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Image: Bristol Palin, Mark Ballas
Adam Larkey  /  ABC
Despite being at the bottom of the judges' scoreboard for weeks on end, Bristol Palin and pro partner Mark Ballas keep advancing in the competition.
TODAY contributor
updated 11/21/2010 4:59:28 PM ET 2010-11-21T21:59:28

While it’s hardly a championship ballroom competition, “Dancing With the Stars” is prime-time television’s star-studded answer to one. It has all the glitz and glam, and after several weeks of training and weak-link eliminations, it even has a small assortment of celebrities who’ve mastered the major moves.


In reality, “Dancing” doesn’t always hit that mark. A sanctioned ballroom battle strictly follows judges’ decisions, but “Dancing” invites votes from viewers, allowing a popularity element to enter the game. That means some talented hoofers are left behind before their respective times (see season five’s Sabrina Bryan and this season’s Audrina Patridge) and others long outlast their soft-shoe skill set. (See Marie Osmond and her baby-doll getup in the fifth season’s finals.)

Still, the talent-to-popularity equation almost always balances out. The winning waltzer may not be the very best the program has seen all season, but the final star is usually somewhat deserving of the honor based on dance-floor merit. The question is, will that hold true this time around?

After all, the season 11 finals are here and one thing is evident: last-place dancer Bristol Palin could actually win the competition, taking the mirror ball trophy and “Dancing’s” ballroom credibility with her.

Casting for controversy
Of course, that’s not Palin’s fault. She’s fumbled her way through a variety of routines. Fans — both hers and those of a certain famous family member — voted her to the top even when her dances landed her firmly in the bottom of the bunch. But the fans aren’t at fault, either. (Well, most of them aren’t.) Casting their votes for her is what they’re supposed to do.

No, if the teen-mom-turned-abstinence-advocate makes it all the way to the win, the blame lies with the bigwigs who hired her. It’s likely enough the ballroom bosses never imagined Palin making it this far, but they definitely imagined her political pedigree bringing plenty of controversy to the show.

Where there’s controversy there’s attention. Where there’s attention, viewers tune in.

So casting Palin was a calculated risk. She wasn’t really a star — not even in the loose reality-TV-star sense that excused Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino’s place in the game — but she was and is a polarizing personality. And in the past, the latter paid off big without even affecting the endgame.

So what could possibly go wrong this time?

Been there, done that
We now know the answer to that. The “Kate” could go all the way.

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See, the only casting decision that came close to stirring up the kind of controversy Palin packs was season 10 pick Kate Gosselin. The divorced mom of multiples served as a love-her-or-hate-her attention grabber. She couldn’t dance, but she didn’t exactly need to in order to be a benefit to the show.

Gosselin’s headline-worthy high jinks and abysmal ballroom form brought huge ratings. With the “Kate Plus 8” star added to the usual roundup of actors, athletes, singers and other famous faces, “Dancing” took over TV’s top spot, beating out the previously unbeatable “American Idol.”

Story: FBI: Threatening letter, powder found at 'Dancing With the Stars' studio

But there’s one big difference between Gosselin’s stunt casting ride and Palin’s: In Gosselin’s case, eventually, the voting public decided to give their phoned-in and Internet efforts to the best dancers rather than let Gosselin continue to do whatever she was doing on the dance floor. After four long weeks, the reality mom got the boot.

Palin, it seems, can do no wrong in eyes of those voting for her. Heck, she once ambled onto the stage in an ape suit, forgot her steps and failed to follow the beat and still made it to dance another day. That’s some passionate public support right there.

Bye-bye, ballroom cred
And that’s the problem for “Dancing” and ballroom fans. If Palin wins against the likes of Jennifer Grey, who’s proven herself many times over, or even Kyle Massey, who’s made major progress since his week-one performance, then the show loses.

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Palin may be better than she once was, but she’s still far from good enough by ballroom standards.

It’s similar to the situation “Strictly Come Dancing” — the original U.K. version of the ballroom bash — was in two seasons ago.

After casting retired political correspondent John Sergeant, the competition took an unexpected twist. Despite the fact the then-64-year-old took to dancing like zombies take to walking, his fans never let him down. The judges, including “Dancing’s” moonlighting panelists Len Goodman and Bruno Tonioli, consistently gave Sergeant the lowest marks to no avail.

From there, Sergeant’s story splits from Palin’s. Nine weeks into the contest, the dance-impaired celebrity stepped down for the good of the show.

Video: Is tea party taking over the dance party? (on this page)

“I was hoping to stay in as long as possible,” Sergeant said in a statement. “The trouble is that there is now a real danger that I might win the competition. Even for me, that would be a joke too far.”

On “Dancing With the Stars,” the joke is still going strong. Whether or not anyone will be laughing after finale night remains to be seen.

If one of the weakest dancers of the season wins it all, it could have an impact on the show’s reputation for seasons to come. Currently, it’s a part-dance, part-popularity competition. Take away the dance part and “Dancing” losses its theme appeal, becoming little more than battle of the fan bases.

Ree Hines can’t wait to see what next season’s mixed bag of ballroom hopefuls holds. Follow @ReeHines on Twitter at tell her your future “Dancing” picks.

© 2013 NBCNews.com  Reprints

Photos: Season 16

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  1. Call the fashion police!

    "Dancing With the Stars" is known for its lively judges, sexy dancers, and of course, its sometimes questionable costumes. Check out some of our favorite odd outfits from the season, and why they may have been better off left in the dressing rooms. -- Anna Chan

    On March 25, Wynonna Judd and pro partner Tony Dovolani donned cop costumes for a sad quickstep that was slower than molasses. Oddly enough, judge Bruno Tonioli "loved the bonkers cop idea." We're not so sure "Fashion Police" boss Joan Rivers would agree. (Adam Taylor / ABC) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Throw them a life saver!

