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‘Dancing With the Stars’ recap: ‘Let the intensity commence!’

It’s a very special evening, ballroom fans. The All-Stars season is finally upon us! And this “celebration of the best of the best” is like a who’s who of “Dancing With the Stars”-dom. Former champions and also-rans! Controversial figures! Boy banders! Olympians!

Each couple performed a fox trot or the cha-cha. Though with so many shiny stars swirling and twirling around in the coveted Mirrorball trophy’s glittery orbit, it was hard to focus on just one. As head judge Len Goodman said, what was good has to be great, and what was great has to be exceptional.

There’s even been a tweak to the judges’ scores, allowing for half-points to each paddle score “just to give it a balance.” Who emerged as early favorites during this season premiere and who fell short of expectations? In the words of newly minted Emmy-winner Tom Bergeron (whose best reality-TV show host award was much deserved), “Let the intensity commence!”

PHOTOS: ‘Dancing With the Stars: All-Stars’: Meet the Season 15 cast

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Quickly establishing themselves as the team to beat in this stacked competition were Season 3 champs Emmitt Smith and Cheryl Burke. The Super Bowl champ’s still got his ease of movement, lightness of step and his Matthew McConaughey-like swagger, and seeing the chemistry ignite back up with his old partner make them quite the formidable force. Emmitt was looking lucky in his emerald-green satin shirt for his cha-cha, set to Aretha Franklin’s “Chain of Fools,” and Cheryl was sporting full-on ‘80s Gloria Estefan hair. “The last dance of the evening, and the best,” Len declared. Bruno said something about the essence of uplifting for everyone to enjoy. “Twinkletoes is back!” Carrie Ann exulted. “You were born to dance.” And all three judges awarded Emmitt and Cheryl a total of 24.5 out of 30 their first time out. Allrightallrightallright!

Following closely in second place was actor Gilles Marini, back with his French accent and heavy-lidded looks at the camera to avenge his Season 8 loss, this time partnered with last season’s pro champ Peta Murgatroyd. Apparently, the chemistry they have is amazing. And their fox trot took a page from “The Artist,” starring a Frenchman without a word and in sepia tones, a throwback to the glitz and glamour of Old Hollywood. Bruno said the routine had “style, panache and finesse … old-time Hollywood gloss and glamour.” “That was just so poetic and gorgeous,” sighed Carrie Ann. “Jon Hamm didn’t win last night because Gilles Marini had to win it tonight.” Len said “You had a sophistication about you – I thought you did a terrific job.” Total: 24.

Season 5 early-ouster Sabrina Bryan was the only one of Season 15’s contestants voted into the competition by the viewers. If that wasn’t pressure enough, new pro partner Louis Van Amstel had to go ahead and say that she was a front-runner, which only puts that much more pressure on her. Which is maybe why Sabrina felt like she needed to put that much effort into her first go on this all-star dance floor, attacking with the speed of a cheetah (girl) and the rabid fervor of a gaggle of One Direction fans during a “What Makes You Beautiful” performance. Maria Menounos liked it, though not enough to get on her feet. Carrie Ann, however, declared Sabrina this episode’s Katniss Everdeen. “You are on fiya! There’s nothing like a woman scorned, and you came here with a fire under your bootay.” Still, the judge warned SB against overdancing. So did Len: “It was clean and it was precise; unfortunately, it had a lot of impact. So does a hammer, but you need some finesse as well.” Bruno said Sabrina has “unleashed a fury on the dance floor … [though] at times, you went for it too much.” Total: 22.5

You’d think that once you won your Olympic gold medal and the “DWTS” Mirrorball trophy and have your likeness carved in butter that everything else is gravy. But Season 8 champ Shawn Johnson is not one to just rest on her laurels. After a bittersweet retirement from the sport of gymnastics at the ripe old age of 20, she joined the all-stars as a chance to compete again. Even though it meant switching partners and “divorcing” Mark Ballas in favor of her new “husband,” Derek Hough. And she’s really pouring herself into this new competition. Shawn was outfitted in Derek’s signature yellow, a great big flower in her head, tan but not overly crispy. And their fox trot was executed like a smooth little slice of sunshine. It had Chaz Bono on his feet, and even ex-husband Mark gave a nice lower-lip shrug of approval up in the sky box. “That’s what a retiree can do,” marveled Tom. “That precious little princess was a floor-scorcher,” appraised Bruno. “That was like two dances for the price of one.” Carrie Ann “loved it – loooved it. “That is what all-star season is all about.” Len says “What you did, you did well.” But the head judge called himself “a cup of tea in a world of lattes, and for me, it didn’t feel like a fox trot.” But did it deserve a punitive 6.5? Really? Total: 22.

