11/08/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Poor Rocco DiSpirito: Food and Dance Just Don't Mix

When Argentine ballet star Julio Bocca retired two years ago from (arguably) the world's greatest ballet company at the age of 39, he gave as one of his reasons that it was just getting so hard on his body; year after year of returning from a nice vacation, having to prepare for the grueling Met season, stretching, strengthening, building, regaining that immense speed and agility and precision. He'd cross Lincoln Center on his way to the studio, he said, and see all these people dining out on the Plaza, gourmet menus in hand, chatting, drinking in the sun, bottles of fine wine on the table. I'm 39 and I've never experienced that, he'd said. I just want to be like everyone else. I just want to eat!

It's so true though: the lives of food gourmet and dancer are just diametrically opposed; they're two different pleasures that don't go together. I was a real foodie before becoming a ballroom dancer. My newfound obsession (which had me in the studio about 25 hours per week) along with working a full-time-plus job left me with little time for extravagant meals, for scouring wine stores seeking out that interesting bottle. My first competition was at a Salsa festival on Miami's South Beach. With that row of delectably enticing restaurants, plus the celebratory mood of the whole place, I thought I could handle a simple glass of rosé with lunch. It was hours and hours before I was to compete, I thought. I didn't feel it affect me at all until I was on the floor, when I just couldn't seem to sense the ground properly, especially in those stiletto sandals, and continuous spins were nearly vomit-inducing. Didn't place so well, needless to say. Even without wine, the richness of the food alone affected me, bloating, tiring, weighing down, making me lose my center and my balance.

I was reminded of all this when on last week's Dancing With the Stars, contestant chef Rocco DiSpirito likened fine dance to fine food and presented his pro partner Karina Smirnoff (my personal dance idol) with an intriguing-looking dish he'd concocted especially for her. In return she gave him a look of horrified disgust, completely without meaning to, which I found rather amusing. Definitely not the first time I've seen a professional dancer look at a generously-filled plate of foreign food that way. Just go to Blackpool and eat at the Italian restaurant across the street from the ballroom: they have probably the best food in town with a fairly extensive menu (for a small seaside English town, that is), but everyone is having a side salad and diet Coke. Anyway, Rocco said the risotto was like the rumba - containing the ever-important basics but when done brilliantly was like cashmere to the lips. Instead of lunging toward that plate like an excited puppy at mealtime, as I would have, Karina said with her frank Russian accent, a bit dejectedly, "Like cashmere? I am jealous of this risotto."

Last night Rocco and Karina were almost booted from the show, saved only by the horrid injury of Misty May-Treanor, who had to leave of necessity. If they again receive the lowest votes next week, next week will be their last. And yet he's not a bad dancer. He's actually a very good partner. In their rumba last week, Karina danced just like she danced with her former professional partner, Slavik Kryklyvyy. Which means she trusts him to support her properly, to be so focused on her so as to be there for her always, to act as the frame holding the picture rather than the other way around (as with so many male dancers these days, who fancy themselves both picture and the frame). True his hip action and his rumba walks need great improvement, but the fact that he's such a supportive partner is huge.
Their Viennese Waltz this week was better. It was good of her to blindfold him in practice, to make him feel the music, feel rather than think the movement. The trouble with learning to dance as an adult is that you over-intellectualize too much, you use your brain over your senses, over your muscle memory. He still doesn't have the fluidity and polish of a professional dancer of course (who does?) but his footwork (which in V.W. is rather difficult) was solid, he kept up speed-wise, and he had good rise and fall action. And again, he showed her off, like a good male partner does. That floor sweep was masterly.

He's far from perfect (but that's part of what this competition is for, right - to see who improves the most?), but so are many of the others: Cloris Leachman (who is going to stay for a while because of her theatric extravagance, her humor, her defiance of age, and her fan base, which includes me), Susan Lucci (who is sweet and trying very hard but is struggling), Cody Linley (who has boyish charm galore but can be a bit unwieldy and unstable at times, and did many more tricks than actual dancing this week), and even Lance Bass (who's charming as well but can be awkward with unfinished lines and turned-in pigeon feet - Lacey's got to work on that). The others I think are all solid: athletes Maurice Greene and Warren Sapp have a natural rhythm and ease with movement that is a delight to watch, and Toni Braxton (whose Marie Antoinette Viennese Waltz to that rocked-up version of Fur Elise I absolutely loved this week - come on, we need something a little out of the ordinary now and then to spice up the show) and Brooke Burke are just miraculous the way they've taken ballroom and made it look the like the simplest thing in the world. Still, I want Rocco to stay for a while more. Maybe I just want to see more little clips of him working his magic in the kitchen. And watch him allow Karina to work magic of her own.