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'Dancing With the Stars' recap: First perfect 10s; Michael Sam leaves

'DWTS' judges hand out first perfect 10s of season 20 to Nastia Liukin, Willow Shields; Michael Sam leaves

Is there any doubt that there will be tears during an episode of “Dancing With the Stars” dedicated to the most memorable year in the contestants’ lives?

No, fans, there is not.

That’s why the long-running series keeps returning to this theme, a viewer favorite that plumbs the competitors’ struggles, losses, highs, lows and milestones. There’s an immediate payoff for the audience in all those tender moments, but I’d hate to be a judge because it’s nearly impossible to criticize a performance dedicated to, say, someone’s dead mom. Only an icy-hearted monster would do such a thing!

Len Goodman, head judge, apparently took a grumpy pill before the show, daring to say he was there only to dissect the dancing and steps and such, not the emotional backstories. The townsfolk nearly grabbed their pitchforks when he gave an unimpressed “Meh” to a few of the dancers’ technical proficiency, or lack thereof.

Otherwise, the episode was heavy on praise for dances that celebrated living an authentic life (Michael Sam), standing up to bullies (Rumer Willis) and saying goodbye to loved ones (Suzanne Somers and Robert Herjavec). And no surprise to anyone who understands the “DWTS” formula, the show saved the three-hankiest performance for last: the inspirational Iraq war veteran Noah Galloway, using Toby Keith’s patriotic anthem, “American Soldier.” Standing ovation. Not a dry eye.

The judges handed out their first 10s of the season – three for Willow Shields and one for Nastia Liukin – and Patti LaBelle executed some actual dance steps. The latter may have been a much bigger surprise than the former.

But it was the end of the road for one couple. Sent packing: Michael Sam and Peta Murgatroyd.

Here’s the breakdown, from lowest to highest scores:

Chris Soules and Witney Carson: the rumba to Gavin James’ live version of “The Book of Love”

Sure, there are plenty of viewers out there who love Prince Farming from the most recent season of “The Bachelor.” But I have to agree with cranky Len on this one: Meh. “It wasn’t that great,” he said. Right on. Could it be because the most memorable year of his life had something to do with calling off an engagement with a college girlfriend and then later finding love (“love?”) on a reality show? Wake me when this rumba is over. As his parents said during the taped video, not much happens down on the farm. Not much happened during that dance, either, and Julianne said she couldn’t feel the chemistry or connection between Chris and his partner, Witney (not to be confused with his current fiancée, Whitney). Score: 27

Suzanne Somers and Tony Dovolani: the foxtrot to the theme of “Three’s Company”

Suzanne Somers was ready to give up acting in 1977 when her manager convinced her to go on one more audition. She landed the part as ditzy Chrissy Snow on the ABC sitcom “Three’s Company,” and began her once-in-a-lifetime friendship with John Ritter. Somers dedicated the dance -- a quirky sitcom reenactment, complete with a living room set and laugh track -- to her late costar. She was “truly in her element,” Julianne Hough said. I just want that doggy-eared hairstyle to come back, this time for the masses or at least a Halloween costume. Score: 28

Patti LaBelle and Artem Chigvintsev: jazz to her own song, “Dan Swit Me”

The year was 1973, and after touring as a singer in Japan and drinking some (OK, a lot of) sake with her husband, Patti had a baby. She recorded the song, “Dan Swit Me” as a kind of ode to her son, who was in the studio Monday to see his mom whip out some Charleston kicks and shimmy in her fringe flapper dress. Patti -- we hardly knew ye, soul sister! Carrie Ann Inaba called Patti’s legs “fierce,” and Len said the performance was like a cappuccino, “light and fluffy.” After mostly being hidden behind the show’s professional dance troupe, Patti came out front for a number that Julianne called, “so fun, so entertaining." And from me: Give this gal a mirror ball trophy for pre-dance videos. Score: 30

Michael Sam and Peta Murgatroyd: rumba to “Not My Father’s Son” from the musical “Kinky Boots”

