Cheryl Burke's Confessions on Life, Love, 'DWTS'

PHOTO: Cheryl Burke on the cover of her book titled, "Dancing Lessons: How I Found Passion and Potential on the Dance Floor and in Life".
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In her new book, "Dancing Lessons," "Dancing With the Stars" performer Cheryl Burke describes her journey from dance classes to the ballroom to stardom on the hit show.

Burke, a two-time winner of the show's coveted mirrorball trophy, has had several high-profile partners, including former U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay, footballer Emmitt Smith -- which whom she took one of the championships, entertainer Wayne Newton and singer Drew Lachey. She won the first season of the show as while partnering Lachey.

Read an excerpt from "Dancing Lessons" below, then check out some other books in the "GMA" library

The Freestyle: Finding Myself in the Spotlight

The freestyle dance is not restricted by any conventional steps or required choreography. It is simply a dance in which the dancer can showcase whatever movement or emotion seems appropriate.

I've always been kind of a play-by-the-rules girl; I tend to like things structured, predictable, and sometimes even a little boring. But all of that changed on February 26, 2006, the last night of my first season on Dancing with the Stars. It was an evening when all of my rules went out the window and everything in my life suddenly changed for the better. Yet I almost missed out on what has been the greatest adventure of my life so far because I was afraid to break out of the comfortable mold in which I was living. I know it sounds unbelievable to say that I almost turned down the opportunity to star as a professional dancer on the hit reality dance show, but that's the truth.

Six months prior to that February night, I was living in New York City with my boyfriend and ballroom dance partner when suddenly I received a phone call from one of the show's producers, who wanted to talk to me about the show on ABC. The dancer Louis van Amstel, whom I knew from the ballroom dance world, worked on season one of the show, and he recommended that the producers get in touch with me. I didn't have an agent at the time; some of the producers just saw me perform at a competition in Los Angeles and agreed that I might be exactly what they were looking for, so Louis passed along my number.

My immediate reaction was to turn them down because of my strong fear of cameras. But the more I thought about it, the more I figured, "Why not? Give it a chance, at least, before you turn them down." So I went to Manhattan for the meeting, but even then I was not bowled over with enthusiasm. I kind of downplayed it to my dancer friends, who were as skeptical as I was.

However, there was something in my gut that kept nagging me to jump at this opportunity—that I should just go for broke and see what happened. At the time, I was barely making ends meet as a competitive ballroom dancer and a dance instructor, so the prospect of a steady job—as steady as a job in television can be—as well as the prospect of going to sunny Los Angeles from snowy New York City in the middle of winter were an appealing combination. The show had been pretty popular in its first season, and my boyfriend and I were kind of on the outs anyway. Everything seemed to be pointing me in the direction of the show. What did I have to lose, really?

The Freestyle: Finding Myself in the Spotlight

So I said yes, packed my bags, and jetted off to a city I was barely familiar with and in which I knew hardly a soul. I was very lucky, however, to have a firmly established support system set up through the show. Within just a few days of landing in Los Angeles, I met close to a hundred people: producers, hair and makeup artists, wardrobe people, photographers, and fellow ballroom dancers. My head wasn't just spinning, it was doing pirouettes.

I was partnered with the singer Drew Lachey of the popular group 98 Degrees. Drew and I complemented each other with our strengths. I was good at dancing and teaching dance, and he was a good student and a natural-born ham for the cameras. Week after week we learned our routines, got good scores from the judges, and received lots of votes from the fans. It was a lot of fun but overwhelming at times, too, as I skyrocketed from being "just a dancer" to "that girl on Dancing with the Stars."

I'd always heard "Be careful what you wish for, for you just might get it," but I never realized how true it was until Drew and I started advancing week after week. It's not that I didn't want the two of us to do well on the show, but every week that we moved further in the competition meant another round of interviews with the press. I was terrified of the cameras—beyond terrified. The fame was new to me, and the whole idea of talking to the press was the scariest thing I could imagine, because I've always been a very shy and private person.

