Interview With the Show's Creator
America's Ballroom Challenge is produced by Aida Moreno of Moreno/Lyons Productions, a Boston-based production company. Here the program's creator tells how ballroom on PBS got started, how it has changed and what keeps her going.
What gave you the idea to bring ballroom dancing to television?
Right after college, I got a job at WGBH, the Boston PBS station, as a production assistant – the lowest rung on the television production ladder. I learned a lot working on shows like Julia Child & Company (the great chef's cooking series), Evening at Symphony and This Old House. In my spare time, I took ballroom dancing lessons and attended a few local ballroom competitions. I was struck by how beautiful and exciting these events were.
A few years later, executives at WGBH were brainstorming ideas for new programs, and I thought, "Why not ballroom on television?" With help from a wonderful coach and judge named Julius Kaiser, I learned enough to create a television format for these competitions. I wrote a proposal, put a budget together ... and my request for funding was promptly shot down by company after company. Nobody could visualize it. Finally, after two years of rejections, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting gave WGBH a grant for me to produce a one-time ballroom special. Championship Ballroom Dancing had its national premiere in 1980 with Rita Moreno as host. It was supposed to be a one-time deal. But when that original ballroom show turned out to be a popular and critical success, I thought, "Why not another?" It went on for 20 years – consistently one of the highest-rated specials on PBS.
How did America's Ballroom Challenge get started?
I left WGBH in 2000 to create and produce programs from my own production company, Moreno/Lyons Productions. In 2005, I was able to raise enough money to bring ballroom back to PBS with a new format and title. It went right back to the top of the PBS ratings – and stayed there for four seasons until 2009.
Where has this program been the past six years?
Unfortunately, the economic recession that began in the fall of 2008 took a toll on some of our longtime supporters, so as hard as we tried, we weren't able to raise the funds needed to produce the show. We were finally able to bring it back this year thanks to the generous support of PBS and the Ohio-based Dance Ready foundation, which enhances public appreciation of ballroom dancing through scholarships, training and support for programs like this. A special thanks to PBS vice president Donald Thoms, who knew the program's potential from past seasons, and to programming chief Beth Hoppe, who supported bringing this ever-popular show back to PBS.
What new challenges have you faced in restoring the series?
For starters, six years is an eternity in the ballroom world, so there were dozens of new competitors for us to get to know. They're so young and strong and daring and fast – it seems like they raise the bar every year! But the biggest challenges were technical. For example, Battelle Hall in Columbus, where we shoot the competition, has been completely renovated since 2009. That meant we had to plan our shoot as if it were a totally new location, getting to know the new dimensions, entryways and power grids – and figure out how to take advantage of the brand new ceiling with its computerized LED lighting.
Has television technology changed too?
It never stops changing! Of course, Moreno/Lyons Productions has kept up with the times by producing other programs, but this was the first time we had applied some of these new technologies to the ballroom show. For example, we shot the entire series "tapeless" – that is, we didn't record on videotape but on digital hard drives. I had always been reluctant to make the leap to tapeless production for fear we might lose some of the show to a hard drive malfunction – just the way you lose files when your computer crashes. I liked the comfort of knowing that the images would always be there on good, old-fashioned reliable videotape.
What made you decide to finally take the plunge?
Well, the reliability of the drives and recording equipment has improved a lot in the last five years, and the benefits of going tapeless finally outweighed the risks. For example, this year we were able to begin editing the day after we returned to Boston from our shoot. In past years we had to spend a week copying the footage from our videotapes into our digital editing system; this year, we could just plug in the drives and go.
It also helps that we shoot the series with six cameras. I figured that even if we lost some of the images from one camera because of a bad drive, we could always use a shot from one of the other cameras to cover that part of the competition. As it happened, everything went smoothly – thanks to our crack technical supervisor, Wilson Chao, who has long championed the speed and economy of tapeless production. He has nothing but kudos for the Cinedeck tapeless recorders on board the television truck provided by All Mobile Video, as well as for our video recording engineers, Mark Katz and Steve Barasci.
This series has always been striking for its beauty. How do you achieve that?