None of the judges had to caution Michael about his previously plastered-on smile this week, as his dance revolved around his absentee father and the rift (possibly irreparable) between them. It came to a head last year when Sam came out as gay, and his father publicly rejected him. They haven’t spoken since, Sam said in his video opener. The former NFL player was serious, “trusting and vulnerable,” Julianne noted in her critique. Carrie reminded fans that dancing is more than movement, and “you were truly dancing your soul for us.” But even Bruno Tonioli’s bigger-than-the-dance encouragement – “Your voice is very important. The struggle is worth it” – couldn’t save the couple. Score: 30

Noah Galloway and Sharna Burgess: contemporary to “American Soldier” by Toby Keith

After an IED blew up his Humvee in Iraq in 2005, Noah Galloway nearly gave up on life, sinking into depression and alcohol abuse. His dance number highlighted his journey back – he’s now a motivational speaker and personal trainer – and included some gorgeous lifts that show just how physically strong he is. Julianne and Carrie choked up, Bruno called him a superhero and “the ultimate role model,” and the crowd gave him a thunderous round of applause. Carrie compared him to a haiku that says something profound in few words. Didn’t get misty at that final move, when he put his hand on his heart? You must be made of stone. Score: 32

Riker Lynch and Allison Holker: tango, “Shut Up and Dance” by Walk the Moon

Since they tied for the top spot last week (with Nastia and Derek), there were fairly large expectations going into Monday’s show. Cue sad trombone music for a number that was technically decent but mostly bloodless. That was a bad choice of music, first of all, making for an awkward tango. Even Bruno noticed that. And second, his story was inelegantly told, to say the least, packed with a mind-numbing variety of clichés and platitudes. 2014 was his best year yet because his band finally hit the big time. After seven years of hard work – seven! – Bruno still likes his “youthful enthusiasm,” but Julianne thought the dance seemed “a little staccato.” Score: 34

Robert Herjavec and Kym Johnson: the waltz to Engelbert Humperdinck’s “The Last Waltz”

It likely shocks no one that the entrepreneur known as “the nice shark” on reality competition show “Shark Tank” loved his mother very much. And despite his wealth, he realized in 2006 that he couldn’t save her from ovarian cancer. She died that year, and his dance, a lilting old-school waltz, was an homage to her. They used to watch “DWTS” together, he said during his heart-tugging rehearsal video, and she would’ve been thrilled to see him as a competitor. His white tails and Kym’s floaty gown set the mood for a performance that Carrie said was “the embodiment of why the show became a hit.” Even Len had to agree. Score: 34

Rumer Willis and Val Chmerkovskiy: the waltz to Adele’s “Turning Tables”

Being the scion of world-famous folks Demi Moore and Bruce Willis isn't as easy as it may seem, Rumer said in the video setup to her dance, meant to combat haters, tabloids, paparazzi and bullies. She dedicated the dance – and her newfound confidence – to her older sister. And then she absolutely killed a waltz, which Len “I need a nap” Goodman said felt more contemporary and less waltzy to him. Everybody else liked it better, as did Glenn Close, Demi Moore, et al. in the studio audience. Julianne said she was dancing “for every girl,” and Bruno dubbed her “beautiful, powerful and unique.” Score: 35

Nastia Liukin and Derek Hough: the Argentine tango to Lara St. John’s “Variations on Dark Eyes”

Whether this Argentine tango had anything at all to do with Liukin’s triumphs at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing – it did share a soundtrack – the gymnast brought her game face on Monday. Intense and sharp, with tons of spinning lifts, that dance could’ve continued twice as long and I still would’ve been mesmerized. She has gorgeous lines, people! Bruno said she has the dazzling quality of a gem, sculpted by the hands of a master. Nicely put. And for that, she earned the first perfect 10 of the season. Score: 36

Willow Shields and Mark Ballas: contemporary to “Atlas” by Coldplay, from “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” soundtrack

Since she’s a teenager – the youngest ever “DWTS” contestant – Willow doesn’t have a lot of experience from which to draw here. But hers is a compelling story of a blockbuster, potentially career-making role in “The Hunger Games.” (No, Len has not seen this movie franchise, but as host Tom Bergeron reminded viewers, Len hasn’t taken in many talkies.) This dystopian combat dance drew heavily on “Hunger Games” imagery, swords, battle and black leather. And it worked, with Carrie calling it “pitched perfectly,” and Bruno saying she was “a little warrior, fierce and fearless.” Her reward was the highest score so far this season, included three 10s. Score: 39

Next week: Disney!

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