I was nervous to be in front of cameras and have microphones shoved in my direction. It seems silly; after all, I make my living in front of millions of television viewers each week, so why should a one-to-one interview in front of a camera make me break out in a sweat? It's simple: I am at home when I'm on the dance floor. For that one minute and thirty seconds that I have to dance on live television, I'm good to go because I am in my element, in my own world. It's the days and hours leading up to that time, and the moments right after, that I'm on edge. But unfortunately, I had to take one with the other.

"You're the performer, Drew, so you're used to all of this attention. You do all the talking, okay?" I begged him.

"Cheryl, you're an amazing dancer," he scoffed. "People want to talk to you, too."

"No," I insisted. "You are the celebrity, not me. I'm the dancer. Let me do what I need to do on the dance floor. You can do all the talking."

Finally Drew agreed—kind of. "Okay, leave it to me. But if they ask you something, don't be afraid. Be yourself. You'll be fine." I prayed that he was right.

As the season went on, people kept asking me little things about myself: Where was I from? Was I really only twenty-one? How did I like all of this attention? For that last one, I just tried to think of a polite way to say, "I don't! You're scaring me to death!"

A few weeks before we actually made it to the season two finale (and in between all of those terrifying interviews), the producers asked us what song we wanted for our freestyle dance. They surveyed the remaining three couples, because the show's music clearance department needed time to license the songs so it could play them on the air.

The Freestyle: Finding Myself in the Spotlight

The freestyle dance has become one of the most popular dances on the show in the past ten seasons (there are two seasons a year) because for the first time the couples don't have to adhere to the strict rules of the ballroom. This is a time in which the couples get to have fun, let loose, and unleash their creativity. Just about anything is acceptable. The number one rule is not to follow any rules.

Drew was practically salivating at the chance to dance a no-holds-barred routine to any song he wanted. I found him one day sitting in his dressing room poring over the iTunes catalog on his laptop.

"Cheryl, I found it. Let me play this for you," he said excitedly.

"Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy)" by the country duo Big & Rich came pounding out of the speakers, and I just stared at Drew as though he were crazy. I had never heard the song before, I had never heard of Big & Rich, and I could not possibly imagine myself dancing to country music.

I wanted to have more of a Latin influence in our music and our routine, something that would feel more traditional and comfortable for the kind of partner dancing I was used to. But Drew was adamant that his country song would be great for our freestyle. He insisted that this was exactly what the producers meant when they said to let loose and do something original and completely unexpected. He had me there.

One of the producers happened to be in the hallway, and Drew summoned her into the room to tell her his idea. Of course, she absolutely loved it. I was outnumbered. So that night, I got myself a copy of the song and played it over and over to get it into my head and my body. The more I played it, the more the song grew on me, but when I tried to figure out how I would choreograph the routine, I was stumped.

We went to the wardrobe department, and the staff had a field day with our song. The innuendo of the song helped them conjure up sexy cowboy and cowgirl costumes for Drew and me: Drew's costume was a sleeveless shirt and tight jeans, and mine was a tiny pair of denim shorts and a bra top. We both rocked cowboy hats and boots.

Even suited up, I was still panicking two days before the finale as I tried to put the finishing touches on the dance. Drew kept insisting, "We need to spice this up, Cheryl!" We'd been dancing together for weeks, and now that we actually had a dance to do with no rules, we both became choreographers—and he was a pretty ambitious one. He wanted to add more lifts, more playfulness with the movements to jibe with the flirtatiousness of the song. He kept saying, "This is good, but let's make it great. It's our last dance. Let's push it as far as we can—and then a little bit more."

The Freestyle: Finding Myself in the Spotlight

Egging things along even more was Drew's wife, Lea—Drew's very pregnant and about-to-give-birth-at-any-minute wife, Lea. She came to the rehearsal to see how we were doing, and I was sure she'd cringe when she saw the routine. Instead she insisted that we add even more suggestive moves. She kept saying, "This is a sexy, suggestive song, and you guys have to really play off the lyrics more. Don't be afraid. Go for it!"

