'Dancing With the Stars' gives Lando a chance, will Robin Roberts do the same?

Robin Roberts joins the judges panel of 'Dancing With the Stars' and Billy Dee Williams found himself safe for another week. Thanks to hard core 'Star Wars' and ballroom dance fans, geek culture, the arts, and multiple generations are colliding on the dance floor. 

Evan Agostini/Invision/AP/FILE
This Nov. 6, 2013 file photo shows Robin Roberts at the 47th annual CMA Awards at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tenn. Roberts appeared Monday as a guest judge on ABC’s 'Dancing With the Stars' alongside the regular panelists. She’s the first of several guest judges scheduled for this season, including Ricky Martin and Redfoo from the band LMFAO.

As National Arts in Schools Month draws to a close with Robin Roberts taking her turn as a guest judge on ABC-TV's “Dancing With the Stars,” parents might want to tune in with their kids. The prime time contest is a fun celebration of the arts and shows how even TV dance shows can positively impact the way kids perceive both dance and some senior citizens who continue to expand their arts horizons.

"We think it is wonderful that there are positive shows like 'Dancing with the Stars' and 'So You Think You Can Dance' that highlight dance and many of its aesthetic values and show people of all ages dancing beautifully,” writes Susan McGreevy-Nichols, executive director of the National Dance Education Organization in Silver Spring, Maryland.

Ballroom dance lessons in Physical Education classes didn’t appeal to my sons until actor Billy Dee Williams, who played the character Lando Calrissian in “Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi,” became a contestant on “Dancing With the Stars” this season.

We only knew about Mr. Williams because my mother is a genius at engaging her grandsons in the arts via common threads she weaves into a tapestry of common interests.

“I figured it’s 'Star Wars,' right?” my mom said when Williams was in his first week on the show. “I can’t lose. Put one of the boys on the phone. I just sent them a link to the video on Facebook.”

Thus I began to see the power of a multi-generational family bonding and appreciation for dance as an art form being built by my mom.

I reached out to DWTS producers to get their take on the multigenerational appeal of this season. Conrad Green, executive producer of DWTS told me via email, regarding Williams and other past competitors, "We’ve always embraced dancers of all ages on the show as dancing is a joy in life to people of all ages. Our older competitors have often been amongst the most memorable, surprising and beloved cast members in the show’s history.”

Today, my sons want Ms. Roberts to know that next Monday they and their grandmother and many other “Star Wars” fans will be watching her to see if she is with The Force – and Mr. Williams – or if she will be the one who gives in to The Dark Side and eliminates him.

It seems fitting that my sons and so many other unlikely DWTS viewers are suddenly keen on the nuances of dance right now since March is “Arts in the Schools Month.”

The month is dedicated to activities in dance, music, theater, and the visual arts with a focus on achieving the goal of arts-rich schools for all students according to Homeroom, a blog by the US Department of Education.

According to Amy Fitter, executive director, Dance/USA, “Professional dance companies are reporting that enrollment in their education programs continues to rise. Some companies are even reporting that they are at capacity in their education programs for both children and adults and are exploring ways to expand their offerings.”

Asked if DWTS is part of the force creating that increase, Ms. Fitter responded in an email, “Though we do not have hard data to support this, I would say that dance on TV is definitely increasing awareness and enthusiasm for dance in our country.”

I have not been a DWTS fan, but my mother watches it religiously.

Mom recently took up Salsa dancing and actually dances in her living room along with the contestants while watching the show.

Then she calls my sons afterwards – they put her on speakerphone – to give a full report on everything from the eliminations to the costume choices.

“I did the Jive twice,” she reported this week after the show ended. “Hoo! Also, Billy Dee is still safe.”

I never thought Mom would pull off getting my boys interested in the cha-cha or tango.

However, Mom knew that once she sent them links to videos of Williams doing those dances on DWTS over the past couple of weeks, she would be their Golden Girl.

On the first week Williams performed a stately cha-cha with a glittering, scantily-clad version of Princess Leia plus the real R2D2, Storm Troopers, and whooping Ewoks. 

“OK, awesome,” admitted my son Ian, 18, after seeing the video. “Don’t care if he can’t really compete after two hip replacements. Win!”

Seeing this new ongoing dialogue opened between my mom and my sons tells me there’s more to be gained from this show and its casting approach than ratings or seeing if a man pushing 80 can out-dance someone half his age.

The value is in showcasing more and more senior Americans as active, fun, accessible members of society.

It’s also exposing a broader spectrum of kids to dance, which can be the springboard to greater appreciation of the arts in general.

My son Quin, 10, who likes to dance but dislikes ballroom dancing, never saw the show until his grandmother got him to see the “Star Wars” cha-cha performed on Week One and also the gangster-themed tango this week (per grandma’s instruction) with three female supporting partners. He was impressed.  

“Hey, he (Williams) gets as many girls as he needs to make it work,” Quin said after seeing Williams on Monday. “That’s just smart.”

What strikes me is that the show has evolved a cross-generational appeal by selecting more senior celebrity contestants such as Williams and long distance swimmer Diana Nyad.

Sadly, Ms. Nyad was eliminated Monday.

While critics are howling at the fact that Williams has avoided elimination, it’s important for them and guest judges like Ms. Roberts to see the greater pattern in the dance taking place across generations and genders.

Even my kids know that DWTS probably didn’t select Williams for the show because of any Fred Astaire-like qualities, but rather to expand the audience.

“Don’t know. Don’t care,” said my son Avery, 15, of Williams’s selection for the show. “Lando Calrissian just did the tango. Boom. Winner.”

McGreevy-Nichols added in an email, “National television coverage of dance certainly raises awareness of dance and does a lot to encourage young people, and people of all ages, to want to experience the joy of dance. However, parents should make sure their children receive dance training that is safe and developmentally appropriate and preferably taught by a highly-qualified dance educator. Dance is more than fancy tricks, flips and leaps. The art of dance uses movement to communicate meaning about the human experience."

I admit that my boys are not on the way to a ballroom dance class any time soon, but at least they know what it is and have some respect for it. That’s a good place to start.

It is spring after all, time to plant seeds both in the garden and in the minds of our children. There is a variety of arts “seeds” to nurture with our kids. Some are heirlooms from grandparents, while others may come from television shows or just cranking up the radio and finding some family groove time.

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