'DWTS': Nancy McKeon Is Ready to Take on 'Terrifying' Dances With Val Chmerkovskiy (Exclusive)

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ABC

Nancy McKeon is sorry about the sudden whirring sound. She has a protein shake to make, perhaps more cheerfully than one has ever blended a smoothie before, seeing as she's in the heart of rehearsing for her Dancing With the Stars debut.

Best known for her role as Jo Polniaczek on the hit '80s sitcom The Facts of Life, McKeon is so nice it's a good thing her return to TV is on DWTS and not Big Brother. The 52-year-old actress is self-deprecating about her dancing skills, utters "Good gravy!" when surprised, enjoys getting schooled on both footwork and social media from her pro partner, Val Chmerkovskiy, and, I'm convinced, secretly bakes chocolate chip cookies for her fellow competitors. If this sounds a lot like your mom, that's probably because McKeon took nearly 15 years off to focus on raising her daughters, 14-year-old Aurora and 11-year-old Harlow, whom she shares with husband Marc Andrus.

The break was well deserved. McKeon started working when she was two, first as a child model and commercial actor before scoring roles on TV, and was acting up until the seventh month of her first pregnancy. "I just love what I do, but I have been given this amazing gift of my husband and my children, and I didn't want to not be there for this small amount of time you get with them," she tells ET. "I can't even believe when I say 15 years. It just feels like a nanosecond. I really wanted to give them all my attention that they deserve."

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Though she had a handful of smaller, carefully chosen roles, DWTS will be McKeon's first big return to the spotlight since her Lifetime detective drama, The Division, wrapped in 2004, and she knows you're probably surprised to see her name on the list of season 27 competitors. "This isn't something that I would normally do. It really is outside my comfort zone," she admits.

If it weren't for an important family meeting, she may not have even strapped on dance shoes. "The way to affect change in your life is to move beyond your comfort zone, so I had this conversation with [my daughters] and they said, 'Mom, this is going to be great. You can do it.' Having them as my support team and cheerleaders is extraordinary," she says. "As a mom, I can tell them to be brave and I can say, 'This is how you should be,' but sometimes there's no more powerful demonstration than actually doing it. So I just decided, you know what, I'm going to scare the living life out of myself and say yes and just show up every day and see what happens. Everything changes and moves you, so I'm also excited about all the changes and the different things that I'm learning in this venture as well.'

She may have found the perfect partner-in-crime in Chmerkovskiy. Not only is there a clear chemistry and sense of humor between the two already, but McKeon is pretty sure they've settled on the team name of "McVal." "I got top billing so I gave him an extra letter," she jokes.

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McKeon has zero dance experience and, despite doing hot yoga regularly and living on a ranch where she averages four to seven miles of walking a day, she says none of her previous roles have helped prep her for DWTS. "I don't think anything can prepare your feet for being crammed into a high heel and then dance across a stage," she says. On top of that, social media wasn't a part of the TV landscape the last time she was here.

Luckily, Chmerkovskiy is an excellent teacher. So far, the pair has put in about two weeks of rehearsals. McKeon feels they're doing well as they run their steps and get their stamina up for the big, first number, and her partner is giving her some very important advice during what she calls "a master class every day." "'Don't have the terror look.' That's a big one," McKeon says. "He said, 'Look at me, but not with those eyes that are scared. Smile! Enjoy!' I love him for doing that because when I work, it's focus and concentration. The last [acting projects] had been drama and prepping for that, and this really needs to just be fun."

McKeon says her and Chmerkovskiy's goal for week one is "just sheer fun and love." This is partially to provide some escapism for fans during these tumultuous times but also because, on a personal level, if she's going to leave her family, it needed to be for a good reason.

"[My daughters] are everything to me, and without them and my amazing husband, then nothing really does have much meaning. I've worked a lot and this is really the first time I've gone away and am spending a lot of time doing something," she reveals. "It's uncomfortable because I miss them, but somewhere [down the line], I think this might be very helpful in our conversations as our lives go on, and I'm interested to see where all that lands too."

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"It's funny, you maybe wouldn't put a dancing show or something like that in this sort of category, but it really is a lot more than just dancing," she adds. "You develop this wonderful friendship and partnership with, in my particular case, Val. He's awesome and everybody loves him. I think I feel even more pressure now because he's the show's national treasure, but so far I'm thrilled that people seem to be OK with him being partnered with me!"

Holding family as the most important pillar has been essential in helping the dancing partners connect. Though she hasn't met Chmerkovskiy's brother, Maksim, as he's not competing this season, McKeon has met his fiancee, fellow DWTS pro Jenna Johnson, whom she describes as "dear," "beautiful" and "sweet." McKeon has even dished out some excellent advice for Chmerkovskiy and Johnson's pending nuptials.

