"I've grown to really respect her and adore her," Dovolani tells PEOPLE. "I think she's actually a big teddy bear"
Credit: Craig Sjodin/ABC

Tony Dovolani has gotten to know partner NeNe Leakes quite well over the last few weeks during Dancing with the Stars rehearsals – and one thing he’s learned quickly: she isn’t one to tone down the energy.

“God forbid I’m having one of those tough days, she’ll start dancing with me and rubbing on me. I immediate have a smile on my face,” Dovolani, 40, told PEOPLE backstage right after Monday night’s show, where he and the TV personality were declared safe to move on to next week’s competition. “We hit it off right off the bat.”

Expressing his gratitude to fans for voting them on for another week, Dovolani said it will give the dancing duo “the opportunity to show off NeNe’s real side,” adding, “Everybody’s got this perception of NeNe. I’ve grown to really respect her and adore her. I think she’s actually a big teddy bear. She treats me like gold. We really have a good time.”

Agreeing that indeed, yes, she is a “big teddy bear,” Leakes, 46, also credits hubby Gregg Leakes for helping make her experience on ABC’s hit show an enjoyable one.

“He’s my biggest cheerleader,” the Real Housewives of Atlanta star said with a huge smile. “We’ve known each other a long time. We got married twice.”

But for the time being, Gregg will have to take a backseat to Dovolani, who NeNe hung out with just for fun as recently as Saturday at Jennifer Aniston‘s favorite hotspot, Sunset Tower hotel.

“It was supposed to be a half-hour thing and it turned into a four-hour thing,” Dovolani said of the get-together, which fell on the eve of early morning rehearsals. “We never stop having fun.”

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