Sharna Burgess on Life as a "DWTS" Pro

September 7, 2014

The beautiful Burgess (courtesy Turk Entertainment PR)

It’s that time again: “Dancing with the Stars” kicks off its 19th (19th!) season next Monday, September 15th. The latest group of celebs and their professional dance partners are already deep into rehearsals of their first routines.

While most “DWTS” coverage focuses on the blood, sweat and tears the stars put into the show, let’s face it: Pretty much nobody works harder than the “DWTS” pros. Every single week, they create and polish new routines for people with zero, or almost-zero, dance experience—a singularly challenging task.

This season marks Aussie beauty Sharna Burgess’ fourth turn as a “DWTS” pro. She’s been paired with Tavis Smiley—a respected PBS host and political commentator known more for his reporting and writing than for his dancing skills. I talked with Burgess about what the “DWTS” experience is really like.

You’re a “DWTS” vet now! What have you learned since your first season on the show?

You can prepare as much as you want, but to be honest, you can’t control everything, so the best thing to do is relax. It’s easy to get caught up in the competitive side of the show and to push your partner really hard. But at the end of the day, the goal is to give him a wonderful experience. You want to get to know your celebrity and enjoy watching him learn.

You have a lot of choreographic experience. How does choreographing for non-professionals compare to choreographing for professionals?

When I’m creating dances for a celebrity, it’s a different type of creativity. Throughout the season we build a vocabulary of steps that he’s good at, and the key is to find ways to make them look fresh each week by changing the intention, or the story the dance is telling. When I was working with Andy Dick in Season 16, he had a pretty small vocabulary, but he’s such an amazing character and funny person that he was able to transform those few steps into 10 different dances.

When I’m choreographing for pros, it’s more about looking for that groundbreaking thing that nobody’s done yet. Usually that involves listening to a song over and over again—to the point of driving myself insane—until I get a vision of what the theme will be, and then of how the movement will flow. Whenever I choreograph, the intention comes first and the steps come later.

Baby Sharna! Even at age 8, Burgess (here with partner Michael Butt) had the moves. (courtesy Burgess)

How have your rehearsals with Tavis Smiley been going?

Tavis has an amazing story. He grew up in a church that didn’t allow him to dance—he didn’t even get to go to the prom! But while his dance experience is very minimal, he’s been wonderful to work with. He said something that really resonated with me: “Just because you know some of me doesn’t mean you know the sum of me.” We all think of him as this serious person, a political activist deeply involved in world affairs—the guy who’s interviewed Obama three times. Yet beneath that is a fun, happy-go-lucky man, and it’s been a pleasure getting to know that side of him. That’s what I’m excited for America to see.

If you could partner any celebrity, who would you choose?

Hugh Jackman! I’ve always wanted to dance with him. He already has dance talent, and I think he’d be amazing. But to be honest what I look for in a partner isn’t necessarily talent. I want someone who’s wiling to both work hard and have fun. It’s important that they take it seriously—dancing is my job and the love of my life—but it should be a good time, too.

What’s most challenging about being a “DWTS” pro, and what’s most rewarding?

The challenge is that for a little more than three months, you don’t get a single day off. Your relationships are put on hold, because the show consumes every hour of the day: When you’re not teaching your celebrity, you’re having wardrobe meetings or planning your group numbers. But that’s also what’s so amazing about it. I keep reminding myself that I’m one of those lucky people who get to do what they love 24/7. It’s a double-edged sword, but I’d never wish it away.