There are still 10 couples left on “Dancing With the Stars,” but Tom Bergeron promised at the beginning that we are, indeed, halfway through the season with Monday’s Argentine tango and paso doble performances.
First up with the paso doble were Natalie Coughlin and Alec Mazo, who have been strong in recent weeks. Natalie’s relatively serene personality didn’t make her a natural bullfighting type, so Alec worked hard to get her passionate face in shape. Natalie had another strong showing, but she was indeed more skilled than she was fiery. While the dance to “American Woman” wasn’t entirely convincing to the judges, they continued to praise her technique.
Aaron Carter and Karina Smirnoff were last week’s surprise washouts. After a strong start, Aaron has turned out to be capable of exaggerated wiggling but not much grace or feeling. The Argentine tango Aaron and Karina performed didn’t include much dancing, and they stood in one place most of the time. The judges oddly overpraised the performance, perhaps eager to see Aaron back in the game, but the choreography asked remarkably little of him.
The next paso doble came from Michael Irvin and Anna Demidova. Anna came up with an amusing training technique involving imagining clenching a nickel in a particular place, and it seemed to work for Michael when he took it literally. Michael continues to struggle with posture, but this was his strongest performance to date, and the judges rewarded him.
Mya and her partner Dmitry Chaplin have emerged as this season’s frontrunners, and there was no reason to believe they wouldn’t knock the Argentine tango out of the park — and they did. Absent viewers getting bored, there doesn’t seem to be anything standing between Mya and Dmitry and the end of the show. The judges tried to nitpick the “emotion” and withheld the 10s this week in favor of 9s, but they’re still way ahead of the competition.
Mark Dacascos and Lacey Schwimmer have been an interesting couple. They haven’t been able to break out, but they’re clearly capable. Lacey hoped that the paso doble would capitalize on Mark’s physicality (from martial arts). He isn’t as charismatic as some of the other men, but he did pull off the physical power the dance requires, complete with a nice athletic leap. It was the first time he looked like much of a contender.
Donny Osmond was riding high with partner Kym Johnson after a theatrical Charleston last week that was successful if perhaps not as technically perfect as it needed to be. On the floor in the Argentine tango, he looked about as much like a Latin lover as one could reasonably expect Donny Osmond to look. He certainly carried it off in a certain cruise-ship sort of way, and Carrie Ann claimed it was “so darn sexy,” but that phraseology betrayed the fact that it was a particular kind of very tame sexiness. Donny wound up with 10s from Carrie Ann and Bruno, which were very generous.
Louie Vito and Chelsie Hightower had a painful week last week, so they needed a strong showing in the Argentine tango. Louie’s form still leaves a bit to be desired, but this was by far the most charismatic and controlled he has looked. As the judges pointed out, his steps tend to look more like walking and less like dancing, but Louie certainly looked better crisply navigating the tango than he has in some dances (like the jive) that one might expect to come more naturally to a snowboarder.
Melissa Joan Hart managed a 10 for last week’s Charleston, but things got tough this week when partner Mark Ballas developed the flu. Interestingly, Melissa seemed to benefit from a fill-in lesson from Anna Trebunskaya (ousted with Chuck Liddell last week), who showed her the Argentine tango from a woman’s perspective. Melissa still does odd things with her posture, and this was not as successful as her Charleston, but she kept herself in the game, and comparing it to, for instance, Aaron Carter’s lackluster tango, she deserved the praise she got for performing intricate choreography.
Kelly Osbourne was perplexed when Louis van Amstel told her that she would be playing the role of the cape in the paso doble, particularly to “Crazy Train,” a song of her father’s. Kelly never looked entirely comfortable in a highly unconventional paso doble in which her partner made himself up like her dad, and the judges encouraged her to work on staying in character. Still, her nervousness seems to be letting up, and she seems less fragile when she’s dancing.
Last up were Joanna Krupa and Maksim Chmerkovskiy. Joanna’s regular partner, Derek Hough, was also laid low by the flu this week, so Maks took over for the Argentine tango. There was nothing spectacular about Joanna’s performance, and she had a stumble, but she and Maks looked good together and she knows how to use her long limbs effectively. For such a crazy week, it was a good showing.
The show closed with a group hustle. The hustle, of course, is disco at its corniest, and it’s hard to make it otherwise. The fact that it wasn’t judged made it more of a spectacle than a competition, but the contestants threw themselves into the lark. It wound up looking a lot like an episode of the famous (and terrible) “Brady Bunch” variety show, but everybody seemed to be having a good time — even Melissa Joan Hart, who almost fell during a trick.
What’s next? Well, on Tuesday night, somebody who didn’t do all that badly on Monday night will go home, because there were no real disasters among the performances. Michael Irvin has the lowest score with a perfectly respectable 21, and Louie Vito is only a point ahead of him. So, however, is swimmer Natalie Coughlin. The size of her fan base hasn’t been tested at all, since her scores have generally kept her higher in the standings. Natalie’s been looking like a winner, but Tuesday night could get dicey for her if the NFL and snowboarding fans show up.
Linda Holmes is a frequent contributor to msnbc.com.