Burke and Smith had a solid friendship on and off the dance floor. Yet after one tense rehearsal, the competitors had a heated confrontation where Smith ended up prompting Burke to do some self-assessing.
Emmitt Smith kept fumbling a dance step
In her memoir Dancing Lessons, Burke described the former Dallas Cowboys running back as a consummate professional and willing to work until he perfected each dance. Yet when it came to rehearsing a Paso Doble (double step) routine late one night, Smith couldn’t find his footing.
“No matter how many times Emmitt tried, he just couldn’t get it,” Burke recalled. “We were in our sixth hour of rehearsal, and even the camera crew had packed up for the night. … All either of us wanted was to get through one clean run of the dance, and then we could call it a night.”
Exhausted and hungry, Burke grew frustrated each time Smith fumbled the “twist-turn” part of the routine. Despite Smith’s dedication, he couldn’t master the steps. After several attempts with no success, Burke had a bit of a meltdown.
“‘You have got to be kidding me!'” she recalled snapping at Smith. “‘Why is this happening every f*cking time? This is ridiculous!’ I rolled my eyes. I was wound tight, seething, and I clearly didn’t hold back.”
Super Bowl champ confronted Cheryl Burke after her outburst
Following Burke’s explosion, Smith calmly walked over to the pro dancer and shared his thoughts on the matter.
“‘Nobody talks to me like that,’ he said in a very quiet, controlled voice,” Burke remembered. “‘Don’t think that you’re that special of a person that you can talk to me like that. None of my football coaches ever spoke to me like that. Do we understand each other?'”
Immediately remorseful, Burke apologized to Smith and the two decided to end rehearsal for the night. The DWTS star was struck by how calmly the Super Bowl champ reacted and effectively got his point across.
“It wasn’t his size or his strength that intimidated me, it was the way Emmitt spoke to me in a composed and controlled voice,” the pro dancer explained. “Instead of yelling at me, Emmitt took the approach of being understated and intense. It had a big impact.”
What Cheryl Burke learned from Emmitt Smith
Feeling weighted with guilt over her actions, Burke realized she took Smith’s missteps as her own personal failure. The DWTS star also admitted she sometimes treated others the way she had been treated in the past.
“Emmitt put me in my place by confronting me, and I deserved it,” she shared. “He gained my admiration and respect for doing that, and he also caused me to take a good look at myself. … I’ve been on the receiving end of blunt criticism for so long… that sometimes that’s just how I communicate. But that night, Emmitt’s words made me realize that criticism delivered without respect is only belittling and rude.”
Discovering that she had to extend the same respect to herself rather than expecting constant perfection, Burke helped Smith master the necessary steps. The two won the entire competition that season and remained good friends long after the season ended.
“Emmitt didn’t want to be coddled or patted on the back every time he did something right; he just wanted respect,” Burke noted. “I think he recognized that a sense of respect was something I needed to extend to myself as well. … I am much more aware now, thanks to Emmitt, that respect is a two-way street. You’ve got to earn it from others and demand it from yourself.”
[Correction: An earlier version mistakenly said Burke was a three-time champ.]