Jenna is out on maternity leave this season but she's still in the ballroom each week cheering on her husband.
Jenna Johnson Chmerkovskiy made history on Dancing with the Stars last season when she became the first pro to dance with a same-sex partner. She and JoJo Siwa finished second in season 30, losing out to former NBA star Iman Shumpert and his partner Daniella Karagach, so it seemed certain that Jenna would return for season 31 to try her hand at winning the Mirror Ball Trophy this time around, but that’s not what happened.
Instead, Jenna had to sit out the season because she’s pregnant with her and hubby Val Chmerkovskiy’s first baby, a boy, which should arrive sometime soon as she is in the third trimester of her pregnancy.
Even so, it hasn’t kept the pro from showing up in the ballroom to root for Val and his professional partner Gabby Windey, but even more than that, last week, she was tasked with choreographing the opening number for Michael Bublé night.
“I love dancing, but I really also love choreographing,” she told Parade in this exclusive interview. “It’s a very big passion of mine and so it felt very fitting that while I can’t dance right now, I was able to choreograph still. Such an awesome opportunity.”
Jenna said she was surprised when her phone rang and the number on the screen was from the producers of DWTS because she hadn’t seen that particular number on her phone all season. But the producers asked her if she would choreograph the number for the female troupe members for “Sway,” and Jenna gave them an immediate yes.
“I’m so glad that I was able to be part of it from the behind-the-scenes aspect,” said Jenna, who admits that pregnancy didn’t keep her from demonstrating the moves. “In the rehearsals, I obviously felt pregnant, but I still felt really able to move and be active, so I was dancing the whole time. Obviously, not able to go full out on everything. And they kept saying, ‘Jenna, sit down. We’ve got it. You’re OK.’ But I just can’t help it. The music comes on, I’m with my girls, I love moving and I’m so grateful that I’m still able to—even while in my third trimester, you know?”
As mentioned, Jenna has been in the ballroom all season, cheering on Val and Gabby, but she has also had her professional eye on all the teams, and she agrees with Parade that the Top 3 right now appear to be Val and Gabby, Charli D’Amelio and Mark Ballas, and Wayne Brady and Witney Carson.
“There’s a couple ways that it could go,” she said. “I definitely agree that it will be Charli and Mark, Wayne and Witney, and Val and Gabby. And then that fourth spot, I think it could go to Daniel Durant and Britt Stewart, because I think he has such a powerful story, and I also think that he’s so endearing to watch each week and is getting better. I think it could be Shangela and Gleb Savchenko, because when Shangela performs, she has so much charisma and she’s really implementing the technique and getting better as a dancer.”
But Jordin Sparks, who’s paired with Brandon Armstrong this season, has also been moving up the leaderboard each week, and she is also a contender for the fourth spot.
“Jordan has something special,” Jenna said. “She is a natural performer but also you can feel her pure heart from her packages, from her interviews. So, I think that last spot can really go either way. I think these next few weeks are going to be super telling. Who can stay focused, keep their energy up, keep their bodies healthy?”
That said, the one thing that DWTS is famous for is its shocking exits, and Jenna admits that that could happen this season, as well, even though a security measure was put in place by having judges Len Goodman, Carrie Ann Inaba, Bruno Tonioli, and Derek Hough make the final selection as to which of the bottom two couples goes and who stays.
“There’s always a shocking elimination come the semi-finals, so I don’t think that those three top couples can settle because I’ve seen it many times,” Jenna points out. “We saw it with Cheryl Burke and Juan Pablo di Pace, they got eliminated in the semi-finals and everyone thought that it was going to be a shoo-in that they would be in the finals.”
Jenna also spoke to us about helping Gabby get sexy for her rumba with Val for Michael Bublé night; her pregnancy, whether or not she thinks Val will change their son's diapers; how utilizing brain positivity is helping her with pregnancy brain; and more.
I’m thinking that even though there’s a lot of elements to choreographing a troupe as opposed to a single celebrity partner, is it easier because there’s no limits to what the troupe can do, whereas with a celebrity you have to choreograph based on their limitations as a dancer?
Yeah, especially because it was all of the female pro dancers, I really got to show them off to the best of their ability, which was so much fun. When we are with our celebrity partner, our main priority is making them look incredible, and we don’t always get to show off our full potential or all of our best moves, and so this was really fun.
And I went in, and told them, “I really want the purpose of this piece to show and remind everyone why you’re the best of the best.” So, we really went full out cha-cha technique, and it was just so fun to see them dance like that. Getting to dance full out, full potential, looking so fierce. They just looked stunning I thought.
After that you went to rehearsal to help Gabby get her sexy on for the rumba. Was that as much fun as it looked? And how do you think you really helped her?
I love Gabby so much. I love her personality; how goofy she is. And I think it’s such a funny pairing with Val because he’s so suave, well-spoken, and so put together, that I think the combination of the two of them is just pure brilliance. She brings out this funny, humorous side in all of their rehearsals. It’s just been so fun to watch.
So, when they asked me, “We want you to come in and show her how to be serious and sexy,” I was like, “Ooh, down. My specialty. Bring me in.” It was such a fun rehearsal. I love performing and I love telling stories. My main priority whenever I’m paired with a celebrity, is making sure that people feel something while they watch us dance. And so, I just wanted to help Gabby get into that zone and into that mindset. It’s like, you know your steps, and now the final layer is putting on that performance and making it believable. I think it turned out incredible. She really showed up, she really went for it, and I think the judges, and everyone could see that.
