How Dancing With The Stars Pairs Up Its Celebrities And Pro Dancers

dancing with the stars jesse metcalfe and sharna burgess
(Image credit: abc press)

Now in its 29th season with a new host and a new attitude, Dancing with the Stars has featured well over 300 pairs of dancers, with each season offering up a completely unpredictable mix of celebrities from the worlds of TV, movies, sports and more. Sometimes the pairings make a lot of sense, such as this season's Kaitlyn Bristowe and Artem Chigvintsev, and other times they cause a ton of head-scratching, such as Geraldo Rivera and Edyta ?liwi?ska. Fans have often wondered exactly how those pairings are decided upon, as well as how the celebrities are chosen, and now we have some answers.

During Dancing with the Stars' recent virtual press conference, host Tyra Banks and judge Derek Hough joined executive producer Andrew Llinares and co-executive producer Deena Katz to talk about the long-running show, its ever-evolving cast and more. When asked about the process of pairing up the wide-ranging celebrity dancers with the well-seasoned pros, Katz confirmed those decisions are anything but random.

You know, there's a lot that goes into it. First of all, obviously, height. There's some basic ideas of height to make sure that everybody has the best chance. Obviously, someone like Charles Oakley is really tough, because he's 6'9", but we look into the height. But it's more about the personality. And for some of our pros, like Cheryl Burke, let's say, that you've seen them, part of it is wanting the audience to get something new from their dancer as well as the celebrities. So, we meet every single one of the celebrities. We get to know them. Knowing our pros so well, trying to find the best partnerships possible. They're going to argue about a cha-cha step, but you really want them to be a unit, to be together. There's some people that actually like to be trained harder. Some of the athletes like to be coached different than maybe an actor or somebody else. So that I meet every single one of them because I want every single partnership to shine.

That makes a ton of sense, of course. It wouldn't do anyone any good if Dancing with the Stars just paired people together willy nilly. While viewers may not completely comprehend it just from watching weekly episodes, it takes a ton of patience, understanding, kinship and agreeability to be dance partners with someone, particularly if one of those partners isn't a natural. So if there are particular stars who need more guidance and are accepting of such things, it makes sense to pair them with pros who are good at teaching and working slowly, while stars who have more natural abilities are better fits for pros who are good at pushing their partners to go beyond their expectations.

Of course, that line of thinking is also tied intrinsically to the concept of height, since it's not like the aforementioned Charles Oakley or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (in Season 26) can be paired with just anyone, regardless of personalities or talents. But when height isn't as much of an issue, it's all about finding the chemistry. Deena Katz continued:

You know, they get thrown into something that they've never been in before. Suddenly they're someone they don't know. And Derek can talk to this. It's their mentor. It's their therapist. It's their coach. It's so many things all in one; their brother, their sister. And, so, it has to be a partnership. And from the moment they meet each other, there's trust and there's loyalty and that they can actually shine together.

That absolutely makes sense, considering a lot of celebrities who join Dancing with the Stars aren't necessarily used to going so widely public with less-than-perfect performances. So it definitely helps them to have pros that are both encouraging and also able to offer up key advice when celebs aren't feeling confident or physically capable.

As far as picking the celebrities themselves, Deena Katz talked about that being a different kind of challenge for which they attempt to cast the widest net of interest possible. In her words:

You know what? I always say it's like a jigsaw puzzle or it's the best dinner party you will ever have, where you're going to have 12, 13 – this season, 15 – people that you would never expect to be together. And once you see them all together, you're like, 'Oh, that kind of oddly makes sense.' You know, Andrew always says there's this word 'relevance' that we laugh about, that the show right now, I think, is working so well because it feels very relevant. You want stars from all different parts and genres because you don't want only to hit win market. Yes, you know, we want to have the young kids. We want to have my 92-year-old dad. We want to have women that are home. You know, we want to hit everything, so we try to have a little bit of everything. But even someone like Chrishell that we have on this season, she feels really relevant to kids and to people in their 20s who are watching her show on Netflix. But I know her and moms know her because she was also on All My Children. So, it's not just pegging people in to, 'This is a Disney star. This is the athlete.' It's kind of trying to find people that transcend.

Indeed, Dancing with the Stars' producers roped in three different Netflix stars for Season 29 in Tiger King's Carole Baskin, Cheer's Monica Aldama and Selling Sunset's Chrishell Stause, and each of those shows are quite popular without necessarily sharing the exact same fanbase. (For what it's worth, Justina Machado used to be considered a Netflix star before One Day at a Time flipped to Pop after the streaming service cancelled it.) Though the musicians chosen don't always skew to the youngest generations – such as Nelly and Backstreet Boys' AJ McLean – it's clear that the producers attempt to show their range when culling its celebs.

That said, Dancing with the Stars' BTS team also wants the kind of celebs who will win over viewers that weren't necessarily fans of them before. In Deena Katz's words:

So, Charles Oakley, who's on this season, we all know him, fantastic, all-star basketball player. But he was also in the Netflix series now and ESPN about Michael Jordan. So, it feels relevant to some people who might have seen The Last Dance that may not be NBA fans. So, it's trying to find a little something for everyone and, yet, trying to find people that cross over a little more. And my dream is always you turn on this show because you're looking for one or two or you can't wait to see Carole Baskin, but then you end up falling in love with the people that you might not have been so aware of. To me, that's when we've got you, like, hooked you in, because you thought you were going one way, and you're like, 'Oh, my gosh. I love Skai Jackson.' So, it really is not only getting you to watch a show, but then bringing you people that we know that you will fall in love when you watch their journey.

And in the end, I'm sure it also helps to find celebs who are big Disney fans and aren't opposed to potentially dressing up like Disney characters.

Dancing with the Stars airs Monday night on ABC at 8:00 p.m. ET. Be sure to keep tuning in to see who takes home the Mirrorball trophy for Season 29, and keep an eye on our Fall 2020 TV premiere schedule to see what new and returning shows are coming to the small screen soon.

Nick Venable
Assistant Managing Editor

Nick is a Cajun Country native and an Assistant Managing Editor with a focus on TV and features. His humble origin story with CinemaBlend began all the way back in the pre-streaming era, circa 2009, as a freelancing DVD reviewer and TV recapper.  Nick leapfrogged over to the small screen to cover more and more television news and interviews, eventually taking over the section for the current era and covering topics like Yellowstone, The Walking Dead and horror. Born in Louisiana and currently living in Texas — Who Dat Nation over America’s Team all day, all night — Nick spent several years in the hospitality industry, and also worked as a 911 operator. If you ever happened to hear his music or read his comics/short stories, you have his sympathy.