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The BallaBuster: Aly Raisman’s New ‘Dancing With the Stars’ Moves

This past weekend, the American Cup, the only international gymnastics competition held in the United States, took place in Worcester, Massachusetts, near Aly Raisman’s suburban Boston hometown. It was at this very gymnasium in 2010 that a then-unknown Raisman burst onto the senior elite scene by placing second in the all-around competition,

This year, however, the Olympic champion did not compete. She was on hand to sign autographs for young fans and speak to the press about her latest venture—her upcoming stint as a contestant on Dancing With The Stars.

Raisman is following in the footsteps of 2008 Olympic gold medalist Shawn Johnson, who beat out Giles Marini to win her post-Games season on the show. Raisman even performed with Johnson and the rest of Fierce Five during the DWTS: All Stars finale back in November.

Giving interviews at the American Cup this weekend, the Jewish gymnast said that when she was in Los Angeles to film last season’s DWTS cameo, she made it clear that she wanted to be a contestant on the show. “I made sure that I let everyone know I wanted to do it when I went on the show,” she said. Sounds like she took some of Sheryl Sandberg’s “lean in” advice.

The golden gymnast has even been partnered with Mark Ballas, who co-won the mirror ball trophy with Johnson. After coaching Johnson to the win, Ballas probably knows better than anyone how to break the many bad dancing habits—flicked wrists, anyone?—that gymnasts learn as part of their athletic training. (Gymnasts’ dance training is often laughable. Raisman’s gymnastics dance background will help her as much Baltimore Ravens’ Jacoby Jones’ end zone dances will help him.)

Olympic athletes—from Kristi Yamaguchi to Apollo Anton Ohno and others—have fared very well on the ballroom dancing show, which bodes well for Raisman, who seemed excited to apply her famous work ethic to the dance floor. But this isn’t merely a competition of dance skill and physical prowess. The voting aspect of the show still makes this, at least in part, a popularity contest—not unlike the election for a high school class president.

Though Raisman left the Olympic Games as a bona fide star, she was still overshadowed by Olympic all-around champion Gabby Douglas and the ever meme-able McKayla Maroney, who herself turned down an offer to be on the show in order to get back to the gym and resume training.

Johnson, as gymnastics blogger (there are several of us!) Blythe Lawrence observed, did more than learn the dances; she created an appealing coming-of-age narrative arc during her time on the show. She grew up, literally and otherwise, while she was a contestant on the program. The youngest member of the 2008 U.S. Olympic team, she arrived as a fresh scrubbed, corn fed Iowan girl and morphed into a strutting woman who wore provocative costumes and makeup, not scrunchies and bows.

Raisman will begin her run without that kind of backstory. She will be older—almost 19—and does not have the same Midwestern appeal, hailing instead from a suburb just outside of Boston. Also, Raisman has a reputation for competitive verve and consistency, not adorableness.

Other past contestants have made their improved physical fitness and weight loss a central part of their experience on the program. Obviously, this would be ridiculous for an Olympic athlete who just completed a nationwide gymnastics tour. So the question is—what will Raisman’s storyline be for DWTS?

It may, at least in part, be Jewish. Her bio, after listing her gymnastics accomplishments, reads:

The eldest of four kids in her family, Raisman comes from a Jewish background and famously performed her gold medal-winning floor exercise to the traditional Jewish wedding song, “Hava Nagila,” for which she earned worldwide recognition in the Jewish community.

I have no idea who wrote this—Raisman, her mother, or some ABC intern—but I was taken aback to see one really long sentence (or short paragraph) devoted to her Jewishness. Is this a call to the Jewish community to support her bid to win the mirror ball trophy? And if we Jews are expected to vote for her, we need to know—where does she stand on Israel? AIPAC is asking.

Will the producers milk the Jewish angle and find some jazzed up version of “Hava Nagila” for Raisman to do the quickstep to? It wouldn’t be entirely out of line, given both DWTS and the song’s own reputation for cheesiness. I’m both hoping for and dreading this sort of pandering. (But it would work. It would so work.)

For Raisman’s sake, I hope that this is just an anecdote in her bio and nothing more, a nod to this summer’s frenzied response to her Jewishness, music selection, and gold medals. I wouldn’t want to see her try to incorporate “Hatikvah” or the score from Schindler’s List in her performances.

Her bigger concern, after all, is not the approval of the Jewish community, but of the “gymternet,” which has long maligned (and that’s putting it euphemistically) her for her artistic abilities, something she is aware of. “People would always complain that I wasn’t expressive enough in my floor routine and I want to show people that I can do that,” she told reporters this weekend.

Now’s your chance.

(Art by Margarita Korol)

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