'DWTS' Pro Lindsay Arnold Takes Charge of Her Dance Career
Updated: Apr 14, 2020
The first season I ever covered So You Think You Can Dance was Season 9 where Lindsay Arnold exploded onto the dance scene. Lindsay, along with childhood friend Witney Carson, ushered in a new era of ballroom dancers on the FOX show.
Both of them landed on Dancing With the Stars in Season 16, but they took different paths. Lindsay was paired with boxer Victor Ortiz while Witney started in troupe. Lindsay’s pro-dancer journey had a bump in the road that inspired a terrific life lesson and even greater success the second time around.
She’s found ease with each subsequent partner — Alek Skarlatos, Wanya Morris, Calvin Johnson Jr. and Season 24 partner David Ross — that has made her a DWTS fan favorite. Lindsay has worked hard for her success and she doesn’t take the career opportunities for granted.
Dance Dish: What do you remember about that moment with Witney Carson at Green Mile on So You Think You Can Dance when you found out you were both in the Top 20?
Lindsay Arnold: Honestly, when you said that, my heart started pounding a little bit faster. That moment was one of the most stressful moments of my life. I think now I realize how much more stressful it was. Back then; I didn’t recognize what could come from that. That moment changed my life. It changed my career.
It was hard because Witney and I were always competing against each other and always compared to each other. Going into SYTYCD, we knew that we were similar. We were the two blondes from Utah who were both ballroom dancers. Neither one of us thought that we were both going to make it.
We knew one of us was going to make and we were going to support each other either way. But when we were told both of us were making it — that was the craziest moment. I’m so grateful it happened that way.
We grew a lot and learned a lot about ourselves. We learned that we are different and we bring completely different things. We don’t need to be compared to each other anymore.
DD: The fact that the two of you did so well on the show, it opened the door for more ballroom dancers to participate in subsequent seasons.
Lindsay: It was good for the show to recognize that. Before, every season was six contemporary girls, five hip-hoppers and then maybe one girl and guy ballroom contestant.
After our season, they did open it up. Ballroom dancers have a lot to bring. It’s an amazing, incredible style that is very hard and it should be appreciated.
DD: What was your state of mind while competing on SYTYCD?
Lindsay: It was tough because it was my first time being on television as a dancer and recognizing I need to get people to vote for me. I was younger and awkward because talking on camera was scary at that time.
I gained confidence in who I was and not just as a dancer, but also as a person. I recognized that just being you is important. People love you or they will hate you, but the best thing to do is just be yourself because you have to love who you are.
At the end of the day, it was worth it. It was my first time living on my own. I was just out of high school and I didn’t have my mom to make dinner for me or to help me with my laundry. It was a big change in my life, but it was necessary.
DD: When did the Dancing With the Stars opportunity come about — while you were on the SYTYCD tour or earlier?
Lindsay: I had contacts on the show from when I appeared on the show when I was 14 or 15 with Mark Ballas. They knew me, but the calls started happening while I was on tour.
There was a debate right after tour whether SYTYCD was going to let me do DWTS because they have a year hold on us after the show. Thank goodness it worked out because if I had to wait another season — I wonder if my time would have passed?
DD: You are thrown right into a pro slot in your first season. What is your perspective now?
Lindsay: It’s hard. I was a pro first and then I was put on troupe for four seasons. Honestly, that was extremely hard on my confidence. For my first two seasons on troupe after being a pro, I was disappointed and it was hard to understand and get over.
The troupe is incredible and I was so grateful to even be a part of the show. So many dancers come on, they do one season and they are not asked back.
But I did have questions like: Am I not good enough? Was my personality not enough? Was I not pretty enough? Honestly, all of those things went through my head because I was so young and I was still finding myself.
Looking back on my first season, I was so uncomfortable and I was thrown into something that was completely out of my element. I had never taught anyone how to dance, I was still learning. I was proud of myself, though, I believe I did the best that I absolutely could. I made it pretty far with someone [Victor Ortiz] who had no experience with dancing.
