Carole Baskin Is Guest Blogging Her 'DWTS' Journey for ET (Exclusive)

Throughout season 29 of Dancing With the Stars, Carole Baskin will be guest blogging about her experience on the show with her celeb partner, Pasha Pashkov, for ET. This week, the Big Cat Rescue CEO discusses everything from what went into rehearsals for their premiere night Paso to “Eye of the Tiger,” to how she’s feeling about the scores they received from the judges. Baskin, who skyrocketed to fame this year following the release of Tiger King, also reveals how she plans to improve moving into week two of the competition.

Hi everybody, Carole Baskin here!

Ahead of Monday’s premiere, my day started at the studio at 8 a.m., where Victor del Castillo and Anthony Wilson worked on my hair until 11:15 a.m. Then the cast did three rehearsals on the floor. Two of the three were great for me, but in my middle rehearsal, I lost track of my steps twice. I hadn’t been dropping steps in practice, so I think I freaked Pasha out a bit. Every minute we weren’t called to do something else, he was running me through our routine… in the halls, behind the camera crews, anywhere he could find enough space.

That kind of freaked me out because now it felt like dancing in a minefield. There were people buzzing about and cameras rolling around. There were also huge, gyrating spotlights and accent beams of light on the dark floor that made my steps halting as I found it hard to tell if I was dancing into a railing, or a bright beam of light. Pasha knew the place like the back of his hand (he could probably have danced it blindfolded), so my hesitation may have led to increased anxiety for him as he could feel the clock ticking down until show time.

During the 3:30 p.m. dress rehearsal they activated the flames behind us. I was so distracted by everything else in the room that I didn’t even know it happened until Pasha said, “I could feel the heat on my arms from the fire.” My reaction was, “There was a fire?!” (Later, when I performed it live, I was aware of the flames but was so focused on trying to exaggerate facial snarls in the right moments and show the proper level of Paso Doble aggression and arrogance. Since there was no live audience, the dress rehearsal and the live TV dance felt the same to me). 

There were a lot of press photos and social posts that had to be filmed in between rehearsals. My hairdresser, Anthony, was fussing with my hair right up until minutes before the show. He didn’t want it to get tangled in the rhinestones of my beautiful gown and have me looking like a hot mess! Because of the masks, Victor was also fussing with my face [makeup] right up until showtime.

After the dress rehearsal, I only had 15 minutes before going right back into the ballroom to pre-tape shots, and then the live show began. I had been working my way up to being able to stand in the dance shoes for up to two hours, but ended up in them for seven hours before being called on to perform the most difficult, physical task of my life. 

Pasha and I ended up with a score of 11/30 for our Paso Doble from judges Carrie Ann Inaba, Derek Hough and Bruno Tonioli. Failing is never an option for me, so being at the bottom of the pack right now just propels me to work harder, dance longer and really work on the performance aspects.

As I watched the other dancers on Monday, I paid attention to what captivated me and it was the passion they brought to the act; and they all brought it. I’m not a performer, so in addition to learning how to do the dance steps, I see a real need to also learn how to act like:

1.) My feet aren’t killing me after standing in dance shoes for for seven hours before the dance
2.) I can feel my hands after two hours of clapping like crazy for my fellow participants
3.) I was born for this and love every minute of it
4.) People are viewing me from 100 feet away so that I am over expressive enough for them to see it

 
Even though the cameras come in close, there is something very different about the way we express ourselves to each other up close and how it seems to require larger gestures, bigger smiles (or snarls) and more projection when that interaction is with an audience.

It is just Pasha and me in a closed room with some remote controlled cameras for hours on end in practice. Then, during rehearsal and the live show, everyone is masked except for the couple dancing. For my old ears, it was really hard to understand a lot of the ques and directions being given by the production crew. I compensate by reading lips, but you can’t do that when people are in masks.

I wasn’t able to hear Tyra Banks ask me a question after our live dance. Her face was turned to the camera, so I couldn’t read her lips. I felt awful that I put her in a spot of having to ad lib based on my not hearing her. I realized she had said something, but didn’t want to waste precious TV time asking her to repeat the question.  

After the show wrapped and we were waiting for all the press Zoom calls we had to do, Pasha showed me our performance on his phone. I knew I hadn’t dropped a step … I had stayed on beat with him and remembered to show my commitment to the performance in my eyes, mouth and gestures.

