It’s the final week of competition, just after 6 p.m. inside the Loudoun County, Va., dance studio where Redskins cornerback Josh Norman and his partner Sharna Burgess have been practicing for the last month. Burgess is applying makeup for a short video and snacking on cooked potatoes before starting rehearsals. Norman, a few hours removed from sweating on the football field, is scrolling through Instagram connecting with a new group of fans.
Both of them are operating on little sleep, having flown in from Los Angeles early Tuesday morning. Hours of practice and hours of cross-country flights – allowing Norman to keep participating in the team’s offseason program – have made this television endeavor, one that keeps extending based on their performance, an intensely grueling process. The two of them met each other in April, but that feels like a year ago.
“How the mind can be pushed and stretched to anything that is possible,” Norman says, with his typical dose of philosophy.
Indeed, Norman has exercised his brain and body in new ways in the Athletes Only edition of “Dancing With The Stars,” a show that typically has a 10-week run but was shortened to just four weeks this season. That’s provided some unique challenges for the pair, which has grown very close in such a condensed time frame – rehearsing, doing press, rehearsing, flying, doing more press, rehearsing more.
“You don’t have any spare time, you know?” Burgess says. “Meals are on the run, your sleep is sacrificed for more practice time, and you don’t really have any down time. When Josh isn’t in the room, he has to be thinking about it, or he’s at full practice training. We are going up against two people that have dance background and have dance talent. We have to work twice as hard as them this week, so there is zero downtime.”
Norman and Burgess are one of three dance couples remaining in the competition, along with figure skaters Adam Rippon and Tonya Harding, with the winner to be announced on Monday night’s season finale. Norman has consistently impressed the judge’s tables, earning the second-highest score on two of the three weeks, and receiving plenty of fan votes to stay alive. He has learned and nearly mastered the Cha-Cha, the Paso Doble, the Salsa, and just about every other ballroom technique.
This week he’ll be responsible for learning two dances – a freestyle and foxtrot – which means double the work than previous weeks (Norman is planning to bring a few teammates with him to Los Angeles to root him on in person). That’s in addition to memorizing other choreography for the show’s intros and groups dances.
“It’s really different. I don’t think you can compare it to any other thing,” Norman said of how he thinks about this experience in light of playing football. “You get yourself into something and you’ve just got memorize things and pick up so much faster than you really would. Two dances in the second week. I was like ‘Dang!’ You take so much into consideration of it. My coaches and officials are really proud of how I’ve handled myself through this whole entire thing. They know how much it really took for me to do everything and they really sat down and looked at it, talking to me about it today. It’s amazing to see they really do care about it.”
Even without playing football, the schedule is just as challenging for Burgess. As the professional dancer, she’s responsible for choreographing every dance and routine for the upcoming week, often getting a head start before Monday night’s show. Once the episode concludes, Burgess goes straight to a studio, working late into the night to put together an idea based on the song she’s been given by ABC’s producers.
“I have to think of my creative and what my whole vision for the piece is because come Tuesday morning, I’m on a phone call with the creative team and I have to pitch my idea,” she says, “and that’s where I talk to them about my camera angles, that’s where I talk to them about lighting, the costumes I design, the whole thing from top to bottom. I really have to have that ready the day after the show.”
Then, with hardly any sleep, she flies out to Dulles, Va., and begins teaching Norman her vision. The first couple of days are about learning the entire dance so that by Friday, the two can begin cleaning up footwork, posture and the performative elements that make it pop.
“Sometimes that doesn’t go to plan, sometimes you lose rehearsal times, sometimes dances take more to learn than others but it’s a long process,” Burgess says. “I have to think ahead and plan ahead and figure out how I can give him a great journey on ‘Dancing With the Stars,’ tell his story, share who he is in a matter of only four weeks. That’s a lot of pressure.”
Then there is all the required press – smiling for “Entertainment Tonight” on an hour of sleep and connecting with fans on Instagram live sessions during breaks in rehearsal. The jet lag catches up and then is somehow dismissed.
“When I get off the plane I go straight into work. I just try to grind it out,” Norman says. “When I get home from dancing I try to go to sleep. Try to get up tomorrow and I feel a little sluggish, but then we start moving around and getting going, and that’s even when I go to LA, the next day I feel a little sluggish and that’s because I’ve been on a plane for so long. That’s when it kicks in, and then it goes away.”
Norman, remarkably, doesn’t carry an attitude as he does his thousandth interview about a journey that will be over just as soon as it started. He’s mentioned previously that the repetitions of dance moves, staying more on his toes and keeping his diaphragm leaning forward, has helped in his explosiveness on the field, utilizing slightly different muscles.
That should be mentioned for those Redskins fans somehow still concerned Norman hasn’t been fully dedicated to his craft. It’s a foolish worry when you consider the lengths he’s gone to during the month of May to stay connected to his team each week, managing all the requisite burdens of promoting a national television show.
It’s certainly impressed his partner, who believes Norman, regardless of whether he hoists this year’s Mirror Ball, has acquitted himself exceptionally.
“For me, I’ve had a wonderful season with Josh. It’s been incredible," Burgess says. "I’ve loved getting to know him, teaching him. My only regret is I wish we had the full 10 week season that 'Dancing With The Stars' normally does, because what you would see this man grow into would be lightyears ahead of where he started. He already is, with the hard work that he puts in, the journey he could have in 10 weeks is phenomenal, and I don’t think anyone would have been able to stop him.”