‘Dancing With the Stars’: The final countdown

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Ten weeks of competition and we’re down to the final three, ballroom fans! And as Tom and Samantha have not-so-subtly burned into our brains, this is one of the tightest competitions ever. Now that we’ve made it to the finals, the Mirrorball trophy has been taken out of its high-security vault and perched in front of the judges’ desk for all to see. It’s all so tantalizingly within reach. (Though did it always say “Dancing With the Stars” on the mirror ball itself? It’s so very “Scarface.” Were they afraid that the trophy would be mistaken for another award?)

On this first night of the two-night finale, each couple performed two dances — a paso doble set to the same song (Pink’s “So What”), and a crowd favorite: the anything-goes freestyle. And this, truly, is when the wheat is separated from the chaff, folks. What all these weeks of training, injury and competition come down to. Who has what it takes to win it all? (Don’t forget to join us for the live chat today at noon PDT / 3 p.m. EDT, for any of those who want to share their thoughts about this oh-so-exciting eighth season!)

After Monday night’s dances, the race toward sparkledom is neck and neck:

There’s a tie for first place. First up: Gilles Marini and Cheryl Burke. Total: 58/60. You knew Gilles meant business coming into these finals. Coming down the grand ballroom stairs, even. His hair was slicked back. His chest was bared. And instead of just wearing a rosary T-shirt in rehearsals, he wore an actual rosary around his neck for the performance. And there was no way that Gilles could have done any wrong during his paso. I mean, the man was coached by head judge Len “DNCMSTR” Goodman himself! I loved when they practiced mirror arm moves and worked on intensity during rehearsals (heck, it even caused Len to break a sweat — that’s hot). And Gilles and Cheryl’s paso did not disappoint. It was precise and well-executed, turning down the hectic and turning up the flair and heat. Their score: 30.


Their freestyle, however, did not fare so well. The judges felt that the routine, set to Irene Cara’s “What a Feeling” from “Flashdance,” focused too much on Cheryl and not much on Gilles. And to be fair, my eye was more drawn toward Cheryl’s hot fuchsia one-shouldered onesie than to Gilles’ sparkly slashed shirt (what is it with this couple and the slashes? The more skin the better, I guess). And the dancing seemed to be a bit safe. While Len said it was “high energy” and “slick,” Bruno said he “wanted a little bit more actual dancing,” and Carrie Ann thought the song was “an odd choice…. ‘Flashdance’ is about the female dancer.” Despite a perfect 10 from Len, their freestyle garnered a 28.

Also tied for first were Shawn Johnson and Mark Ballas, also with a 58 out of 60. I thought their paso deserved more than a 28, though. My only reason to dock points (other than the move at the beginning that made it look like she actually tripped and fell to the ground, rather than planting herself there) would have been the awful outfit Shawn was forced to wear. You know, the one that looked like a maid’s outfit collided with a paper shredder. Those foofy sleeve ruffles were very distracting, and I felt like that actually took away from Shawn’s intensity. How terrible to be eliminated from a competition because of a faulty outfit.

Or maybe the judges were just trying to create an even playing field in anticipation of Team Shark’s freestyle. Because man, that rocked. Again, I was a little nervous about how their dance was going to pan out — remember the last time Shawn and Mark wore sweatsuits? I’m still trying to get the image of Mark in short shorts out of my head (shudder). But it seemed as though Team Shark learned from their mistakes (well, most of them. Shawn still had to sport an unfortunate lime-green zebra-print bra top under her sparkly suspenders). They resolved not to resort to gymnastics trickery, and it worked in their favor. They started out like bedazzled Jabbawockeez, masks and all. And while Shawn looked like she had a bit of trouble removing the suit, it was all pop and pizzazz and a hundred megawatts of quick steps and unfettered joy from there on out. Loved how Shawn and Mark were able to match each other’s back flips. And that one lift that turned into an above-the-head split. It was, as Tom said, “a full-on Shark attack!” Bruno said it “truly was an explosive performance, bursting with creativity.” Carrie Ann said it was “full of energy.” And Len, quite calmly and simply, said “I loved it,” thereby earning Team Shark its second perfect score of the competition.

Just two points behind with a total of 56 were Melissa Rycroft and Tony Dovolani. And while Shawn and Gilles went more traditional with their paso outfits, Tony had Melissa go the dominatrix/Mel B route, with pleather short shorts and that Matrix-like cape. Loved how Carrie Ann really made Melissa work on her attitude and intensity during rehearsal (I liked the judges helping out with the dancers in general; it not only gave constructive criticism that each contestant could actually use, but it also allowed the judges to show their chops and prove that they’re not just some Joe schmoes who were picked off the street. This despite being subjected to the sight of a very tan Bruno lounging about in a Speedo). And while Melissa displayed some of that matador-like focus during her performance, some of her moves were still too ballet-like for me. There was one turn in particular that was soft arms and edges. Still, the judges thought it was darn near perfect, and awarded her and Tony a 29 for their efforts.

Their freestyle routine was a lot more revealing. And by that, I mean Melissa’s bejeweled version of the Victoria’s Secret diamond-encrusted bra top, her exposed lower-back tattoo and Tony’s awe-inspiring mesh top. What was his mesh shirt made out of? It was about as mesmerizing as Cheryl’s hot-pink wear, but for different reasons. That shirt needs to go into the “DWTS” outfit hall of fame (or shame. It’s such a fine line between the two).

But oh yes, the freestyle. Now that they were so close to victory, I was sure Tony was going to pull out all the stops and choreograph a routine that involved many death-defying lifts, like their Lindy Hop from Week 4. Too bad Melissa’s accidental sock to his eye put an end to that. Set to C+C Music Factory’s “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now),” the routine did have its share of lifts, but not the rampant, rag-doll hurling that I thought it would. It also employed moves firmly ensconced in the ’80s, like the Running Man and the Worm. While Carrie Ann loved Melissa’s new attitude (and of course she would — didn’t she help out with it?), the judge thought the routine was a little “disjointed,” going from “lift to lift” and not “movement to movement.” Bruno agreed, and said “it wasn’t as perfect as we would have liked to have seen for a final dance.” Len simply didn’t get it. “It wasn’t my cup of tea,” he shrugged. Their score: 27, for a total of 56, though I daresay Melissa was a little disjointed because she was so distracted by the see-through fabric that swathed Tony’s chest.

While Melissa has had a great run, I think maybe her time may be up, leaving Olympian Shawn and ooh-la-la Gilles in the final two. After Monday night’s performances, who do you think deserves the Mirrorball trophy? Who is in a position to win it all? And oh no, did they really misspell Season 4 champ Apolo Anton Ohno’s name on screen as “Ono”? Post your thoughts below, and don’t forget to join me for a “DWTS” chat today at noon PDT … liiiiiive!

-- Allyssa Lee