We have reached the end of another season of “Dancing With The Stars,” and the show is doing all it can to hype the finale, a battle among Brooke Burke (perhaps you know her from her non-award-winning work on “Wild On” or “Rock Star”), former locker-door pinup Lance Bass of N'Sync, and retired NFL defensive tackle Warren Sapp.
What the show will not tell you is that past seasons of “Dancing” have, by and large, played out according to a predictable script, and if that script holds this week, you can expect Lance Bass to boogie away with the prize.
The way the finales progress is a direct result of the scoring system, which combines judges’ scores and audience votes. Generally, when there are two strong dancers in the finale, the judges just happen to give them total scores that are similar if not identical, to the point where ultimate victory goes to the winner of the audience vote.
They do, however, sometimes score one dancer lower than the two front-runners, knocking them out early. This happened to Marie Osmond in Season 5, and it will almost surely happen to Warren Sapp.
Somewhat lumbering in his NFL-appropriate, but less ballroom-friendly frame, Warren is not the most obviously graceful person in the group. Some football players, particularly Emmitt Smith and Jason Taylor, have been legitimately talented dancers, but Sapp is not. He’s a showboater and a charmer, and he certainly has a great smile. But light on his feet he is not, and the judges will likely ding him hard enough that he won’t have a chance without an overwhelming audience response — which he won’t get. That will leave Lance and Brooke.
Brooke Burke has been the front-runner all season. She’s got the long legs and elegance of a dancer, and particularly because most of the other women (other than Misty May-Treanor, who went out early with an injury in this heavily bandaged season) were not strong dancers, she stood out. Brooke isn’t, however, very entertaining. There is something bloodless about her performances; studied and skilled, but not the kind of dancing that makes you want to watch it again.
Because the entertainment factor is her weakness, it’s especially unfortunate that during last week’s jive, Brooke suffered her first genuine catastrophic dancing failure of the season. You almost never see it on this show, especially late in the season: she simply lost track of what she was doing at certain moments, and she was visibly watching her partner, Derek Hough, to get back on track.
Not only that, but as judge Bruno Tonioli pointed out, the entire routine looked sloppy — bad leg position, bad footwork, and a general lack of grace. That’s okay for Cloris Leachman during a group hip-hop routine, but not for a contestant who’s supposed to be getting by on her superior skills.
This brings us to Lance Bass. Barring a sprained ankle, Lance will take home the trophy. He has the personality of a champion — he’s a direct descendant of Drew Lachey and Apolo Anton Ohno, in particular: guys who started off good, worked hard to get better, and always seemed endearingly plucky in spite of the fact that they were naturals.
Audiences, in the end, are not dance experts. They cannot necessarily identify the right way to hold your foot during a foxtrot, and most of them don’t have any idea how good your tango hold is. No, when it comes to the dance itself, audiences reward two things: agility and novelty. They may not be able to tell the difference between perfect and imperfect waltzes, but they can tell whether a quickstep or a jive was crisp and lively.
Joey Fatone’s strong showing in Season 4 was largely the result of his ability, in spite of his bulky-looking body, to look like he was made entirely of springs as he bounced through a couple of different jives. Season 5 champ Helio Castroneves is best remembered for a loud, exuberant quickstep in which he wore a yellow suit that was gaudy even for a dance costume. We like fast, chandelier-rattling dances, not because we’re uncultured, but because we understand them better.
Again, this plays directly into Lance’s hands. His mambo and jitterbug last week demonstrated that he can move with lightness and speed. At the same time, Brooke completely biffed that jive, the best chance she had to get out from under being the “less fun” contestant.
Audiences will also reward novelty and humor. Think of Drew Lachey’s “Thriller” paso doble, Joey Fatone’s “Star Wars” tango, and the treatment of people like Jerry Springer and George Hamilton. In fact, that Helio “yellow quickstep” is almost as famous for the giant kiss he laid on partner Julianne Hough when it was over — which she obviously was genuinely not expecting, and which left her hilariously goggle-eyed and speechless — as it is for the dance itself.
Simply put, if you look like you have a sense of humor, you will outlast anyone who doesn’t, until you get to the people who can simply dance circles around you. Again, this is a problem for Brooke, who can seem so serious about training and perfection that she doesn’t seem to be having a good time. Lance, on the other hand, lost a shoe in his jitterbug and kept moving, and he benefits from his young, super-high-energy, double-caffeinated partner, “So You Think You Can Dance” veteran Lacey Schwimmer.
Brooke is a good dancer. Not as good as she looked at the beginning, given the way others have caught up. But she’s a good dancer. Unfortunately for her, Lance has also become a good dancer, and he’s a fast dancer and a funny dancer, and the odds are that those two factors are going to put him over the top.
Linda Holmes is a frequent contributor to Msnbc.com