Ice Network

Nagasu, Rippon finding their groove on 'DWTS'

Pro dancer Johnson impressed with Rippon's ability to balance schedule
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Mirai Nagasu will perform a foxtrot and Adam Rippon a quickstep for their Week Two performances on 'Dancing with the Stars: Athletes.' -ABC/Craig Sjodin

Mirai Nagasu, Adam Rippon and Tonya Harding enjoyed strong performances on the season-opening episode of Dancing with the Stars: Athletes. Harding and dance partner Sasha Farber received praise for their elegant foxtrot, while Rippon and Nagasu showcased Latin programs, with Rippon and Jenna Johnson doing a cha cha and Nagasu and Alan Bersten performing a salsa filled with high-flying tricks.

"The one word I keep coming to is 'overwhelming,'" Johnson said. "There was a lot of anticipation leading up to that first show. The feeling of performing with Adam for the first time was indescribable. It was a crazy moment -- I feel like everything was in slow motion, but it passed by so quick. I couldn't have asked for a better start."

Johnson created every element of the performance, including some expansive angel wings that framed Rippon at the start of the dance. The couple wore sleek, black costumes that, Johnson felt, suited Rippon. To see it come together was very satisfying.

"The most rewarding feeling is to see your celebrity have a breakthrough moment and feel so amazing about his performance," Johnson said.

Nagasu complimented the costuming department of DWTS for creating her golden catsuit for the opening number with the entire cast and the pink dress for her salsa. 

"I had so much fun," Nagasu said. "The lifts were really difficult to learn, but in some dances you go all out.

She said performing alongside basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was incredible.

"I don't even have any words. Of course, I admire him so much. Each time I take a photo with him (he's seven-foot-one), I'm shocked how short I am."

For next week's show, Rippon and Johnson will perform a quickstep to the song "Make Way" by Aloe Blacc.

"It's traditional, but our song is very high energy and has a lot of power to it, so I think it compliments Adam really well," Johnson said. 

Nagasu and Bersten will perform a foxtrot to an instrumental version of the song "It's a Small World" by the O'Neill Brothers Group.

"The salsa was really difficult for me, and I think it showed in my shoulders," Nagasu said. "This week, I focused on keeping my shoulders down and being graceful, which I think I'm really good at, but I guess we'll have to find out."

Rippon and Nagasu and their partners had three days to rehearse in Los Angeles before heading to the Midwest, where the skaters performed in three Stars on Ice shows this past weekend. Johnson and Bersten head back to Los Angeles after Saturday's dance practice so they can be at the DWTS set for camera blocking Sunday.

"I'm exhausted, but I seriously have nothing to complain about compared to Adam's schedule," Johnson said. "He has such a good attitude and positive outlook on anything. I have not once heard him complain about any of it. He works hard and tries to do his best. If he can do it, I can definitely do it."

In addition to individual practice, Nagasu has spent time working on a team dance. She and Rippon are on Team 1970s Football, which will dance to the song "Instant Replay."

Both skaters and their partners have appreciated the words of wisdom from Stars on Ice castmates Meryl Davis and Charlie White, who competed on the show in 2014. The Olympic champion ice dancers told them to expect fatigue but to find a way to enjoy the ride.

"It's kind of like skating: You put in your hours of work for your minute-and-20-second performance," Nagasu said. "In figure skating, we train months and months. Here, we learn a dance in less than a week. It's muscle memory. My main focus is to not forget my steps and at the same time really enjoy myself and connect with my partner."