Cheryl Burke is one of Dancing with the Stars’ most recognizable pros. She has performed on 23 out of the show’s 29 seasons, winning back-to-back mirrorballs her first two seasons on the series with 98 Degrees singer Drew Lachey and football legend Emmitt Smith. She most recently partnered with Backstreet Boys singer AJ McLean for Season 29. Despite being a fan favorite, the pair was eliminated one week shy of the show’s semi-finals.
Cheryl shared that since her television ballroom debut at the age of 21, being a part of DWTS has gifted her many things. While professional recognition was one of the more obvious aspects, Cheryl found that the chance to make a difference in someone’s life through dance was a positive and is grateful to the series for teaching her how to be a resilient and strong woman. She was recently inducted into the Asian Hall of Fame for her work as a professional dancer and has collaborated with clothing company Bailey Blue for her own line of face masks. And fans will be thrilled to learn she’ll continue to do the Pretty Messed Up podcast with AJ!
In our interview, Cheryl also dove into her issues with the judges’ scoring methods, her own journey as a dancer, and if she will return to the ballroom for Season 30.
Lucille Barilla: Hi Cheryl. How are you? Extremely excited to speak with you. I have been a viewer since the first season of ‘Dancing with the Stars’ and you were always one of my favorite pros.
Cheryl Burke: Thank you.
LB: This season was amazing, I wanted to congratulate you on all your hard work. It was beyond.
CB: Thank you.
LB: You were in the rehearsal studios with the cameras set in place due to the protocols for coronavirus set by the show. Did you find the experience of rehearsing, where a lot of the time you were captured by the cameraman, change much?
CB: Yeah, it did it felt like it was a new show. For me it was different because normally, we had the field producers in the room with us in our rehearsal space. There are five different rooms, and they made one of the rooms into a production room where all the field producers are there, trying to put the package together. There is a loudspeaker in the rehearsal room, and if they need a quick pickup or OTF, which means on the fly interview, with us, they will speak through the speaker. When they do come in, they all have protective shields and masks.
LB: Wow. That strict.
CB: Yes, the protocol is very strict. COVID officers are everywhere. They are doing a great job because, thank God, nobody has gotten the virus.
LB: They must be doing something right then. All of you have been fine so…
CB: Yes, we get tested Monday through Friday. On the weekends we have to fill out a survey and they take our temperatures daily. They’re on it.
LB: Better to be safe…
CB: Than sorry. Exactly.
LB: I know there was some backlash from fans due to the elimination with AJ. I feel as a viewer on my end that you put forth a good performance and were steady. He grew as a ballroom dancer and I believe fans expected a lot from him, but he’s not a ballroom dancer even though he dances. He dances choreographed numbers with the Backstreet Boys.
CB: I had this discussion with AJ multiple times. I find that with anyone that comes on this show and has some dance experience, it hurts them more than helps them. I know a little bit of this because when we started to do Argentine Tango, I really wanted to study the dance. I went to Argentina seven years ago and I spend three months there and joined a group called Forever Tango. They were on Broadway years ago. I just wanted to learn how to do it. I had to untrain my brain and that was incredibly challenging. I had to stop bending my wrists. That took months to untrain my brain. Everything we do on the show is exaggerated. For Argentine Tango as the woman, you must follow the man’s lead. That is how I was trained as a competitive dancer for over a decade. For a celebrity to lead you, they have to know your steps as well as their steps. There are ways that a celebrity can look like they are leading you, which I do as well. With ballroom you must stay grounded, you can’t be on your toes. On top of that, if you have some prior experience, the judges put you on a higher scale.
LB: The show has progressed from choreographed routines to those that were more entertaining before switching once again to a mix of both throughout the years. How do the pros manage to keep it all in perspective and determine what the judges really want to see?
CB: At the end of the day it is difficult. I came on this show as a ballroom dancer. I never went to a performing arts school. I came on thinking this was a ballroom show and I get it, you must reinvent the wheel. Like AJ, for example, I was giving him professional routines. When it comes to Tango and Quickstep, the rules are that you must stay in hold, you cannot break frame. Only in the beginning or the end of the dance for about 10 seconds. That is harder to do, to stay connected and have body contact with your partner than it is to now. I think about my partner, like AJ, who worked hard to stay in hold. If you are not going to get credit for that…
LB: I understand.
CB: Like Johnny and Britt…I love Johnny, I think he is super talented, and I love Britt. A year ago, I had some dancers come in and try out to be a pro. I was holding the auditions with Louis Van Amstel, and I was the one that wanted Britt. Sometimes I wonder…they were in the bottom two when we last danced and on top of that we won Jive. If you’re looking at our own journey, Johnny was there twice and AJ, zero. I am just confused about how they got a perfect score for the Quickstep while breaking hold, because they broke hold a few times. I would say they had zero body contact; you could see the space between their hips. If Len was there, he probably wouldn’t have given them a 10, he probably would have given them a 7.
