Nicole Scherzinger and her partner, Derek Hough, walked away from the 10th season of "Dancing With the Stars" with the mirror ball trophy, and for good reason: Nicole was consistently the best dancer.
She didn't noticeably learn anything or improve in any way. She was a highly trained dancer when she entered the competition, and she used that training (as well as a boatload of natural talent) to dominate throughout.
But in her victory over Evan Lysacek and Anna Trebunskaya lies the problem with the way the season was cast. Even though Evan was a gold-medal figure skater with readily transferable skills, he at least specializes in something other than dancing. Nicole, on the other hand, has been a singer-dancer all along as part of the Pussycat Dolls. Dancing is part of the reason she's a star in the first place.
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The show has been, in the past, about taking people who are famous in other pursuits and turning them into dancers. With Nicole, it has taken a famous singer-dancer and crowned her as a great dancer. The show can't even arguably claim to have taught Nicole to dance, the way it taught early winners such as Kelly Monaco and Drew Lachey.
This difficulty was crystallized in a rude faux pas in which judge Len Goodman declared that Nicole should win just before Evan and Anna performed their final dance, a performance he was supposed to be scoring. How would it feel to perform in front of judges, one of whom has already said you were out of the running?
On the one hand, the panel was in an impossible position. The judges were asked to judge dancing, and Nicole was the best dancer. She was well ahead of Evan in the finals before the audience votes were added. It was a contrast to past seasons, where the scoring often stayed close enough for the audience to mostly make the call.
The judges can't be faulted for having started to give Nicole 10s very early in the competition — she was better than everyone else. If anything, they tried to think of reasons to mark her down, from rule violations to failure to abide to the strict rules of each form, desperately attempting to make it look like she wasn't miles ahead in training and ability from the day she was added to the cast.
And it wasn't all bad for the show: Her high skill level (and, to a lesser degree, Evan's) allowed audiences to see some very good dancing. But with the ratings up this season, doesn't it seem likely that we're going to see more and more contestants who are effectively already famous for being dancers? Is that ever really going to be as much fun as watching a guy such as Emmitt Smith learn how to dance? Or Apolo Ohno? Is a singer-dancer dancing as interesting as a race-car driver dancing?
It's telling that the most moving part of the night had nothing to do with either of the finalists: It was the moment when Erin Andrews and Maksim Chmerkovskiy were eliminated in third place.
Unlike Nicole, Erin did improve markedly over the course of the season, and watching tape of her rehearsals, you could see how hard she had worked. She had needed encouragement, she had wondered if she could do it. She had felt frustrated and sometimes, she had flopped. So her departure — and especially the lovely moment when she and Maks danced together with all the pressure off — felt a little more satisfying.
Nicole, on the other hand, spent her rehearsal time speaking in abstracts about performance levels and — most unflatteringly — complaining about camera angles that might not flatter her. She was never worried about her dancing, and she never needed to be. She was the front-runner by a mile, from start to finish, if actual technical dancing skills were to be the deciding factor. Nobody ever saw Nicole genuinely frustrated. Nobody ever saw Nicole really fail. (Except in a highly cringeworthy backstage interview in which she agonized over a momentary lapse in her scores, saying, "I'm an artist! I'm not like other people!")
Nicole deserved her victory. She's a terrific dancer, and it's probably true — as the judges told her — that she's by far the best natural and technical dancer they've ever cast. That, unfortunately, is a trend that may well be repeated in future seasons, which will not be a good thing for the show.
Linda Holmes is a writer in Washington.