The professional dancer reveals what it’s like to rehearse with former NFL star Calvin Johnson in Troy each week

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When Lindsay Arnold found out former Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson was going to be her dance partner on ABC’s 23rd season of “Dancing with the Stars,” she admits she was “very worried.”

She searched online for video clips of him dancing, or “anything to show he has a little bit of moves and, of course, (I found) nothing,” Arnold says in a call from Los Angeles, 10 minutes before heading to the makeup chair to get ready for Monday’s Halloween-themed episode at 8 p.m., where she and Johnson are dressing up as skeletons for a quickstep routine.

“I was like, ‘Oh, well, this is going to be bad,’ ” she says, laughing. “And then as soon as we got in the studio, he wasn’t amazing right off the bat, but I could see the potential. I could see that he was willing to learn, first of all, and that he’s really good at picking up sequences and remembering steps, which relates to football. He has to remember routes, he has to remember footwork, so it was very helpful that he already had that in him.”

Arnold and Johnson, who retired after nine seasons with the Lions in March, are among seven celebrity couples left in the reality TV competition. Last week, they tied at the top of the leader board with IndyCar driver James Hinchcliffe and his partner Sharna Burgess for a combined judges scores of 74. Viewer votes also are factored into the overall score.

Arnold says the most challenging part of dancing with Johnson is, hands down, his height. At 6 feet, 5 inches, he’s 9 inches taller than her, which makes it difficult to dance in frame.

“Whenever we have to do a dance in frame, which we’re actually doing tonight, it’s definitely tough because it doesn’t feel as natural as it should,” she says.

However, she says he makes up for it because he’s “able to do a lot of crazy things” like lifts they can pull off because of his height and strength.

The lifts definitely impress the judges. During Cirque du Soleil-themed week, Judge Bruno Tonioli called Johnson “the showman with superpowers.”

“You were tossing (Arnold) in the air as if she were a pancake,” he said.

Each week, the duo rehearse at Next Level Dance Center in Troy. Arnold says she and Johnson fly to Michigan the day after the show airs and rehearse until Saturday evening, when they fly back to LA.

“He likes to come home, and see his wife and spend time with her, which is very important to him, so I totally get it,” says Arnold, who’s married to her high school sweetheart Sam Cusick. “But at the same time, traveling is definitely hard. It’s not easy to get off a plane and go straight to rehearsal, especially now that we’re getting into double dances.”

The intense schedule doesn’t leave much time for Arnold to explore Metro Detroit. The 22-year-old who lives in LA says she mostly sticks to Birmingham, where she stays and has enjoyed shopping and eating downtown.

“It’s such a cute area, so I’ve been doing that, but not a lot of exploring,” she says, adding that the weather has “been a little chilly” to venture outside. “But I kind of like it — it makes it feel like it’s actually fall.”

Earlier this month, she had a chance to visit Ford Field on an outing with Johnson and “see him in his element.”

“Since I’ve met him, we’ve just been in the dance studio. I haven’t really gotten to see him, not even just play football, but be around football-related things,” she says. “It was really cool to have that experience going with him and talking about what he did there and really recognizing how great of a football player he was.”

That week, former wide receiver Jerry Rice appeared on the show and tossed a football to Johnson at the end of his jazz dance, shocking Johnson, who didn’t know about the stunt. Johnson broke Rice’s record receiving yards in a single season, but that was the first time they met.

The surprise “turned out really well,” Arnold says.

With a handful of couples left, she says Johnson and Hinchcliffe are the two “males to beat” in the competition.

“It’s going to be hard for Calvin to prove he’s the stronger male, but I know he can do it,” she says.

As far as winning the coveted Mirror Ball, she thinks they have a shot. She came in third place on season 21 with National Guard member Alek Skarlatos, but that’s the closest she got to the trophy.

“I see it in our future,” she says. “… Calvin has shown something new and a different side to him, which is so important on the show. I think that’s what America wants to see. So I think it’s definitely possible, and that’s what we’re shooting for.”

ssteinberg@detroitnews.com

313-222-2156

Twitter: @Steph_Steinberg

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