‘Dancing With the Stars’ Season 18 premiere recap: Ballroom bonanza

Val Chmerkovskiy and Danica McKellar dazzled with their fox trot.
(Adam Taylor / ABC)

Glitizens, rejoice! Ballroom reality extravaganza “Dancing With the Stars” is back. And the Glitterverse has gotten a bit of a makeover in its 18th season: a new band; a new co-host in Erin Andrews; and fancy new sets of judging paddles.

But there were also plenty of the old favorites to keep longtime viewers grounded in Tasselville, what with righting the judges back to their original side of the ballroom, the reappearance of the sky box, and the return of the Maks — Maksim Chmerkovskiy, that is. And all the old dancing standards!

We’ve also got a whole new constellation of stars vying for that Mirrorball trophy, from child actors to Olympic medalists to a woman who had literally swum with sharks. Let’s get to the rundown, shall we?

PHOTOS: ‘Dancing With the Stars’ Season 18 cast


Launching himself to the top of the Mirrorball hunt early on was Olympian Charlie White. The male half of gold-medal winning ice dancing duo Davis and White is now paired with Sharna Burgess, and they made for a very attractive contemporary pair during a very attractive contemporary routine. Did you see how Sharna pumped her fist upon meeting her golden partner? She knows she’s working with gold-medal dynamite here, and Charlie and his golden tresses are ready to take his rigorous Olympic training and dance it all out on the ballroom floor. And the judges rewarded him with three 9s — the highest score of the evening, even though head judge Len Goodman wondered aloud if Charlie could keep up this high standard for the rest of the season. Total: 27 out of 30.

Candace Cameron Bure, a.k.a. DJ Tanner from “Full House,” calls herself sweet, compassionate and sensitive, but also competitive. Specifically, she’s got her dancing cross hairs aimed directly at Danica McKellar — not just because they were both child stars in the late ’80s and early ’90s but also because (gasp) “Growing Pains’ ” Jeremy Miller dumped Candace for Danica in 1988. The mother of three got the last laugh with a poignant, grounded contemporary routine with Mark Ballas. Judge Bruno Tonioli said she used the floor well and called her a contemporary dancer. Carrie Ann Inaba thought it was so “amazing” that she immediately wanted to work with her (high praise for an amateur!), and gifted Candace the first 9 of the season. “Uncle Jesse would have loved that,” Erin Andrews remarked. Have mercy. Total: 25. 

If enthusiasm could be translated into “DWTS” points, then Danica would have scored a perfect 30. The once and forever Winnie Cooper from “The Wonder Years” has been a rabid “DWTS” fan from the outset, and her infectious enthusiasm and unabashed nerdiness (the supersmart McKellar has written a slew of bestselling math books for girls) was refreshing. And her fox trot with Val Chmerkovskiy to Kelly Clarkson’s “Walk Away” was a delight. The judges all told Danica to drop her shoulders, but Carrie Ann said Danica and Val “have great energy.” Kevin Arnold, eat your heart out. Total: 24.

Meryl Davis may be a bit more reserved than her ice-dancing partner Charlie White, but her ballroom dancing is on point. And her Olympic winning work ethic is just the thing to bring out the best in her bad-boy partner Maksim. Love how Maks stole Meryl from Charlie during the “medal ceremony” at the beginning of their cha-cha, and how she expertly killed the routine’s spins. As Len said, Meryl is “nice on ice … but you’re good on wood.” Bruno called her “the queen of spins.” Clearly, the judges were trying to keep the competition close and the scores low. Because why else would the superb M&M be scored a 24?


Amy Purdy went from winning a snowboarding bronze in the Sochi Paralympics to dancing the cha-cha with Derek Hough in the glitterverse 72 hours later. The whole thing is just so darn impressive, no matter how you look at it: Not only was her performance a triumph of stamina over jet lag, but it was also a triumph of dancing, considering that Amy has two prosthetic legs. “You got a bronze medal in the Olympics, you got a gold medal in the cha-cha-cha,” said Len. Bruno was “gobsmacked” by Amy’s timing, shapes and performance level. Carrie Ann gave Amy a standing ovation. “You’re more than a dancer — you are a beacon of light in this world,” she said emotionally. Total: 24.

Cody Simpson, the pop star from Australia with more than 6-million Twitter followers, was paired up with new pro Witney Carson. And while Witney has a very “look-at-me” type of dance style that Cody described as “kind of distracting,” the 17-year-old YouTube phenom seemed to match his pro partner’s energy pretty well in their cha-cha to Kesha’s “Timber.” Bruno called them “the poster couple for the elixir of youth.” Carrie Ann said Cody has a great upper body, but “really have to work on your lower half.” Len liked how Cody “came out and gave it plenty of welly.” Erin liked how Cody’s girlfriend made this partnership into a romantic triangle. Total: 22.

