Want to know a secret about Dancing With the Stars?
"The celebrities that maybe aren't the best dancers kind of in a way are more fun to work with," says Anna Trebunskaya, a professional ballroom dancer who has appeared on eight seasons of the show, "because you really have no expectation. And then, when they bring something to the table, you're really like, 'Oh my gosh, I can't believe you just pulled that through.' "
Trebunskaya, who had won many ballroom championships before auditioning for the show before it ever aired, twice came in second, with retired wide receiver Jerry Rice in Season 2, and figure skater Evan Lysacek in Season 10. (Her Season 1 partner backed out.)
On the "more fun" end of the scale, she has also worked with Sugar Ray Leonard, actor Steve Guttenberg, ex-NFLer Kurt Warner, Chuck Liddell, supermodel Albert Reed, and, last season, Queer Eye alum Carson Kressley, who is from Allentown and was eliminated in the fifth round.
She is performing Thursday through Sunday at the Annenberg Center in "Champions of the Dance," a professional ballroom show, with her husband, Jonathan Roberts, and nine other couples. Roberts also worked on DWTS; his best finish was third place with Marie Osmond in Season 5.
The Annenberg show is "an extravaganza" of ballroom, says Randy Swartz, artistic director of Dance Celebration, which is presenting the event. Things kick off with a preshow in the lobby, featuring local dancers, and conclude with postshow dance lessons.
"How many people in our audience have seen professional ballroom live?" Swartz asks. "These are stellar, world-class champions of ballroom dance."
Trebunskaya, whose only planned date with "Champions of the Dance" is this week in Philadelphia, says she's excited to be working on a live show with other professionals who "push you" to be better.
Conversely, dancing with a complete-novice DWTS celebrity, she says, "it's like you are a pilot, and your copilot has no idea what they're doing . . . and you try not to crash."
Trebunskaya, a personable redhead, was born in Chelyabinsk, Russia, in the Ural Mountains, to husband-and-wife ballroom dancers. She began her own career at 6. After high school, at 17, she moved to New York "because, as a dancer, you know, you want to make it in New York - it's a big deal."
Her next stop was San Jose, Calif., where Roberts lived. She moved to partner with him in competitions. Three months later, they were dating. Now, they live in Southern California and own a ballroom studio with her mother in Hermosa Beach. Her father, an international ballroom judge, owns a large studio in Russia, where ballroom "is huge."
"In America, it's about sports. You want to have your kids do sports, and dancing is slightly looked at differently," she says. "But in Russia, ballroom dancing is considered sport."
Now, Roberts devotes his time to teaching and coaching. But Trebunskaya says she enjoys working with the celebrities who are complete beginners - even the ones who don't have a prayer.
"What I've found through the seasons is it's really up to you how you're going to make it. And I just choose to have a good time, and not to go, 'Oh well, I'm not going to go all the way to finals, and so I'm going to give up on my partner.' I never give up on my partners, because I know [that] people - and I've seen it before - have an ability to surprise and to go further than people expect them to go. So, that said, I always leave that chance for everybody."
Nevertheless, she nearly always knows the score.
"After about the first show on Dancing With the Stars, I can tell which of the celebrities is going to win. Like from the first [Season 12] show, I said Hines was going to win. Same with [Iraq war veteran] J.R. Martinez: I said he was going to win. By the second or third show, I pretty much name the finalists. I'm pretty much right about it."
It's the same with the celebrities she's assigned to. "When I get my celebrity partner, it takes about two days. I give it two days. Not the first day, because the first day, they're always confused and dumbstruck and just completely out of their element, so lost. But by the second day, if I see they've picked some stuff up and how quickly they've picked it up, that's when I can tell how good they're going to be."
She has amusing stories about many of her partners, whom she notes are all "really great at what they do in their own field. So when they come to Dancing With the Stars, there's a little bit of that expectation that they bring with them - they're so good at this, of course they have to be good at dancing. And it doesn't quite work that way."
Actor Guttenberg once accidentally spent 24 hours in the studio after falling asleep while stretching. "The next thing he remembers is he's waking up at 6 in the morning," Trebunskaya says. "So he just wakes up, drinks some water, go uses the restroom, and goes back to dancing."
She was a little nervous to meet Liddell, the mixed-martial-arts fighter, who "could probably catch a running bull and throw him on the ground with his muscles. He's a gladiator of our time, and here he is doing the tango and the fox-trot and the samba."
Trebunskaya choreographs with each partner's personality in mind. For Kressley, their tango was about fashion.
"It turned out to be really great and dramatic and passionate," she says, "but the object of his desire was a shoe and not necessarily me, which is most of the time not the case in that dance."
Of working with Kressley, she says, "It was like Disneyland for me," then adds with a wink, "and I can say Disneyland because it's ABC."