By SANDY COHEN
AP Entertainment Writer
LOS ANGELES – Chaz Bono is dancing right past the controversy surrounding his casting on “Dancing With the Stars”- and he’s not even the dancing type.
“I like it, but I’m kind of an introvert,” he said from the nondescript dance studio where he has been rehearsing for the hit ABC show for up to five hours a day. “My natural tendency is to go in, not show off. I get embarrassed really easily, which is something you have to get over on this show.”
Bono and 11 other celebrities, including actors, TV personalities, and sports stars, made their ballroom debut on the season premiere of “Dancing With the Stars” last night.
Of the 11, Bono may be the most controversial: As the show’s first transgender contestant, the 42-year-old author and activist has been the subject of hateful blog posts by some viewers and conservative media groups. Some have even called for a “Dancing” boycott.
But other groups, such as the Transgender Law Center and the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, have lauded his casting and urged their members to support Bono’s appearance on the show.
Meanwhile, he and professional partner Lacey Schwimmer are too focused on their cha-cha to listen to all the chatter and they’re confident that once the show begins, the controversy will fade as quickly as its requisite spray tans.
“I feel like if people who are on the fence just watch the show, I think they’re going to feel comfortable with me pretty soon,” said Bono, wearing double knee braces under his long basketball shorts. “I’m a really kind of regular guy. I think I’m a pretty nice guy. My heart is in the right place and I think if people just watch, they’ll see that.”
Though his casting on “Dancing” makes him the most visible transgender person in America, he doesn’t feel pressure to make any kind of statement.
“No, other than to do my best dancing,” he said. “That’s the statement that I’d like to make: that I’m an OK dancer. That’s about it.”
“I just hope people understand that he’s just like everybody else and he’s here on a dancing show to shake his groove thing,” said Schwimmer, Bono’s instructor and partner.
Coaxing out Bono’s inner groove thing, however, isn’t always easy, she said. Despite his legendary showbiz roots, Bono is pretty reserved. Though he opened up to the world about his transition from female to male in the Emmy-nominated documentary “Becoming Chaz,” dancing in front of millions almost feels more intimate.
“It’s completely different because I’ve never done this before,” he said. “I can sit down and talk to Oprah about myself or subjects that I’m really comfortable with and that I really know and have information to put across, but I’m not a dancer. All I know about dancing is what I’ve learned in less than (three) weeks!”
And the process has literally been painful.
“I have aching everything,” Bono said.
“He’s using muscles he never even knew he had,” Schwimmer added.
The two, who never met before they were cast together on “Dancing” and now call themselves Team Schwaz, have developed an easy chemistry, sometimes finishing each other’s sentences.
They talk about the tattoos they’ll get to commemorate the show, crack jokes about their age difference and laugh about Schwimmer’s love of legwarmers. She’s 23 and thinks the fashions of the “Flashdance” era are the coolest. She has promised she won’t force Bono to wear “a hot pink catsuit with legwarmers,” but one gets the idea she’d really like to.
Bono has been too busy with the intricacies of ballroom dancing–“posture, the head in the right place, arm movement, fingers”–to think about the sequins that may await him. He said he’s left the design of his costume completely up to Schwimmer.
He joined the show to challenge himself, he said, and wasn’t really a “Dancing” fan until after he signed on and watched a bunch of past seasons to prepare.
“It’s so positive, it’s very wholesome, and though I know some people think that I’m not, I actually am,” he said. “I appreciate that there’s stuff on this (show) that the whole family can sit and watch. It’s positive and it’s people trying to do their best and having breakthroughs. There’s nothing salacious about this show, and I appreciate that.”
He has devoted himself full time to dancing, and when it came time to film a freestyle segment for the show, Bono made his partner proud.
“He was kicking and turning and jumping and shimmying,” she said. “He mixed a little bit of disco, ’80s and Fred Astaire.”
“I guess it is in me,” Bono said, “but I have to dig deep to get it.”