So when I did become a pro again. It all made sense. I needed that time. I needed to watch and learn to see what works and what doesn’t work. It was important for me to go through that “am I good enough” phase because it made me realize that I am good enough.
DD: Tell us what happened when you got the call for pro in Season 21.
Lindsay: I was told I was troupe that season. The day before the Good Morning America announcement, I got a call saying, “Lindsay, heads up! You might need to get on a plane tonight and go to New York.” No one would tell me why because they didn’t have the answers yet.
I hop on the private jet with the other celebrities going to GMA and I had no idea why I was going. When I get off the plane, I meet with Deena Katz [DWTS Co-executive producer] and Joe Sungkur [DWTS Executive producer] and they tell me I’m going to be a pro that season.
I met Alek that night, did GMA and then flew to Oregon with no clothes since I had only packed for an overnight trip. It was the biggest whirlwind. I was a hot mess, but I realized this was my shot and I was going to make the best of it.
DD: Take us through that season since Alek was new to the spotlight.
Lindsay: I think because he was such a fish out of water and there was so much he needed to be guided through, it distracted me from my worries. I was so concerned about making him feel comfortable and making sure he didn’t feel out of place. I had to help him understand how TV works, in addition to teaching him how to dance. I had to make it feel like normal life for him.
DD: What is the secret to your success with your partners?
Lindsay: I don’t try to make this experience stressful for them. It’s almost like I try to downplay what it is. I always want to emphasize to them that it’s about enjoying yourself.
I say this to my partners a lot: I don’t care if you’re the best dancer. I care if you’re enjoying yourself and you are getting better [as a dancer]. I prefer to be with a partner that isn’t the ringer, that isn’t the natural dancer.
I’ve only had one natural dancer and it was Wanya. It was great, I loved it, but I found my seasons with Calvin, Alek and this season with David, a little bit more rewarding. I feel like I can change someone, not just take what they already know and make it better, but truly teach them how to dance.
DD: How have you approached your partnerships on a personal level?
Lindsay: It’s important to gain a great relationship with your partner because if you respect somebody, you’re going to want to work harder for them. You will also want to do well for them.
You don’t want to fake it or pretend to like each other. You want to get down to it and learn about who they are as a person — learn what they like and what they don’t like and try to incorporate that into the way you teach them.
Like with David, he respects me. He knows that I am putting in a lot of work for him, just as he’s putting in a lot of work for me. We are going to do our best to be the best for each other.
DD: Where are you getting your inspiration for choreography because your style has evolved so much?
Lindsay: Truly each week, what inspires me is my partner. I listen to our song and I picture them dancing to that song, I picture their personality, their fan base — what they want to see. I’m not coming up with an idea before I get my partner, no matter who it is.
DD: Can you explain how you have utilized outside choreographers from time to time?
Lindsay: All of us as pros, we get outside help. I think it’s something important and I don’t think it’s something any of us should hide. There are so many times where having an outside eye is helpful. Sometimes you forget to recognize the improvement or miss something that could be changed, so I like outside eyes and I have no shame in saying that.
I love bringing in my fellow choreographers and friends who have inspired me and taught me so much to look at a piece and tell me it doesn’t work. I’m still learning as a choreographer.
DD: Beyond DWTS, what goals do you have for your dance career?
Lindsay: It’s so hard because there are so many options that I’ve thought about. I think right now I am so focused on taking every single thing as it comes. I’m not trying to plan ahead because a lot of things in my life have fallen into place at just the right time. I love my time on DWTS and I will do it as long as they will have me.
DD: Your mom, Mindy Arnold, has been so influential in your career. How important was her guidance?
Lindsay: My mom’s support over the years is the reason I am who I am and the reason I am successful today. She is not a dancer and she didn’t grow up dancing. She opened up a dance studio, so I would have a better environment to dance in — a family environment.
I also have three younger sisters — Jensen, Brynley and Rylee — and she’s taught all of us that dance is not life. It’s incredible what I am doing, but if I am not happy as a person and with my life outside of dance, then I am not successful. It’s important to be true to who you are and have a happy home life.
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