PHOTOS: ‘Dancing With the Stars’ Season 17 cast

Getting the party started (after Jason Derulo’s opening performance) was NeNe Leakes. And the “Real Housewives of Atlanta” vet and “Glee” guest star could not have looked more pleased to dress up in a glitzy headband and white fringe to cha-cha it out with Tony Dovolani. “I’ve never taken a dance class before but I’ve got a lot of soul,” she claimed. And NeNe looks to be a dream “DWTS” contestant: a sparkling personality with lots of heart, eminently quotable one-liners, and an unabashed love of the dance. And while NeNe has legs for days, Carrie Ann wanted her performance to fit her “incredibly larger-than-life personality”: “I felt you were dancing a little small to match Tony,” the judge said. Total: 21.

Holy sparks, Batman! Check out the instant romantic drama between Big Time Rush’s James Maslow and Peta Murgatroyd. Apparently, the duo had dinner, and then James kind of left for his international tour without so much as a text. Awkward! Though they covered it up pretty well during their performance “Nice little chemistry class there,” Tom remarked after their fox trot. James sent Carrie Ann into schoolgirl crush mode as she drew hearts in her notebook, while Len seemed to relieve to find someone to share the eye-candy burden with. Bruno wanted James to breathe a bit and make things more effortless. Though it could be all those unresolved feelings that’s making him tense. Total: 21.

Drew Carey, come on down! The actor, comedian and game-show host lost 80 pounds, found his core and then went out of his comfort zone to dance a Monopoly-themed fox trot with Cheryl Burke that was so very money. Carrie Ann called the “Price Is Right” host this season’s “crowd-pleaser.” Can’t wait for their inevitable Plinko routine. Total: 21

Former N.Y. Ranger Sean Avery has a visage and demeanor like a block of ice, doesn’t he? Sure, a guy who likes “Footloose” can’t be all that bad, but right now I’m getting a major Patrick Bateman vibes from the ex-NHL star. Pro partner Karina Smirnoff seemed to be tickled by his bone-dry delivery, though, and she got her star partner to engage in a lot of Karina-catching during their Keane-themed contemporary routine. The judges safely stuck to cautiously positive critiques: Carrie Ann said she found Sean fascinating, and Len made the understatement of the night by saying Sean was “full of intensity.” Though how weird is it that Sean’s favorite movie growing up was “Footloose”? “You are shocking the pants right off of all of us right now,” Erin said. Total: 20.

I was a little afraid for Diana Nyad when first-time pro partner Henry Byalikov said the first person to swim from Cuba to Florida without a shark cage was “a little bit of a fish out of water when it comes to a fox trot.” But this record-holding swimmer wasn’t about to let a ballroom dance get the best of her. And while her start was a bit waterlogged, Diana slowly won over the audience and the dance with her natural charm by the routine’s end. Bruno lauded Diana, whom he called a “million-dollar mermaid attempting to dazzle on dry land” for “selling it” despite having her flippers removed a week ago. Carrie Ann called her “a slowly opening flower.”  Clearly, Diana’s got guts and moxie and heart. I’d love to see this massive “DWTS” fan paddle through the choppy waters and make it past Week 2. Total: 18. 


Love how excited and geeked-out Emma Slater was when she found out that her partner was none other than Lando Calrissian himself, Billy Dee Williams. And while he will always have his cool (shades during rehearsal!), two hip operations, back arthritis, and 77 years have taken a bit of a toll on Billy Dee’s ballroom swagger. Not that the dance completely fell over to the dark side: Emma’s Leia outfit (complete with buns), the cameo from R2-D2, and the dancing Stormtroopers brought a good amount of fun Force into this cha-cha routine. Though the judges may find themselves roasted at the Ewoks’ stakes for their comments. Bruno was still sore about Lando freezing Han Solo in carbonite and said Billy Dee played it “very careful.” Len and Carrie Ann thought he needed to come out a little more. “This is not the judge you were looking for,” Tom quipped. Ultimately, the judges relegated Billy Dee to the bottom of the leaderboard like junk droids to the trash compactor. Total: 15.  

What do you think, ballroom fans? Like Season 18’s changes to the glitterverse so far? What did you think of Erin Andrews as co-host? Was Meryl Davis underscored? Who is your early favorite to win the coveted Mirrorball trophy?


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