, and then I realized, “Ok, I know it’s a TV show, but I have to be a polite human being and I have to say hello.” Is Holly Madison replacing Jewel as a contestant this season?

Carrie Ann Inaba: I haven’t heard anything. We’re kind of the last people to know anything, so you’ll probably know before I know. She’s adorable. If so, that would be great. I don’t know though. When you’re judging these celebrities, obviously they’re not professional dancers, so are you judging them on talent or are you judging them more on their overall effort and commitment to the piece they’re doing?

Carrie Ann Inaba: Over the seasons, the celebrities themselves, I find that their level of talent has increased and grown. I think that in general the American public has also grown with the show. People have more knowledge about ballroom dancing. Although I mostly judge on their effort and what they bring to it, you have to include the technical aspect. We don’t measure them up to ballroom standards. In the ballroom dance world there are different rules. We don’t follow those rules exactly because this isn’t a ballroom dance competition, officially. It’s a dance competition that is centered around ballroom and Latin dancing. This year we’re adding more dances. We’re adding the Argentine Tango and East Coast Swing. What do you look for in a performance?

Carrie Ann Inaba
Carrie Ann Inaba

Carrie Ann Inaba: Do you have a couple hours (laughs)? I look for the overall immediate reaction. Does it look like it’s put together? Does it look like it’s a cohesive piece? Are they doing the [correct] technique? Are they leading with the heal or the toe? Are they turned inwards, and where is the weight placed? And then you look at how it’s all working. I look to see if they’re really pushing their limits. This show is about pushing your limits, and if you’re just coasting it doesn’t really work. Some people have natural charisma and I will say that that’s an advantage, because if you have that charisma you can hide a lot of flaws. But as the competition goes on, you can’t win just based on charisma alone. Have there been any celebrities where you can tell they were giving 100% but they had two left feet; they just didn’t have the dancing gene?

Carrie Ann Inaba: Yes, I think Kenny Mayne (an ESPN fixture) was somebody who was definitely giving at least 300% and had about 15 feet (laughs)! He fell in love with [dancing]. He just wasn’t born to do it. If there was a famous politician version of Dancing With The Stars, like “Dancing With The Political Stars,” which political figures would you love to see as contestants on that show?

Carrie Ann Inaba: Oh My Gosh, what a great question! Well, of course I would love to see our President, Mr. Barack Obama be one of the contestants. I think that he’s got natural grace and natural elegance, and has a beautiful stature. And he’s up for a challenge, obviously. I would love to see Arnold Schwarzenegger get up there, our Governor (Governor of California), because he’s such a different body type and he’s so physical. That would be a completely opposite end of the spectrum type of competitor. I think he’s very competitive, and ballroom dancing is very prevalent in that culture (Arnold Schwarzenegger is Austrian). I’d also like to see [Rudolph] Giuliani. He would be really interesting out there because he’s got that New York attitude, and I think that he can give Len (Len Goodman, a fellow judge on Dancing With The Stars) a little bit of healthy discussion out there on the dance floor. And you know what? I would love to see Hillary Clinton out there. There’s something about her. She is a powerful woman, and I think she is somebody who knows herself and is very comfortable being who she is. She’s not afraid to give it a thousand percent and she’s not afraid to step out of the boundaries and really push the envelope, obviously by being the first woman to run for President. I think that kind of energy would be great on the dance floor. What did you think of President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama’s inaugural dance?

Carrie Ann Inaba, Len Goodman & Bruno Tonioli of Dancing With The Stars
Carrie Ann Inaba, Len Goodman & Bruno Tonioli of Dancing With The Stars

Carrie Ann Inaba: I didn’t watch it. Everybody was asking me about it, and then I think I made it such a priority that I over worried about it and forgot to watch it. I saw it on YouTube. I didn’t actually see the first airing of it, but I did see how they danced. He’s casual. He’s very comfortable in his skin, and she’s so elegant. Let’s talk about your career because you’ve done so many different things. Back in the 90s when you were a Fly Girl on In Living Color, what did you learn from the Wayans Brothers about the entertainment industry?

Carrie Ann Inaba: We were pushing the envelope [with In Living Color]. It was the first multi-cultural show that was comedy and skit driven. I was really impressed with Keenen and his brothers for what they were doing. They were saying that comedy spans across all cultures, and it was a sort of equalizer. What was beautiful about that experience was that they also incorporated dance into that whole experience. They cast us Fly Girls as a multi-racial group. It kind of started to set the trend in [music] videos and on concert tours, that if you hire dancers you hired one Asian, one Puerto Rican, one African American and one Caucasian woman. I think the Fly Girls, and this was Keenen Ivory Wayans’s vision, was a multi-racial group that looked like girls that you saw on the street. We weren’t all stick figure, model thin. We were, in my opinion, normal approachable looking girls. I thought that was fantastic and I realized that he was breaking barriers by doing that, and it was quite an honor to be a part of that. Plus, they were also bringing hip hop into the mainstream. When Rosie Perez, as the choreographer, came in she was bringing moves that were straight from the clubs. They didn’t have names for them. We were all jazz dancers and she was trying to teach us all these street moves. She couldn’t speak our language. She didn’t know how to say “pirouette.” In fact, she called it a “porette.” She’d say, “Do a little porette.” (Laughs). We were sort of a commercialized version of [hip hop], and it introduced it to the mainstream in a palatable form. And the concert tour that you did with Madonna, The Girlie Show tour, how did that job come about? And what was your reaction when you found out you got the job but you had to shave your head and pole dance topless?

