TV

Valerie Harper gets crowd on their feet, leaves judge in tears on 'DWTS'

Sep. 16, 2013 at 11:22 PM ET

Image: Tristan MacManus and Valerie Harper.
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"It's good to be alive," Valerie Harper told the ballroom crowd. "And it's even better to be dancing."

"Dancing With the Stars" returned for its 17th season on Monday, but it wasn't the same old song and dance.

In an effort to reboot the ballroom and inspire viewers to flock back to the bash after last season's faltering ratings, things have changed — and not all the changes are for the better.

Gone is the Celebraquarium, where the stars once dished their post-performance feelings. Now the famous faces hang out stage-side with their pro partners. And the in-house audience? They're no longer limited to the ballroom. Now there's a set of red-carpet bleachers that bridge the back lot and the stage — though the overflow crowd's only purpose is cheering on cue and delivering what seems like well-rehearsed sound bites. Oh, and the judges' panel is on the opposite side of the dance floor because ... well, because.

But some things never change on "Dancing." Ultimately, the focus remains on the dance floor — and that's just where it was when the most anticipated celeb of the night, Valerie Harper, took the stage.

Back in March, the 74-year-old actress revealed her battle with terminal cancer (which her doctor has since said is near remission). And on premiere night, she seemed ready prove that nothing — not even cancer — could slow her down.

Before Harper even took her first turn on the floor, the audience gave her a standing O — and they did it again after they saw the former "Rhoda" star deliver a subtle, flowing foxtrot alongside pro Tristan MacManus.

The dance wasn't perfect. It wasn't the best of the night. But despite a few small rough spots, it was easily the sentimental favorite, which was clear when the camera panned over to judge Carrie Ann Inaba.

"Thank you for being on our show," Inaba said with tears flowing. "Dance has been healing for all of us. That's why we're all here. It's such a beautiful thing."

Harper earned a generous 21 points for the performance, but it was obvious the real reward was how she felt afterward.

"It's good to be alive," she said. "And it's even better to be dancing."

Harper wasn't the only one who hit the floor with something to prove on Monday night. While reality TV star Nicole "Snooki" Polizzi wasn't facing anything as profound as dancing in the face of adversity, the 25-year-old was hoping to show she's not the party girl some may remember.

In fact, she wanted to drop the "Snooki" ID all together and put her "Jersey Shore" rep behind her. So, Snicole (as host Tom Bergeron dubbed her) put on a fast cha-cha with first-time pro Sasha Farber that proved her skills go way beyond the Jersey Turnpike.

Other than a slight struggle to keep up the pace, Polizzi wowed the crowd — even head judge Len Goodman, who called her "a little pocket rocket" (a comment that left Inaba with a not-so-little case of the giggles).

Polizzi's 23-point score put her firmly in the middle of the pack. It was the same score a surprisingly graceful Jack Osbourne nabbed for his foxtrot (which left mama Sharon Osbourne in tears), and just a point ahead of the scores "Pretty Little Liars" star Brant Daugherty got for his cha-cha and actress Christina Milian earned for her contemporary effort. And speaking of contemporary, Elizabeth Berkley and "High School Musical's" Corbin Bleu edged one point ahead of Polizzi with stripped down, emotional routines.

But not everyone stayed within that tight range. One star broke out in front and tied the highest first-night score "Dancing" has ever seen.

Back in season six, Olympic figure skater Kristi Yamaguchi pulled in 27 points for an unforgettable premiere foxtrot, and this time around it was "Glee's" Amber Riley who went for a high-score repeat with her spot-on cha-cha.

Following the lead of four-time champ Derek Hough, Riley's high-energy, personality-packed routine had the crowd cheering her on.

The number prompted Bruno Tonioli to call her "the tigress of season 17." Goodman agreed, adding that the dance left him "palpitating, perspirating and flatulating." (Yes, just one night in and the potty talk is back.)

Of course, just as someone had to be at the top of the leaderboard, someone else (or in this case, several someones) had to be at the bottom.

Tying Harper's 21, was actress Leah Remini, whose foxtrot needed improvement, but wasn't entirely flub-filled. Behind her, with a score of 18, was Blue Collar Comedy man Bill Engvall, who brought back the return of "Dancing's" dreaded "frying pan hands." Hot on the funnyman's heels, was retired wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson with 17 points.

And way at the back of the pack — at least as far as the judges were concerned — was the lovable Bill Nye of "Science Guy" fame. His "Weird Science" cha-cha needed some work, but he entertained. Well, maybe he didn't entertain Goodman, who gave him a brutal 4 of the 14 points he took for the night.

As for who gets the first ballroom boot of the season, that will remain a mystery until next week. With the Tuesday results show a thing of the past, the cut is set to come next Monday.

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