Bill Nye, Dancing With the Stars | He'll need to get a better grip — but the leg symmetry is divine, and I commend him for ditching the lab coat.
Credit: Craig Sjodin/ABC

Bill Nye knows you all are thrilled to see him bust a move on Dancing with the Stars – but your excitement is making him nervous. Or, in his words, “[It’s] terrifying! Not just nervous.”

The Science Guy – who is, it should be noted, a long-time recreational dancer – will hit the ballroom starting next week as a contestant on the 17th season of Dancing, which means he’s currently hard at work practicing with his pro partner, newcomer to the show Tyne Stecklein. “She’s extraordinary,” Nye told EW on the phone earlier this week. “I guess they all are. She’s a professional athlete at a world-class level. When you’re around these people, first of all it’s moving. But it’s also unsettling because it doesn’t look real, it’s so far out of your everyday experience. WOW. The other thing is, she’s an outstanding instructor. I’m honored.”

A fan of the show, Nye is quick to highlight his role model past contestants, mostly focusing on athletes such as Jerry Rice, Kristi Yamaguchi and Apolo Ohno. But Nye can’t keep his focus just on dancing — during EW‘s chat with him, it was obvious his first passion is science, as evidenced by his excited tangents on everything from The Juno Mission (“There’s a spacecraft called Juno at NASA. And so it’s going to – this is- it’s hard to believe – it launched in 2011, I was there in Cape Canaveral, it went out beyond the orbit of Mars, [and] is now falling back in toward the earth on October 9”) to his favorite planet (“[My] favorite planet is Earth. I grew up on Earth, my friends are all Earthlings”). Would fans expect anything less on the 20th anniversary of Bill Nye the Science Guy?

Read on for an edited Q&A with Nye, where he explains his lab coat ballroom attire, his dance-ready catchphrase, and what exactly science has to do with ballroom dancing.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So Bill, you have a dancing background.

BILL NYE: Yeah, but it’s been more of a liability than an asset.

Really? How so?

Well, I sound like I’m whining. But in social dancing in the United States you literally start on the other foot. You’re literally on the wrong foot on every bar, on every measure of music. And so this is something I’m working hard to unlearn. For me anyways, it’s quite difficult. The other thing is in social dancing, people cut you slack. When you make mistakes people keep going. But in this thing, it derails the whole procedure. My posture is horrible and it’s always been horrible…. And so when I look at myself in the mirror, I just wanna take the black capsule. But what I’m saying is, these years of social dancing have programmed in all of these sort of noticeable, for lack of a better term, flaws. So unlearning all of this has been quite difficult for me.

Have you been scoping out the competition?

I’m not surprised at the people who showed up and I have the same fears I predicted I would have as a competitor. There’s a professional athlete, Keyshawn Johnson. There’s young, hot biceps actor guy, Brant [Daugherty]. There’s charming international star – she really is – Snooki. I mean you just wanna see what she’s gonna do, right? And Elizabeth [Berkley], she’s just sweet and she’s clearly graceful, walking in the hallway, you can tell she’s just got it.

So with all that competition, what is your strategy going into each week?

Well, strategy. The strategy will be – my understanding of this – the judges and the audience want to see growth. Well, [laughs] we’re gonna start with a pretty low bar. [Laughs]

You know, Bill, I don’t know if I believe that.

Well, I’m pigeon-toed, I’m on the wrong foot, and I’m slouched – I mean when you look in the mirror, I suck. I suck. But, with that said, at least I’m aware of it. So I’m differentiating between strategy and tactic. So the tactic is to learn the lines as we say in the theatre [in a British accent]. I’m just gonna learn these steps and then work on all this other important stuff. Tyne said to me the other day, she said, ‘You know, we’re gonna get judged really hard because of all this hype about Bill’s swing-dancing – to your point about ‘Bill, I think you’re kidding.’

If we get judged harshly then we’ll just have that much to build on. But I’m telling ya, if it were, ‘Hey we’re gonna come out cold and as a test do the Lindy Hop!’ then I’d say, ‘Okay, cool, bring it on!’ But if we’re gonna do international style of cha-cha, I’m the worst case. …I’m a little bit more than a little anxious about it, I’ll tell ya.

What can ballroom dance teach us about science? Is there any crossover there?

Many people ask me this. My response is ‘Are you KIDDING?!’ First of all, just watching it, it’s all forces and torques, conservation of momentum. You’ve seen [if an] ice skater has her arms out, she pulls ‘em in, she spins faster. That’s not magic. That’s physics, or study of motion. And then, the other thing, for me, in biology, – we humans respond to music, respond to this timing and beats. Richard Feynman – I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of him – famous Nobel Laureate, after whom the Feynman diagram is named…Anyway, he used to have contests with people about keeping time [like] a clock. And most of us are actually pretty good at it. And so there’s something really deep within us that way. Then there’s the use of calories to provide locomotion to get around. And then there’s this deep artistic thing that humans have which I claim is from our brains and from evolutionary biology — I think dancing is derivative of trying to win a mate….There’s something deep within us that makes us wanna watch [dance] because I think you’re saying to yourself, ‘Well, I could do that! Put me in, coach!’ So now I’m in.

You’ve got quite the fanbase.

Thank you – But as we say in the theatre [in British accent], if you quit being nervous, quit doing it. Tyne is so good – so another thing in swing dancing, sorry, as the man or the leader, you’re trying to make your partner look good. That’s the whole deal. You want your partner to have fun. Fundamentally, so she won’t mind dancing with you next time. But people are going to be looking at me, there’s no question, it’s not called ‘Dancing with the Professional Dancers,’ it’s called ‘Dancing with What’s-his-name.’ …I mean, we’re out to dance the world. [During the Bill Nye years, the program’s catchphrase was “Change the World.”]

You’ve got catchphrases ready!

You know when I do these college talks and stuff, my big thing I reiterate [is to] change the world. So yesterday morning, I’m watching the TV, minding my own business [and] there’s an ad for Frosted Mini Wheats, where the kid’s gonna get a healthy breakfast, become a scientist, and he says it, “Change the world.” So Bill Nye’s chant has become, if I understand the usage of this term, a ‘meme.’

I’m sure memes wasn’t something that was on your mind in the mid-‘90s. But you’re right, it seems like you’re everywhere now. Do you think that there’s any chance that being on DWTS will kind of resurrect the Bill Nye the Science Guy television show?

Oh yes. Oh yes. According to the executive who runs this part of Disney, she says she had to make the case to her superiors that people are still interested in the Science Guy show.

But you’d certainly be up for more?

Oh my goodness. Heck yes.

How is the ‘Science Guy’ persona making its way into the ballroom?

I will be wearing my Planetary Society lapel pin. Oh, the costumes are just out of freakin’ hand. I gotta say, they’re just cool. The costume people are just cool. …I mean there’s a bowtie, and there’s a lab coat, and it’s all blinged. They love the bling. I’m in, man, hit me the ball, let’s go!

Dancing With the Stars premieres Monday, Sept. 16.

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