Back in March, Derek Hough was on the set of NBC’s “World of Dance” as the competition series wrapped up its fourth season, squeaking out the finale episode just before productions shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“We actually pushed the finale a day early, and then they decided to have no audience for the finale,” Hough told Variety. “Because it was like a last-minute thing, we didn’t even know. It did feel a little weird in the ballroom, in the room. But the magic of television to create that energy [with] pyros, sound effects and all these different things, you can still capture that energy.”
Now, Hough joins the judging panel of ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars” alongside Carrie Ann Inaba and Bruno Tonioli. (Longtime head judge Len Goodman is stuck in the U.K. due to travel restrictions, but the “Dancing” team says they’re working on ways to incorporate Goodman into the show). Hough will be sitting eight-feet apart from his fellow judges at a newly redesigned table, which is one of the features of the ballroom’s new look.
“It’s not even like a COVID-safety thing, it’s just a physical safety thing because, between Bruno waving his arms and me waving my arms, I’m actually very similar in the way that I’m very physical with my movements… we’d be just be hitting each other,” Hough jokes. “For me, the one thing I would kind of miss if I was a pro and if I was teaching a celebrity is [for] the celebrity to feel what it feels like to dance in front of — even just hundreds of people — just a live audience. There’s something really special about that,” he explained. “But for the people at home, you’re not going to feel the difference.”
But that doesn’t mean the six-time mirror ball champion didn’t have questions about how the ABC series planned to pull off a COVID-safe dance contest before signing on for the show – it is a contact sport, after all. And he wasn’t alone. Rob Mills, ABC Entertainment’s SVP of alternative series, specials and late night programming, says the pandemic had made casting this season both easier and more challenging.
“There was certainly a fair share of celebrities, who rightly so, said, ‘I’m really nervous about the business and it could be interesting next season but don’t think I can do this right now,” Mills recalls. “But most people, I think especially after hearing how the precautions and the safety measures that were being put in, were game.”
He adds: “Somebody like A.J. [McLean] or Nelly, they can’t go on the road, so this is a perfect time for them where they’re sort of around, and this keeps their visibility up, so I think that for most people, that was the case. So, in that respect, it was great.”
Rounding out the list of competitors this season are Carole Baskin, Monica Aldama, Jesse Metcalfe, Anne Heche, Johnny Weir, Vernon Davis, Kaitlyn Bristowe, Justina Machado, Charles Oakley, Jeannie Mai, Skai Jackson, Chrishell Stause and Nev Schulman. And regardless of the pandemic, Season 29 of “Dancing” was going to be different, with new host and executive producer Tyra Banks stepping into the ballroom.
“I think change is a challenge, right?” Banks says. “I’m new, like people don’t connect me to ‘Dancing With the Stars.’ They do now, but I have to earn that audience’s trust.”
She continues: “I have to show that I can be trusted — that I’m going to entertain them, that I feel them, that I see them. That I respect what this show is, but it’s time for them to come on this ride, so we can all take it up a notch. So that’s the work that I have to do. And I’m up for the challenge.”
But for now, Banks, who serves as executive producer alongside Andrew Llinares, is focused mostly on those safety precautions.
“I had a taste of the safety protocols while shooting the commercial promos,” Banks says. “Arriving to set, staying in my car until my results were clear. You cannot leave your car until this test from people that looked like they were in hazmat suits. My hair and makeup, I really felt like I was in a science-fiction movie – the actual room and the hair and makeup artists really looked like they were walking on the moon, that’s how protected it was.”
Banks says the hardest thing for her will likely be having to stay six feet from the contestants. “I’m a hugger, I’m a toucher,” she explains. “If anybody starts crying my instinct is to [comfort them] and I won’t be able to do that.”
“The couple’s safety obviously is absolutely paramount,” Llinares explains. “What it comes down to really is two things — first of all, regularly testing the couples. Both the pros and the celebrities are being tested incredibly regularly. They’ll be tested five days a week, which goes above and beyond anything in the guidelines. Secondly, it’s about social distancing.”
The pros will quarantine solo (meaning that married couples like Emma Slater and Sasha Farber, Val Chmerkovskiy and Jenna Johnson-Chmerkovskiy and Pasha Pashkov and new pro Daniella Karagach have been living apart since beginning rehearsals). Mills says the amount of testing was among the reasons ABC was confident in moving forward with the show.
“The fact that we could be nimble, if somebody does end up testing positive and it’s not going to shut the entire thing down [and] once we get started, we’ll be able to go through to the end,” he said, explaining what sold the concept. “Just the amount of work they’ve done, that was so intricate and thought out, and literally any question you thought out, they had an answer to. You knew that you were in good hands there and safer than you are almost anywhere.”
In terms of the ballroom, there will be no audience, no in-house band, no sky-lounge area, no extra dancers participating in numbers and none of the massive physical production “Dancing” fans have grown accustomed to. Instead the ballroom will be filled with lights and LED screens (but no virtual audience) that will make things feel a bit less empty.
“Our set design has done an amazing job of making this look almost like it was always meant to be this way,” Llinares says.
But despite the great challenge, Llinares believes the pivots the production made due to the pandemic — like filming the couples in the rehearsal studios with remote-operated cameras versus crews of producers, or traveling between cities during the competitions — have opened up a whole new lane for the series.
“I think what’s exciting about that is it takes the show back to being all about the couples. We’re going to be very focused on the couple themselves and how they are mastering these dances,” he says. “That’s the heartbeat of the show really that’s what the show is all about it’s about the two of them, and whether they learned the dance or not. So, I think in a strange way we’ve been forced into doing something, which is very focused on the couples but I think it might be the right change.”
“We talked, funnily enough, last year about starting to focus more on the couples, but we weren’t brave enough, if we’re honest, to go as far as we’re going this year,” Lilinares says. “And I think this is has really forced us to test the theory of whether this is really what the show is about. So I’m kind of excited to see it, but I have a feeling it’s gonna be the right change.”
‘Dancing with the Stars’ airs Mondays at 8/7c on ABC is produced by the Los Angeles arm of BBC Studios.