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PHOTOS: ‘Dancing With the Stars: All-Stars’: Meet the Season 15 cast

Even in this constellation of all stars, Apolo Anton Ohno retains his supreme confidence. “I didn’t sign up to get second,” the Olympic speed skater said. “I will be the first to win two Mirrorball trophies.” It’s a tall order for the Season 4 champ who admitted to new pro partner Karina Smirnoff that he doesn’t remember anything about dance. Karina took to Apolo like an X-acto knife for their LMFAO “Party Rock Anthem” cha-cha. I found myself distracted by the bright colors and glow-in-the-dark bangles, but the routine brought Florence Henderson and the rest of the audience to their feet, and Bruno called Apolo’s side arm extensions “absolutely exquisite.” Len, however, thought it was a bronze-medal performance at best. “It needed a little more hip action,” he sniffed. Carrie Ann, however, was sufficiently impressed. “Is it just me or did you just get 3,000 times more sexy?” the judge wondered. “Your hip sexy threw me over the table, rolling down the aisle.” Total: 22.

Hello, Season 5 winner Helio Castroneves! The Indy 500 champ has a daughter now, whom he’d rather have on the dance floor than on the race track. And “they gave me another blond,” Chelsie Hightower, to get behind the ballroom wheel in lieu of his former pro partner, Julianne Hough. Helio and Chelsie’s resulting fox trot was a dapper little treat. Len said it was a routine “you should be proud of,” despite one or two “incidents.” Bruno called Helio “such a bright and engaging stage presence,” but said the driver “messed up quite a bit tonight.” Carrie Ann said Helio’s “charisma and charm” are effective, though she’d like to see “a tiny bit more body contact.” Total: 21.5

Former boy bander Drew Lachey has willingly returned to this “dysfunctional family” reunion to show all the haters who think those in Season 2 can’t hang with their contemporaries his considerable skills. And in a neat little twist of fate, the erstwhile 98 Degrees member has been partnered with Anna Trebunskaya, pro partner to Drew’s Season 2 runnerup Jerry Rice. Will these two be on the same page, or is Anna going to throw Drew a little shade for beating her all those years ago? It looks like a little bit of both. Anna brought her tough-talking Russian to rehearsals, and succeeded in bringing down Drew’s shoulders enough to perform a lovely fox trot to Sara Bareilles’ “Love Song.” Though the judges’ rigid comments could really be taken badly in the wrong context. Len thought it was “a bit too hard and hectic,” Bruno said “Sometimes, you stiffen up,” and Carrie Ann said “I want to see firm, but not rigid.” In the words of Tom Bergeron: “OK, then.” Total: 21.5

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Soap star Kelly Monaco and Val Chmerkovskiy have amazing chemistry. And let’s face it: the OG champ is super-brave to come back to this ballroom brawl after all these years. I mean, when she won out against John O’Hurley, her season was just six weeks long. She’d never done the cha-cha before. Sparkle technology was nowhere near as advanced, and spray tan was in its infancy. Luckily, Kelly’s got great core strength and chemistry with a Chmerkovskiy working in her favor. “Kelly and I exude sensuality covered with a smoldering-hot sexual tension,” Val revealed. Chmerkovskiy the Younger is emerging as quite the character out from under his outspoken brother Maks’ shadow, offering not just the aforementioned bon mot but also this gem: “You’re a very petite lady and you have these big … yeah.” He’s also got the handle on teaching Kelly the cha-cha. Bruno called Kelly “sexy and hotter than ever.” Carrie Ann said “Apolo isn’t the only one who got a whole bunch sexier. You two have insane chemistry.” Len, for the most part, agreed. “You weren’t this good Season 1,” the head judge declared. “Something’s happened to you.” Dare I say it’s … chemistry? Total: 21.5

Melissa Rycroft and Tony Dovolani, together again! The former Bachelorette and third-place finisher in Season 8 now has a husband, baby, and a career as a TV host, and now is prepared to win the Mirrorball trophy both for her and her old partner. And they had a fun “Big Spender” fox-trot routine that had flash and dash and a lot of money thrown in the air, and ended with Tony pumping his fist in triumph at the end. “You can’t go wrong with a little ‘Sweet Charity,’” Carrie Ann approved. The judge said Melissa has “exquisite lines … but you have to have more body contact!” Alas, the routine was “a little bit theatrical” for Len, but admired Melissa’s “great lines” and “great extensions.” Bruno got the word of the day by calling out Melissa’s “vertiginous extensions” but agreed with Carrie Ann, that she should have more body contact on the hold. Total: 21.

