Mark Ballas of 'Dancing with the Stars' preps for his CD release

Chelsie Hightower
Chelsie Hightower Chris Pizzello/AP

On the #1 show on TV, it was the #1 topic of discussion: How the heck did Bristol Palin manage to make it all the way to the finals of "Dancing with the Stars"?

Palin had virtually no dancing or performing experience when she joined "Dancing with the Stars," and, well, it showed.

But she did have some things going for her. It didn't hurt that she did draw some votes from supporters of her mother, lightning-rod politician Sarah Palin. And it certainly helped that her pro partner - the person teaching her how to dance and choreographing numbers to best showcase her abilities - was two-time "Dancing with the Stars" champ Mark Ballas.

Post-"Stars," Ballas has turned his attention from teaching Bristol the Pistol to develop his music career.

He's about to release a new CD, "Hurt Love Box," at the end of January or the beginning of February. (It's not till mid-February that he'll find out if he's asked back for next season's "Dancing with the Stars.")

In the meantime, he's been out singing on a brief tour - one that brings him to The Shops at Mohegan Sun Tuesday. He'll be singing and dancing when he and fellow "Dancing with the Stars" performer Chelsie Hightower appear there as part of the Sun's Reality Check series.

Music is nothing new to Ballas. The 24-year-old has been writing songs since he was 13 or 14. He attended a school where he had to sing, dance, act and play an instrument.

He describes his music now as "singer-songwriter pop-rock stuff," and he loves listening to John Mayer, James Morrison, Eric Clapton, Jack Johnson and "all that kind of vibey stuff."

Ballas took time to talk by phone last week about his various artistic pursuits.

About the media firestorm surrounding Bristol Palin and whether she deserved to be in the "Dancing with the Stars" finals:

"I thought it was unnecessary. At the end of the day, it's a dance show, you know? It's meant to bring people joy and happiness. Every year, there's always someone who has dance experience, and everyone's complaining about that person making it as far as they did. 'That's not fair, I want to see someone with zero dance experience.' And then they finally get what they ask for, and they're like, 'That's not fair, that's not fair, she can't dance.' Either way, people are never happy, and I think the only reason she got that kind of flack was because her last name's Palin. At the end of the day, it's not her fault who her mom is and what her last name is and what her mom does for a living."

On the first day of rehearsal, Bristol Palin couldn't even walk in high heels. So how did Ballas get someone who was starting at ground zero to improve?

"Lots of hard work and patience and communication and making it fun. You can't make this unenjoyable for someone who's never done it. You have to take care of them and make sure they're having a great time. We got along really well, and I love her to death, she's awesome. She'a great person."

The "Dancing with the Stars" pros have to work with celebs who possess a wide range of experience and abilities, so choreographing requires an ability to analyze and adjust:

"Well, you have to kind of see what feels natural to them, what they don't look awkward doing, too. Everything kind of comes in groups, so there's rhythm groups, turning groups, moving groups. Bristol looked great when she was moving - like in tango, she could cover a lot of ground, and in paso, she could cover a lot of ground. We would never do anything that was too, you know, turny, just because that wasn't something that she took to as easily as everything else. She had a great sense of timing, and she would retain really well. You have to see what looks good on them and what looks awkward and just try to avoid anything awkward."

On this season's "Dancing with the Stars," Ballas worked 14 weeks straight, with no days off - and he was working on his CD at the same time:

"Me and Bristol, we would do the early session, so we'd start (rehearsing) around 8:30, and we'd be done around 4 everyday, so then I'd go to the studio at night."

It was a life-changing moment for Ballas when he was a kid and heard the guitar part that opens Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit":

"I was so young when I first heard it. ... Whatever was making that sound, I wanted to make that sound. Then I saw the video, and I got my first guitar, and I've been playing guitar ever since."

Ballas has played guitar as long as he's danced. As for how being a musician and a dancer compare - does he get more nervous for one, or get more joy out of one - he sees it this way:

"They're both different. It's difficult. They are both satisying in different ways. But I'd say I don't get as nervous when I play. I'd say more when I dance on the show, it's not nervous for me, it's more nervous for my partner. Because you never know what they're going to do. You have to kind of cater to them to make sure they get through the routine okay."

Mark Ballas and Chelsie Hightower, 7 p.m. Tuesday, Mohegan Sun; with a performance at 7 at The Shops at Mohegan Sun, followed at 7:45 by a signing event also at The Shops at Mohegan Sun; free; mohegansun.com.

On the cover,
On the cover, "Dancing with the Stars" contestant Bristol Palin poses with dance partner Mark Ballas. Below, Mark Ballas. Chris Pizzello/AP
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