Cheryl Burke on leaving 'DWTS': 'One of the hardest decisions of my life'

When Cheryl Burke decided to step away from "Dancing With the Stars" after appearing on 18 consecutive seasons as a pro, she knew she needed some time away from the "machine" of a show, despite how hard it was to leave.

Burke joined the ABC reality competition for its second season and quickly became the first female pro to win the show, following her title-run up with yet another win, making her the first pro to win back-to-back titles. Her up-and-down run continued through season 19 until Burke realized that her head wasn't in it anymore.

"You don't want to feel like a robot," she exclusively told AOL recently. "I felt like I was at a standstill before season 19, when I took my official break. At the end of the day, no one wants you there if you don't want to be there. If you're there because you think you have to be, it shows."

And, by then, she had uncovered a "formula" of sorts that had helped her to find success on the show, making it even more obvious to her that she hadn't done anything different in quite some time.

"I felt like I was on autopilot, and when I'm on autopilot, I don't bring out the best in my partner, which is not fair," she explained. "I also don't bring out the best in me, which isn't fair to me or any other dancer who wants to try [bring on the show]."

Burke called the decision to step away from the show that made her a household name a "scary" one, because, not only was there no guaranteeing that she'd be able to return, but she also didn't want anyone to take her decision personally. It had everything to do with her personal growth and nothing to do with the show -- which she called "family."

"It was one of the hardest decisions of my life," she told AOL. "We're a family, and here I am thinking, 'What if they don't want me back?' But I knew I needed to do this for me. Sometimes we get clouded: It's twice a year, a tour and spinoffs. It's such a long show; it's a machine."

At the end of the day, though, Burke was welcomed back with open arms after she says she found her true purpose through dance and, since returning for season 23, she also competed on season 25 and the current season 27.

"It made me step out of the ['DWTS'] circle and understand my purpose," she said of leaving the show. "I started to find my calling, which was to help people through what they're going through with dance. I'm kind of like a dancing Oprah!"

In addition to finding her professional calling, Burke also found love in her ex-boyfriend, actor Matthew Lawrence, who she is now engaged to. It was finding that constant in her life that understands her busy schedule and the importance of pursuing her dreams that has allowed her to fully return to "Dancing With the Stars" and willing to help her partners achieve what they want to achieve.

"I listened to my heart: I was single and not happy in my personal life," she said. "I wanted to settle down, but I couldn't because of the crazy hours. There's no balance. But now, that's okay because I have a supportive fiancé who is in the business and understands. I needed that time."

"Dancing With the Stars" airs on Mondays at 8 p.m. EST on ABC