Isle-born actor taking new steps


POSTED: Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Actor Mark Dacascos' extensive kung fu background — he started training at age 4 — has given him the stamina and discipline necessary to survive the rigorous training associated with the ninth season of ABC's hit show “;Dancing with the Stars.”; But that isn't the whole story.

“;I'm relatively flexible and quick on my feet,”; he said from Los Angeles, where he rehearses five or six hours a day. While his martial arts background affords him certain advantages, it also creates some obstacles. The 45-year-old chairman on “;Iron Chef America”; tends to curve his shoulders, drop his chin and crouch low to protect his body. That's not helpful when ballroom dancing demands nearly straight legs and an erect stance, “;so contradictory to everything I've been doing for the last 41 years,”; he said.

In a steady acting career that spans 26 years in front of the camera, Dacascos is facing his biggest challenge yet: learning a dance routine every week to perform in front of 20 million viewers.

“;In every possible respect, it's new and different; it's frightening,”; he said of the live audience, the stage lights that blind the dancers and make them worry about tripping down the stairs, the emotions, the pressure.

“;Everything I've done, I've had some sort of knowledge of or training in (this includes several martial arts films). To go from fighting and food to ballroom dancing ... I'm just not used to it.”;

At press time, Dacascos and his partner, Lacey Schwimmer, had survived two rounds of elimination and appeared to be relatively safe near the middle of the pack.

The Hawaii-born Dacascos moved from the islands at age 6, later living in Germany for several years. At one point in his teens he studied in Taiwan, harboring dreams of joining a Buddhist monastery. By the time he returned to Hawaii at 18 to live in Kalihi with his grandmother and earn his GED (General Education Development) at Farrington High School, he was proficient in Mandarin and fluent in German.

But his Hawaii ties run deeper than his time spent here. Both his parents are from the islands, two generations of his family are buried at Diamond Head Cemetery and his grandfather is buried at Punchbowl. His three children, ages 3 to 8, all were born on Oahu, have Hawaiian names and are infused with Dacascos' Filipino, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese and Irish heritage.

Though he ended up in the entertainment business rather than in a Buddhist monastery, Dacascos traveled in the Himalayas while preparing for a role as a Thai monk on “;CSI,”; and has always been fascinated with spirituality.

That spiritual study undoubtedly has helped stabilize the more chaotic aspects of his career, especially now, with the frantic pace of “;Dancing with the Stars.”; Beyond the physical demands — it's clear Dacascos is in top shape — he said the psychological strain is what really gets to the celebrities paired up with professional dancers.

“;In regular life you would never try to learn a dance at this level in four or five days,”; he said. “;What's fun about the show is that you take people who are completely new to this and feed them as much as possible and see how far they get before they go kaput. Sometimes I think, 'If we do one more move today, my brain is just going to fry.'”;

One reason the show is so popular, he believes, is because “;people can relate to being in an awkward situation and doing something they've never done before.”;

It all started when his wife, long a fan of the show, suggested that Dacascos participate.

He didn't agree. “;One, I don't dance,”; he said to her. “;Two, it looks too scary and stressful. That's crazy.”;

But she talked him into it, and his agents arranged a meeting with casting director Nina Katz, who discussed his potential participation in the 2010 season. But that quickly changed. While surfing in Hawaii on vacation, he received a call on a Friday to report to work on Monday, giving him “;no time to psychologically grasp what I was into.”;

Regarding his long-term survival on the show, Dacascos remains optimistic and philosophical.

“;I don't think I have very high odds of making it to the finals,”; he admitted, noting that other celebs like Donny Osmond have a lifetime of dancing onstage behind them.

“;But I do think we have something different to bring to the table. If we can translate our personalities and our other disciplines into the dance moves, that's what will make us stand out.

“;I don't know what my chances are of lasting, but I love the challenge ... and I work really hard and I have a fantastic partner and I'm just going to enjoy the ride. And I love being part of a show that the whole family can watch and that brings so many people together in such a positive way.”;