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Fun not enough to win ‘Dancing With the Stars’

John Ratzenberger looks good and has fun but will probably go home this week. By Linda Holmes
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

“Dancing With the Stars” (ABC, Mondays/Tuesdays) gave us a Latin round on Monday night and threw in a group dance, meaning that it was the first week that the celebrities had more than one routine to learn. This is one of the signs that the season is getting serious, and indeed, a couple of strong performances and a couple of weak ones demonstrated that the short-track-speed-skating wheat is now being separated from the formerly-on-“Cheers” chaff.

The week opened with Joey Fatone, who was trying to rebound from last week’s devastating pronouncement that his rumba was “feminine.” This week, his partner, Kym Johnson, was determined to make the samba as masculine as possible — which, if you’ve ever seen the samba, you know is no small task.

She brought a most unlikely ally along to help her: Jerry Springer, her partner from last season, famous for making dances neither “masculine” nor “feminine,” but simply “keee-razy.” Jerry gave Joey a few pointers for the camera, but Joey was clearly aware of the importance of not inadvertently absorbing anything Jerry Springer told him.

The dance itself was largely successful. A samba tends to be an easy dance for a ham like Joey, provided he has a good baseline level of talent. A couple of Joey’s moves looked impressive, and he put more energy into the famed “samba rolls” than most celebrities do. Near the end, though, he stumbled and fumbled the footwork, which was the reason he only scored 9s from the judges, all of whom loved the routine.

Joey was followed by Heather Mills, who was coming back from a fall last week — a real, literal fall, not just the pain of being called “feminine.” She and partner Jonathan Roberts were seen rehearsing during a trip she made to London, and they even practiced the paso doble on the plane.

Unfortunately, they were saddled with a terrible, exceedingly weird toreador-ish arrangement of “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina,” which robbed the song of every iota of its natural appeal. Their dance wasn’t bad, exactly, but the music was horribly distracting, and Heather seemed to be having trouble relaxing. Indeed, the judges once again congratulated her on the tricks she incorporated into her routine, saying that her real problems came from her upper body, rather than anything having to do with her much-discussed leg.

A cut above the norm
John Ratzenberger said what a lot of the audience was thinking when he expressed surprise that he was still in the competition and admitted that he made plans for this week long ago, figuring he’d be long gone. But he looked in practice like he was beginning to have fun, and that did translate in his mambo.

While there were certainly significant footwork issues, if you saw John do the mambo at a wedding, you would remember him as the grandfather who could actually dance, at least sort of — not as the Jerry Springer grandfather who was nothing but a buffoon. While the choreography overmatched him at times, John had the basic rhythm of the mambo down, and he had enough flair to his steps that the dance did have the basic kicky feel that it’s intended to have.

Laila Ali carried big expectations at first, and then she seemed to have a slump, and then she roared back last week with a sexy rumba. This week, she was set for a cha-cha that partner Maksim Chmerkovskiy seemed to think would be right up her alley, since it was, as he put it, “cheeky.”

In rehearsal, Laila pressed to put a bit more of her own stamp on the choreography, specifically telling Maks to get a little more “funky.” This led to Laila throwing in a few beats of her own distinctly non-cha-cha dancing late in the routine. While judge Len Goodman didn’t care for that part of the routine, all the judges liked the rest of it, and she scored two 9s and a 10, putting her ahead of Joey, then the frontrunner.

Doing the ‘bubba chicken’Sometimes, the combination of dancer and dance brings us a little closer to heaven, and such a combination was Billy Ray Cyrus and the jive. Partner Karina Smirnoff wisely gave in early to the fact that Billy Ray was not going to learn a traditional jive under any circumstances. She compromised by letting him come up with some of the choreography himself, a task that apparently required him to get in touch with his inner drunk guy at a wedding. He explained later that one of the steps, for instance, was called the “bubba chicken.”

The routine featured bright colors, cornpone music, and a whole lot of Karina dancing around while Billy Ray stood in one place or did simplified versions of what she was doing. In fact, at times, Billy Ray looked like the “beginner variation” in an exercise video — slower, simpler and less likely to result in injury, but still conveying the basic idea. The dance was awfully generously scored at straight 7s, but Billy Ray was denied the 8 that he has already announced is his goal for the competition.

Apolo Anton Ohno knocked the judges back with his samba last week, earning the first perfect 30 of the competition. This week, he and young partner Julianne Hough were set to perform a rumba. As Apolo has mentioned before on a few occasions, he considers his chemistry with Julianne to be more sibling-like than romantic, so the idea of what he had been told was the “woman’s bedroom dance” made him a little uncomfortable.

Amusingly, after Julianne came down with something during the week, her actual brother came in to help with rehearsal and explained that he, too, had performed a rumba with her. He admitted that it was pretty awkward, but insisted that Apolo could get through it. The irony is that, for the second week in a row, the chemistry of Apolo and Julianne was not at all sibling-like — whether he feels good about it or not, they have the steamiest chemistry on the show by a mile. Their incorporation of a chair as a prop displeased Len, but they still walked away with a 10 and two 9s, tied with Laila and Maks.

Eight isn’t enoughIt’s getting a little painful to watch Ian Ziering make his best efforts every week and hear every week that he needs to let go more, to relax more, and to be passionate more. He means to be passionate, and his frustration at the constant nebulous criticisms that he’s not doing enough is palpable.

His paso doble was sincere and intense, but as the judges said, it seemed to be missing something, particularly in his posture and his execution of the stomp-style choreography. The dance scored straight 8s — not bad, but not with the frontrunners.

The evening ended with a spirited group swing that the judges did not score. While it was easy to see it as a separation of better and worse dancers — John Ratzenberger doesn’t look good dancing too close to Joey Fatone — it was also a fun, energetic performance that showed off what’s good about the show when it’s good.

The hope is that these people are actually having a pretty good time, and they won’t get a lot of chances to do this kind of thing. Seeing them all lifting and jiving and really clowning around, the fact that the lovable John will probably go home tomorrow night (unless Heather takes a powder) didn’t seem like such a big deal.

Linda Holmes is a writer in Bloomington, Minn.