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Second Take: With its unfair voting system, ‘Dancing with the Stars’ may be losing its shimmer

(Julia Chen/Daily Bruin)

By Victoria Munck

Dec. 5, 2023 4:38 p.m.

This post was updated Dec. 6 at 7:21 p.m.

The “Dancing with the Stars” mirrorball is shining bright – but its series producers aren’t checking for cracks.

On Tuesday night, the celebrity dance show will wrap up its 32nd season with a three-hour finale, naming a victor after 11 weeks of competition. For almost 20 years, the series has cemented itself as one of the greatest modern reality programs, bringing a humanizing depth to Hollywood while embracing the unsung artistry of traditional ballroom dance. Nevertheless, upholding this dignity necessitates a reevaluation of the show’s current elimination system. Disproportionate voting power has visibly detracted from the production’s core values in recent years – and this season has proved that it could shatter in moments if left unchecked.

[Related: Second Take: Television desperately needs open conversation on asexuality]

The allure of “Dancing with the Stars” inevitably lies in its titular celebrities, though their weeks of personal growth are what fully hook viewers and fuel the beating heart of the series. Coupled with a professional dancer, contestants are expected to present a full ballroom dance each week, often alongside smaller challenges such as group or relay performances. As the competition grows fiercer with episodic eliminations, it proves to require intense mental and physical efforts, shedding light on an intimate side of stars that most pop culture programming can’t capture.

As celebrities devote themselves to personal competition goals, whether perfecting smaller techniques or striving for the grand Len Goodman Mirrorball Trophy, viewers can connect with their feats and witness their progress in real time. Inspiring audiences with a fruitful work ethic, actress Alyson Hannigan opened this season near the bottom of the leaderboard without prior dance experience and has since progressed to Tuesday’s finale, embodying the show’s mission of evolution in the art form. Other contestants have sustained injuries while competing, exhibiting strength while spotlighting the physical demands of dance.

Furthermore, by centering ballroom styles, “Dancing with the Stars” breathes life into a performance genre that is often ignored by similar mainstream productions. With the judges seeking mastery of specific style content such as frame and footwork, both stars and viewers are motivated to learn the intricacies of all dance forms, from waltz to salsa. Additionally, standout choreography from the show’s slate of professional dancers often helps the underappreciated style earn mass appeal. For instance, Daniella Karagach, who is paired with singer Jason Mraz this season, recently earned a 2022 Emmy nomination for a contemporary routine on the show.

With this in mind, the program’s cherished power to foster personal growth through traditional dance has recently been threatened by its misaligned elimination system. Currently, 50% of celebrities’ total scores are determined by judges’ numeric marks, and the other half is derived from the audience’s online votes. While the three judges are well-qualified and have deep histories with the show, they often face accusations of favoritism or inconsistent scoring, making the viewers’ voices an essential part of the process. Nonetheless, it has become clear that the weight of their votes is unjustly high and draining the show of its essential roots in dance.

The problem with audience voting begins when viewers prioritize fan favorites or show drama over skilled performers, taking their primary entertainment value from a peripheral part of the series. Aside from blatantly dismissing the program’s main premise, this also robs skilled dancers of a chance to progress in the series. Most controversially, radio host Bobby Bones was carried to victory by his enthusiastic fan base, winning the season 27 mirrorball despite consistently receiving low scores.

This year, the show’s hidden popularity contest was evidenced through the extended run of contestant and reality star Harry Jowsey. While Jowsey faced many technical critiques, pervasive dating rumors with his professional partner Rylee Arnold and his devoted following paired to send him through nine weeks of the competition over higher-scoring stars. Although his eventual elimination saved Tuesday’s trophy for a more skilled performer, the damage to the celebrities preceding him was already done.

[Related: Second Take: Parasocial relationships rising, fueled by unhealthy celebrity obsessions]

From seasons 28 to 31, “Dancing with the Stars” implemented a “judges’ save” rule in which the series panel could save one of the leaderboard’s bottom two celebrities from elimination each episode. Without explanation, the condition was removed this year, playing a substantial role in the season’s seemingly unfair rankings. As the technical experts, the judges are largely responsible for maintaining the integrity of ballroom on the show, making their final call necessary. If the series’ producers fail to reinstate this – or cut the weight of audience votes – the show has no hope of maintaining its magic or standing out from redundant reality television.

Conclusively, this season of “Dancing with the Stars” has brought stellar showmanship and personal development to the small screen, emphasizing its brightness in the often tiresome roundabout of pop culture. However, the leaderboard that ultimately drives the series is past due for remodeling if it has any intention of sustaining the inspiration and heart it has promoted for two decades.

Truthfully, “Dancing with the Stars” needs to prioritize refinement before it can earn a “perfect 10.”

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Victoria Munck | Theater | film | television editor
Munck is the 2023-2024 theater | film | television editor. She was previously an Arts contributor from 2022-2023. She is a second-year communication student from Granada Hills, California.
Munck is the 2023-2024 theater | film | television editor. She was previously an Arts contributor from 2022-2023. She is a second-year communication student from Granada Hills, California.
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