unforgiving schedule and complaints of constant
soreness from past contestants, Matlin, 42, says
she's remained pain-free.
"Everyone asks if I'm
sore," she said after a recent rehearsal at a
nondescript dance studio northeast of Los Angeles.
"Am I supposed to be sore?"
Perhaps not. She is,
however, supposed to step, twirl, dip, smile, clap,
spin, plant and jump — all imaginable types of body
and facial movements, really — in time with the
music. Never mind that the Academy Award-winning
actress can't hear a single note, beat, or tempo
While none of this
year's crop of "Dancing" hopefuls have ever danced
professionally, Matlin has the additional challenge
of being deaf. And that's not a problem, she said
through her longtime interpreter, Jack Jason. Matlin
relies on her professional partner, show newcomer
Fabian Sanchez, to lead the way.
"He's my music," she
Sanchez has modified
some of the dances slightly so he and Matlin
maintain more physical or visual contact than they
otherwise might. But even when she steps out solo,
"she's got a natural rhythm," he said. "She's on
time every single time."
The dance instructor
from Birmingham, Ala. had never worked with a deaf
student before, but he finds Matlin easier to teach
than many who can hear.
"I have somebody who
has never danced, who has never heard music, so I
can mold her however I want," he said. "She's more
sensitive to my lead because she's not trying to
follow the rhythm on her own."
Matlin didn't join the
show to prove that deaf people can dance, she said,
adding that she has seen deaf dancers perform on
stages across the country. She did it for the
challenge, the exposure, and ultimately, for her
The mother of four was
inspired by her 12-year-old daughter, Sara, a
hip-hop dancer and devoted fan of the show.
"I just want to be the
cool mom," Matlin said.
She's found the right
venue for that.
As if an "American
Idol"-esque 25 million viewers for last year's
finale wasn't lending enough cultural weight to the
live dancing competition, now it has something
resembling a serious actress in its cast: Matlin, an
Emmy-nominated TV veteran who won a best actress
Oscar in 1986 for "Children of a Lesser God," is a
clear cut above the usual "Dancing" actors.
For that reason alone
she stands out from this year's crop, which includes
radio host Adam Carolla, magician Penn Jillette, pro
football player Jason Taylor, tennis champ Monica
Seles, Olympic skater Kristi Yamaguchi, R&B singer
Mario and actors Steve Guttenberg, Shannon
Elizabeth, Christian de la Fuente, Priscilla Presley
and Marissa Jaret Winokur.
As the ABC hit begins
its sixth season Monday, she gives little thought to
her impairment: "We're all challenged in some way.
... The only thing I can't do is hear."
But executive producer
Conrad Green said cast diversity contributes to the
show's success. His team looks for contestants of
various ages, sizes, abilities and professional
pursuits. Participants have been boxers, basketball
players, businessmen, models and yes, actors.
"We're always looking
to push that range with people you wouldn't expect
to do it or wouldn't want to do it," he said, adding
that he counts Bill Clinton among his dream
contestants. "For lots of people, it's a nice way to
get the audience familiar with you in a different
Former Mrs. Paul
McCartney and model Heather Mills, who uses a
prosthetic leg, lasted seven weeks on the
competition during season four.
"I think it proved a
lot of things to a lot of people," Green said. "It's
incumbent on everyone in television to try to open
up television to people with disabilities. They're
every bit as much valid contributors to television
Dance ability hardly
matters, he said, since the show is all about trying
"It's just about good
old-fashioned effort for effort's sake," Green said.
"No one is aspiring to genuinely be a ballroom
dancer, so there's nothing at stake beyond pride."
Besides, he added,
"It's a stupid trophy at the end of the day and only
one person can win it."
Matlin made it clear
that she wants to be the one to take home this
season's mirrorball prize. But she knows it won't
"This is one of the
hardest jobs I ever had," she said as she traded her
high-heeled dancing shoes for comfy sneakers. "It's
absolutely harder than love scenes in movies."
She slipped out of her
swingy dance skirt and pulled on a pair of cargo
pants, then packed up her things after another long
rehearsal. As she stood to leave, she looked
"Actually," she said,
"I am sore."