"Everyone asks if I'm sore," she said after a recent rehearsal at a nondescript dance studio northeast of Los Angeles. "Am I supposed to be sore?"
Perhaps not. She is, however, supposed to step, twirl, dip, smile, clap, spin, plant and jump -- all imaginable types of body and facial movements, really -- in time with the music. Never mind that the Academy Award-winning actress can't hear a single note, beat, or tempo change.
While none of this year's crop of "Dancing" hopefuls have ever danced professionally, Matlin has the additional challenge of being deaf. And that's not a problem, she said through her longtime interpreter, Jack Jason. Matlin relies on her professional partner, show newcomer Fabian Sanchez, to lead the way.
"He's my music," she said.
Sanchez has modified some of the dances slightly so he and Matlin maintain more physical or visual contact than they otherwise might. But even when she steps out solo, "she's got a natural rhythm," he said. "She's on time every single time."
The dance instructor from Birmingham, Ala. had never worked with a deaf student before, but he finds Matlin easier to teach than many who can hear.
"I have somebody who has never danced, who has never heard music, so I can mold her however I want," he said. "She's more sensitive to my lead because she's not trying to follow the rhythm on her own."
Matlin didn't join the show to prove that deaf people can dance, she said, adding that she has seen deaf dancers perform on stages across the country. She did it for the challenge, the exposure, and ultimately, for her kids.
The mother of four was inspired by her 12-year-old daughter, Sara, a hip-hop dancer and devoted fan of the show. "I just want to be the cool mom," Matlin said.
She's found the right venue for that.
As if an "American Idol"-esque 25 million viewers for last year's finale wasn't lending enough cultural weight to the live dancing competition, now it has something resembling a serious actress in its cast: Matlin, an Emmy-nominated TV veteran who won a best actress Oscar in 1986 for "Children of a Lesser God," is a clear cut above the usual "Dancing" actors.
For that reason alone she stands out from this year's crop, which includes radio host Adam Carolla, magician Penn Jillette, pro football player Jason Taylor, tennis champ Monica Seles, Olympic skater Kristi Yamaguchi, R&B singer Mario and actors Steve Guttenberg, Shannon Elizabeth, Christian de la Fuente, Priscilla Presley and Marissa Jaret Winokur.
As the ABC hit begins its sixth season Monday, she gives little thought to her impairment: "We're all challenged in some way. ... The only thing I can't do is hear."
But executive producer Conrad Green said cast diversity contributes to the show's success. His team looks for contestants of various ages, sizes, abilities and professional pursuits. Participants have been boxers, basketball players, businessmen, models and yes, actors.
"We're always looking to push that range with people you wouldn't expect to do it or wouldn't want to do it," he said, adding that he counts Bill Clinton among his dream contestants. "For lots of people, it's a nice way to get the audience familiar with you in a different light."
Former Mrs. Paul McCartney and model Heather Mills, who uses a prosthetic leg, lasted seven weeks on the competition during season four.
"I think it proved a lot of things to a lot of people," Green said. "It's incumbent on everyone in television to try to open up television to people with disabilities. They're every bit as much valid contributors to television as anyone."
Dance ability hardly matters, he said, since the show is all about trying something new.
"It's just about good old-fashioned effort for effort's sake," Green said. "No one is aspiring to genuinely be a ballroom dancer, so there's nothing at stake beyond pride."
Besides, he added, "It's a stupid trophy at the end of the day and only one person can win it."
Matlin made it clear that she wants to be the one to take home this season's mirrorball prize. But she knows it won't come easy. "This is one of the hardest jobs I ever had," she said as she traded her high-heeled dancing shoes for comfy sneakers. "It's absolutely harder than love scenes in movies."
She slipped out of her swingy dance skirt and pulled on a pair of cargo pants, then packed up her things after another long rehearsal. As she stood to leave, she looked confused.
"Actually," she said, "I am sore."