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Image: "Dancing With the Stars" judges
Didn't do a perfect dance this season? That's OK! Judges Carrie Ann Inaba, Len Goodman and Bruno Tonioli might give you a set of 10s anyway.
TODAY contributor
updated 4/25/2011 9:58:08 PM ET 2011-04-26T01:58:08

Got a so-so samba? Have a few 9s. Perform a stiff and passionless paso doble? Well, 9s it is. Really flub the footwork in the foxtrot? How about a couple of 8s — and a 9!

Welcome to the current season of “Dancing With the Stars,” where the moves match what one would expect from a batch of ballroom amateurs, but the sky-high scores seem to come out of nowhere.

Yes, for some reason, venerable judge Len Goodman and his co-panelists Carrie Ann Inaba and Bruno Tonioli have put their dance-floor sensibilities aside when it comes to their score paddles. Just when one expects the old 6s to see the glittering lights of the ballroom, Goodman and the gang reach for their 8 paddles instead. And when the 7s are in order, watch out! That sort of routine passes for near perfect with the bigwigs these days.

It’s not that a little numerical generosity is completely unanticipated. After all, the judges have a history of being kind to the somewhat-star-studded casts — with a few and well-deserved exceptions — but their latest gentle gestures have gone too far.

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Up is down on the leaderboard, so-so passes for spectacular and the ballroom babes see little room for improvement based on their digits alone.

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Been there, sort of done that
Maybe all of this is just the legacy of last season. That’s where the panel first paired truly jaw-dropping numbers with unrelated dances.

For the most part, quasi-ringers Jennifer Grey and Brandy deserved top marks for busting out almost pro-caliber performances throughout season 11, but the same can’t be said for some of their competitors — in particular, Bristol Palin.

Ballroom doesn’t, or at least shouldn’t, grade for effort rather than results, but it sure seemed to every time Palin hit the stage. From a slow and lumbering quickstep that rated 7s and an 8, to Palin’s infamous 4-worthy ape-suit jive that somehow scored a set of 6s, it was the beginning of a troubling trend.

Of course, Palin wasn’t the only one who benefited from nonsensical scores. Last season also featured the 200th episode of the series, otherwise known as 10-a-palooza. There wasn’t a single flaw-free routine and yet everyone, save Palin, earned at least one 10. (No tears for Palin — she pulled a 9, which might as well have been an 11 given her performance that night.)

But other than that one special contender and that one special night, the selective overscores weren’t yet de rigueur in season 11.

Now they are.

Just look at a few of this season’s beneficiaries. Competent but not yet spectacular hoofer hopefuls, such as the charming Hines Ward or Master P progeny Romeo, have consistently received higher-than-expected numbers. Even sometimes-back-of-the-pack dancer Kendra Wilkinson rates far better scores than her fumbled footwork warrants.

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Story: Kendra defends 'DWTS' behavior: I'm a positive person

In fact, with the possible exceptions of the likable Chris Jericho, should-be front-runner Chelsea Kane and the now-eliminated Petra Nemcova, each member of the cast has raked in at least occasionally inflated scores.

Good enough
The practice might just seem harmless on the surface. Throw a few bonus points toward a celebrity for a bit of an ego stroke. Or maybe fail to deduct for poor frame, missteps or blatant lifts (ahem, Inaba) in order to allow someone new to stand in the spotlight.

Where’s the problem?

The dancers need something to strive for. If a just-good-enough routine lands a 9, it won't take much more to snag top honors, and then perfect just means somewhat better than bad.

What happened to the too-tough judges of seasons past? Remember when resident grump Goodman — who’s been in the ballroom as a dancer, coach and judge longer than some of the current “Dancing” contenders have been alive — used to hold back high scores until they were truly deserved (and sometimes even longer)? Or when former Fly Girl Inaba nitpicked the finer points of frames and footfalls? Or what about when Tonioli peppered his outlandish praise with plenty of criticisms? Those were the judges that demanded top routines from celebs.

A bad idea for ballroom
Those were also the judges who helped select the appropriate ballroom boot.

See, unlike television’s other top talent show, “American Idol,” which allows the general public the one and only say in who stays and who goes ( at least for now ), “Dancing With the Stars” gives the officials a voice in each elimination.

The particulars of “Dancing’s” scores-to-votes formula aren’t so simple to sum up, but ultimately, the judges have a weighty share alongside viewers when it comes down to making the final cuts. That means super-sized scores can directly skew the outcome of the competition.

