It was a depression she just couldn't shake. "My mom had a stroke, and I've been commuting back to England to be with her," says Jane Seymour, the actress once dubbed "queen of the miniseries," who traveled back home for a visit just last month. As she sits on a bench at the Malibu Performing Arts Center during a break from rehearsals, Seymour, still lithe and elegant at 56, is explaining why she chose to become the oldest woman ever to tackle the intense dance marathon that is Dancing with the Stars. It was a decision she once thought would be, in a word, "ridiculous."
"My husband's doing a film called Waiting for Forever," says Seymour (she's married to film and television director James Keach). "And the casting director for that happens to be married to one of the casting directors for Dancing with the Stars. So they were socially at our house and [the Dancing] casting director looked at me and said, ‘You would never do Dancing with the Stars, would you?' And I said, ‘Don't be ridiculous.' And the next thing I knew, there was a proper offer. I went back and forth a hundred times." But the trip home proved to be a real turning point, because Seymour, worried about her mother (who's been left without the power of speech), started packing on the pounds. "I was trying to be good," she says. "But it was the highest I've been in a long time — about 128 pounds. I'm only about 5' 4". I was getting very depressed, and I usually don't get depressed. And my husband said to me, ‘You know what, honey? Next time they ask you to do Dancing with the Stars, maybe you should think about doing it.' And when I found out [that opportunity] wasn't completely closed off, I said yes."
Keach thought it would be the perfect opportunity for his wife because Seymour had always wanted to be a prima ballerina. In fact, she has more formal dance training than any other contestant in the five-season history of the show. Starting at age 5, Seymour took her tutus very seriously. "I was pulled aside in school because I had a speech impediment — like Barbara ‘Wa Wa' Walters — and I also had flat feet," she says. "So I had to have remedial classes, and my mother put me into dance. But instead of goofing around like all the other kids were doing, I got really serious. When I was walking down the street, I would be dancing. When I got home, I would be dancing around the kitchen."
Ultimately, it wasn't her flat feet that ruined her dream to become a member of England's Royal Ballet, it was her knees. Bruised by the punishing floor routines (which included training in modern dance), Seymour damaged the cartilage in both knees so severely that by age 16, she had to quit. "They didn't have knee pads in those days," says Seymour. "It was a complete disaster, and I became an actress." Still, dancing was never far from her mind. "Whenever I act in a movie and they do some dorky little bit of a dance — which is not remotely like this ballroom dancing — there's always a big smile on my face," she says. "I'm in heaven." So now, with the help of her elegant partner, Tony Dovolani, who last guided Leeza Gibbons around the floor, Seymour is spending four to six hours a day overcoming bad knees and — even more seriously — a bad back. Six years ago, she had emergency surgery to repair a herniated disk. "I would have episodes where my left leg would just literally collapse," says Seymour, "and I'd fall on my face. I'd be lying on the ground and I couldn't find a position that was even marginally comfortable." Seymour says carrying her now 11-year-old twin boys at the time was the source of the trouble. "Truth be told, they were really heavy and I'm a little person," she says. "I had a lot of back pain during my pregnancy."
Since her back surgery, Seymour has done specific exercises to strengthen her core and stretch out her spine. "I love to play golf," she says. "But that's about the worst thing in the world you could possibly do. Tennis is no good, either. Skiing is OK, as long as you don't fall — good luck. So when I was asked to do Dancing with the Stars, I thought, clearly, I shouldn't even consider it. All my friends said, ‘Jane, your back! You won't be able to walk! You won't be able to have fun with your kids, you'll be in terrible pain, you'll have to have another surgery.' But there was this little voice inside my head that just kept saying: 'But I want to dance!'" She's dancing, all right, in special low-heeled practice shoes supplied by Dovolani. Even her physical therapist has encouraged her to continue. She smiles and stands, ready for more practice. "He said, ‘This is not only not going to compromise your back, this is going to make your back better.' "