IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Ali, Ohno are ‘Dancing’ contenders

Leeza Gibbons or Shandi Finnessey will most likely go home first despite valiant efforts from both. By Linda Holmes

If you’re the kind of person who tunes in to a show like “Dancing With The Stars” (ABC, Mondays, 8:00 p.m. ET) just to see people be terrible and to pick out the early favorite, you may have noticed something about this season: the celebrities aren’t that bad. And as Monday night’s performance show progressed (the first elimination will be Tuesday night, based on a combination of last week’s and this week’s scores), it became clear that nobody was going to step up and be the goat, Master-P-style.

So far, the biggest surprise of the season is Apolo Anton Ohno, who charged out with a controlled but buoyant quickstep that left the judges duly impressed. Apolo’s partner, Julianne Hough, is only 18, but she’s doing something right. Despite the fact that his practice time has been cramped by speedskating practice, Apolo looks surprisingly comfortable, and he executed some leaps that would probably not have been attempted by a lot of the other men in the competition.

The problem facing former Miss USA Shandi Finnessey is that she’s clearly been hired to fill the Gorgeous Blonde role — to be the Stacy Keibler. If you’re going to do that, then your mambo had better be spot-on. Unfortunately, Shandi’s mambo with creepy, robotic partner Brian Fortuna left a lot to be desired. Brian had done everything possible to emphasize her legs, but the dance had very little energy, and at times, it fell into the trap where the professional dancer winds up dancing around the “celebrity” while the celebrity stands there and looks decorative. Shandi is almost certainly destined for an early departure.

Speaking of decorative celebrities, Clyde Drexler is very, very tall, and his partner is very short — or at least she looks very short. That caused them substantially more problems during this week’s quickstep than during last week’s cha-cha. Throw in the fact that Clyde has terrible rotator cuffs and can barely lift his elbows in the distinctive ballroom style, and you have an uphill battle. Clyde doesn’t have the grace of Apolo, but he has quick feet, and he admirably managed to navigate the close holds without entirely falling apart. He’s certainly the underdog of the men when it comes to technique, but it’s hard to judge his effort in light of the limitations of physics and medicine.

Leeza celebrates 50 in styleOne of the evening’s nicer stories was Leeza Gibbons, who was turning 50 and excited about still being in the position to do a mambo in the first place. While she didn’t do the fastest mambo in history, Leeza did move her feet. She also seemed fully engaged, which is more than could be said for her last week, when she looked wooden and terrified doing the foxtrot. Leeza’s decent scores reflected an appreciation for her speedy improvement. She’s the kind of contestant who, like Giselle Fernandez and Tia Carrere, tends to be sent home in the middle, but she’s quite charming. She threw in a very sweet reference to her ailing mom, making it the most tear-jerking performance of the evening, bar none.

Also paying tribute to his parents was Ian Ziering, who was visited by his father while practicing with Cheryl Burke. In rehearsal, Ian worried primarily about hurting himself, saying he’d be happy just “not kicking myself in my own shins.” His performance was ultimately better than mere avoidance of injury. It was fairly strong, in fact, with the surprise coming when judge Bruno Tonioli actually complained that it was too bouncy, a rare complaint in a competition where it’s usually all the professionals can do to get enough spring in everyone’s step. Ian’s scores put him near the middle of the pack, but given that he’s already at the point where they’re singling out his right elbow as a weakness, he’s well on his way to contention.

The early favorite for Most Adorable Couple is Paulina Porizkova and the scrumptious Alec Mazo, who this week worked their way up to a “death drop” at the end of their mambo. The move made Paulina very nervous, but she did it. She struggled with the dance itself, denying that she had an “inner Latina,” but suggesting that she could perhaps channel her “inner American tourist visiting Havana for the first time.” Some people are never going to look entirely comfortable doing a mambo, but Paulina at least did a good impression of a woman doing her best to look entirely comfortable.

Billy Ray sings the blues“I’m just incredibly depressed right now,” Billy Ray Cyrus told his partner Karina Smirnoff during rehearsal.

“Why?” she asked.

“Because I suck,” he told her.

Indeed, he does suck, although he sucked less this week than last week. (Not only does he suck, but he himself made the first “Achy Breaky” joke heard on the show.) While he isn’t graceful, his quickstep might be deserving of this year’s Harry Hamlin award for the celebrity whose performance most greatly exceeds his level of natural ability, which is zero. He was generously scored when he got straight sevens, but he didn’t look completely ridiculous, as it initially appeared he would.

Heather Mills has been admirably understanding about the fact that people want to know whether her leg is going to fly off while she’s dancing. It’s the world we live in; she understands that people are curious. This week, she took the bull by the horns and did what probably needed to be done: a “Look, my leg didn’t fly off!” move in which both legs kicked right up over her head. And the leg didn’t fly off.

In fact, she completed a competent mambo which, while nothing special, was a lot better and a lot more natural-looking than last week’s foxtrot. The judges told her last week that it was important not to worry so much about her leg that she stiffened up, and she seemed to have taken that advice.

John Ratzenberger is a contestant who looks even better when you put him in perspective. He is filling a slot previously occupied by Jerry Springer, who was basically there for camp value and smashing props, and George Hamilton, who was there for camp value and had such bad knees that he could barely move. Compared to those two guys, John’s quickstep was outstanding. He did the dance, he completed the steps, and it didn’t appear that the choreography avoided traditional moves to get around his weaknesses. John may not be a great dancer, but he’s doing the work, and he’s taking it seriously enough to learn the steps. You hear that, Master P? Cliff Clavin is a better man than you are.

A true contenderOne of the most eagerly anticipated follow-ups was from Laila Ali, who did a very nice foxtrot last week and was expected to do well again. She did, performing what judge Len Goodman called the best mambo of the evening.

It’s dangerous to politicize anything about “Dancing With The Stars,” but it’s hard not to be pleased to see a female athlete with a female athlete’s body performing gracefully and well in a dance, and on a show, that has traditionally rewarded almost exclusively willowy, barely there women. Laila is a different body type for this show, and she dances un-self-consciously, complete with muscled frame and tiny skirt, and it’s oddly inspiring.

The night closed with Joey Fatone, who probably got a little too much praise last week for his disco cha-cha. The judges were just as happy about this week’s quickstep, which did indeed seem more polished than most. While Joey is executing very well right now, he has a bit of Mario Lopez about him, in that the biggest threat seems to be a certain slickness to his personality that isn’t entirely appealing — not to mention a giant hole where most of the rest of the celebrities still have at least some apparently genuine self-deprecation.

The hands-on favorites for elimination would seem to be Shandi and Leeza, but Clyde and Billy Ray are also possibilities. With some of these “celebrities,” particularly controversial ones like Heather, it will be hard to know how they’ll do until results start to come in, and tomorrow night, that will finally happen.

Linda Holmes is a writer in Bloomington, Minn.