But the one thing I NEVER got right in this dance was to keep my head level, as I tend to float and the dance calls for a very flat head line; as if I had books on my head. I figured if I was going to be criticized for something, it would be that and my posture, as Pasha wanted my shoulders down, head back and angled in a haughty sort of pose.

I thought I had managed the latter pretty well. Of the hundreds or maybe thousands of times we’ve rehearsed this dance, this was my very best rendition of it. I was thrilled to have done the best I was physically capable of doing!

I think you can see in Pasha’s face that, as we released the dance finale hold, he was thrilled that this turned out to be the very best I’d performed the dance to date. I don’t remember his exact words, because I was a little dazzled by the whole experience, but it was along the same lines of congratulating me on getting it done to the best of my ability. He seemed just as thrilled as I was about the results. 
 
I’m the luckiest contestant on Dancing With the Stars because of being paired with Pasha. His wife, Daniella Karagach, told me he was like Buddha in that he is always at peace with whatever the situation might be. I know what she means. He can watch me do something wrong a dozen or more times in a row, but his response is always the same.

It’s a technique I like to use with my own staff and volunteers called a criticism sandwich. He would compliment me on some aspect of the move, tell me what I got wrong and how to fix it and then say something encouraging at the end. To try to find two good things in every ox blunder I make? That takes a tremendous amount of presence and creativity.

Later, I heard we were trending and Pasha told me about Lady Gaga’s post about our performance on her Instagram Stories. She’s such an icon and has so much influence that I really hope his choreography struck a nerve with everyone who watched it.

As Pasha and I were discussing it again on Tuesday, I couldn’t stop the tears from flowing with gratitude for the way he used the power of the Survivor Song, “Eye of the Tiger,” to show how a rescued tiger feels when they step out into the grassy field of a sanctuary, after years of living in tiny concrete prison cells. Many times they have never touched grass before, so that first couple of steps are so cautious and wary. Then, they reconnect to the earth and just explode into a run!

You can feel both the joy and the optimism as they discover that maybe they are finally free. That moment is always bittersweet though, because no captive-born big cat can ever be released to the wild (see BigCatRescue.org/gofree for all the reasons why that never happens). Therefore, they quickly realize they are still being held captive; just in a bigger space with better food, vet care and no expectation of them ever having to perform again.  

Pasha’s choreography went on to show this struggle where the tiger and captor have this love/hate relationship. The tiger doesn’t understand why he can’t be free. If the tiger and the captor were to be on equal footing, the tiger would thrash the captor with no regrets, despite the fact that the captor provides food, water and housing.

In the promenade of the dance you get a sense of the strained relationship between the tiger (who wants to be free) and the captor (who wants to provide that, but knows she can’t). There are so many times when the tiger roars out their displeasure. And while it breaks the captor’s heart to see the cat so tormented, she has to stay fearless in the face of the tiger and in the face of the foes she encounters in trying to end the practice of breeding wild cats for life in cages. I recognized this in the moments where we stood side-by-side, arms arched in a pose of defiance and teeth bared. Even typing this, the tears just stream down my face.
 
The final pose is one of victory for both the tiger and the captor as there is a very clear “Eye of the Tiger” moment. Meaning, they both share focus and confidence as they end staring directly into the eye of the viewer. That victory will be the end of cub handling and phasing out private possession of exotic cats.  

Next up, Pasha and I will be dancing the Viennese Waltz to “What’s New Pussycat” by Tom Jones.
 
I think a lot of the fun leading up to premiere night was that there was so much unknown and everyone had an opinion on who the couples should be and what they should dance to first. If we are going to be able to enjoy that same level of anticipation, I think I’m going to keep the details of our dance a secret until next Tuesday.

The one thing I can tell you is that we only have one week to purr-fect this dance, instead of the luxurious two weeks we had before the premiere. I have to work on my posture! I can do that. In fact, that’s really not a big lift for me, so I just have to really be aware and commit that purr-fect posture to muscle memory. 

Carole will be documenting her ballroom journey with Pasha all season long for ET. Got a question you want her to answer? Send them to ET’s Desiree Murphy on Twitter or Instagram!

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