Mark Ballas may have motivated you to sign up for that ballroom dance class -- you know, the one that’s been on your bucket list for years -- but now the “Dancing With the Stars” pro is looking to inspire fans to tackle a new goal: becoming smoke free. The two-time Mirror Ball champion is partnering up with Nicorette and NicoDerm to partake in “What’s Your Why” campaign and help those struggling with their addictions to nicotine kick the habit once and for all.
Ballas, a former smoker who has been cigarette-free for two years, spoke with International Business Times to explain why he’s so passionate about encouraging others to end their addictions. The Emmy Award-winning choreography also revealed how smoking a pack a day nearly sabotaged his dancing career.
International Business Times: So now that Season 21 of “Dancing With the Stars” is over and the holidays are picking up, it’s the perfect time to talk about New Year’s resolutions -- like quitting smoking.
Mark Ballas: Yep, yep. I’ve been partnering up with NicoDerm for a while now -- I’m two years smoke free -- and this holiday season we’re doing “Gift of a Quit,” which is really cool because it’s the perfect time for people to start thinking about quitting smoking and New Year’s is right around the corner.
I feel like people are always like, “I’m going to quit smoking for my New Year’s resolution.” So, we’re here to encourage and to inspire people be healthy and clean. It’s really great and I’m excited to help inspire people. And that was a big thing I wanted to do when I started working with this company. [I thought] if this works for me, I’d really love to help inspire other people because I’ve seen smoking effect a lot of people in my life and to help people kick the habit would be a really nice way of giving back.
IBT: Well, congratulations on being smoke-free. That’s amazing! I know this isn’t the first time you’ve opened up about your previous addiction to nicotine. Why do you think it’s important to have your story heard?
Ballas: I think it’s something that’s so common. Especially in America and England, where I grew up, everyone smokes. All my friends smoked a lot of my family smoked -- my mom, my grandma, my uncle -- and sometimes it takes more than just to say, “Oh, you know … I’m going to quit” to actually do it. I love being apart of a brand and a company that can reach people and give them that extra push and inspire them to stick to their guns because it is hard. It takes focus … it’s tough.
IBT: And you have the perfect platform to inspire. I know you’re a very disciplined athlete but despite your self-control, quitting couldn’t have been an easy task. How did you ultimately defeat this? Did you ever slipup?
Ballas: Well, in my earlier years, yeah. I tried quitting cold turkey a couple of times. And I had some success with it but then ultimately I would go back to [smoking]. I’d be out with friends who are smoking and then before you know it, your buying a pack again.
A big part of it is learning that quitting isn’t just about knocking out the smoking and the nicotine. It’s also about the physicality of it – like, that’s part of the addiction: getting a new pack, tearing off the wrapper, opening the box, tearing out the foil, pulling out a cigarette. That’s all part of it so you have to completely quit the habit. And when I first started talking to a company to try [quitting], I tried the NicoDerm CQ patch. It was great and convenient because I’m active all day. I don’t have time to do the gum so I wanted to be able to put [the patch] on in the morning and then take it off before bed and forget about it. And it really worked for me.
IBT: Did you have an “A-ha!” moment where you realized you needed to quit?
Ballas: I was teaching a class, I was 25 or 26 at the time, and I was really struggling to get through the class. I was wheezing and coughing and I was like, “Alright, this isn’t a joke anymore. I’m not 21, I’m not a teenager -- this is starting to bother me.” So I think I need to take a bigger step than just saying, “Oh, I’m not going to smoke today,” or, “I’m not going to smoke this month.”
IBT: You officially quit two years ago, while you were on “Dancing With the Stars.” Have you noticed a change in your performance?
Ballas: Absolutely. I definitely felt better -- especially when I cut it out earlier. I felt cleaner; I had a lot more stamina. That was the thing that was bothering me the most; it was affecting my stamina, it was affecting my cardio. So, as a dancer and as an athlete when you start to feel that going you really need to make changes. And you have to stay disciplined with it because especially if you’re out there doing what I do -- if I’m dancing with someone and they’re not professionals they don’t know what they’re doing -- you have to really be on your game. You just can’t be slow … you just cant.
IBT: Yeah, I mean … you guys are running around constantly on “Dancing With the Stars.”
Balls : A lot of dancers smoke, which is always surprising to people. You know, in the theater world and in the dance world, lot of the dancers smoke. So I’m now that dude: “You guys shouldn’t smoke! Get on the train!” [Laughs]
IBT: Why do you think the theater and dance world are full of smokers?
Ballas: It’s more of a social thing, I think. It starts socially and it always ends up becoming a habit like you’re then having a ciggy in the morning, then when you have a break -- it usually starts socially, from my experience anyway.
IBT: What advice do you have for those who are not only struggling to quit but those who haven’t even considered quitting yet?
Ballas: I think most people want to quit and it’s always in the back of their mind -- they know that it’s not healthy -- it’s more of a willpower and discipline thing. It’s like anything … if you want work out and get in great shape or if you want to get on a diet and lose weight you have to discipline yourself to not eat at the wrong times or eat the wrong things. This is the exact same thing. And you have to take action it’s not about just saying, “I’ll do it tomorrow or next month.” No, do it now. Stick to your guns. And lead a healthier lifestyle and help yourself. This is ultimately for you and not for anybody else.
IBT: How do you go about telling someone to quit smoking? You don’t just go around sticking nicotine in their stocking stuffers.
Ballas: If it comes into conversation I usually share how I did it and explain what steps I took and what was my process. I usually just tell my story and if people want to try it, I give them steps and the guidelines. I turn them onto what works for me.
I’m always really open to people who want to talk about. I’ve had a lot of friends come to me like, “How did you do it? Talk me through it! What was it like?” And it’s always about encouraging but the initiative and the incentive has to come from you.
IBT: Now that nicotine is no longer apart of your life, have you replaced it with a new, healthy addiction?
Ballas: For me, during [dance] season, I’m always trying to eat clean, organic, and healthy. Then in the off-season I like to enjoy myself, as well. You know, Christmas is right around the corner and Thanksgiving I went ham with the turkey! But I just try to stay in good shape and try to be healthy in case I do next season [of “Dancing With the Stars”] or what not.
IBT: In case you do next season? When will you know if you’ll be a part of Season 22?
Balls: Not until February.
IBT : When will the Season 22 pro’s be announced?
Ballas: We’ll probably announce end of February or early March, I think.
"Dancing With the Stars" will return in spring 2016 with Season 22.
[This interview has been edited for clarity.]