PHOTOS: ‘Dancing With the Stars: All-Stars’: Meet the Season 15 cast

Remember back in Season 4, when Joey Fatone was runner-up to Apolo Anton Ohno? “Not this time, bro.” The former ‘N Syncer was reunited with his old partner Kym Johnson and it wasn’t long before they were back to their old high jinks. They showed up to rehearsals dressed in matching “Team Fatone” tracksuits. Then he squeezed her bum, and she kicked him in the face, and neither of them flinched! Joey came out like the smoke monster with a sparkly sequined Michael Jackson and fedora and showed off some of the King of Pop’s moves during a “PYT” cha-cha routine. Kym saw Joey’s sparkle and raised him with her gold macaroni dress and matching sequined tights, which had her sparkling from head to toe. They ended with Kym dangling at a 45-degree angle to achieve optimum fringe suspension. Len likes watching Joey dance. “You’re full of enthusiasm,” the head judge said. “Just check out your footwork.” Bruno enjoyed the “wonderful Michael Jackson touches” but said Joey’s “posture has to change for the cha-cha-cha.” Carrie Ann also had something to say, but was played off like an Emmy winner before she got to say it. Total: 20.5

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The award for most improved went to Bristol Palin, who sported a crispier spray tan, showed a little more skin and looked about 20 times more relaxed on this second go-round with Mark Ballas than she ever had in Season 11. The daughter of Sarah is doing her best to “really perform this time around,” and the effort shows. “I vote you most improved,” marveled Carrie Ann. “You’re confident and you’re sassy.” “A great improvement,” Len concurred. “You weren’t shy and were into it.” “Bristol, darling, is it really you?” Bruno marveled. While he said she had great legs and great hips, she needs “power and focus.” Total: 19.5

Of all the new power couples, the one I was most excited to see was Kirstie Alley and Maksim Chmerkovskiy. Maks is notoriously outspoken and a bit rough with his delivery, and Kirstie seemed like the only star who could take it and dish it right back. They genuinely seem to have fun together. And if this is Maks’ last season, then why not end it on a high note? Their subsequent fox trot featured Kirstie light on her feet and ended with a platonic kiss on the cheek at the end, but it left the judges wanting more. “I kind of felt you didn’t turn it up to full speed,” Carrie Ann said. Len told Kirstie to “lift up your rib cage,” and “it needed refining.” Bruno told her to technically think about the shoulders, the frame and the footwork, but said he loved the way Kirstie emotes, effortlessly segueing into his best Robin Williams in “The Birdcage” Twyla Tharp impression. Kirstie got the last word when she planted a show-stopping kiss on Tom Bergeron before sprinting off into the sky box. “That’s for your Emmy!” she yelled. Total: 19.

Finally, we come to Pamela Anderson, who returns to the ballroom with new pro partner Tristan MacManus. Pam, true to form, retained her sexy persona, looking Tristan over like a cougar watches over her prey at their first meeting. Pammy’s feeling a little “underdoggy” among the other all stars; people have Olympic medals and Bristol Palin’s “got the whole Tea Party, right?” Tristan tried to be encouraging during rehearsals: “Now all you’re missing is timing and all the steps.” The “Baywatch” babe and Guinness world-record holder as the Internet’s most downloaded star and Tristan came to the dance floor like two sides of a sultry sandwich, and their cha-cha to Amy Winehouse’s “You’re No Good” kind of reminded me of the Eminem video with Megan Fox and Charlie from “Lost”: A lot of sultry flames and anger (did he just pretend-slap her?), though not a lot of dancing. Best shot: Sarah Palin explaining to grandson Tripp what just happened on the dance floor, and Tripp covering his ears. Earplugs maybe won’t help in this case. Bruno did his best to lighten the mood with his double-entendres — “You look like a girl who can go all the way” – but “You have to put the work in to go all the way! … You have to work harder.” “You were definitely living the drama … but yeah, it was a bit uncomfortable,” said Carrie Ann. Pammy ended up with a groan-worthy 17, but it looked as though it hardly mattered, because she and Tristan were raring to get backstage.

What do you think, ballroom fans? Excited for the all-star wattage this season? Who do you think will be eliminated on Tuesday? Who are your favorites to win?

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