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Mark Ballas previews Monday night's Jive

The hot guy dancing with Kristi Yamaguchi

Kristi Yamaguchi and Mark Ballas perform the Paso Doble on <i>Dancing with the Stars</i>.
Kristi Yamaguchi and Mark Ballas perform the Paso Doble on Dancing with the Stars. (courtesy ABC, Inc. / Kelsey McNeal)

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By Lois Elfman, special to icenetwork.com
(04/21/2008) - Last week, they steamed up the floor with a sexy and fluid Rumba that left many skating fans scratching their heads thinking, "Was that Kristi Yamaguchi?" The Olympic gold medalist, U.S. and world champion didn't achieve that smoking look by herself. Every step of the way, she's being guided by her incredible Dancing with the Stars partner, Mark Ballas, who despite being only 21 years old, is not only a great dancer but also a great teacher.

He is the son of Corky and Shirley Ballas, former Latin dance champions, who won U.S., British and world titles. "From the age of two, I was with my mom when she was teaching," says Ballas. "My mom would travel the world teaching. We'd be in places like Japan, China, Hong Kong, America, Italy, wherever -- we were there. I was around watching her teach all day. When you're around something for so long, you pick up things. I feel I know how to teach.

"When I found myself partnered with Kristi, when we started Foxtrot [their first dance of the season], I did some basic steps with her, and I tried to see how her body moves. I tried to pick up on her weaknesses quick and see where she's weak and where she's strong. I kind of break it down. My method of teaching is I teach her the whole routine and I push her through it. Whether she's messing up the steps and she's all over the place falling over, I just keep pushing her through the routine until she understands the pattern of where she is on the floor. Then I clean it up."

Despite growing up next to a dance floor, Ballas didn't actually start ballroom dancing until he was about 10. "All I'd ever seen were adults doing it. Then one day I was at a function with my mom and dad where I saw kids my age doing it. I said, 'Mom, I didn't know kids did this too.' She said, 'Of course, kids do it.' I said, 'I want to have a go.' That's how it all kicked off," he explains.

He soon partnered with future DWTS dancer Julianne Hough, with whom he won numerous titles. By the age of 20, Ballas had retired from competition and was teaching dance as well as pursuing his interests in acting and music. He and Derek Hough have a band called Almost Amy. When the offer came to appear on DWTS, Ballas jumped at it. He quickly realized how the dance pros on the show have to learn a new way of working.

"It keeps you on your toes, because you have only four days to choreograph the next dance," he says. "Unlike when you're competing professionally, where you train and do the same thing over and over again, with this, it's like, 'This week you're going to do the Jive -- go choreograph it.'"

In his partnership with Cheetah Girl Sabrina Bryan, he learned getting high marks and praise from the judges doesn't keep you on Dancing with the Stars. Despite receiving several 10s, including a perfect 30 for their Paso Doble, they were out after week six due to lack of viewer vote.

"My shout out to the fans of figure skating and any fans of the show, if you love what any of the couples are doing and you have a favorite, you've got to vote for them no matter how good their scores are," he says. "If you're enjoying Kristi, vote for her, because she's loving dancing for everyone."

Ballas says comments that Yamaguchi has an unfair advantage are ridiculous. "There is no written rule that people on the show have to be terrible," he says. "When Kristi skated competitively, there were people nowhere near as good as she was. That's not unfair is it? She was just better than them."

He says Yamaguchi froze with stage fright during the dress rehearsal for the first show, and he had to work extremely hard to calm her down and relax her. He constantly tries to recreate the laughter they achieve every day in the studio as well as the trust.

"It's been fun experimenting with the Jive this week," Ballas says. "Kristi is going to look so cute on Monday. Her dress is so cute." Look for a tricky maneuver called an arm breaker, where one partner is bent over while the other partner is running around with the arm behind the back. "These are really crazy moves," he adds. "You've got to trust each other that you know you're going to put your hand in the right place."

Ballas says if he and Yamaguchi remain in the competition, the producers may get him on skates for one of the pre-dance packages. He's not really looking forward to it, but he trusts that she'll keep him upright. So if you want to see teacher and student reverse roles, go to ABC's DWTS page for all the details on voting.