The final round of “Dancing With The Stars” (ABC, concludes Tuesday night, 8 p.m. ET) has, for the last couple of seasons, ended in a judges’ tie, allowing the audience to make the final decision. Going into Monday’s final performance show, the question remained: would we get the neatly arranged tie? Or would the judges take a stand and choose a favorite among the endearing Apolo Anton Ohno (paired with Julianne Hough), the lovely Laila Ali (paired with Maksim Chmerkovskiy), and the hammy Joey Fatone (paired with Kym Johnson)?
We wouldn’t get the final answer, since the judges will score one more performance on Tuesday night’s finale, but this would be the early indicator of where the judges were planting a flag.
The evening started with a “judges’ choice” round, in which each couple performed a dance chosen for them by the judges. First to perform were Laila and Maks, who were given the paso doble. With glamorous extensions in her hair, Laila looked far more comfortable going into this performance than she did the last time they did the paso doble, which hadn’t been one of their stronger showings.
The one weakness that sometimes crops up in Laila’s performances is a certain tentativeness, and it seemed not to be present here at all. Her confidence and elegance were impressive, and the dance scored two 10s and a 9 from judge Len Goodman, who saw a few “leg things” he didn’t think were just right.
Judges too hard on ApoloNext up were Apolo and Julianne, who were given a rumba, a slow, romantic dance that isn’t one of the best-suited to Apolo’s peppery athleticism. But what they produced was a tightly wound, sexy routine to “Midnight Train To Georgia,” a dance that was not as slow and slinky as some rumbas, but continued to be goosed with powerful chemistry. It can’t be overstated that if Apolo and Julianne are not actually hot for each other, as they’ve agreed they’re not (she’s engaged), they’re very good at acting like they are.
Bruno Tonioli’s critique was enthusiastic and appreciative, but Carrie Ann Inaba announced that it was “overperformed.” Coming from a woman who has embraced the heavy-handed goofiness of Joey Fatone, the claim rang hollow. But it was surprisingly echoed by Len, who called the dance too “fast” and said he didn’t think it felt enough like a rumba. Apolo and Julianne walked away with 28 points out of 30, a good score that nonetheless seemed to totally undervalue their work.
Joey and Kym were assigned the cha-cha, and whatever Apolo and Julianne did to dishonor the rumba, Joey and Kym did doubly to the cha-cha. With Joey in a pink ruffled shirt, their performance to “Groove Is In The Heart” had almost nothing to do with a cha-cha, and it was ultimately lifeless and uninteresting.
The audience reaction was notably muted as compared to the hollers that Laila and especially Apolo had provoked, and the judges reacted the same way. Carrie Ann and Bruno gave the dance 9s, but Len gave it the dreaded 8, which is a very low score for this point in the competition. This left former favorite Joey in third place out of three contenders after one round.
Laila breaks out the ‘fly girl moves’Next up was the freestyle round. Laila and Maks had rehearsed a lift, which was not one of their standard moves during the season, given Laila’s muscular and non-delicate build. Nevertheless, Maks encouraged her to leap directly onto him, even after, at one point, she just about knocked him into a wall. When we saw the finished dance, it turned out to be a spirited, upbeat boogie with Laila in a silver bikini top and shorts, boxing and doing what Carrie Ann would later term “fly girl moves.”
The dance started out slow and improved toward the end, giving Laila a few moments to just dance happily on her own. While it was very endearing, and while the ending move (she tore off Maks’ shirt) was a crowd-pleaser, the dance didn’t show off Laila’s traditional elegance, and it didn’t seem to have quite as much actual dance content as one might hope. It wasn’t a big surprise that the dance only scored 26 points, 9s from Carrie Ann and Bruno and an 8 from Len.
The best freestyle of the night came from Apolo and Julianne, who brought out a nifty hip-hop routine to the always welcome “Bust A Move.” The dancing was superb, and it made the highest and best possible use of Apolo’s limber, wiggly athleticism. Very creatively choreographed, the routine included everything from whipping out bandannas to use as props to blindfolding themselves for a few bars.
Where Laila chose a freestyle that was very appealing but didn’t use her talents entirely wisely, Apolo chose one that put all of the young, upbeat energy and fun of his partnership with Julianne in sharp focus. The judges loved the performance, and Carrie Ann couldn’t even comment except by insisting that Apolo and Julianne come over so she could hug them. The dance got straight 10s, all deserved.
Joey misses his chance to go for brokeJoey and Kym should have been in the best position for a knockout freestyle, given Joey’s nutty, go-for-broke approach to dances like the jive in the past. But, in an odd echo of Stacy Keibler’s memorably disastrous freestyle rip-off of “Saturday Night Fever” in season two, Joey and Kym did a disco routine to “Last Dance” that was about 50 percent lifts, where Joey spun Kym around, and 50 percent run-of-the-mill disco moves.
While better than the famous Stacy Keibler flop, the dance was a surprising letdown and seemed like an enormous missed opportunity for Joey to return to showman mode. Disco can work for a freestyle, but it didn’t play to Joey’s strengths the way that a swing or a jazz routine could have. The judges liked the dance, and they gave it straight 10s (you only don’t get a 10 if they have a complaint, at this point), but at least in the cases of Carrie Ann and Bruno, you could tell they didn’t have quite as much exuberant affection for it as they did for Apolo and Julianne’s dance.
The judges still have a chance to tie it up tomorrow night, but they’ve left a few points between teams. Apolo and Julianne finished with 58 points, Joey and Kym with 56, and Laila and Maks with 55. It’s hard to do the math on exactly how the audience vote affects the outcome, and there’s still that final performance for the judges to score on Tuesday night’s two-hour finale. But on this particular night, Apolo looked like the guy to beat. He’s the only one who busted out two excellent routines, one of which was one of the most inventive the show has seen in some time (presumably thanks to Julianne). It’s hard to know exactly where a contest like this is going, but for the moment, Apolo is the odds-on favorite.
Linda Holmes is a writer in Bloomington, Minn.