PureDWTS Season 24 Debate – Battle of the Ringers: What Makes Heather Morris So Ringer-y?

So I think it’s been established that, as a professional dancer, Heather is pretty ringery, in terms of DWTS.  I would even go so far as to say she’s the ringiest ringer the show has ever had – although judging from some of the chatter I’ve seen here, on Twitter, and on Facebook, some of you don’t agree.  And there’s also those that don’t really seem to understand what some fans of the show are so upset about – “So Heather’s a dancer? Big deal, so was Nicole/Shawn/Amber/etc.” And it’s those comparisons to other previous ringers on the show that seem to contribute to some of the misunderstanding of just how ringery Heather really is – so I put this together to address some of the questions I’ve gotten about “Well what about [insert previous contestant here]? He/She was a big ringer, too!”

Let me start off by recapping Heather’s background for those who don’t really know it: Heather’s been dancing since she was 9 years old, and has trained in jazz, tap, and contemporary, primarily.  She tried out for season 2 of So You Think You Can Dance, and made it through Vegas week to the “Green Mile” (the stage of the competition where the judges select who will and won’t advance to live shows) but was not chosen as one of the final top 20. She landed a gig dancing backup for Beyonce in 2007, and also nabbed a number of small dance roles in various TV shows and movies. She was eventually brought to the Glee set in 2009 to help teach the “Single Ladies” dance to some of the cast, and was so well-liked by the cast & crew that Ryan Murphy actually created the role of Brittany for her. So to be clear: Heather started off as a PROFESSIONAL DANCER – she only dabbled (only semi-successfully, I might add) in acting & singing as a result of her role on Glee. She is a dancer that (kinda) acts and sings – not the other way around.  Yes, this is an important distinction to make – and generally the biggest factor that sets her apart from previous ringers.

Heather vs. Nicole Scherzinger: This seems to be one popularly cited by defensive Maks fans these days, even though I’d argue that both Chmerkovskiys have since gotten partners that had just as much (and usually more) dance experience than Nicole. Hell, I’d argue that Normani probably has more of a dance background than Nicole at this point, but that’s neither here nor there.  Just odd to me that Nicole still seems to be held up as the “ultimate in ringers” by so many, even though we’ve had much, MUCH more ringer-y contestants in the 14 seasons since she did the show. Main difference here (and one you’ll see me cite again for others) is focusing on dance alone in order to make a living vs. supplementing your resume with dance while trying to make a living. Heather has done the former (and just had a bit of dumb luck landing a gig that allowed her to do some acting & singing); Nicole did the latter – she wanted to be a singer, and given the climate of the business the past 20-some odd years for female pop stars, it was practically a prerequisite that you should be able to do a bit of choreography while singing. Nicole pays her bills by singing (or she did, before she fell into reality show judging); Heather pays hers by dancing. Big difference – are you a singer who dabbles in dance, or a dancer who dabbles in singing?

Heather vs. Riker Lynch: Yes, Riker did compete in ballroom at a younger age, against some of the younger pros on the show.  And had he kept up with that ballroom training, I would say he’s probably the ringiest ringer ever on the show.  However, it appears that he stopped his ballroom training not long after his competition days and seemed to take up music full time.  Sure, he retained some muscle memory, but watching him on DWTS, there was a definite roughness to his movements – as if he still had a vague idea how to do them, but generally lacked a refinement one might get from years of consistent training. I also got the impression that he maybe wasn’t the most mature soul – it seemed like he wanted to do well, but got a tad flighty and distracted at times; I think Heather is likely a lot more grounded and will be more focused than Riker was on his season. Plus she has quite a few more years of dance experience under her belt – Riker maybe danced for 10 years, while Heather looks to have more like 20 years of dancing to fall back on. And again: Riker’s main claim to fame is singing; Heather’s is dancing.