    "Bachelor" Sean Lowe and pro Peta Murgatroyd offered up a sloppy jive that left the judges wanting on March 25. But their matchy-matchy yellow outfits only sank them further. Granted, Peta can pull off pretty much any atrocity, but Sean? What's up with those lemon yellow pajama bottoms? Don't lifeguards wear swim trunks? (Adam Taylor / ABC) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Stayin' alive

    Head judge Len Goodman got into the theme on April 1 when "DWTS" went back to the prom. Ruffled shirts were never hot, so why not make them hot pink? (Hey, we all know the costume department doesn't always choose the best colors.) (Adam Taylor / ABC) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Pretty in pink

    Oh, the hair! The one glove! The pink bows on her dress! Co-host Brooke Burke has looked nothing but stunning all season (a surprise, as her wardrobe in the past has been rather questionable). Yet during prom week, she let go of the glam. We'll forgive her this one and only fashion faux pas of the season. (Adam Taylor / ABC) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Going to the Y

    While the rest of the "DWTS" cast went to the prom on April 1, Peta and Sean somehow missed the memo and went to the YMCA instead as the Village People. (Adam Taylor / ABC) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Prom? So what?

    Every prom has them: the anti-prom kids who are too cool for school. For the "DWTS" bash, that was Wynonna and Tony, who got all rockered out. Normally, we wouldn't take issue with this, but Tony! The mullet! Really?!?!? It's almost as bad as Maksim Chmerkovskiy's Mick Jagger wig from last season! (Nice boots, though.) (Adam Taylor / ABC) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. She's golden

    As gorgeous as Peta is, even she couldn't quite pull off those questionable gold bell bottoms and giant hair when she and Sean danced a highly praised quickstep on April 15. (Adam Taylor / ABC) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Let's boogie!

    On April 22, Team Samba (or as Andy Dick preferred to call it, Team Pickler Dick) took the the ballroom bash with a '70s-themed dance complete with the decade's questionable fashions. Among the low lights? The guys' creepy mustaches. (Adam Taylor / ABC) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Not so easy on the eyes

    On Latin Night April 29, Olympic gymnast Aly Raisman and pro partner Mark Ballas took on a salsa that had the judges raving. What the panel didn't rave about were the seasick green/blue getups both wore. (Adam Taylor / ABC) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. A little young?

    On May 6, Aly and pro partner Mark were joined by Henry Byalikov for a trio jive full of shimmies and shakes for the 18-year-old gymnast -- and also a saucy red garter. Not that we're prudes, but did we mention yet that Aly's only 18? (Adam Taylor / ABC) Back to slideshow navigation
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    Adam Taylor / ABC
    Above: Slideshow (10) 'Dancing's' worst outfits - Season 16
    Adam Taylor / ABC
    Slideshow (14) 'Dancing's' worst outfits - All-Stars
    Adam Taylor / ABC
    Slideshow (17) 'Dancing's' worst outfits - Season 14
  4. Image: Cheryl Burke, Rob Kardashian
    Adam Taylor / ABC
    Slideshow (16) 'Dancing's' worst outfits - Season 13
  5. Image: Chelsea Kane and Mark Ballas
    Adam Taylor / ABC
    Slideshow (14) 'Dancing's' worst outfits - Season 12
    Adam Larkey / ABC
    Slideshow (13) 'Dancing's' worst outfits - Season 11
    Adam Larkey / ABC
    Slideshow (19) 'Dancing's' worst outfits - Season 10
  2. ABC
    Slideshow (27) 'Dancing's' worst outfits - Season 9

Video: Bristol preps, FBI looks into 'DWTS' threat

  1. Closed captioning of: Bristol preps, FBI looks into 'DWTS' threat

    >>> the final week of " dancing with the stars " kicks off with an harry potter works his magic. and justin sweeps the american music swaerdawards. let's get the scoop. quite a mix there.

    >> " dancing with the stars ," we'll finally get a winner. but this is all being kinked off on something of a disturbing note because cbs studios received on friday an envelope containing a white powdery substance. they found it just to bet tabe tolc oc talcom powder. some are saying the letter was addressed to bristol palin. if it you are so angry about the show that you have reached the point of sending powdery substances to the studios, are you taking this way too seriously. it's a television show meant to be entertainment. everybody needs to get over this what does it really mean. it's a dancing show. that's all it mean.

    >> i think you're wasting your breath issuing this warning. i think people who i hope are watching this show have that knowledge. this is a guy who shot his gun and turned it on his wife.

    >> this has gotten to the point where just because bristol palin is on, people are losing their minds.

    >> very few.

    >> i'll move on. ha harry potter setting records. $125.1 million in the first weekend it was in heater. and remember it was supposed to be in 3d. if you put a 3d ticket premium on top of that, imagine what it would have taken in. so all the people at warner brothers who were afraid that the novelty has worn off by this time, nothing to worry about.

    >> what are the reviews?

    >> i think there are a lot of viewers who still want to see the kids at hogwarts and it's more difficult for them to cope with it. but mostly good reviews. great reviews actually.

    >> and lastly?

    >> our little just tip bein bieber was up for four awards last night and he took all four home including artist of the year which is the big, big one. he was up against usher, his money to mentor, for that. so he's having a good year.

    >> i saw the show. he gave an interesting shout out. he said to the audience if it wasn't for michael jackson , none of them would be there. i thought that was interesting.

    >> exactly.

    >> anyway, for the very latest entertainment news, log on or be a foon on fa fan on facebook.

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