Tony Dovolani was paired with celebrities on Dancing with the Stars for 21 seasons before taking a break and exploring other possibilities such as expanding his Dance With Me studios (there’s one in Las Vegas) and guest hosting at male revue show Chippendales The Show at the Rio. He’ll be there through May 27, and as he told Las Vegas Magazine’s Matt Kelemen, he did not take the challenge lightly.

You’re making your debut with Chippendales in two days, and have been on a public relations roller coaster in the time leading up to it. Is this what you had in mind when you learned folk dancing in Albania at age 3?

I literally had no idea where it was going to lead. In fact, everything has been a dream come true. I remember walking by a (Chippendales) poster in Manhattan and thinking to myself, “Wow, these guys are fit. I wonder if I could ever be a part of that. It’s funny how everything has a weird was of working out. In fact when they called me, first thing I said to them was “You guys know I’m 44, right?” They started laughing. They’re like, “Well, yeah, we know that. In fact that’s the direction we want to go it for this particular run of hosting because we like what you do. We’ve seen you on NBC’s Dancing with the Stars, so we see you have a lot of personality and we want that on the show. I was like, “Alright.”

How have you been preparing?

Honestly, I’ve been working out like a madman. My wife has been my inspiration. She’s been getting me ready for Chippendales. I’ve been working out in the morning and at night to make sure that I look somewhat decent next to these guys. I mean, these guys are Adonises. They’re Greek gods. They’re so cut-up. They’re so chiseled in so many different ways it’s really intimidating. I said to myself “I’d better get ready,” and I feel pretty ready for this.

I think I read somewhere that you dance eight to nine hours a day already. Are you working out on top of that?

Correct. Oh, yeah. I would wake up at six in the morning, work out in the morning with my wife, teach for 10 hours in one of my Dance With Me studios, then drive home and I would do my heavy sets from 11 to 12 o’clock at night, so I would work out in the morning early and at night late. I think I was sore for the past two and a half months, the entire time. Let’s just say Advil and ibuprofen and I got along really well. (Laughs)

Can you describe your contribution to the show? How much did they let you mess with the format?

I’m actually choreographing the opening number now, and I have quite a few of the dancers like Okewa (Garrett) and Ryan (Kelsey), and Demitri (Blizzeard) and Jayson (Michael), all these guys joining me onstage with that, so it’s actually going to be one of the most powerful numbers that Chippendales has had in a long time. I wanted to bring my own flavor. I brought a little Latin flavor to it. The show’s entertaining as it is. I just wanted to bring another dimension to it. I feel like I’ve succeeded. Everybody that’s watched it so far has said, “We can’t wait to see the audience reaction to this,” because it is powerful. It feels good to know that I’ve actually contributed in that sense. My wife was a pretty important part of me making this decision because we came a lot about charitable things. I have my own foundation, which is called Tony Dovolani Foundation: Golf for Special Needs Children. It’s in its third year and we’ve already raised $250,000, and we’ve donated all of it, 100 percent of it. I’m taking a portion of my salary and donating it to that as well. If I’m going to take my shirt off I’m going to take my shirt off for a good reason and try to help some families out that are in desperate need of therapy.

What’s it dancing with Chippendales as opposed to dancing with the stars?

The difference I guess for me is that fact that you’re onstage and this is truly a very awesome, awesome show that’s in Vegas. I’m doing a lot more here. I’m getting the guys involved. It’s always interactive with the audience. I’m getting to talk to the audience as opposed to being on TV, so it’s a very different experience, a different energy, different adrenaline rush. You feel like you really get to know who’s watching it because you’re talking with them, you’re dancing with them, you’re having fun with them. Honestly, the cool thing about this when I first watched it, it truly is the hottest show in Vegas. If you come to Vegas and you have not watched Chippendales that means you’re going to experience Vegas the way it should be experienced. The audience is amazing. They participate in such a great way, and it literally feels like a nightclub with a whole bunch of people just having a good time and seeing some good bodies on stage. And dancers in this case.

Will you actually be wearing the cuffs and collar?

I am looking forward to that moment, the cuffs and collars. They’re actually going to be doing a little ceremony because so far they have not let me wear them because I haven’t earned them yet. I apparently have to earn them when it’s opening. It’s such an honor because I’ll be one of 20 Chippendales worldwide, and it is a brand that you want to be associated with because they do stand for a lot of wonderful things. They do a lot of charitable work around the community, but at the same time it tells you that, hey, you might be one of those fit guys. (Laughs) However fit I am, I represent the 44-year-olds out there, but I think I’ll do a good job. I hope so, because my wife’s been preparing me for it. I think she deserves all the credit on that.

Did any of the dancers particularly stand out or are they all good?

I will tell you this: there are three guys that really stood out to me. When they came into the studio … first of all, as big as these guys are, for them to move the way they do is pretty amazing. Okewa, Ryan and Demitri really have blown me away in how welcoming they’ve been and how they have embraced everything I have shown them. They really have stepped up to the plate. In fact, the first day we rehearsed it was a three-hour rehearsal. They were dripping and sweating. Not one of them complained once. They were enthusiastic from the beginning of the rehearsal until the end. That says a lot about the respect level they had toward me and I had towards them. I did not want to step into their territory without respecting them and appreciating what they do, and vice-versa. We get along, and in fact I’m going to be sharing a dressing room with Ryan and Okewa. We became friends like instantly.