So we did. Drew and Lea both had great ideas and awesome enthusiasm. Drew had such a good gut instinct about the whole thing, and his wife's stamp of approval validated our efforts. Our goal was to have fun and have the audience have fun with us, and it looked as though we were on the right track.

As creative and fun as their ideas were, however, I was still having some doubts. On the one hand, I was feeling carefree. I knew that people were going to be talking about this dance the next day. On the other hand, I was a little nervous about how they would be talking about it. We were an eight o'clock, family-friendly show. What would viewers think when they saw me straddle Drew's back while he was in a push-up position and lift him up and down? I also began to worry that people would think we were cruel or insensitive for doing such a suggestive dance with Lea sitting in the front row. But it was too late to back out now.

Before we stepped out onto the stage, I got a pang in my belly. I always get the same pang right before I'm about to dance. It's just part of my pre-performance routine. That night, though, it was much bigger than ever before.

We got the call to take our spots on the ballroom floor. The audience was going nuts. I could not hear a thing over the crazy thumping of my heartbeat. Drew was pumped. He jumped up and down a couple of times to warm up. I stood still and just tried to absorb it all. I am sure that I looked calm to the people in the audience, but inside I was about to explode. People were screaming our names, clapping, and cheering wildly—and we hadn't even started our dance yet. Drew looked over at me and smiled. He raised his eyebrows as if to say, "Here we go, girl." I think I smiled back at him. It may have been a grimace, actually. What were we about to do? Could we pull it off?

All of my fears and insecurities, the adrenaline rushing through my body, the perspiration on the palms of my hands— everything came to a boil. Then the music started, and like so many times before, the nervousness vanished. The one minute and thirty seconds that I had to dance was magic. That was the easy part. We tore through our routine and never missed a beat. The audience was on their feet, screaming and applauding throughout the routine. We were doing what we were told to do: go all out and just go crazy.

During the performance I was, of course, focused on the dance. But I did manage to catch a glimpse of the audience. Everyone was screaming, laughing, and clapping. I glanced over at the judges' table at one point, too, and I saw Bruno Tonioli out of the corner of my eye. He was banging his hand on the table, his mouth wide open in disbelief. Carrie Ann Inaba was laughing and smiling. Toward the end of the dance I even stole a peek at Len Goodman, the gentleman judge of the ballroom world. I wondered if he'd think our performance was too over-the-top or suggestive for the program. It turned out that he had the biggest smile of all. These little glimpses at people as we were performing only pushed Drew and me into character more. We hammed it up.

The Freestyle: Finding Myself in the Spotlight

At the end of the routine, when Drew hit the floor in a push-up position and I straddled his back, mimicking how a rodeo champ would ride a bucking bronco, the screams and cheers got louder. Our big finish was greeted with a raucous standing ovation. We both were out of breath, yet we were so jazzed by the audience response that we wanted to do the dance all over again. It reminded me why I was there: this is what I do best. I love to dance. I love to perform. I love to entertain. It was the beginning of a new adventure for me.

Drew and I were declared the winners of season two on that cold night in February, when we brought some serious heat to the dance floor. Before that night I was more or less anonymous. I could eat, shop, walk, and work out anywhere I wanted to and at any time. People didn't know my name. I might look familiar, but they weren't quite sure where to place me, so they didn't say anything. That all changed on February 26, 2006.

Confetti dropped from the ceiling as the live orchestra played celebratory music. The crowd was cheering. My mom was crying. Within minutes cameras hovered around us. Reporters shoved tape recorders and microphones under our chins. I felt like the proverbial deer in the headlights. People were asking me all kinds of questions. How did I feel being a winner? How was I going to celebrate? Where was I going to put my trophy? Would I be back next season?

Whoa—that last question stopped me in my tracks. Next season? It didn't even occur to me that I would be back on the show. It hadn't crossed my mind that the show would want to hire me for another round. That kind of job security just doesn't happen in the dance world. But that night, when Drew and I threw out the rule book and just went freestyle, it kicked off a new life for me. It was a new beginning, and I couldn't wait to get started.

Check out other books from the "GMA" Library

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