LB: I did notice that this year. There is a marked difference in the judging that kind of slapped the paddle down so to speak.
CB: Yes. To be honest I would love for all of us to be on the same page. If I was allowed to break hold, I could have saved hours of stress in rehearsal. That makes a huge difference. We were not being judged on the Viennese Waltz; we were judged on the missed connection at the beginning. We did not make a mistake, there are couples that have made mistakes that are still on the show.
LB: Viewers get frustrated as well.
CB: I do not get frustrated for me; I am used to it. I am frustrated for my partner.
LB: But AJ seems to be such a good soul. A good sport.
CB: He has bad knees, and he didn’t complain once. The day after we got eliminated, the guy couldn’t walk up and down a flight of stairs, his knees were that swollen. I think moving forward, if I am a part of the show or not, I think it’s important to clear up the rules.
LB: I think this season was a lot of trial and error.
CB: I totally agree. I am so down for change. I totally love it. Tyra [Banks] has done a great job considering everything. I think she has brought the audience to the show. For some of the pros. We work really hard to be innovative and come up with routines, but how much can you do when you’re stuck in hold. I would rather break hold.
LB: I know it was a while back when you fell during rehearsals, but how are you feeling?
CB: I have tendonitis in my left rotator cuff. Now I have it in my right. It’s just wear and tear. I am 36 years old, and most dancers stop in their early 30s. That’s at the competitive level. We are not properly led as women, I think it’s harder for them, especially when you are paired with football players. For me, it started when I danced with Rick Fox. He’s 6 feet, 7 inches and I am 5 feet, 4 inches. It was no one’s fault, it was just wear and tear for 23 seasons.
LB: Everyone knows your history, you won twice back to back.
CB: There are other pros that haven’t won so I feel very blessed and grateful. For everything. What is frustrating is not the winning, what is fair. I invest my whole life into this show. I go in or go home. Especially when I love my celebrity. I love AJ, he’s such a wonderful person. He’s my top three for sure. At the end of the day, it’s the investment of the heart, work and time. You put your whole life on hold, including your marriage. I think of ‘DWTS’ as the Olympics for us pro dancers. It happens once a year and you work your butt off and when you don’t see the results, it’s frustrating.
LB: Back in the day it was twice a year. I would sit there and say how do they do the show, then the tour, then the show, then the tour. It’s so much!
CB: I did two tours. I did the first two. I couldn’t do it. The tour is not that hard. The show is more mentally draining than physically. The downside is that they were usually winter tours, and it’s freaking cold. You’re sharing a bus, and it’s a lot. Back in the day when Derek [Hough] and I went on tour, they used to put us up in hotels. I don’t think they do that any longer. As I get older, I need my own space.
LB: Your success on the show has led you to several recognitions. You were already honored with an Asian Excellence Award. Now, you are the first dance icon to be inducted into the Asian Hall of Fame. I can’t even imagine what it would be like to be inducted into a hall of fame.
CB: It’s awesome to be able to represent my Asian heritage. My mother is Filipino. When we could travel, she took me to where she grew up, which was a poor province in the Philippines. Ten brothers and sisters and she barely had a toilet in her house. She really has a rags to riches story. She is the reason why I work so hard, she has the resilience of a superhero. I am thrilled to be recognized and to represent Asian culture.
LB: Isn’t it funny how moms do that?
CB: That generation is a different time.
LB: When you first got that call for ‘DWTS’ you were skeptical.
CB: I was living in Harlem at the time. I basically just turned professional, with a guy who was 13 years older than me. He was an American rhythm champion, and I looked up to him. Our first year we got involved, we were together, and it wasn’t necessarily the healthiest relationship. What happened was I did not want to go because of him. I basically said to the show ‘if you also cast my partner I will go.’ They tried but they didn’t want him.
LB: That was a serendipity moment there.
CB: Like that movie ‘Sliding Doors’ back in the day. Does she take the train? If she did or didn’t things would have been so different!
LB: Isn’t it crazy how things work out sometimes?
CB: Oh my God. I am so grateful to him for cheating on me. Mind you, I wasn’t very outspoken. DWTS is more than a show I have been on. It taught me to be resilient. It has taught me to stand up for myself. If you looked up my very first audition interview, you wouldn’t even recognize my voice. I am so grateful to the show for teaching me by an independent woman.
LB: That was my favorite season. Everyone was still hungry. It was whoever had the most skill.
CB: It was so fresh and even behind the scenes, it was so fun. We used to have a green room on the third floor and we would watch the show, the judges would be there. It was so much fun; everyone was so excited.
LB: Your life has gone on the path the way it was supposed to.