Chapter 1

 

 

“Oh, I’m excited to be chosen for this season of Dance Off, and I couldn’t be happier with my partner, Joel. He’s definitely the best-looking of all the pros, and, well, really, can you imagine me with someone… ugly?”

“Dios mío! That girl should be ashamed of herself!” Abuela tsked at the television, rolling her eyes as the talk-show host coughed politely into her hand. Abuela didn’t watch talk shows as a rule, but she made a point to tune in every time the show hosted the new contestants for Dance Off. “I can’t believe Javi has to be on the show with her. She’s not a real celebrity.”

“They had Paris Hilton on the show a few seasons ago, and you didn’t complain then. Maybe Makayla isn’t as bad as we think,” Mama said, continuing the conversation in Spanish. “We don’t know her.”

“I don’t need to.” Abuela stuck her nose up in the air. “I see what she does on television. She’s a poor excuse for a Hispanic girl.”

“So tell me, Makayla, what charity will you and Joel be dancing to support this season?” the host of the talk show asked when she had recovered her composure.

“Reach Out and Read,” Makayla said. “They’re a charity that promotes literacy in preschool children.”

“See?” Mama gestured toward the television, pointing at the screen as though Makayla’s last statement backed her up. “She’s dancing to help kids in poor neighborhoods learn how to read!”

“They’re all dancing for something,” Abuela protested with a snort. “When do you think she was last in a poor neighborhood?”

“Fine.” Mama knew better than to argue with her mother when she used that tone. “Just give her a chance. Maybe she’ll surprise you.”

“She’d better not beat Javi.” Abuela crossed her arms and glared at Makayla as she and Joel talked a little more about being on Dance Off. “Or come on to him. I know about all her boyfriends.” She narrowed her eyes farther as though her glare alone could convince Makayla to stay away from Javier.

“And now our next celebrity dancer, a NASCAR driver with five championships under his belt, Troy Phelps and his partner, Ella Peters.” The couple appeared from backstage and joined Makayla Chavez and Joel Somerset on the set, the pro dancer moving with her typical grace while her partner clomped next to her. “Welcome to Dance Off, Troy. Are you excited to be here?”

“It’s an honor to be chosen,” Troy said. “I’ve been a fan of the show since it first started, and to be partnered with Ella is a dream come true. I just hope my fans will help me support St. Jude Children’s Hospital and all the wonderful research they do for children with terrible diseases.”

“Well, that’s nice.” Abuela smiled as the camera focused on Troy. “He knows about his charity.”

“And he looks nice,” Mama added, taking in Troy’s clean-cut appearance. “Though I’m not sure he’ll be much competition for Javi. He stomps.”

“Next on our roster, Rini Cho, host of Out in the Wild, and her partner, Luis Reyes,” the host said. The applause from the on-set audience was louder than it had been for the two previous contestants. “Welcome, Rini.”

“Thank you,” Rini said, shaking hands with the host. “I’m used to being on TV, but this won’t be like hosting Out in the Wild. I’m looking forward to the challenge.”

“And your charity?”

“Luis and I will be dancing to support the World Wildlife Fund,” Rini said. “Appropriate, wouldn’t you say?”

The host laughed in agreement.

“Oh, now she’s cute,” Mama commented, grinning as Rini continued to answer the host’s questions. “Do you think Javi will like her?”

“Maybe.” Abuela took in the slender girl, her lips pursed as she looked her up and down on the television screen. “She is pretty.”

“And smart.” Mama smiled as she watched Rini laugh with Luis. “She could be good.”

“And now, our biggest steal of the season! Put your hands together for US Olympic gold, silver, and bronze medalist JC Webster and his partner, Chelsea Burton.”

“Look!” Mama leaned forward as though it would give her a better view of the flat-screen television. “There’s Javi! He looks so handsome!”

“He’s the best-looking man out there,” Abuela agreed, leaning forward as well. “And his partner, she’s pretty.”

“You’ve had a lot of experience with training as you prepared for the Olympic swim meets last summer. Do you think that gives you an edge?”

“I learned at an early age never to assume anything gives me an edge,” JC replied modestly. “If anything gives me an edge, though, it’s Chelsea. My mother and grandmother are fans of the show, and I’ve seen enough episodes with them to know I have a fabulous partner.”

“And what charity are you supporting?”

“The Trevor Project,” JC said. “Because no one should have to live with being bullied for being gay or bi.”

“He mentioned us!” Mama clapped her hands together, grinning as she leaned in closer to the television.

“Hush, María.” Abuela cast a stern look at her daughter before returning her gaze to the television, where her eldest grandchild was talking with the host and Chelsea. “He’s telling us about his charity!”

“That’s a very worthy cause as well,” Elizabeth said. “We have a lot of those this season. That sounded a bit like experience talking there.”