You made history last season when you were dancing with JoJo. What do you think this season about having Shangela and Gleb out there?
I love watching Shangela and Gleb every week. I love that we’re continuing to break that barrier and that norm. And having a first same-sex pairing, now we have our first drag queen on, it’s great and it’s such a good challenge. But I think also having that element really makes all of the other couples have to step their game up. They can’t just settle on what they’ve done before because there’s something new and exciting happening in this couple with Gleb and Shangela. So, I think if anything it really motivates everybody to step their game up.
I have two in particular. I did a Black Swan piece with Nev Schulman on Halloween night. That was one of my favorite pieces I’ve ever choreographed on the show and been able to perform. And then last season with JoJo, we did this clown inspired piece, this It piece. She was so full out in her character. And again, it was another one of my favorite pieces I’ve ever been able to do. We did a jazz.
I would say that those two are definitely my favorite, but then also this one takes the cake, when I danced with James Hinchcliffe, Sharna Burgess was injured and I had to fill in for her on Halloween night. We ended up getting a perfect score and we were safe from immunity, but it was our Harley Quinn number, which went viral. So, I think that might be my favorite Halloween moment on the show.
You’re taking this season off to become a mom. So as much as you must miss it, it’s for a really good reason.
I do. Everyone keeps asking me, “Do you miss the show? Do you miss being on it? Are you itching to come back?” Yes, to all of that. But what makes it so rewarding, first of all, I get to sit back, and I get to watch my husband thrive. Since I’ve joined the show, we’ve always been on the show together, so this time I really just get to appreciate him and his dancing, and just be his support system, which has been really fun.
And then also, I know that I’m going to have a little baby boy in a few months. And it’s been a lifelong dream for me to be a mom, to have a baby. And so, I know it’s worth it sitting out this season.
Have you put the nursery together yet?
No. Everyone keeps asking me that as well. We’re in this uncomfortable phase where we’re trying to figure out if we’re going to move or not.
But you said third trimester, not much time left.
You’re telling me? We’re figuring things out. But it’s so funny, because if we do stay where we’re at right now, we have a room that would be the nursery, and it is filled to the brim with boxes and boxes of baby clothes and baby items. So, I feel like we’re pretty set on everything that we need, we just need to put it together.
Is Val good at building cribs and things like that?
Val’s amazing at home projects, and so are his parents. They thrive on that. So, I know that it’s going to come together wherever we are pretty quickly. I’m going to let him finish the season and then we’ve got to get down to business.
I spoke to him a couple weeks ago and he said he’s going to change diapers. What do you think? He’s going to be a hands-on dad?
Absolutely. We have two small doggies, and when it comes to blood and cuts and wounds, I thrive. That doesn’t faze me at all, I can do that all day. But when it comes to throw up and diarrhea, I have a gag reflex like none other. And Val doesn’t, so I think we’ll be a good team. He’ll have to help me out a few times if I can’t handle it.
With both you and Val being dancers, is that your hope for your son? Or are you just OK if he decides he wants to go a totally different direction?
I am fine with whatever he wants to do. Obviously, both of his parents are going to be heavily involved with dance throughout their life, so if he finds interest in that, amazing. And if he doesn’t, great. I just want him to be motivated, active, healthy, and to find whatever makes him super passionate and excited about life. Whatever that entails I’ll support.
Back in 2019, you and I talked about you being a proponent of brain positivity. I’m wondering, is that helping you deal with pregnancy brain?
There are a lot of things that happen with your brain during pregnancy. Definitely having a positive mindset is something that I’ve had to work on during pregnancy, just realizing my purpose, understanding that my body is changing and accepting that, and finding a beautiful positive outlook on that.
But this thing of pregnancy brain is so real, of not being able to remember anything. I truly feel like an idiot at times because I can’t remember something. I’ll forget how to spell the simplest word. I don’t know what day it is. It’s so wild. And I always heard pregnant women talk about this and just thought that they were being dramatic. No, no, no, no, it’s a real thing. It’s crazy.
Even choreographing last week, I’ve always prided myself on being able to, if I do something, I can remember it for weeks. If I had a piece from two years ago, I could probably re-learn it in five minutes. But my brain couldn’t remember counts, like I had to write everything down and film everything multiple times. Oh, it was crazy.
Are you hoping to return next season? I know it’s not always your choice but are you hoping they’ll invite you back?
Absolutely. Like you said, it isn’t our choice, but the show knows that I am in love with it, I still feel like I have many more seasons to give. And just because I’m a mom, doesn’t mean that I can’t still be working. I have some really great examples in my life of working moms. And I’ve always seen myself going back to work. So, I would love to be back on the show if they have me. But yeah, I keep a whisper always in their ear of, “Next season, next season.”
The fact that they invited you to choreograph should be a good sign, right?
They have taken such good care of me throughout the years. And then yeah, they’ve made me feel really involved this season which I’ve so appreciated. So, we’ll see.
Another good sign is you were invited to be the moderator for the Dancing with the Stars panel at D23.
Last minute, both Tyra Banks and Alfonso Ribeiro were unable to make D23 Expo, and so they asked me to moderate it. It was me, our two executive producers, and three of our judges, Derek, Bruno, and Carrie Ann. Len wasn’t there. It was so fun, I got to ask them all these questions and it was great.
Dancing with the Stars streams Monday nights at 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT on Disney+.