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Dancing With the Stars: What I Learned

Leeza Gibbons finds out there's more to the popular TV show than fancy footwork

Like that of millions of other viewers, my addiction to Dancing With the Stars culminates with the awarding of the mirror ball trophy Tuesday night. I have fox-trotted, tangoed and waltzed my way through each week, cheering at my TV and chatting online about who should win.

But the physicality of DWTS is just one part of what becomes a transformational experience and a real metaphor for thriving in life. I was a contestant in Season Four and I learned lessons that had nothing to do with how you move your feet and booty! And that's what this new column, A View from Here, is all about. Meeting the challenges of everyday life; seeing the lessons in those challenges; taking ownership of your life and experiences and making the most of them. So what did I take away from DWTS? Let's start at the beginning.

Leeza Gibbons, AARP My Generation Host and Columnist, on ABC's Dancing with the Stars

Leeza, performing with partner Tony Dovolani, on ABC’s Dancing With The Stars.

As soon as I walked on to the set, I knew I had made a mistake. What was I thinking? It was the first day of production and I felt like a transfer student at a new school who couldn't even find her desk. The other contestants — supermodel Paulina Porizkova and beauty queen Shandi Fennessey — looked so cool, confident and gorgeous, not to mention stick thin, I began to hyperventilate.

Putting on my costume didn't help. It was purple with gold sequins, like a cheerleader's outfit from the '70s, and squelched any shred of self-confidence I had left. By the time the makeup artist finished painting my face with purple eye shadow to match, I was certain that I looked like a drag queen. All I could do was slump in my chair and stare at the floor. I mean, running out of the room screaming didn't seem like the right call.

I've always been shamelessly devoted to DWTS and, in a moment of temporary insanity, I agreed to become one of the spray-tanned, glammed-out contestants. Why not? In my pajamas and a T-shirt, I could mambo with the best of 'em, couldn't I?

I love DWTS because you never know what's going to happen next. By the end of the season, the dancers' steps are more intricate, the costumes are more revealing, tempers are flaring, romances are blooming and, in some cases, lives are transformed.

I know mine was.

When I look back at my dancing diaries, I realize that DWTS was a moment of truth for me because it forced me to come to terms with issues I've been grappling with all my life. Right after I agreed to be on the show, I called my therapist and told him I would have to suspend our sessions for a while. "I'm not going to have time," I said. "Besides, this is the perfect platform for me to deal with my control issues and my fear of intimacy and that 'you're not enough' voice-track in my head." Truer words have not been spoken.

Let's start with the control business. I'll admit it: I'm a classic Type-A personality. Which means I'm delusional enough to think I can take over and manage almost anything. But when I met my DWTS dance partner, Tony Dovolani, I was in a tailspin because I had no formal dancing experience. (In fact, in third-grade tap class the teacher put me in the back row so the good dancers would hide me.) Not only that, we had four days to learn each routine. So I had to give up control and be coachable. Easy for me to say now, but ask Tony how that worked out for him? I was insistent on being resistant! At first, Tony reminded me of all those disapproving teachers I had in school who made me feel that whatever I did wasn't good enough. But what I discovered working with Tony is that letting go of defensiveness and opening up to new possibilities is essential to success on the dance floor — and in life. The most successful people are the ones who are the most teachable. I had to get out of my head, stop being so analytical and just go with it.

I also learned about asking for help. Now, I realize that knowing your limits is a sign of strength, not weakness, but when I arrived at DWTS, I thought I was this tough, independent woman and I was uncomfortable looking to others for assistance. This time, though, I knew I needed a posse. First, I got my kids on board; they were my biggest fans. Then, I put out an APB and recruited a team of friends and experts to help me get ready for the show.

To fortify myself on Day One, I packed my little lunch box with beet juice and other disgusting items and performed a nutritional "cleanse" to reap the benefits, or so my nutritionist friend told me, of "more mental clarity and more healing for my injuries." What I got instead was a migraine and muscle spasms. So I dropped the cleanse, but I kept my circle of friends, who stuck with me to the end, which, in my case, came on Week Four.

Competing with sexy, young celebrities who actually knew how to dance wasn't easy. At that time, I was the oldest contestant ever to appear on the show; in fact I turned 50 during the run and danced the mambo on my birthday. The only way to get through was to keep telling myself: Right now you're enough.

On that first horrific day, the other dancers could sense my anxiety and tried to reassure me. But I had already convinced myself by then that I wasn't enough for this show. After that, the universe did everything it could to prove me right. All the purple eye shadow in the makeup artist's kit couldn't camouflage my insecurity.

A hot bath that night gave me some resilience, but I realized that the train had already left the station and I was on board. By focusing on what I didn't want to happen, I got more of it. And it wasn't until I got eliminated that I could fully understand that. If nothing else, during my too-short spin on DWTS I had faced my fears, dared to get out of my comfort zone and tried something new — plus I wore a hot leather mini with a cape and totally owned it! I was more than enough; I was proud.

Watching the show this season, I felt solidarity with all those wide-eyed stars who froze like I did when the Big Voice announces their names. But I know now, that on DWTS, as in life, my mom's simple advice is right: Show up, do your best and let go of the rest. If only I had kept that in mind when the spotlight was on me and the judges' paddles were about to be raised. Hey, it happens. To all of us.

Leeza Gibbons is a TV personality, author and entrepreneur and philanthropist, as well as host of AARP's My Generation, the lifestyle TV series seen on more than 250 public television stations.

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