Carrie Ann Inaba: That was an interesting job. I was assisting a choreographer at the time and he was up for the job, and I was all over his demo reel. Madonna had her brother call me. He was working with her at the time directing the tour. They said, “We’re going to be in New York. Please come to the audition in New York.” I said I couldn’t go to New York and then they said, “Ok, well we’re coming to LA. Will you come to the audition in LA? You just have to meet Christopher (Christopher Ciccone, Madonna’s brother).” I said yes and I booked the job. On the last day of the auditions they had us all line up and Madonna walked down the line and she hand picked each one of us. Right after she did that, she turned to us and she said, “Are you guys willing to shave your heads bald?” And I was like, “Yeah!” (Laughs). You didn’t even hesitate.

Carrie Ann Inaba
Carrie Ann Inaba

Carrie Ann Inaba: No, I didn’t hesitate. You don’t get experiences like that very often. I’m kind of one who goes for the experience. I really believe you’re born to have experiences and to have adventures. I thought, “When else are you going to have the excuse to shave your head bald and get away with it?” And so I did. Then [Madonna] said, “I want you to do a pole routine. You’re going to come down a fifty-something foot pole by yourself and start off the concert, just you.” I think inside I wanted to cry because I was like, “I’m gonna open Madonna’s tour by myself on stage.” I was honored and I was very young and eager. She said, “It requires a lot of arm strength.” So I started doing push ups. But it was the best experience in the world. Then the day came when they had to shave our heads and I cried (laughs). It’s still traumatic any way you slice it.

Carrie Ann Inaba: My mom was recently diagnosed with breast cancer and she shaved her head bald. Now we’re laughing because her hair is about a half inch long now, and we’re sharing stories about how it grows back uneven. I’m going through that with her, so in a way, I sort of feel like it was my path. Tell me about some of your charity work.

Carrie Ann Inaba: I was just asked to be spokesperson for a wonderful foundation called The Andrea Rizzo Foundation. There’s a woman named Susan Rizzo. Her daughter was Andrea Rizzo, and she was a pediatric cancer patient. [Andrea] believed that her healing came because she also did dance therapy during her treatment. As a young adult she was studying to become a dance therapist so she could give that gift back to children. Unfortunately, she was killed in a terrible car accident. Her mother carried on the flame and created a foundation called The Andrea Rizzo Foundation which gets funding for dance therapy programs for special needs kids across America. It’s a dance movement therapy program with certified movement therapists. Any patient with cancer, when they’re diagnosed they sort of lose the sense of ownership over their body, and the freedom that we all take for granted of having a healthy body. Mattel Children’s Hospital here in Los Angeles just started the program with us. I went to the first session and these kids came into the room with their IVs on. Some of them were actually getting the chemotherapy treatment, some of them couldn’t make it down to the room because they just had bone marrow transplants and their immunity was low, so we went up to their rooms and worked with them individually. We just give them the gift of movement. We start the session asking them how they feel and then by the end of the session we ask them how they feel again. You can see the transition that happens in just one hour of movement therapy. Why do you think there has been a resurgence of dance genre shows on television over the past couple of years?

Carrie Ann Inaba: It’s been shown throughout history that whenever a country, or at least America, is going through tough times the entertainment industry booms. And really, what is entertainment? In my opinion it’s good old fashioned song and dance. People love to watch people singing and dancing. In other cultures it’s an expression of joy. In America, we haven’t really defined ourselves culturally yet, and I think right now we need to experience a little bit more joy. There’s so much emotional tension right now with the economic times, and people are so uncertain of their future. I think they just want to sit and watch and be entertained, and not think negative thoughts. Dance and music do that, and I think they both work together. Dance doesn’t exist without music, so we have to give credit back to the music industry as well.

Carrie Ann Inaba
Carrie Ann Inaba What is it about the combination of dancing and falling in love? Because there have been a few romantic hook ups on Dancing With The Stars.

Carrie Ann Inaba: You’re moving your body in these ways that are primal and oftentimes very sensual, and let’s look at these dancers (laughs). They’re quite beautiful and they’re very in tune with their bodies. The journey of Dancing With The Stars is such a profound one. I’ve spoken to many of the celebrities after they’ve been through the competition and they’ve all spoken about how profound it was, and how it changed their lives in ways they never expected going into it. You go through that intense experience with somebody and you’re constantly interacting with them physically, and oftentimes in a very sensual manner. It’s no surprise that hookups happen. What feels more like your main calling, dancing or doing choreography?

Carrie Ann Inaba: I have to do both. Half of me has to be in front of the camera performing because it’s almost like food for my spirit. There’s a dialogue that happens when you perform, between yourself and the audience. It’s exciting and exhilarating and you don’t know what’s going to happen. You have no control over the moment. It’s very spontaneous, just like life. The choreography and producer side of me likes the feeling of control. Right now, I’m getting ready to choreograph The Kid’s Choice Awards (Nickelodeon’s Kid’s Choice Awards airs March 28, 2009), the finale number. It’s so much fun, because I haven’t had a lot of time to do choreography work and I miss it. I get to create what the world is going to be on the stage for those two and a half minutes, and direct everything that happens. And if I didn’t have to perform I would probably live, eat and drink potato chips.

The eighth season of “Dancing With The Stars” premieres Monday, March 9th at 8/7c on ABC.