Quickstep to Stardom
October 8, 2009

Celebrity coach and studio owner Cheryl Burke makes her dancers shine.

“It’s all about finding what they’re good at,” says Cheryl Burke about teaching celebrities like Gilles Marini to dance in an impossibly short period of time.

She’s a world-class hip-shaking, shoulder-shimmying mover who can out-waltz the Viennese and out-quickstep an Olympian. As for her tango? Let’s just say she was to the stiletto and fishnets born. She is none other than Cheryl Burke, ballroom dancer extraordinaire and two-time winner on ABC’s hit reality series, “Dancing With the Stars.”

Indeed, while helping to amp up the visibility of the artform, Burke has danced her way into the hearts of audiences across the country. With the show routinely snagging 20 million viewers weekly and YouTube postings garnering even more fans, Burke, at 25, has become a star in her own right.

Although she and her season-eight partner, French heartthrob Gilles Marini, didn’t bring home the mirror ball trophy, Burke says she’s having the time of her life. “I never dreamed of being on TV. This was never my goal. It just happened to be like this, doing something that I love. Expressing who I am through my body and through my movements and sharing it with millions of people is such an honor.”

Doing something she loves came early to the little girl who grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and began studying ballet at age 4. When her parents brought her to watch a ballroom competition when she was 10, though, Burke fell in love with the artform and shelved her ballet slippers to pursue training in both standard and Latin ballroom dancing.

By age 13 Burke was traveling and competing internationally, eventually winning several titles, including World Cup Latin Professional Rising Star Champion in 2005. She hadn’t, how-ever, reached a goal of becoming a world champion, when a dance with destiny intervened.

Burke leads a beginner’s salsa class at her Mountain View, California, studio.

Burke had been living in New York, training with her ballroom partner in 2005, the same year “DWTS” first hit the airwaves as a summer replacement. Burke says she thought the show was entertaining, though she wasn’t sure how long it would last. But timing in life, like timing in dance, is everything.

Producers had heard of Burke through word of mouth and saw her perform in a competition. They then approached her about doing the show. “I think it was mainly my dancing, and my look was different,” says Burke, whose mother is Filipino and father is half-Russian, half-Irish.

Initially camera-shy, the sultry brunette with the winning smile and sizzling moves has come a long way. After winning competitions on the show with pop singer Drew Lachey and former professional football player Emmitt Smith, Burke has blossomed into a confident woman, both on and offscreen.

She makes numerous appearances on talk shows and at Hollywood red carpet events, and her website, strictlycheryl.com, continues to attract fans of all stripes. Part of that appeal stems from Burke’s no-nonsense approach to teaching celebrities how to dance in about 12 weeks, even though ballroom is a discipline that generally requires years of study, hard work and dedication.

“It’s all about trying to find what they’re good at,” says Burke on working her magic with stars unfamiliar with the quickstep, tango or paso doble. “With Gilles, when he gets his steps, he’s amazing. You can tell he’s not a dancer—that it’s hard for him to remember choreography. But he has a dancer’s body. He’s limber and has beautiful lines. Whenever I put him in a position, he looks great.”

Burke says Emmitt Smith had natural musicality and great rhythm. “I capitalize on what the celebrities’ strengths are, not their weaknesses. I’ve been lucky enough to where all of my partners have been pretty good and it’s not so hard to find their strengths.”

Having been coached most of her life, finding herself on the teaching end, Burke confesses, was a challenge. “It was a hard transition, but I learned to adapt to whomever I was teaching. That’s the best way to maximize your talent. Every celebrity is a different personality and their way of learning is different,” she says. “For me, I learn how my students learn so I can teach what is best for them. With the celebrities, you work on details to make them look good.”

From all appearances, Burke has become an outstanding teacher, which she has incorporated into another job, that of businesswoman. Having opened her first dance studio in San Francisco in 2008, she decided to expand with studios in Mountain View and Laguna Niguel, California, in May and June of this year, respectively.

Burke made use of Emmitt Smith’s natural musicality to take her partner to the top in “DWTS” season three.

