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Joey finds the right steps on ‘Dancing’

Former boy bander scores the first 10 of the season, while Leeza looks likely to be sent packing. By Linda Holmes

This week, “Dancing With The Stars” (ABC, Mondays/Tuesdays) started with an admonition from judge Len Goodman, who accused the stars of not dancing quite enough. Specifically, he hauled out a statistic claiming that last season’s couples averaged 19 weekly hours of rehearsal, while this season’s couples are averaging only 13. This, he argued, was why no one has really jumped out into the lead. Under that dark cloud of ominous tsk-tsking, the couples set out to perform their paso dobles and waltzes with as much passion and romance (respectively) as possible.

Laila Ali started strong, but in recent weeks, there’s been some drop-off in the quality of her work. Confronted with the paso doble, Laila seemed positioned to bring the passion and strength that come naturally to her. But somehow, Laila and Maksim Chmerkofskiy had a hard time delivering a convincing paso doble — a dance described as one in which the man is to be the matador and the woman is to be the cape. It looked like Laila’s physical presence was too powerful for her to seem like anyone’s cape, but for whatever reason, the dance fell flat. The judges weren’t crazy about it, and Laila took home straight 7s.

Apolo Anton Ohno and his young partner Julianne Hough have developed an adorable chemistry that, as Apolo pointed out, is quite sibling-like in nature. Thus, the waltz presented some challenges of the “I can’t look at you all sexy without laughing” variety. Interestingly, the dance was lovely, and actually had more openly lingering looks than any other all night.

Apolo’s hesitation about delivering a dance he thought of as “older and slower” turned out to be unnecessary, and their performance looked good. While Len marked them down for some technique mistakes and only gave them an 8, Carrie-Ann Inaba and Bruno Tonioli gave them 9s, making it one of the better-scored dances.

She gives the paso doble a bad nameLeeza Gibbons was coming off last week’s near-elimination, and she presumably needed a good performance to stay in the game. Her paso doble to “You Give Love A Bad Name” was not that performance. While it was hard not to admire the way Leeza’s 50-year-old body looked in the very Bon-Jovi-appropriate leather costume, her dancing remained slow and ungraceful. She’s simply running out of people who are likely to be eliminated ahead of her, and her work is too boring to keep her in the competition. The judges were hard on the routine in general, giving her only 16 points total.

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Ian Ziering has seemed on the brink of a breakout, but he didn’t seem confident that the waltz was the right dance for him, given his tendency to play around during rehearsal. At one point, partner Cheryl Burke stopped him and said, “I need more Fred Astaire and less Goofy.”

But he shaved and got himself a tux, and he did in fact look terrific. The dance itself was lovely, although Cheryl’s signature pixie hair was distractingly festooned with unconvincing extensions that would have been better left in the dressing room. Carrie-Ann only gave the dance a 7, concerned that Ian looked tense, but Len surprisingly came out with a 9. The pair got an 8 from Bruno, who raised a few eyebrows when he told Ian that his performance went from “McDreamy” to “McStiffy.”

Next up was John Ratzenberger, who took quite a beating right in front of his 91-year-old mother after delivering a muddled, shapeless paso doble. He looked wildly uncomfortable throughout, and the choreography simply made him appear to be stomping around without a lot of purpose. In one of the toughest comments ever delivered by a judge, Carrie-Ann said she thought maybe John was trying to be funny, which it doesn’t appear he actually was. There wasn’t a lot to say about the dance except that it was bad, and John was probably lucky to escape with a 6 and two 5s, the same score as Leeza, who did a better job than he did.

Just when it seemed like the scores had gotten as low as they were going to, along came Clyde Drexler, whose rehearsal footage suggested that he wasn’t working as hard as his partner would have hoped, and wasn’t even coming to practice on time.

The lackadaisical attitude displayed in the footage was unfortunately reflected in the waltz. While Clyde has those long legs that allow him to move across the floor more smoothly than most (thus “The Glide”), his arms and hands rarely have any shape, and he rarely puts anything other than his two feet in the position that’s intended. The judges pulled out the harshest criticism of all for Clyde: that he wasn’t even trying. It honestly looked like he wasn’t. He got even a point less than John and Leeza, giving him the lowest score of the night.

Billy Ray tries to keep his hat in the ringIn contrast, Billy Ray Cyrus is still bad, but he’s still really trying. He seemed quite distraught when his notoriously volatile partner Karina Smirnoff went into the bathroom to cry in frustration during their rehearsal, and he poured on the charm when admitting that if he was his partner, he’d probably cry as well. His paso doble was, as Bruno pointed out, not the work of a “technician,” but it was clear that he was trying — counting in his head, concentrating, wearing every smidgen of effort on his face, yes, but at least he was trying. The judges rewarded him for the effort, giving him straight 7s.

Heather Mills quite reasonably suspected that the waltz would be easier to her than some of the jumpier dances like last week’s jive. What she discovered was that slow dances were harder for her because of some balance issues, but partner Jonathan Roberts pointed out later that slow dances are harder for everyone, because there isn’t the opportunity for tricks that add excitement.

She also struggled with the emotion and romance, proving to be another who couldn’t do the serious look of love without giggling. When she got out on the floor, her waltz was perfectly nice, if not especially interesting. Len and Bruno offered good reviews, though Carrie-Ann had a few issues with Heather’s arms and shoulders. Heather landed in third place (at the time) behind Ian and Apolo, a good but not excellent showing, considering that several weak performances had come earlier.

The show wrapped up with Joey Fatone, whose silly “Star Wars” tango was inexplicably praised highly last week. This week, he was looking to undo the only criticism that the judges really had last week, which was that his behind had a tendency to stick out. Even his daughter visited practice to tell him to haul it in. He and partner Kym Johnson performed the only traditional paso doble of the night, and it was quite good indeed. It’s difficult to judge a paso doble done to the right music against one done to “You Give Love A Bad Name,” but Joey certainly seemed to have the hang of the delivery and the technique. To the surprise of no one, he got the night’s best scores, including the first 10 of the season from Carrie-Ann.

Heading into tomorrow’s results show, Leeza is the obvious odds-on favorite to leave, given her poor showing last week and a dance this week that was probably worse. Clyde’s scores are lower, but his fan base will likely keep him around longer, and John has the advantage of the traditional “crazy old guy” position, making him not due for elimination for a couple more weeks. Look for Leeza to head home tomorrow night.

Linda Holmes is a writer in Bloomington, Minn.