For the past couple months, James Hinchcliffe has twirled, fox-trotted and dazzled on the ballroom dance floor as part of ABC’s Dancing With the Stars competition. Each week, he and partner Sharna Burgees surprised fans and the judges alike with their dances, even earning the comment “best male dancer ever on the show” from Juliane Hough.
However, it wasn’t enough to take home the end prize – the mirrorball trophy – as he finished second to Olympic gymnast Laurie Hernandez.
“If you had told me at the start that we would have ended up in the runner-up position, I wouldn’t have believed you,” he said. “It was a huge, huge reward for a lot of effort that both Sharna and myself put in. I can’t thank her enough for all that effort and for being so good at her job to make me capable of being part of a team that got up that high in a very tough competition.”
He noted being partnered with Burgees worked out well as she had “a teaching style that resonated well” with his style of learning, as well as her ability to be very creative with her choreography. Hinchcliffe’s style of learning is analytical, so he said she learned by having him watch videos, it was the fastest way for him to learn to, therefore, apply it later. It wasn’t a feat which came easy, though, as he says it didn’t come naturally and there was a lot of hard work put in place.
“She’ll be the first to tell you that every Tuesday morning when we’re starting from scratch, it was pretty rough,” he said. “But by putting in the hours, not being afraid of a little hard work, some long sessions, late nights, repeatedly watching videos trying to improve, it’s amazing what can happen.”
Right away, he proved he was a contender as he set the bar high from the beginning, tying for the top spot on the leaderboard.
“It terrified me, to be honest,” he said. “There was some sort of expectation. I figured (indiscernible) downhill from there. Luckily that wasn’t the case. Sharna and I were able to keep developing and keep working on my ability, my technique. We continued to kind of stay at the sharp end all the way to the end, which was a big surprise certainly.”
He continued to get better on a weekly basis, pushing the bar higher and higher to receive raving comments from the judges, as well as growing his fan base. Learning new styles each week, he notes it’s tough to pick a favorite dance from the season. On the list includes the tango which was done based on his Indianapolis crash for the “memorable moment” night, the rumba which he says made him realize the dancer he was, the Halloween Viennese waltz, the Argentine tango where he led Burgees blindfolded and the freestyle due to the personal level of it.
On the opposite side, the jazz dance was one he wished he could’ve skipped altogether. Due to lots of choreography and using every inch of the stage, he was only able to practice the routine entirely three times before the actual night of competition. Once he hit the stage for competition, he made a glaring error which cost him valuable points.
“In talking with Sharna and some of the other pros, everybody’s got one of those weeks. For us, it happened quite late, which is unfortunate. It could have affected our entry into the semifinals. Luckily the motorsports fans and the Dancing with the Stars fans got us through,” he said.
Beyond the challenge of just learning to dance, he also easily handled having to dance with a different partner for a couple of weeks, due to Burgees suffering a knee injury.
“If you think about it, everything I ever learnt about dancing, every step I’d ever taken on a ballroom floor was with the same person. To still take someone that is a complete amateur and switch that up, I definitely had challenges,” he said. “Every teacher has their own style in that sense. Every person feels different to dance with, the same as you could build two IndyCars in the same.
“It was a challenge for someone that isn’t trained in the craft. But Sharna was still there to help on the coaching and teaching side. Jenna obviously did an incredible job with us for the three weeks she was kind of part of the team. We thank her for that. I was lucky we still had Sharna in the room kind of running the ship.”
While the success was sweet, the show also had a benefit personally. Through the competition, Hinchcliffe was also able to open up more about himself, including the accident that almost took his life at Indianapolis Motor Speedway last year.
On May 18, 2015, Hinchcliffe sustained injuries when his IndyCar made right-side contact with the Turn 2 SAFER Barrier during practice. A piece of the car’s suspension pierced the cockpit and went into his leg. He was transported to IU Health Methodist Hospital and underwent upper left thigh and pelvic surgery the same day. Through a recovery period which took months, he was able to recover from his injuries and return to the racecar at the beginning of the 2016 season.
The Oakville, Ontario native doesn’t remember the accident. In his mind, one minute he was driving the racecar, and the next memory is lying in a hospital bed. However, his freestyle performance with Burgees to close out the journey allowed him to write that page in his memory. She choreographed a freestyle dance, which was meant to tell the story of him battling for his life during those moments.
“It all came from a comment that Dr. Pullman made in his comment during the most memorable year packet. He firmly believes there was a point where subconsciously I made a decision to fight for my life,” Hinchcliffe said. “In the immediate aftermath of that accident, the chance of survival was very low. A lot of people wouldn’t have made it through. He firmly believes that it was because of some sort of fight inside me that helped him do his job and ultimately get me through that.
“Sharna started asking me questions about that. I obviously have no memory of that. That’s not something that you do consciously. It’s a subconscious thing. So from somewhere in the time from when I lose my memory to when I wake up, that happened, that decision to fight happened. It’s not something I had really thought about, what that moment would have looked like or what that moment really meant. I’m not sure if I was purposely not thinking about it, because it is a scary thought, or something that had never crossed my mind.
“She saw that was a very, you know, important moment. That’s what she wanted to create. For me there was kind of a gap in the story because I had not really thought about that, whether it was a subconscious or conscious decision. She so beautifully built that part of the story for me. Now I have a visual reference to what I think happened and how that went down inside me. It was a very cool process to be a part of.”
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Categories: NTT IndyCar Series