A lot of it has to do with the dancers themselves. You won't find a better looking group of people anywhere; they're so young, fit, athletic and sexy! We can't take credit for that, but we can take credit for marshalling the resources to present that beauty in the best possible light. One of the most critical members of our crew is lighting director Chas Norton. Chas is a graduate of Yale and has decades of experience lighting this and hundreds of other shows. He's the one responsible for the beautiful patterns that modulate the dance floor and the light that sculptures the incredible bodies and performances of the dancers. This year, Chas had the additional challenge of figuring out how to take advantage of the new LED lighting arrays on the Battelle ceiling to give our shots even more color and variety. The amazing thing is that he does all this without the benefit of any rehearsal, where he and his staff could make adjustments, or any chance of a do-over in case of a mistake. He does know in advance how some of the couples are costumed and where they plan to enter the dance floor. Based only on that, he puts together a plan for lighting each performance to make the couples look their best. He's an absolute artist with light – and the main reason the show looks as gorgeous as it does.
With all the music that's played at a ballroom competition, sound must be critical too.
As hard as it is to light the unseen, it's just as hard to get the audio right with no rehearsals and no chances to do any of it over again. The man who makes it all possible is audio director Steve Colby. Steve is a graduate of the New England Conservatory of Music and spent 10 years at WGBH, specializing in remote radio and TV production, before becoming a freelancer in 1988. He's been an audio consultant and sound mixer for the Boston Pops for 35 years, lead audio for Evening at Pops for 20 years, music mixer for the famous July Fourth Pops concert for CBS, and has done audio for too many PBS music specials to count. Steve and his team always bring home a ballroom show with crystal-clear sound – they've been doing it for nearly 30 years.
I thought television was a young person's business.
It is in some ways. When we started televising ballroom back in 1980, we were all as young and fit as the dancers. Now we're well-worn veterans. But though we may not move as briskly as we once did, we make up for it with a huge reservoir of experience and know-how that allows us to deal with problems when they come up – as they always do. It takes 48 people to wrangle this live event, and many of the people on the crew have been with the show for decades. I can't imagine doing the show without them.
But the show has at least one new face – your host.
Yes, we're thrilled to welcome Mary Murphy as our new host. Mary is well-known to dance aficionados because of her work on So You Think You Can Dance. What many people don't realize is that she's a former ballroom champion in her own right – an Austrian national champion with her partner Manfred Stiglitz, and later a U.S. 9-dance champion with partner Jim Desmond. As a result, she brings an unusual expertise to the host role, and it's reflected in her commentary. Returning to the show as Mary's co-host is former U.S. Latin champion Tony Meredith, who brings his own insights to the mix. We're delighted to have him back.
In the past, America's Ballroom Challenge has always been either two hours or five. Why three hours this time?
The great thing about our previous five-hour format is that it allowed us to devote a whole hour to each of the dance styles – American Smooth, American Rhythm, International Standard and International Latin – and finish off with the grand finale. That meant we could include not only the spectacular showdance solos but also the group dances, where all the couples are on the floor at the same time. Unfortunately, five hours was more than we could afford this season, but we didn't want to scale back to two hours, because it's so hard to cram four different styles and a grand finale into 120 minutes. So, in consultation with PBS, we developed a new three-hour format. It allows us to devote one hour to the two American styles, one hour to the two international styles, and still have an hour left for the grand finale. Our emphasis is on the showdances, but we also have enough time to dip into the group dances just to give a sense of that part of the competition. We're very pleased with the result.
Is there time for other things besides the competition?
Absolutely. Hour 3 features three stunning exhibitions in the cabaret style – always one of my favorite parts of the show. Interspersed throughout the competition are half a dozen pro-am exhibitions, pairing a teacher and student – including two performances by kids that will amaze our viewers. And each hour includes an intimate backstage look at some aspect of the fascinating world of competitive ballroom dancing.
With all the other dance shows on TV now, why is this one still needed?
I'm thrilled to see the surge of interest reflected in the dance shows on the other networks. As far as I'm concerned, the more dancing on TV, the better! But America's Ballroom Challenge offers something no other program does: a chance to see the nation's best professional ballroom dancers competing at the top of their game. Some of the other shows are very entertaining, but they offer "made for TV" dancing, in some cases pairing professionals with celebrities. The level of dancing on our series is higher, because both members of each couple are professionals, and what we shoot is a real competition – these couples would be in Columbus performing even if there were no TV cameras there to record them.
So are you back to stay?
I hope so. Of course, as with any public television show, it all depends on our being able to raise enough money to produce more programs. But as long as the show remains popular and we can find the funds, we'll keep making new series. This is the real deal, as we like to say, and there will always be a place for that.