Peta Murgatroyd and Nyle DiMarco on Dancing With The Stars (Photo: ABC)

Last night, a deaf man won the 22nd season of Dancing With The Stars. If you haven’t been following the show, you might wonder if he won simply because of his bravery, having garnered some sort of pity vote. Nothing could be further from the truth. Nyle DiMarco won Dancing With The Stars by being fucking awesome, by showing not only what he could achieve but also what dance can achieve. His triumph is an overdue depiction of what reality television can offer.

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Competitive reality TV loves to foster paranoia and rivalry among contestants. Low-rent “competitions” like Big Brother seem to offer their stars nothing but bad karma, and you’ll find many cutaways on other competitions like America’s Next Top Model and Top Chef of contestants trash-talking each other. (DiMarco, last night’s hero, actually came from one of those shows—he was the winner of the final season of Top Model.)

With its brightly lit live broadcasts and chirpy, effervescent dance numbers, the show seems too syrupy for trash talk. The closest Dancing comes to cynicism is host Tom Bergeron’s dry asides and maybe a slight rift between old-school judge Len Goodman and innovative hothead dancer Mark Ballas. A slipped disc offers the most negative tension on this show, which trades more on fluffy feel-good fare—like in season 19 when Alfonso Ribeiro, Fresh Prince’s Carlton, won for mastering a number of dances, including “the Carlton.”

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This season, though, brought a number of competitors who brought a fierce, high-stakes attitude to the show (give or take a Geraldo). Boys II Men singer Wanya Morris was surprisingly eliminated after perfect scores from the judges. Good Morning America meteorologist Ginger Zee cruised into third place after a slow start, fueled by an unstoppable attitude and sunny personality even after her back went out. During the finals, Zee lost her place in a routine that she and her partner, Val Chmerkovskiy, had only 24 hours to learn. Instead of showing any remorse, she bulldozed straight ahead, saying she used it as a chance to say farewell to the audience. It was a lesson in grace under pressure.

The second-place finisher was Paige VanZant, a mixed martial artist who competes in the UFC. Among the “celebrities” on the Dancing competitor list, athletes tend to do well, as they’re used to the demands of rigorous training. VanZant, however, managed to rule the show not as an athlete, but as a dancer with attitude. Her partner, Ballas, is demanding because he’s one of the most creative on the show—he led Duck Dynasty princess Sadie Robertson to a second-place finish last year, a run that included a routine inspired by Super Mario. For VanZant, Ballas wisely played up her sex appeal, so their numbers smoked, be they salsa, tango, or cha cha.

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The runners-up alone would have made this finale an enjoyable watch (albeit a long one laden with filler like by a pointless Pitbull number). But the inclusion of Nyle DiMarco in season 22 elevated the show to a higher realm of emotion and inspiration. A deaf man in a dancing competition sounds like a gimmick. Even having him in the competition seemed improbable; the fact that he won it is incredible. (DiMarco is actually the show’s second deaf contestant: Oscar winner Marlee Matlin competed in 2008 and was eliminated in week six.)

DiMarco used his opportunity to teach the world about awareness, acceptance, and how much dance can communicate. His training sessions, for example, were fascinating, as his nimble and gifted sign-language interpreter somehow managed to insert himself between the dance partners so that they could communicate effectively. But DiMarco’s performances were even better. During his paso doble to Panic! At the Disco’s “Victorious,” the music surprisingly dropped out in the middle of the routine to show everyone else what it was like for him to dance without music. The crowd was so stunned, there were a few moments of absolute silence.

In their tango, DiMarco and Murgatroyd portrayed a pair of estranged lovers trying to reunite through dance. In another gasp-worthy moment, Murgatroyd blindfolds her partner, making touch the only sense left that will enable the pair to communicate with each other.

But not even those performances topped possibly the greatest dance in the history of Dancing. Throughout the season, Murgatroyd never had anything but effusive praise for her hearing-impaired partner. Cohost Erin Andrews called her an “angel” for her work with DiMarco, even as the dancer insisted how much he inspired her each week. One of the highlights of the Dancing finals session is the freestyle dance, in which the partners aren’t constrained by categories like “jive” or “fox trot” and can do whatever they like. Murgatroyd commissioned contemporary dance choreographer Talia Favia to tell DiMarco’s story through motion. The resulting dance, scored by Disturbed’s rage-fueled version of “The Sound Of Silence,” sketches futile and frustrating attempts to connect, ultimately portraying the power of communicating through touch.

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I don’t even like modern dance, but like many who saw it, I was crying by the end. Obnoxiously cheerful judge Carrie Ann Inaba called it the greatest dance ever seen on the show. At the finals the next night, she followed up by signing to DiMarco, “Thank you for showing us your heart on the dance floor,” reducing him to tears. Before bestowing DiMarco with his own perfect score, stern judge Len Goodman assured him, “You’ve received no pity vote from me.” DiMarco’s victory appeared imminent.

Before the winner was announced last night, VanZant and Ballas looked pained: On an ordinary season, they might have taken home the mirror-ball trophy. (Fret not for VanZant, however, as she’s just been cast in a new Kickboxer sequel with Jean Claude Van Damme. Naturally.) But DiMarco was announced as the winner, pandemonium reigned, and the champion wasn’t even able to say a few words as the show signed off for the season—his interpreter couldn’t be located amid the commotion.

Dancing With the Stars’ frothy spectacle makes it a consistent ratings-grabber for ABC, still pulling in over 10 million viewers a week. The “stars” may be the supposed draw, but the real attraction is seeing what these people can accomplish when forced out of their element. That’s the appeal for many reality programs, and on this show it usually translates to an ex-football player clomping through a tango. But this year’s winner took the show to a magnificent new level, expanding the perceptions of the viewers lucky enough to watch him.

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