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‘Dancing’ isn’t kind to middle-aged women

Leeza Gibbons is sent packing, while less talented male dancers stay. By Linda Holmes

After seeing its judges dispense rough scores over the last couple of weeks, it was particularly cruel for “Dancing With The Stars” (ABC, Mondays/Tuesdays) to bring back perhaps its most popular contestant ever, second-season champion Drew Lachey, to do his most popular dance ever: the freestyle to Big & Rich’s “Save A Horse, Ride A Cowboy.” But on a night when the elimination of Leeza Gibbons was predictable, Drew’s presence at least offered a shot of adrenaline.

The theme of Monday night’s show was harsh criticism, with even the good performances coming in for a few shots each from at least one judge. Fittingly, the results show opened with reminders that Len Goodman criticized Clyde Drexler to the point where Clyde basically told him off backstage. Just about the only performance that was uniformly praised was Joey Fatone’s paso doble, so it wasn’t surprising that the judges chose it as the encore performance of the evening.

It was then time for the performance by country stars Big & Rich. It wasn’t too difficult to figure out who the “special guest” would be, but heads were undoubtedly scratched in many living rooms when Drew’s partner Cheryl Burke started the dance with someone else. Of course, as the dance progressed, Drew made his obligatory entrance, leaping in with an infectious grin on his face that made it perfectly clear how pleased he was to be there. Drew can still dance, and the dance was still very energetic, even with what looked like a couple of blown moves near the end.

When we returned to business, it was time to announce the first two couples who would be staying. The first was the bigger surprise: Billy Ray Cyrus and his partner Karina Smirnoff survived, in spite of his general lack of technique, probably because of his built-in country fan base and his unflagging effort. The second couple taken off the hook early was a no-brainer: Apolo Anton Ohno and the adorable Julianne Hough, who are not only dancing very well, but showing a lot of charm that seems likely to result in strong viewer support.

The announcement was followed by a demonstration of next week’s featured samba by unfamiliar professionals, which is the worst part of any results show. “Dancing” needs to figure out that no matter how good a couple is, if we’ve never heard of them until the moment when they start dancing, nobody cares.

Kimmel and Guillermo rumbaThe next demonstration came from late-night host Jimmy Kimmel and his partner Guillermo, who demonstrated the rumba. After explaining that it’s known as “the woman’s dance,” they demonstrated it with a lively feat of high-speed stomping. While there’s not much that’s original about a guy dancing with another guy in a dress, there is something delightfully surreal about the Kimmel segments, particularly compared to the utter seriousness with which the rest of the show takes ballroom dancing in general, right down to the sparkle costumes.

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Speaking of which, the results show then offered a real demonstration of the rumba by Apolo’s partner Julianne and the icky Brian Fortuna, who was the partner of last week’s ousted Shandi Finnessey. The sight of the very young Julianne wearing quite that little while dancing quite that way had a tinge of weirdness to it, but the dance at least suggested the rumba a little better than Jimmy Kimmel had.

A better-than-average piece of filler came with the segment where the judges gave a full-body lesson in how to move and use every individual part of the body in dancing. While it opened with an unreasonably intense Len Goodman making reference to “rhythmic hips,” it then became a reasonably good lesson in some specifics that are usually not part of the judging during the performance show.

Next, Laila Ali and Clyde Drexler were deemed safe, which was not good news for Leeza Gibbons and John Ratzenberger, who were the lowest scored dancers by a good margin, other than Clyde. The professionals then gave us a segment in which they explained the challenges of choreography and wardrobe choices, with special attention paid to Jonathan Roberts and his struggles to accommodate Heather Mills’ leg. There’s a limit to how many times the show can go to that well, but it doesn’t seem to think it’s found that limit yet.

So long, LeezaIn the end, the announcement of the bottom two contained no surprises: everybody else was safe, and Leeza and John were in the bottom two. It made a certain amount of sense: Leeza has struggled from the beginning, and John’s dance on Monday night was very weak. While he’s sort of in the Jerry Springer spot, he hasn’t shown nearly as much humor as Jerry did last season. In a sense, somewhat ironically, John isn’t quite bad enough to ride the Jerry Springer vibe, because his genuine effort prevents him from being a lovable joke.

But it was ultimately Leeza who was sent home. On “Dancing,” middle-aged women are not given the same pass, either by the judges or by the viewers, as middle-aged men. They do not receive credit just for showing up, and they don’t get wild howls just for being game enough to “put themselves out there.” It’s one of the few real patterns that has emerged over the show’s short history: women who aren’t of the young and hot variety simply do not last, and sometimes even the young and hot ones don’t, as seen with Shandi Finnessey last week.

Leeza’s departure was not surprising, particularly, but it leaves the show with two women and six men, a ratio that’s hard to ignore. While not a strong dancer, she was certainly not the weakest there, nor was she putting forth the least effort. Clyde even made the unappealing remark this week that he thought the celebrities should be treated more politely by the judges as “invited guests.” He certainly seems due to have his invitation revoked, but if it didn’t happen this week, it looks unlikely to happen for a while.

Linda Holmes is a writer in Bloomington, Minn.