Have you been getting buzz from fans that they will be making plans to be there and catch you with the show during your run?

It is amazing, the response. I’ll be honest with you, when they first announced it I didn’t know what the response was going to be. I have gotten phone calls and texts from all corners of this country telling me they’re booking their flights to come out and see me. I have friends of mine like Leah Remini coming out to see the show, and Cheryl Burke and friends of mine from Dancing with the Stars, So You Think You Can Dance and America’s Got Talent. People are coming from all corners. I didn’t realize what a wildfire this was going to cause as far as people just wanting to come and see us. A lot of my friends want to be Chippendales, so they’re coming to some of the auditions to try and get on stage as well, which is pretty awesome.

Will you be doing meet-and-greets after the show? Will fans get a chance you meet you?

Absolutely I’ll be doing meet and greets! Whoever’s going to come to take pictures, they have to get onstage, because remember a portion of my salary goes to the Foundation. They have to step up to the stage to take their pictures, knowing they’re helping kids with special needs and at the same time they’re living out their dream. Where else are you going to find this many incredibly cut bodies and take a picture with them other than a Chippendales stage.

Your son is autistic, and your foundation donated proceeds from its second annual golf tournament last summer to the Kennedy Center Autism Project. Do you have one lined up this year?

Actually I have two this year. We have one July 12 at the Mill River Country Club in Connecticut, and also Sept. 6 at the Patterson Club in Fairfield, Connecticut. Both of the country clubs have stepped up in a big way trying to raise money because they know that all 100 percent of the proceeds go to different charities that I help out in order for them to provide for these kids. In fact, Liberty Mutual has stepped up in a big way as my main sponsor. … We sent a check for $60,000 to the Kennedy Center last year, and we sent another close to $45,000 in different directions. And then donations kept coming in. The more people that find out about the foundation, the more people realize that it’s a true charity thing. It’s not like a front for some sort of business. My entire board doesn’t necessarily need this as a job. They are there because they’re volunteers and they truly do it from the heart.

How much did golf factor into your extended engagement in Las Vegas? You were just here in December speaking before a golf coaches’ association.

Correct. I was here at the golf coaches association speaking for all the collegiate coaches. I did a keynote speech. Golf has become a big part of my life. I’m in a player-and-coaching development committee for PGA America with Michael Breed. It’s a big part of my life because I see that golf is the true way for me to always be in my kids’ life. When I go play golf with my daughters, that’s two hours on the golf course and there’s no devices, no distractions, no TV, no computers. It’s just me and them having a good time, so much so that they keep me fit. When they hit the ball straight I have to do a cartwheel and when they hit the ball straight they have to do a cartwheel. It keeps us pretty fit because those two girls have become really good at making daddy do cartwheels.

How have you been able to apply what you’ve learning in dancing to raising a family that includes a special needs child?

Patience. When you’re teaching dance you have to have a lot of patience, and when you have a special needs child you’re truly blessed. My son has been a blessing in every aspect. He was diagnosed when he was 1 and a half, and immediately my wife and I just kind of shrugged our shoulders and we said “Alright, that’s what it is. Let’s get him all the help that he needs. Let’s give him the best life we can possibly imagine for him to have.” What we didn’t realize was he was going to affect our lives in such a positive way, such a beautiful way. He’s a beautiful child. When he hugs you, you feel like you’re being hugged from his heart, and it’s so awesome. What an incredible experience in so many different ways. We are proud parents. It’s so funny because there is a moment when it hits you that you are the parents of a special needs child, and that moment lasts for abut 10 seconds before you get over it and make it about the child, and not about you. He’s taught us so many different things. He’s learned so many languages through his iPad. He knows sign language. I just want him to have a happy life. The word “normal” gets thrown around a lot. Normal is boring, I always say. He’s beautiful just the way he is.

Will you be stopping in your Dance With Me studio in Tivoli Village during your Chippendale’s run?

Of course! At least once a week. We have a dance competition this Saturday that I’m going to stop by from 12 to five. We have a lot of new students showing off their stuff so they should go out there and have some fun.

You’re launching your inaugural dance-themed cruise this summer. Beyond that, what are the chances of you becoming a judge on Dancing with the Stars in the future?

I would love to be a judge on Dancing with the Stars. I think I’d bring something to it. I’ve already been through the teaching aspect of I, through the judging aspect of it. I’ve been through it in the competitive aspect of it, having won two world titles, so I think I’d being a world of experience to it. Accomplished experience. I think I’d be able to relate to every single celebrity and every single teacher in the sense of I know how hard it is, and I can give them some constructive criticism without hurting their personal feelings. A lot of times when the judge says something that personally hurts them that doesn’t necessarily help them for the next round. I would keep it about dancing and not necessarily about their personality trait.

You bare a striking resemblance to the actor Mark Ruffalo. Do you ever get mistaken for him?

Yes, all the time.