If everybody's job was this much fun we'd all come in on Sundays. Ballroom dancing, laughter and no shortage of sweat was the order of the day as the contestants of "Dancing With the Stars" rehearsed their routines in preparation for the next day's live broadcast.
The dance stage is cramped with cameras capturing the action from every conceivable angle. The dancers swing, wiggle and shake their bodies under a haze of sweltering spotlights, which seem to change color at will.
With empty seats and the realization that, for once, a slip or mismatched two-step today will not mean elimination, the atmosphere in the studio is relaxed and jovial. However, beneath the smiles of the stars and their professional dance partners lies a deep-seated desire to take home the mirror ball trophy.
"I don't enter anything hoping to lose," said former "Beverly Hills 90210" star Ian Ziering, who is paired with two-time winner Cheryl Burke.
"Cheryl is an unbelievable teacher and is able to do everything I do, but backwards and in heels," said Ziering, who arrived at the studio on his classic Yamaha sport bike and cut a relaxed figure as he reclined in the Red Room, the holding area for the contestants on show night.
Heavy Workload, Steady Pitfalls
The Sunday rehearsal is a well-organized affair. The stars and their partners arrive throughout the day at 35-minute intervals. They dance on the same stage and with the same music that is beamed to more than 20 million viewers on a Monday night.
The stars have only six days to learn each choreographed dance routine and, as the competition intensifies, this workload will be doubled. Five hours practice a day is the secret behind turning two left feet into sweet feet, though the learning process is not without pitfalls.
"I'm fighting through the mind-numbing pain from Cheryl's heels stepping on my toes," said a smiling Ziering, who uses a digital camera to record the routine and then studies it on his computer when he arrives home.
So what does Burke, who wore a black velour tracksuit and a welcoming smile, think of her latest partner?
"We get along great, the practices are light and funny, and we certainly have the potential to reach the top four," Burke, 22, told ABC News. "I sometimes get nervous for Ian but make sure that I bring out his potential and don't outdance him."
The physical demands of the routines are considerable. Burke writhed her body and kicked her legs while Ziering did an admirable job swinging his hips in an attempt to match the energetic display of his lithe tutor. The pair left the stage soaked with sweat after completing their third and final fast-paced and uninhibited jive. After heading upstairs to have the fit of their costumes rechecked, the pair planned to grab lunch before spending the rest of the afternoon perfecting their routine.
Keeping It Fun, Amid Competition
Tony Dovolani, the current World Rhythm Champion and partner to 50-year-old talk show host Leeza Gibbons, said that while there is a huge amount of emotional and physical effort invested and professional pride at stake, the rivalry never becomes personal.
"There is no real competition between the pros," said Dovolani, who arrived well before his scheduled dance time and was chatting away with crew members, fellow dancers and the stars. "It's all about how you work with your partner, and luckily for me Leeza has 150 percent dedication and her lack of a dance background is great, as it means she's an empty page to work on."
With the vote split 50-50 between the panel of three judges and the viewing public, the question of whether it's more important to be a good dancer or a big personality comes to mind. Pertinent to this is one of the season's lesser know pairings, that of 2004's Miss USA, Shandi Finnessey, and Brian Fortuna, who is making his first appearance on the show.
"People like John Ratzenberger will have all the 'Cheers' fans voting for him, but that just makes us work extra hard," said Finnessey, whose bouncy, smile-filled jive to Crocodile Rock belied her nerves. "We've been labeled Ken and Barbie, so I'm going to have my hair back in a ponytail or pigtails Monday and show it's about dancing, not looks."
Finnessey, a small-town girl from Missouri who counts her mother and father among audience members, slips out of the Red Room as Ratzenberger fills the stage. The actor, who formerly played a postman on the sitcom "Cheers," may have star quality, but he will need more than that to survive amid an array of vivacious and dynamic contestants.
While the Red Room on a Sunday is little more than a couple of cozy couches and a widescreen TV, Monday night it will be a place of high expectations, frayed nerves and the beginning of the end for two of the remaining 20 contestants.