Cheryl Burke, the 27-year-old "Dancing with the Stars" pro who just may be more of a household name than her "celebrity" partner Rob Kardashian, will be hoofing her way into the semifinals Monday (Mon. at 8:00 ET on ABC). I had the chance to ask the dancer/author/actress/samba maniac about how she's gotten this far and her plan to land another mirror ball trophy to add to her collection.
Know your partner - and hope he's not a jerk Burke, who's taken both Drew Lachey and Emmit Smith to the winners' circle, claims current partner Rob Kardashian has actually been her favorite star hoofer thus far. "He's just a normal kid, a normal kid I would be friends with," she says. "We knew each other before the show and always got along. He's cool and down to earth; there's no drama with him. He still has fun with the show and we still have fun with the show together. You usually go into rehearsal and you're sick of seeing that person's face after three months. It's just natural. But with Rob, I don't have that."
Give up on understanding the judging If you were in agreement with Maks' tirade against Len for inequities in how the couples are judged, you weren't the only one. Even Burke says she hasn't figured out why the judges score the way they do. "I'm confused too, at times," she says. "I don't always know if they're comparing celebrities to one another or if they're just comparing them to themselves. I kind of gave up on figuring them out, but I just hope that the judges give us something constructive that we can work with at the end of the day."
Play favorites Whether or not Kardashian takes home the mirror ball trophy, Burke feels his journey to the top has been the most rewarding for her, as the unassuming sibling in a famous family has blossomed in ways that will have an impact on his life outside the ballroom. "I honestly think Rob is the one I'm most proud of," she says. "For someone who came in not having any dance experience and being really shy and reserved, he's proved to everybody he's a hard worker. The show has given him a lot of confidence, and knowing that's something he'll take with him is really rewarding for me."
Have a plan Though Burke concedes it's going to be tough, she says she's keeping her focus trained on the couples' next challenge. "Our goal is to make the finals. I think Rob has potential to make the top three, so I hope that he can get some momentum going and continue to improve." Though she's won twice before, she doesn't feel she can simply use the same techniques that worked in the past to propel Kardashian to the win. "I think everyone is different," she admitted. "Rob needed to work on his confidence and just have fun and dance. It's my job to help him with that. I really think what he needed was to believe in himself, and once he started seeing the results of his hard work in the judges' comments, it made a difference."
Accept that dancing with a newbie is just plain tough Though professional dancing is never a cakewalk, Burke concedes that working with a greenhorn requires far more hours than she would dedicate even to a professional tournament. "It's a lot more work," she says. "You're under the pressure of teaching someone who's never danced before, and its obviously a lot more challenging than dancing with another professional who knows exactly what he's doing. But I still love it." She also acknowledges that, though it can be frustrating, accepting newbie cluelessness comes with the territory. "I've never worked with anyone with lots of dance experience on this show," she says. "I understand it's our job to help them and turn them into dancers."
Remember it takes two to tango (and waltz and samba and...) Though it may seem that the professionals on "Dancing with the Stars" are the leaders who must push their celebrities uphill to the winners' circle, Burke is quick to point out that the effort has to be split evenly. "At the end of the day, it's a team effort. People have to come in with good attitudes and we both have work together. With Rob, I don't need to push him to excel. He knows he wants to make it to the top, and at this point in the competition he knows exactly what that requires."
Listen to your body Burke, who had to drop out of season nine when her partner Tom DeLay suffered stress fractures to his feet, says she counts on her partners to let her know when to say when. "You have to listen to your body. In training periods before the show starts we're required to take breaks every two hours. Normally my partner will tell me if he's hurt, and if someone feels they're pushing too hard we try to adjust. Maybe when we do a rehearsal we won't go full out. But it just happens that you have to push yourself when you perform."
Show off your partner's strengths Burke says she has an idea of how to help Kardashian wow the judges next week. "We have three completely different dances, so important to show how different he can be, from sexy to serious to just letting loose. If he can really go through those opposite characters, it will show he can do several styles of dancing, not just one, and I think that will make a big difference to the judges." So, where does Burke think Kardashian has shined the brightest? "I think Rob's strongest dance has been the quick step," she says. "It was for that dance that we got our highest score, but he's strong in all the ballroom dances."
Enjoy being a girl Though it sometimes seems that working with some of the more high maintenance female celebrities (cough, Nancy Grace, cough) might make it easier to be a female pro on the show, Burke doesn't agree. "I think they're about the same, as far as the challenges," she says. "For the female celebrities, it's easier for them to just follow their partner, but for the guys its easy for us to make them look like they're leading."
Look beyond "DWTS" Given that no TV show (or dancing career) lasts forever, Burke has looked to expand her horizons off the show. Though she has no plans to leave "DWTS," she's published a memoir called "Dancing Lessons," designed a collection of exercise wear and has her own dance studio. She's not done yet, either. "I would love to do a children's book about body image, and maybe the second part to 'Dancing Lessons,'" she says.