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‘Dancing’ pros fake it till their stars make it

The professionals on "Dancing With the Stars" use everything they can think of, from sex appeal to comic relief, to hide the flaws of their celebrity partners.
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

On “Dancing with the Stars,” the celebrities change each season, but most of their moves remain the same. Of course, that's to be expected in a competition centered around a familiar staple of ballroom standards. Those samba steps and whirling waltzes are strictly by the book.

But many of the recurring moves have nothing to do with ballroom basics. Over the years the show's professional dancers have relied upon a variety of choreography tricks to make it look as if their partners always put their best foot forward.

The Leading LadyIt may seem old-fashioned, but on the dance floor, the gents are expected to lead the way. It's a time-honored tradition that leaves few options for female professionals whose fellas can't keep the beat. Thus, the female pros often employ the ever-so-subtle Leading Lady maneuver.

Some of the best and most recent examples of the Leading Lady could be seen in nearly every dance between Karina Smirnoff and her rhythm-impaired, reality restaurateur partner, Rocco DiSpirito.

In order to keep the chef moving to the groove, Smirnoff placed her hands on his shoulder or neck and gently shoved him into the next step. Hey, it's not like DiSpirito was going to get there on his own.

Bust a Move While none of the stars join the show with prior ballroom experience, some of them at least know their way around a modern dance floor. That's when the Bust a Move routine comes in handy.

There's a growing trend among the pros to throw a few hip-hop classics into their routines. While it might not please judges looking for the traditional steps, the illusion of a well-trained celeb almost always plays well to the fans.

On a rare occasion, it's even appropriate, as was the case with Emmitt Smith's winning “running man” and “Hammer dance”-infused freestyle in season three. But when Disney darling Sabrina Bryan “popped-and-locked” her way through her first cha-cha-cha, she pushed the hip-hop to ballroom ratio a little too far.

Earlier this season, Bust a Move made its body-rolling debut when Olympic sprinter Maurice Greene inserted “the worm,” or as head judge and resident fuddy-duddy Len Goodman called it, “that 'Free Willy' thing,” into an otherwise traditional mambo.

At this rate, it's only a matter of time before the dreaded “cabbage patch” makes an unwelcome appearance.

Fancy Footwork Feint The most obvious distraction technique has to be the Fancy Footwork Feint. It's all about drawing the audience's eyes away from the fumbling star and onto the mad moves of the professional.

DANCING WITH THE STARS - \"Episode 701A\" - For the first time ever, all 13 teams must prepare two routines for the first week of competition, one of which they performed on Monday night. The judges scored the performances on Monday while viewers cast their votes for their favorites. Only 12 had the chance to showcase their second dance on TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 23 (9:00-10:0 p.m., ET). In dramatic style on Tuesday's show, one couple was eliminated as the remaining contestants performed their second dance of the season. (ABC/KELSEY McNEAL) KIM KARDASHIAN, MARK BALLASKelsey Mcneal / American Broadcasting Companies,

There's just one problem: those precision performances are just as likely to highlight how awful the amateurs are by comparison.

This season, ballroom overachiever Mark Ballas literally danced circles around reality TV star Kim Kardashian. But in fairness to Ballas, he's hardly the only pro to put his A-game up against a struggling D-lister.

Elena Grinenko took the distraction-by-dance technique to a new height with her season-three celebrity charge, Tucker Carlson. He plopped into a chair on the dance floor as she cha-cha-ed her way around her seated partner. Seriously, the man could have just read a book for a full third of the routine.

Sex SellsIt never hurts to spark audience interest by adding some spice to the show, and Sex Sells is how it's done.

It's that ever-reliable inclusion of barely-there costumes and romantic interaction that earns “oohs” and “ahhs” from the crowd.

Longing touches and near-kisses are part of the mix, but the Sex Sells approach requires loads of flesh. Though well-toned celebrities have been known to flash a bit of skin for this purpose, more often than not, it remains the domain of the pros.

It's now practically expected that, at some point in the season, Maksim Chmerkovskiy and Derek Hough will go shirtless, and all the better for their partners when they do. As for Edyta Sliwinska, she's worked to keep all eyes on her with a less-is-more clothing policy for years now.

Comedy GoldWhen all else fails, and there's simply no way to fake competence from their celebrity counterparts, the pros choreograph the dance of last resort: Comedy Gold. It's a technique that says, “Well, we have to do something, and clearly, dancing is off the table, so let's just play it for laughs.”

This final fallback explains why two-time “Dancing” champ Julianne Hough danced the paso doble alongside a unicycling, Zorro-clad Adam Carolla in season six. With a left foot of Carolla's caliber, what other choice did she have?

This season, Comedy Gold was the motif of choice for any dance featuring 82-year-old Oscar-winning actress Cloris Leachman. Pro partner Corky Ballas knew the octogenarian lacked rhythm, so he relied on her consistent comedic timing.

Sure, the jive doesn't traditionally feature a madcap wig-throwing maneuver, but gags like that kept Leachman in the competition for six long weeks — much to judge Carrie Ann Inaba's chagrin.

The fact is, none of these unofficial dance standards please the judging panel much. And it's a good thing they don't. If Goodman didn't grump about modern moves, Bruno Tonioli didn't take the pros to task for out-dancing their partners and Inaba didn't nitpick about almost everything, they'd just spend every week rehashing criticisms on the basics. And where's the fun in that?

Ree Hines is a frequent contributor to Msnbc.com.