Nothing speeds up the pace of an episode of “Dancing With the Stars” (ABC, Mondays/Tuesdays) quite like the phase where each pair starts to perform two individual dances a week. This season’s first episode of that type shuffled the front-runners a little bit, while leaving Billy Ray Cyrus and John Ratzenberger scraping bottom — again.
Each couple did one ballroom and one Latin dance, beginning with Laila Ali and Maksim Chmerkovskiy’s quickstep. The quickstep tends to challenge even good dancers, particularly ones like Laila who are muscular rather than wispy, simply because of the fast footwork that’s required. Laila, however, looked great, overcoming the corny cover of “Part-Time Lover” provided by the house band. Laila pulled down 29 out of a possible 30 points, a strong start to a long evening.
John Ratzenberger and Edyta Sliwinska tackled the rumba, often touted as the sexiest of the ballroom dances. She immediately announced that the age difference between them meant that there would be no conventional rumba, and she substituted a sort of elegant glide to “That’s Life,” which John managed to get through in decent form. Their scores were weak, but John received praise from the judges for the big improvement between his appearances last week and this week — from very bad to merely bad.
Apolo Anton Ohno and Julianne Hough have set such a standard for not only dancing but fun and energy that a restrained dance like the foxtrot was bound to challenge them, and it did appear that maybe something was missing. Neither of them seemed to enjoy that dance as much as they did some of the others, and the drop-off in the sparkle factor was evident. When judge Len Goodman complained that Apolo was good but not great, it wasn’t entirely surprising.
Ian Ziering has been on a Sisyphus-like journey to impress the judges in spite of their repeated insistence that, in some unidentified or unidentifiable way, he wasn’t giving his all. Carrie Ann Inaba went so far as to suggest that Ian should watch Billy Ray to get a sense of how to dance with heart. Ian followed that advice when partner Cheryl Burke invited Billy Ray to rehearsal. While Billy Ray wouldn’t seem to have much of an incentive to help Ian out, the boys seemed to have a good time together, and Ian did receive credit from the judges for letting go during his tango. His three 9s weren’t on par with the best scores of the night, but it had to be gratifying for the judges to stop giving him such nebulous and unending criticism.
As for Billy Ray himself, his reaction to the waltz was both predictable and absurd: he thought maybe it should “showcase” Karina Smirnoff rather than him. Putting aside the oddity of the primary competitor taking a back seat in any competition (Tucker Carlson's chair-sitting notwithstanding), Billy Ray had to know that this would invite disdain from the judges. Indeed, Billy Ray simply gestured in Karina’s direction as she danced around him, and every judge talked about it. Carrie Ann could barely find enough “content” to score, while Bruno Tonioli accused Billy Ray of looking like Vanna White on “Wheel Of Fortune,” just presenting with a flourish.
Joey Fatone and Kym Johnson, presented with the foxtrot, predictably transformed it into something cheesy and silly, particularly featuring quite a bit of tap-dancing-esque fooling around that was impressive (it’s right up Joey’s surprisingly athletic but not especially refined alley) but not related to the foxtrot too much. Nevertheless, the high energy and impressively kicky choreography earned big scores that put Joey into a tie with Laila for the lead.
The Latin half of the show opened with Laila and Maks performing a high-energy samba in which Laila finally seemed completely comfortable in the thigh-baring ensembles required for Latin dances. She shook, wiggled, and shimmied, while never losing track of the fact that it was to be an organized dance and not a novelty act. It’s very easy for the sambas, with their down-to-here shirts on the men and their bright ensembles, to turn into farce, and Laila has managed to stay on the right side of the line. She received three tens, along with huge praise for turning up the intensity and, in the eyes of Carrie Ann, being totally relaxed and open for the first time.
John can’t really dance Latin, but the calming routine Edyta worked up to “Under Pressure” was enough to convince the judges that, while John is very bad, he’s not entirely bad. In fact, Carrie Ann congratulated him on being the best of the old men they’ve had on the show — in other words, she likes him better than George Hamilton or Jerry Springer. He still got bad scores, because … he’s still John Ratzenberger trying to dance, and “better than Jerry Springer” isn’t especially high praise.
Apolo and Julianne hit their fun, youthful sweet spot a bit more with their samba, which brought them back to the energetic and borderline hyper energy of some of their best dances. They both seemed to enjoy the samba quite a bit more than the foxtrot, and the judges liked it better, too. Len still complained that it was good but not great, but Bruno loved it and Carrie Ann called it a nice recovery from the so-so treatment of their foxtrot.
Ian Ziering made another stab at “letting go” with a mambo that brought him to the stage in the shiny red sleeveless shirt that marks the final induction of all male contestants into the Hall Of Pictures Your Friends Will Keep Showing Forever — friends probably including Jason Priestley and some other “90210” pals who were in the audience. Ian clearly attempted to let it all hang out for the mambo, and when he received high praise and three 9s, he was clearly disappointed, as he had gotten his heart set on his first 10, which was not forthcoming.
Billy Ray’s samba had much in common with his waltz, in that what it didn’t have was Billy Ray dancing very much. He danced around Karina, he pointed, and he generally grooved to “Living In America.” But as for doing anything that looked like a samba, there was very little to go on. As they often do with incompetent male dancers, the judges went on about how much fun it is to watch Billy Ray even when he’s terrible, which wasn't really true this week. In past years, the over-the-top nuttiness of Jerry Springer, sure. But Billy Ray just stands around a lot, and it’s not clear that everyone else finds that as mesmerizing as Carrie Ann does.
Joey closed the show with his jive, which played directly to his tap-dancing, boy-band-trained, posture-not-that-important strengths. He certainly did a good job, but viewed in combination with the foxtrot that erred on the side of mugging, the jive makes Joey look a bit like a one-trick pony who can do the fast dances and not necessarily much else. There’s no question that he’s the guy most accustomed to cutting a rug in front of his friends and neighbors (and everyone who watches MTV), but slow dances that emphasize technique and not just tricks and stunts have left him a little out in the cold, so this week may not be typical of the results he’s going to see.
It’s not news at this point to say that the bottom two are, and have been, Billy Ray and John. Billy Ray, however, has been appointed the Adorable Loser of the season, so it looks like John may be cashing in his chips next week. At the same time, Laila and Joey will share first place in the judges’ hearts for a week, proving that there really are multiple ways to do well on this show.
Linda Holmes is a writer in Bloomington, Minn.