Troy dance studio: Calvin Johnson’s our ‘hometown hero’

The former Lions wide receiver practiced at Next Level Dance Center for ‘Dancing with the Stars’

Stephanie Steinberg
The Detroit News

The first time Calvin Johnson Jr. showed up at Rhona Fidler’s dance studio, she admits she wasn’t sure if he was the former Lions wide receiver.

“I’m not a huge football fan, so I knew that he was a very important football player, but didn’t necessarily know what he looked like,” Fidler says. “We don’t get a lot of 6-foot-5 African-American men coming into the dance studio, so my first thought was, ‘OK, this is probably Calvin.’ But it wasn't until he sat down, and he had a pair of ballroom shoes with him and inside was written ‘Calvin,’ that I was like, ‘OK this is him.’ ”

Johnson, one of four remaining celebrity finalists on ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars,” has been rehearsing with professional partner Lindsay Arnold at Next Level Dance Center in Troy every week since the reality TV show’s 23rd season started in September. The studio that Fidler co-owns with Britne Bell offers classes such as ballet, tap and jazz to over 100 students ages 3 to 18. Though Johnson exceeds the age limit at 31, the two owners were happy to lend a dance room to him and Arnold, who practiced there about six hours a day Tuesday through Saturday the past 10 weeks.

“Even though we have very little to do — actually nothing to do — with their training, it almost feels like we get to be a part of it,” says Fidler, who opened the studio two years ago.

The 61-year-old also owns Dance City in Birmingham, where Johnson resides. She says “Dancing with the Stars” representatives first contacted that studio when scouting for a rehearsal space, and she ignored their emails.

“I completely blew them off because I thought it was just spam. Then we got a phone call, and finally my studio manager was like, ‘Is this the real ‘Dancing with the Stars?’ ”

After figuring out it wasn’t a hoax, Fidler offered her Troy studio with bigger dance rooms 2 miles away.

While Johnson and Arnold practice their lifts and footwork behind closed doors, Fidler says there is a camera in the studio so parents can watch their children from the lobby.

“We’ll let the cat out of the bag now,” she says. “Sometimes we turn it on. If there are no parents in the lobby, Britne and I have been known to sneak a peek.”

The center has classes on Monday nights when the show airs, so the staff usually streams it on their phones, or they run home after to watch a recording.

“Guys yell at football games,” says Bell, 28, “and I do the same thing to the judges on ‘Dancing with the Stars.’ Like, ‘What were you looking at?’”

She adds that Johnson’s dance routines are “a lot harder than everyone else’s” becauses they incorporate “a lot of content.”

The women got to see his numbers as audience members when they traveled to Los Angeles to watch the Halloween-themed segment.

“There’s a point in the show (after the judges’ comments), you can see he’s turning around and waving. He’s waving at us,” Fidler says, to which Bell adds, “We felt special.”

Both admit the first time they saw him rehearse in their studio they were “a little concerned.”

“But he improved a lot from rehearsal to the show,” Fidler says.

“He is just a magical performer,” Bell adds. “He’s got that smile, and he has charisma. Since the first episode, we knew he was going to go far.”

The choreography from Arnold also helps.

“We can hear everything that happens in rehearsal,” Bell says. “As a coach, she’s tough, but she’s fun. She doesn’t let him quit, but she’s never negative.”

In August, several Lions players were skeptical of their former teammate’s dance moves and decision to join the cast. Running back Ameer Abdullah was convinced he was “going to do awful. That’s a given,” he said.

“I love the fact that he’s showing all his teammates to be wrong,” Fidler says.

Both women say Johnson might have tough competition with IndyCar driver James Hinchcliffe — the other man left in the show — but they clearly want Johnson to win. To send him positive vibes, they recorded a video Thursday night with students screaming “good luck.”

As Bell puts it, how could they not support him?

“He’s our hometown hero,” she says.

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Twitter: @Steph_Steinberg