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'Dancing' judges get low marks for high scores

Got a so-so samba? Have a few 9s. Perform a stiff and passionless paso doble? Well, 9s it is. Welcome to season 12, where the subpar moves are what we expect, but the sky-high scores surprise.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 on Twitter and tell her how you rate the panel of experts.