JC shrugged. “I may not wave a rainbow or bi-pride flag everywhere I go, but it’s no secret I’m bi, either. Unless maybe you missed the Olympics entirely last year. And yes, I took flak for it in high school and from teammates at various levels of competition.”

Mama scowled at the mention of the bullying JC had experienced in high school. “I hope those kids see him now,” she muttered. “I bet none of them have won Olympic medals.”

“Our next celebrity dancer is former Republican congresswoman from Iowa, Christine Thompson, and her partner, Michael Einarsson! Welcome, Congresswoman.”

“Please,” the woman on screen said, “call me Christine. Hopefully I’ll be spending a number of weeks on Dance Off, and I’m not here on the campaign trail. I’m here to support the National Breast Cancer Foundation and their fight against breast cancer.”

Abuela frowned at the screen, uncertain how to feel about the woman on the television. She settled on, “She’s supporting a good cause. I hope she doesn’t make trouble for Javi, though.”

“I don’t think she will.” Mama frowned as well, tilting her head as though she could look around the television and see Javi where he was hovering just off camera. “I think she’s one of the Republicans more concerned about money than other issues.”

“She’d better not.” Abuela scowled at the screen again as though her glare could keep Christine from being rude to JC.

“And now, straight from New Orleans and the French Quarter jazz clubs, Feisty Freddy FitzPatrick. He’s been a guest on the show before with his jazz ensemble. This season he comes back to join us as a dancer alongside defending champion Sharon Nichols. Welcome back, Freddy.”

The large black man leaned in and kissed Elizabeth’s cheek. “The pleasure is all mine, darlin’,” he said, the sultry slur of the South rampant in his voice. “I’ve wanted to do the show since the first time I played for them, and this season it worked out.”

“And we’re so glad it did,” the host said. “What cause will you and Sharon be supporting this season?”

“D’ya need to even ask?” Freddy said. “Save the Music, of course. That is, the VH1 Save the Music Foundation. I always forget to say the whole name.”

The host laughed. “I should have known.”

“I remember him!” Abuela grinned as she thought back to the night Feisty Freddy had performed during the results show. “He was fun!”

“He was.” Mama remembered the night as well, particularly how her then seven-year-old daughter had danced to Freddy’s song, and she was glad to see him back. “I’m not sure he’ll be good at dancing, though.”

“He could be one of those people who loses weight on the show,” Abuela said with a shrug. “I hope he does. I think he’ll be fun to watch.”

“Yes. Solita will be thrilled. She made me buy some of his music after he performed, and she still listens to it.” Mama smiled at the memory. “I hope she’s not too disappointed that he’s dancing instead of playing.”

“She’ll like him whatever he’s doing.” Abuela shook her head. Solita was a handful, passionate about things she liked, and she would be excited just to see Freddy on her television screen. “He could sit on a chair and do nothing and she’d watch.”

Mama laughed. “True.”

“And now, another former Olympian—from the Winter Olympics this time—ice-skating champion and businesswoman Deborah McMillan, and her partner, Brody Flanagan,” Elizabeth announced.

The woman who appeared on screen had retained some of the athleticism that had taken her to the heights of figure skating, but her conservative suit proclaimed her current profession as clearly as the announcer’s introduction. “Thank you. I’m looking forward to the season and to getting back in shape. I had to take some ballet when I was still skating, but this should be a different kind of challenge. Brody assures me he’s up for it.”

“And what charity will you be dancing to support?”

“Count Me In, a charity that helps women start their own businesses,” Deborah replied.

Mama smiled in delight as Deborah introduced herself. She remembered her from the Winter Olympics when she was a teenager, and it was good to see her doing well. “Oh! I didn’t know she went into business!”

“Yes. She owns Arabesque.”

“Really?” It was one of the most exclusive restaurants in Los Angeles, a place nearly impossible to get into without celebrity status above that usually found on Dance Off. “I didn’t know that.”

“She owns a restaurant group.” Abuela had also been a fan of Deborah the year she skated in the Winter Olympics, and she’d followed the news when Deborah had purchased her first restaurant, Salchow. It had seemed almost magical at the time, when women weren’t encouraged to aspire to be more than secretaries. “There’s a few others too. I think that one Solita and Roberto like is one of them.”

“Oh.” Mama made a note to look it up—or ask JC to look it up for her—later and returned her gaze to the television. She’d have to tell Solita and Roberto later. “Good for her.”

“And now our youngest star of the season, rapper Kevan, and his partner, Lisa Murray,” the host announced.

The young man came out onto the stage conservatively attired in a sports coat and light-colored slacks. “Thank you. It’s a real trip to have been asked to do this show. I’ve been, like, a fan for seasons. My homeboy Little Z was on the show a couple of seasons ago and said it was da bomb, so when the chance to do it came up, I jumped at it.”

“And what charity have you chosen to represent?”

“The Boys & Girls Club of America,” Kevan said. “They work with at-risk kids to try to keep them out of gangs and off the streets.”