Heather vs. Danica McKellar: So many are quick to forget our good friend #DanicaNotADancer, likely because she ended up not doing so hot on her season, relatively speaking, and got overshadowed by all the Maksyl & Charlie/Sharna hype. But the funny thing about Danica was that she had actually been taking ballroom lessons as recently as a few months prior to her season starting – arguably, she was ringier than Riker in that respect, although I don’t know that she had taken ballroom lessons for a long amount of time. But due to a generally excitable disposition (and later on, an injury), any extensive dance skills she may have had kinda got cancelled out.  And again, I go back to the “What pays the bills?” litmus test: Danica is an actor (slash mathematician) who dances; Heather is a dancer who sings/acts.

Heather vs. Corbin Bleu: Corbin comes close to Heather on the ringer scale – he studied multiple dance styles from a young age, and seemed to keep up his dance training for quite awhile.  But the one divergence that I find significant is that Corbin seemed to get more into musical theater, rather than just straight dancing – and as I’ve mentioned before in the argument about pop groups and their dancing skills, if you have to be singing WHILE you’re dancing, odds are the dancing is going to get dumbed down to allow for adequate breath control for singing. You’re not going to be doing triple pirouettes while belting out “You’re the One That I Want”.  It also seemed to me like Corbin had quite a few irons in the fire that could have potentially taken away from the time he was focusing on dancing – wasn’t he directing or producing some movie that the same time he was doing DWTS?

Heather vs. Zendaya: Main difference here – AGE.  Sorry, but a 16-year-old that has been dancing for a little while is not going to be at the same level as someone that’s 30 and has been dancing for most of their life. Additionally, Zendaya seemed to have only had some formal training in hip-hop, and her focus seemed to shift more towards acting and singing when she hit her teenage years.  Again, I go back to focusing on dance alone vs. focusing on other projects.

Heather vs. Meryl Davis: Meryl’s kind of a unique circumstance, since her area of expertise actually dealt directly with most of the ballroom styles she was doing on the show – albeit with a bit of a different vocabulary, as an ice dancer. But I would argue that there is enough variation between the ice dancing version of most of the styles and the actual ballroom version that it’s not a 100% match, and she did have to do some adjusting – additionally (and admittedly, this is kinda murky territory), it seemed like Meryl was probably closer to being an amateur competitor than a professional; given that she & Charlie were both still in college during the bulk of their competitive career, I’m not sure they were truly “professional” and gaining a lot financially for their skating at the time.  Now that they’re retired from competition and doing shows? Absolutely. But back then? Ehhhh…who knows. But I would still argue that a professional dancer is probably going to be better-suited to the rigors of DWTS than an Olympic ice dancer – I think the inner workings of the latter are just handled quite a bit differently than the professional dance world. Meryl’s pretty darn close to Heather in terms of ringertude, though…

Heather vs. Alfonso Ribeiro: I’m actually a bit surprised at how often I’ve seen this one thrown out as a rival for Heather in “ringiest ringer”, because while Alfonso was a ringer, he was actually only formally trained in tap, and had not trained formally in many years. Maybe it’s the Fonz fan in me speaking, but I think a lot of what gets attributed to him being a ringer these days is actually just him having a lot of natural talent and being a huge fan of the show before actually doing it. But I digress. First & most obvious difference here is age – Heather’s 30, Alfonso was 43 when he did DWTS…and Alfonso was really struggling with age-related injuries & limitations, by the time his season wrapped. Second difference: the degree to which Alfonso has kept up with his dance training is pretty dubious – it’s not like this guy was attending dance classes/getting paid to dance on the regular from the time he was 8 to the time he was 43.  From what I can tell, the only dancing he was getting paid to do after Fresh Prince of Bel-Air wrapped was the occasional, albeit joking, “Carlton dance” at promotional appearances. And once again – he was predominantly an actor that happened to dance, rather than a predominant dancer that happened to act.

Heather vs. Mya: Even though most folks forget she even did the show, Mya is actually probably the closest thing (besides Meryl) to Heather in terms of peak ringer-tude. She started dancing at an early age, and became good enough that she was afforded the opportunity to dance in a production with Savion Glover – hence, she was getting paid for her dancing skills.  If memory serves, I think Heidi may have uncovered somewhere that she actually TAUGHT dance for a period of time as well. However, the impression I got from Mya’s bio back in season 9 was that her dancing career took a back burner to her singing one around age 15 – so while she was doing some dancing while pursuing her singing career, I doubt she was dancing with the same level of consistent training and dedication as someone like Heather, who was dancing with the goal of doing so professionally.

