Most of Emma Slater’s celebrity partners on “Dancing With the Stars” have been old enough to be her father, from comedian Bill Engvall to NASCAR driver Michael Waltrip to actor Billy Dee Williams (who is old enough to be her grandfather).
But for the new season of ABC’s hit reality competition show – which premieres at 8 p.m. Monday – the 26-year-old professional dancer from England has been paired with someone who could be her much-younger kid brother.
That’s Hayes Grier: a Mooresville native, former Davidson Day School student and all-around fun-loving, free-wheeling 15-year-old boy. Oh, and he’s a social media star with 4.1 million followers on Instagram.
We spoke with Slater last week about her new partner, the advantages and disadvantages of his youth, and why a kid who makes interacting with a colossal fan base look easy is so darn nervous about Monday night’s broadcast.
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Q. How are rehearsals going?
A. They’re great. Because he’s a minor, we actually have to take a day off every week, which doesn’t normally happen on ‘Dancing With the Stars’; usually, people do seven days a week. So we really have to work extra-hard. But lucky for me, even though he hasn’t had any dance experience, he’s very quick to learn – I think partly due to his age – and he’s really willing. So he makes up for it, for sure.
Q. What’s his personality like?
A. Oh, he’s hysterical. He’s teaching me all this lingo. He reminds me of me when I was 15, when I just loved hanging out with my friends and making videos and being fun. ... And yet I was expecting him to be quite unfocused and a little immature, but he’s not at all. He’s very happy, very energetic, and he listens to everything I say, which is adorable. I think he’s just the sweetest thing.
Q. What’s been the hardest thing about working with him?
A. Well, he’s never danced before. His actual finesse isn’t there, so I’ve had to teach him how to use his hips properly, because he’s never had to do that in football or basketball, the sports he’s been playing. He’s very athletic, but he doesn’t finish off the dance move at the moment. To really finish his arm movements off, it takes a lot of control for him, and that’s what I’ve tried to get him used to. ...
My usual dance partner on “Dancing With the Stars” has been a lot older than Hayes, actually a lot older than me. So I knew it was gonna be a different type of season and a different challenge – and in a way, more challenging, because I want to give him more-difficult choreography. I’ve given him a lot more funky, hip-hop type movements because as a 15-year-old lad, he naturally has a feel for that, which hasn’t been the case with my other partners.
Q. Typically, the choreography on the show can get fairly racy. That’s an interesting challenge, too, right?
A. YES. I definitely can’t go in there guns blazing and doing this raunchy, sexy dancing, because that would just not be appropriate and I’m pretty sure that I would lose my job. So I have to keep it on the legal side of things; strictly dancing. I mean, there’s still cheeky moments in there, but nothing at all inappropriate and it’s mainly about the dancing. And to be honest, me and Hayes are so kind of like brother-sister that it doesn’t feel like I want to get sexy with him at all. It feels like, “Ew, that’d be like getting up close and personal with my brother.” And you’re quite right: There’s a lot of dancers on the show that get really up-close and raunchy. It’s just a different dynamic for Hayes and I. For us, it’ll be more about the friends’ relationship, and then obviously the technique of the dancing.
Q. Do you think he’s nervous about being on the show?
A. YES. I definitely get the sense he’s petrified. I think Hayes is worried about what his mates are gonna think. That’s a big hurdle for him. Obviously, that means a lot to him, especially at his age. Plus, he’s never danced before. He honestly doesn’t know if he looks good or not.
Q. How do you think traditional “DWTS” fans will take to Hayes?
A. I don’t think they would necessarily vote for a young school guy; they’re normally voting for the older (celebrities) and people they’re more familiar with. But he has got such a massive following on Instagram and Twitter and Vine, and these fans, they’re so loyal and supportive. It’ll be really interesting to see whether they follow him onto “Dancing With the Stars” and keep him in. I hope so!
‘Dancing With the Stars’
On TV: The two-hour season premiere airs on ABC at 8 p.m. Monday. The network will broadcast the results show from 9-11 p.m. Tuesday.
Contestants: In addition to social media star/N.C. native Hayes Grier, there’s singer Tamar Braxton; actor Gary Busey; singer Nick Carter; chef Paula Deen; Triple Crown-winning jockey Victor Espinoza; singer Andy Grammer; actress Bindi Irwin; singer Chaka Khan; actress Alexa Penavega; singer Carlos Penavega; terrorist-thwarting hero Alek Skarlatos; and reality TV star Kim Zolciak Biermann.