“Oh, Roberto and Manuel are going to love him.” Mama grinned as she watched the young rapper on stage. His conservative dress contrasted with the usual baggy pants, T-shirts, and jewelry he wore in the posters on her sons’ walls.

“If they recognize him,” Abuela commented dryly. She’d seen the posters too, and barely recognized the young man on-screen.

“They will.” The rest of Mama’s children were in Texas with their father, unable to leave school and work to come to Los Angeles like Mama had, but she knew they’d be watching because JC was on, and her two youngest sons would be thrilled.

“Our next celebrity dancer is Dawn Woodhouse, best known for her beloved performances as Trixie in the Trixie Belden mysteries miniseries, and her partner, Preston Ross. Welcome, Dawn.”

“You would bring up Trixie, wouldn’t you?” the actress, well into her forties now, commented with a laugh. “I’m not quite as boyish as I was then.”

“I remember her!” Mama grinned at the memory of her childhood favorite. “I haven’t seen her in anything for a while.”

Abuela nodded. “You watched that show so much I had to buy the tapes for you.” She shook her head, lamenting that of all the shows her daughter had fallen in love with, it had been those instead of some good Spanish television. “I never could get you to watch El Chavo del Ocho.”

“Trixie was so pretty! I wanted to be her.” Mama looked closer at the television, taking in Dawn’s elegant look. “She’s still gorgeous.”

“You wanted to get into trouble,” Abuela corrected, though she too had to admit that Dawn had aged well.

“And what charity are you supporting this season?” the host asked the former child star.

“The March of Dimes,” Dawn said. “I lost a sister at an early age because she was born too early to live. The work the March of Dimes does has helped fund research that saves babies born her age and even earlier now. They deserve all the support I can give them.”

“Good for her.” Abuela’s sister had lost a child born prematurely as well, and she’d seen how it had affected her. “I’m glad she picked them.”

“Yes.” It wasn’t a charity as close to Mama’s heart as to her mother’s, but she still supported the idea behind it. “It’s a good reason to support it too. We know it means something to her.”

“And now, an extra special guest, talk-show host Eugene Carruthers, host of The Right Way, and his partner, Carmen Ibañez.” The reaction of the crowd betrayed more than a little surprise. Carruthers got polite applause but none of the wild cheering like some of the earlier stars. “What charity are you supporting, Eugene?”

“The Multiple Sclerosis Society,” Eugene said without ever looking at the partner on his arm.

Mama rolled her eyes and made a disgusted noise. “I hate that man.” He was known for his socially conservative values, in particular his strong stance on immigration, and tended to assume all Hispanics were in the United States illegally. “I hope he’s the first one voted off.”

“I hope he doesn’t cause problems for Javi,” Abuela murmured, her mouth turned down as she stared at the television. JC was visible in the back corner—the only thing that kept her from looking away completely—and she tried to focus on him despite the camera’s focus on Eugene.

“Or Carmen,” Mama agreed with a frown. “I like her.”

“And now the question that has been on the minds of America for over a year. She was named the most beautiful woman in the country as the winner of the Miss America pageant in 2010, but can Amber Moore dance? She’s here this season to find out along with her partner, Tyler Harrell.”

“I doubt it.” Mama snorted. She didn’t have a high opinion of Amber. Every time she was on television, which was a lot since she’d won the pageant, she was either standing around looking vapid or partying. “I’ll be surprised if she makes it past the first elimination.”

“I hope she does. That way Eugene can go.” Abuela sighed, not happy with either of the last two contestants. “All the men watching will probably vote for her so they can stare at her more.”

“I’m absolutely thrilled to be here supporting Amnesty International,” Amber said, beaming at the talk show host.

“Thank you, Amber. And now our final star this season, a relative newcomer to the United States, rugby star Olivier Gautier and his partner, Tricia Kettner. Olivier, what convinced you to give Dance Off a try?”

“We have a similar show in France,” Olivier said. “I watch it sometimes with my family, and so when the chance came to dance here, I said, why not?”

“And your charity?”

“Médecins Sans Frontières,” Olivier said. “Doctors Without Borders. The work they do around the world deserves every recognition we can give them.”

“Oh, he’s cute.” Abuela grinned and nudged Mama with her elbow. “Do you think Javi will like him?”

Mama tilted her head to the side as she studied Olivier. “Maybe. He’s going to focus on dancing, though, and you know how he gets when he’s focused.” There had been many times when they’d despaired of getting JC out of the pool when he was practicing because he’d been so focused on his laps.

“True, but how could you not notice that?” Abuela leered at the screen, waggling her eyebrows up and down. “I want him to stay on until the end.”

“Mama!” Mama cast an appalled look toward her mother. “We’re rooting for Javi!”

“Well, yes, but that doesn’t mean I can’t want him to make the finals.” Abuela grinned. “He can come in second, maybe. Then we get to watch him all season.”