Victoria Arlen has shared her incredible story many times over the last two months since it was announced that she would be participating in Season 25 of Dancing with the Stars. Her journey from a four-year vegetative state to a gold-medal-winning Paralympic is nothing short of miraculous.
Dance Dish chatted with Arlen before she started her rehearsal day last Friday about working with pro Val Chmerkovskiy, the emotional roller coaster of DWTS and what we can expect in her dance for Most Memorable Year.
Dance Dish: When did Deena Katz reach out to you to do DWTS?
Victoria Arlen: This conversation started back in the winter [of 2017]. We started talking about it, but my agent didn’t even realize I was capable of dancing. I told my agent, “I think I can do it!”
At this point, I had been walking for a year, so I knew I had a solid year under my belt. It fell into place and it was something I wanted to do when the show premiered when I was 10 years old.
I had also told my mom I wanted to win a gold medal, so I had a pretty hefty list of dreams I wanted to achieve. I was fortunate that I had a hole in my schedule since it’s my off-season at ESPN.
Deena is amazing! She’s been so wonderful to me and the whole crew has been, too. When I sat down with her last summer, she never questioned whether I could do it or not. They believed in me.
DD: How has your athleticism helped you with DWTS?
Victoria: It has helped tremendously — especially being a professional athlete before all of this has built a strong foundation both physically and mentally.
I’m used to training four-to-five hours a day and we do that now. That’s how I like to train and even before this [DWTS rehearsals], I like to work out two hours a day.
When I was training in swimming or learning to walk, your mindset is important, too. It’s your job to everything into it — mind, body and soul.
DD: What has been your biggest challenge in the rehearsal studio?
Victoria: The cool thing with Val is that he’s brilliant when it comes to the whole process. We sit down and get our song and we create a concept and a story. We think about what message we want to give out. We feel like we have this greater purpose to deliver something with light, love and hope and share a story. Each time we dance, we have that opportunity.
It’s not easy and Val pushes and challenges me. A couple of days ago I was looking at Val like, how am I going to do this? And then we do it and it’s beautiful.
I don’t have feeling in my legs and I still have significant deficits in my legs. It’s a lot of repetition, it’s finding what works, it’s trusting Val, it’s giving him a strong frame and going with it.
Val has pushed me, but he believes in me far more than I believe in myself. He’s helped me redefine what’s possible.
DD: Val is an incredible teacher. His contestants always wind up with a strong technique, no matter where they started in dance.
Victoria: He’s not only an amazing dancer, but he’s an amazing friend. He creates these incredible concepts. With our Tango, we were given the Taylor Swift song [“Look What You Made Me Do”] — it was so challenging.
I was looking at the footwork he wanted to achieve and I had never done that with my feet in my entire life. I don’t question him; I just go out there and do what I am supposed to do. [She laughs.]
DD: I ran into Val backstage after the So You Think You Can Dance finale and he talked about keeping you in a joyful place because you radiate positivity out there on the dance floor.
Victoria: I think that’s what is cool about Val and our partnership. He’s my friend, my mentor and my rock in this whole process. I have another brother now.
We keep it joyful. We have our Daily Dance Parties for a reason. It gives us moments to shake it off and get excited — we get ourselves revved up. Ultimately, it’s about spreading joy and the world needs that now and we feel this tremendous honor being a small part of that. It’s wonderful to give hope to people who are going through something incredibly challenging right now.
Even in that Tango, where we had to be serious, there’s a certain part where you see me break into a big smile. I couldn't help it at all! That’s all Val because he’s brought out a fun side in me that just really resonates on the dance floor.
DD: Are you ready for Most Memorable Year week?
Victoria: I can’t say much, but it’s going to be a doozy. It’s made me cry already. It has left me speechless.
We all have a story and we all have something that has defined us. We all have something that has made us who we are and to celebrate that is such a beautiful thing.
As a fan of the show, it’s my favorite week. It shows everyone’s heart and it shows a piece of everyone. The cast is so wonderful this season, so it’s beautiful that we can share our stories through dance.
There is beauty and vulnerability in sharing your story and that’s one of the biggest lessons I learned this year. It’s OK to let your guard down and cry and have a moment. It’s then when your heart shows and people can wrap their arms around you to help. It’s healing.
DD: What has DWTS meant to you so far?
Victoria: DWTS has truly been life-changing for me. The friends I have made, the people I’ve been working with and the fact that my feet are dancing is just beyond incredible. I have never felt so empowered in my entire life.
After I did my Quickstep the other night, I was out to dinner with my parents who kept saying, “We couldn’t stop looking at your feet moving.”
The greatest gift that Val and this whole experience have given me is continuing to redefine what is possible. This wasn’t possible two years ago. It means the world to me.
I made a promise with God when I was really, really sick, and fighting the good fight that if I get a second chance at life, I am going to make every moment count. I wanted to use my story and my voice to change the world. Now I get to do that through this DWTS experience.
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