"I told him to enjoy the day. I've been married for 15 years, and I can still look back and remember every single moment of [my wedding] day. It was just about 20 people and it was our day, and it was one of the best days of my life," she recalls. "So, my advice to him was, 'It's just got to be about the two of you. After all, the rest of your life is about the two of you.' That's what I did -- there was no stress, no pressure, and it was really amazing. Other than that, I think everyone figures it out for themselves!"

Johnson has popped by rehearsals, bringing smoothies or simply saying hello and providing encouragement, which has helped McKeon have a bit of that familial grounding while away from home. "The family you get welcomed into on this show is extraordinary. Everybody -- from the guys who help you park in the morning and our security to the producing teams -- they literally are all happy to be there and they're rooting for everybody," she explains. "I have never felt like an outsider from day one. What a great thing! I love the atmosphere they've created. Yeah, it's a competition, but everyone's cheering everybody else on too."

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McKeon will have some very important faces in the crowd when season 27 kicks off on Sept. 24. Her daughters and husband will be there (she joked that they better be, just in case there's no week two for her!), as well as actress Lisa Vidal, her best friend since they were partnered up on The Division, which also starred then-unknowns Jon Hamm and Taraji P. Henson, along with Parenthood's Bonnie Bedelia.

"I told her, 'Mama, you're going to have to help me with some kind of cha-cha or salsa,'" McKeon says of Vidal. "Lisa is like a sister, but that whole cast -- it really was one of the best times of my life. I loved everybody on that show. We were all supportive of each other and to watch Jon blossom and Taraji just shatter it is so beautiful… It's so exciting to watch such good people get to do what they love to do and just crush it. They're amazing people. It's a joy for me to be an uber fan because [after the show ended], I got to be with the most important people, which is my kiddos and my hubby."

McKeon is the first to admit she's been blessed to work with some incredible people throughout her career. She famously acted alongside Michael J. Fox in the '80s, as well as Mariska Hargitay and Jean Smart in the short-lived sitcoms Can't Hurry Love and Style & Substance, respectively, plus she did take some time out from being a stay-at-home mom to play Demi Lovato's mother on the Disney Channel show, Sonny With a Chance, from 2009-2010.

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Though the two haven't spoken in some time, McKeon only had kind words for Lovato, who suffered a relapse and apparent overdose earlier this summer.

"I wouldn't presume. I can only send all my love. She seems to be incredibly smart… It was a difficult time during that show and things kind of went on, but I can tell you in my experience, she was genuinely lovely to me and to my girls, who were much younger at the time and very excited to meet her," McKeon says of her onscreen daughter. "I have every confidence that she's going to come back stronger and in a way that is the best for her. She deserves that."

McKeon was side-by-side another big actor during their early days, one whom she gets asked about a lot: George Clooney, whose first real TV experience was as a handyman on The Facts of Life. Though his time with them was short, McKeon says she would see him working on another show on the lot and they remained friends. 'He's everything you want him to be," she happily reveals. "He's fun, an incredible talent, and he's loyal as the day is long. He deserves all good things and it looks like that's exactly what he's gotten."

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The most important connection she has from those sitcom days, however, was with Charlotte Rae, who portrayed the beloved, wise-cracking redheaded housemother of the fictional Eastland School. She died in early August at age 92 after a series of illnesses, and McKeon chokes up when thinking about her beloved friend.

"That's a hard one for me. It's soon," she says slowly. "Charlotte's one of the most remarkable people I've ever met in my life and we were actually very good friends. If I was in L.A., we were always together and if I wasn't, I came in, even if it was just to see her. She's been at my ranch and hung out with the girls and myself, and I will always be the luckiest person and a much better person for having had her in my life."

The women of The Facts of Life still keep in touch. In fact, McKeon has been texting with Kim Fields, as the actress known as Tootsie danced with pro Sasha Farber in season 22 of DWTS. Though McKeon hasn't watched every season of the dance competition show, she did watch Fields and Farber compete "with joy and amazement."

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"She just knocked it out of the park. She's just so amazing. We've been texting and I said, 'Really? Did you have to set the bar this high? Girlfriend, I don't know if I can live up [to that].' She's just a doll and supportive," McKeon says, adding that she's gone back to watch some of Chmerkovskiy's dances with previous partners but had to stop "because he's so good" and didn’t want to get stuck in a brain warp comparing herself to others.

In fact, Fields' best advice had nothing to do with the dancing itself. "'Have fun. Enjoy this week, this day, this rehearsal. Try not to look ahead.' For me, I think that's awesome advice because it's really just got to be about the journey," McKeon says. "There's some amazing people dancing, so it's really not about an end result for me. What I'm looking for is the best I can do on every single day."

"It doesn't matter how sore [I am] -- get up, go back, fight the good fight the next day," she continues. "Have some smile, as my partner would say, and just enjoy that day, because none of us can possibly predict how long any of us have."

Season 27 of Dancing With the Stars kicks off Monday, Sept. 24 at 8 p.m. ET/PT on ABC.

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