Take the April 18 performance show, for example. Wilkinson delivered a flow-free foxtrot that was little more than her stiffly marching around the dance floor. Petra Nemcova delivered a graceful, high-speed quickstep that was a bit off-step. Ralph Macchio danced a flawed samba and showed off his "spatula hands" again. The score for all three? A 22, when only two of the three actually danced. But with just enough viewer votes, Wilkinson survived another week, while the former leaderboard-topping Nemcova was sent home.

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The scores also have an indirect effect.

Although it seems safe to say that plenty of “Dancing” fans vote for their favorite stars or the most entertainment-packed performances, surely some are influenced by what the pro panel has to say. It’s not as though the average viewer keeps track of the rock step-to-chasse ratio of a jive or whether toe-leads take over heel-leads in the paso doble, after all.

That’s why the panel needs to step up for ballroom basics and roll back the scores until the movers prove their merit.

Otherwise any old dancer can win the ballroom bash, and the judges lose their credibility.

Ree Hines would give the judges 7s this season, but she’s afraid that might be a bit generous. Follow @ReeHines on Twitter and tell her how you rate the panel of experts.

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Discuss: Are the 'Dancing' scores problematic this season?

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Photos: 'Dancing With the Stars' cast

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  1. Time to dance

    "Dancing with the Stars" hosts Tom Bergeron and Brooke Burke announced the 11 celebrities heading to the dance floor this season during a live news conference. As always, the cast includes athletes, models, actors, and a few people whose names aren't recognizable to your average American. (Adam Larkey / ABC) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Sugar Ray Leonard

    Retired boxer Sugar Ray Leonard, who has a cameo in the Oscar-winning film "The Fighter," surely had fast feet in the boxing ring, but can he fit in to the ballroom?

    Leonard is paired with pro Anna Trebunskaya. (Bob D'amico / ABC) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Petra Nemcova

    Czech-born model Petra Nemcova is perhaps most famous for surviving the 2004 tsunami resulting from an earthquake in the Indian Ocean. Her then fiance died in the tsunami, while Nemcova broke her pelvis and managed to cling to a palm tree for hours before being rescued.

    Nemcova is paired with pro Dmitry Chaplin. (Bob D'amico / ABC) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Ralph Macchio

    Ralph Macchio came to fame as the star of "The Karate Kid" in 1984. He was a teen idol of the 1980s, but has played only minor roles in film and TV since.

    Macchio is paired with pro Karina Smirnoff. (Bob D'amico / ABC) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Kirstie Alley

    When Shelley Long left the hit sitcom "Cheers" in 1987, Kirstie Alley stepped in as bar manager Rebecca Howe. Recently her yo-yoing weight has become a public issue, as she was a spokesperson for Jenny Craig and starred in a show called "Fat Actress."

    Alley is paired with pro Maksim Chmerkovskiy. (Bob D'amico / ABC) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Hines Ward

    Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Hines Ward was voted MVP of Super Bowl XL in 2006. He is half Korean and half African-American, and has worked as an advocate for biracial youths in South Korea.

    Ward is paired with pro Kym Johnson. (Bob D'amico / ABC) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Chris Jericho

    Chris Jericho has had plenty of success in the wrestling ring, but he's also served as a radio and television host as well as a rock musician.

    Jericho is paired with pro Cheryl Burke. (Bob D'amico / ABC) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Mike Catherwood

    Mike Catherwood, known as Psycho Mike, is assistant producer for the syndicated radio show "Kevin and Bean," and is also co-host of "Loveline" with Dr. Drew Pinsky. A former addict, he uses his own experiences to help callers.

    Catherwood is paired with pro Lacey Schwimmer. (Bob D'amico / ABC) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Romeo

    Rapper Romeo withdrew from the second season of "Dancing With the Stars" in 2006 and was replaced by his father, Master P, who is infamous in "Dancing" circles for barely moving his feet. He's now back for the 12th season.

    Romeo is paired with pro Chelsea Hightower. (Bob D'amico / ABC) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Chelsea Kane

    Chelsea Kane is an actress who is best known for playing Stella Malone in the Disney Channel sitcom "Jonas L.A.," and has also appeared in other Disney shows and original movies.

    Kane is paired with pro Mark Ballas. (Bob D'amico / ABC) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Wendy Williams

    Wendy Williams hosts her own syndicated talk show, "The Wendy Williams Show," and is a former New York radio DJ.

    Williams is paired with pro Tony Dovolani. (Bob D'amico / ABC) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Kendra Wilkinson

    Kendra Wilkinson is best known as a former girlfriend of Playboy founder Hugh Hefner, and as such starred on the reality show "The Girls Next Door." She is now married to Minnesota Viking Hank Baskett and has her own reality show, "Kendra."

    Wilkinson is paired with pro Louis Van Amstel. (Bob D'amico / ABC) Back to slideshow navigation
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