The competition continued to heat up Monday night on “Dancing with the Stars,” as the celebrities worked to gain ground on the leaderboard. For some, the effort paid off, but for a few, their previous successes looked like dance-floor flukes by the evening’s end.
The ballroom highs and lows weren’t confined to the routines. Michael Flatley, a.k.a. Lord of the Dance, who sat in for head judge Len Goodman, handed out one surprisingly high score. Not to be outdone, Carrie Ann Inaba took care of the night’s low blow.
The judge had her sights set on Oscar-winning actress and all-around class clown Cloris Leachman, following the 82-year-old’s footwork-challenged cha-cha-cha.
Granted, Cloris has been dancing on borrowed ballroom time, and her latest spin across the stage featured out-of-time kicks and moves that wouldn’t even qualify for a cha-cha. But she still managed to get the audience up and roaring with laughter when pro partner Corky Ballas spun her in a harrowing lift.
Not good enough for Carrie Ann, who decided she’d had enough of Cloris’ tendency to take dance right out of the competition, and humorlessly reminded the crowd “we lost Toni Braxton for this.” Upon hearing the chorus of boos from the audience, she added, “I know I’m going to be hated for this.”
Hated or not, Carrie Ann may find her criticisms did more to help the octogenarian than any harsh words could hurt her. Sympathy votes could keep Cloris safe despite her low score of 15 points.
A new leader lands on top For the first time this season, someone other than model-turned-TV host Brooke Burke took top honors. Lance Bass broke out of his dancing doldrums with a jive that showcased what the former boybander can really do.
Lance’s partner, Lacey Schwimmer, answered the panel’s previous nitpicks, particularly that she saved all the best moves for herself, by choreographing a nonstop routine that allowed him to lead the dance with big, bouncing steps.
“The Lance is back on target,” Bruno Tonioli bragged. “Sharp edges and gleaming with confidence!”
The jive earned the 'N Sync star 27 points — his personal best so far.
As for Brooke, a disrupted tendon held her back from her usually dance-floor domination. At least that seems the only explanation for the uncharacteristic lack of precision moves in her rumba.
In addition to this week’s requisite “Dancing” injury, or maybe because of it, Derek Hough rolled back the choreography, designing a routine that highlighted lust-filled glances and long poses rather than major moves.
The judges took note of the problem areas. Well, two of them did. Newbie Michael Flatley broke away from the pack and boasted that he hoped he had “a card big enough for (Brooke’s) score.” So it was sensible eights from Carrie and Bruno and a whopping 10 from the dancing “Lord.”
Rounding out the frontrunners was the man who is used to dancing in Brooke’s shadow, retired defensive end Warren Sapp. But much like this season’s dancing queen, the big guy wasn’t on top of his game Monday night.
This time, pro Kym Johnson deserves some of that tough love Lacey landed last week. She simply didn’t give Warren much to do. He grasped the character of the romantic rumba, but only glided alongside his partner, with no real action.
At least this time Michael got it right, telling the athlete, “I would have like to see you doing a bit more dancing,” before the panel revealed Warren’s score of 25.
It was a mixed bag for teen star Cody Linley, who performed the samba with all the passion of a paso doble, according to Bruno. Only the official didn’t mean it as a compliment.
The serious samba was intense, and the “Hannah Montana” actor looked confident, even mature throughout the moves, but that’s not what the dance usually calls for. Of course the less-than-bouncing routine may have been an effort to ease pro partner Julianne Hough’s pain. She’s not another “Dancing” casualty, but she is due to have her appendix out before the results show.
Either way, Bruno didn’t care for the dance, and it only earned Cody 23 — a five-point drop from last week.
Daytime diva Susan Lucci gained a point on her previous performance and matched Cody for the night, but numbers aside, she’s still struggling in the competition.
As noted by the judges, Susan looked more confident and less scared to shake her booty in the mambo, but that hardly made up for her timing, which came and went throughout the routine.
That wasn’t a problem for Carrie Ann, who was on a roller coaster of inconsistent criticism and took issue with Bruno for even bringing up the “timing thing.”
A smooth looking and clean-shaven Maurice Greene made big ballroom strides in the Viennese waltz, but it wasn’t enough to charm the judges.
Sporting an improved frame and near-rigid posture, the sprinter spun Cheryl Burke through a series of dizzying counterclockwise turns and careful moves in the classic dance, but he might as well have been dancing with a stranger for all the chemistry he and Cheryl had.
The restrained performance only merited a 21 from the panel, and marked a drop of six points from his simmering salsa last week.
After the regular routines were out of the way, it was time for this season’s group disaster. The annual ballroom catastrophe gives all the stars a chance to combine their dance-floor shortcomings into one poorly timed, cheesy dance-off.
Improving slightly on last season’s country line-dance hoedown, this time the stars strutted their stuff in a hip-hop tribute. Still, a group dance is only as strong as its weakest link. Not surprisingly, Cloris is one heck of a weak link.
Luckily for the celebs, the judges don’t score the group effort, but it wouldn’t change much if they did. Cloris, Maurice and Susan are still pulling up the rear, and with the Maurice’s previous sexy salsa still fresh in viewers minds and the inevitable sympathy vote in play for the show's senior soft-shoe, Tuesday night may end in a Susan Lucci send-off.
Ree Hines is a frequent contributor to msnbc.com.