Offering classes in a wide range of dance styles, the studios are overseen by her mother and business partner Sherri Burke, who had recently retired from her own home health-care business. “Cheryl and I saw that the Metronome studio in San Francisco was going to close,” says Mrs. Burke, “and we thought, ‘We can’t allow that to happen.’ We also wanted to put ballroom on the map, because it’s a great way to promote physical fitness and articulate the beauty of dance.”

“That was Cheryl’s vision,” Mrs. Burke adds. “She wanted to be a fresh face and be more customer-friendly, where we could reach out to kids, adults, you name it.”

The studios have full- and part-time teachers (ranging from 5 to 30 per venue) on their rosters, with enrollment topping out at 1,100. Mrs. Burke, CEO, acknowledges that though one might have love and passion for dancing, to go into business one also needs working capital and the ability to build a customer base.

“To do that,” she says, “you look at a certain location and ask if there are people who actually love to do what you’re trying to provide. You listen to what the customers want and try to fulfill an unfulfilled need.”

Mrs. Burke says that she and her daughter also took over an existing studio in Mountain View, the Starlite, but that in Southern California, seeing a need for a ballroom studio, they started from scratch.

“Cheryl’s celebrity was a plus,” she says, “but even without that, anybody could do it. If you want to make a difference and influence others with what you know, you provide that service.”

Meanwhile, the younger Burke tries to be as active as possible in the studios. Since she didn’t tour with “DWTS” this summer (Burke performed on three tours to date), it allowed her time to teach beginning master classes of up to 120 students.

Her teaching philosophy essentially remains the same: “Whatever I teach in master classes is how I teach celebrities—I try to make them look good. But,” she adds, “the students in my studios learn faster because they usually have some dance experience.”

Mrs. Burke points out that teaching came naturally to her daughter. “Since she was 11 she was taking private lessons and she was exposed to so many different coaches. And since Cheryl is not a person who would run a business, she’s more the performer, the teacher, the innovator of so many different ways of teaching and performing.”

Cheryl Burke with Gilles Marini

Michael Eric Koptke has been teaching at the Burke studios for the last year, assisting Cheryl with master classes and private lessons. “She has a fantastic way of helping everyone, no matter what level of dancer they are,” he says. “She is also one of the hardest working people I know and does her job without any complaints. She has influenced me to put my life into perspective and to enjoy and appreciate it without complaint.”

Burke’s endeavors also include making a workout DVD, Disco Abs, which was released in 2008 by Time Warner. And earlier this year she joined forces with Fit Couture to design a line of active and workout wear, something, Burke says, she’d always wanted to do.

Who, after all, is more active than Burke? She’s an avid competitor who not only appreciates what it takes to be a world-class dancer, but she also knows how to keep her instrument—her body—in peak form.

“During the show we rehearse every day, seven days a week. It’s crunch time and the celebrity has four days, putting in eight hours a day, to learn a dance. I try to listen to my body as much as possible. It’s important to warm up and conserve energy. If at the end of the day I feel exhausted, I’ll slow down and take a break.”

As for the future, Burke says she’s enjoying her work on “DWTS,” and she will again be competing on the show in season nine. She also won’t rule out future TV hosting or entertaining in Las Vegas someday. “I don’t sing, but I would love to have some sort of a dance show like ‘Dancing with the Stars’—pure dancing, authentic ballroom dancing,” she says. “The show has been a launching pad. But I like to live day by day. If you don’t live in the moment, you will never enjoy the moment.” DT

Cheryl Burke’s Tips for Competition

* Build up stamina by training intensely—three straight hours, five dances in a row. Rehearse until out of breath in the weeks leading up to competition.

* Don’t practice too hard the day before and get lots of rest that night.

* On competition day:

-Make sure to have a really good breakfast.

-Walk through your routine—there’s not much more your body can do.

* Have a positive attitude.

Victoria Looseleaf is an award-winning arts journalist and producer of the TV show and blog, “The Looseleaf Report.”

Photos from top: by Kelsey McNeal, courtesy of ABC; by Marty Sohl; others by Adam Larkey, courtesy of ABC

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