Some other items to take into consideration…

But ballroom is different than jazz/ballet/tap/modern/etc., Courtney!!!!

I would like to pose a scenario that might clarify this one, so stick with me.  How may of you are bilingual? Trilingual? I imagine some of you are fluent in several languages – I had a college professor that spoke 10 distinct languages, and was trying to learn an 11th.  I asked her once how she managed to do it, because the task seemed absolutely daunting to me. But what she said was surprising: “Each successive language gets easier than the previous, because I’m able to make more connections between the languages and relate new words to ones I’ve already learned.” The same principle applies to dance styles: there are conventions and techniques that universal across every style, and there are things that are different. But even the things that are different can help better your understanding from one style to another – you might point the feet in jazz, but you’re more likely to flex the feet in modern/contemporary, because the former has its roots in classical ballet technique while the latter deliberately does the opposite. That’s a useful comparison to make when trying to explain to someone the proper foot technique for a dance. But I would argue that someone that has any dance experience whatsoever is still going to be miles ahead of someone with none – Heather is already going to have a good understanding of core movement, posture, spotting turns, turning out her feet, etc., while someone like Bonner is starting from scratch, learning how to keep his shoulders rolled down and back, how to turn without getting dizzy, etc. Yes, ballroom is different than jazz/hip-hop – but I would say there are more similarities than differences between the two disciplines.

The difference between being an amateur dancer with a lot of experience vs. being a professional dancer

This is one I think a lot of folks don’t really consider when trying to compare Heather to other ringers – the fact that getting paid for your dancing comes with much higher set of expectations than someone who dances on the side. After high school, a friend of mine moved to L.A. with the intent to become a professional dancer – she had done ballet since she was 5 or 6, was on the dance team in high school, and had dabbled in some other styles as well.  In between dance classes to beef up her resume and dancing as a Lakers Girl (which pays next to nothing, by the way), she was going to any audition she could – and it was brutal. When it comes to auditions for music videos, backup dancers for concert tours, movie extras in dance scenes, etc., depending on the size & prestige of the gig, there are typically at least 200 people that show up to audition for maybe 10 spots. Some get cut right off the bat because they don’t have the right “look”.  The rest are usually taught a short routine that they’ll then perform in front of the casting directors.  Often they only get one or two chances to see the actual choreography (and bear in mind, there are a ton of other dancers blocking your view and trying to learn the choreo themselves – think Vegas week on SYTYCD), and then they’re expected to perform it.  So right off the bat – if you aren’t used to picking up choreography quickly, you’re probably not making the cut.  Of the ones that are actually able to perform the choreography, the casting directors are typically drawn to the ones able to “move big” and stand out in the crowd, so the higher you can jump, the further you can stretch, and the faster you can spin, the better.  And if you’re attractive and/or in great shape, that much better – so taking everything I’ve just said into account, I think it’s pretty clear that only the best/most driven individuals actually make it in the dance industry, which means that Heather is better-equipped to deal with grueling dance demands than the average celeb that does this show.

The Age Debate

I’m sure this is gonna get some folks’ goat, but the harsh reality we all have to face is that our bodies will eventually start to deteriorate with time – despite some of our best efforts, by the time we hit our 40’s, most of us will be suffering from at least a few aches & pains that we didn’t have to deal with when we were in our 20’s.  Something else to take into account is life experience – someone in their 30’s is going to have had more time to hone their skills as a dancer than someone that’s just a teenager. Given those two age-related concerns, I think it’s safe to say Heather is in the “Goldilocks Zone” – young enough that’s she not yet hindered badly by age-related aches and pains, but old enough that she’s had enough time to hone her experience as a dancer.  I’m not sure we’ve had too many other contestants that fit that bill.

So those are my thoughts on the great “Who’s the ringiest ringer of them all?” debate.  What are yours?