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Judges get generous with 10s on ‘Dancing’

Laila Ali and Joey Fatone both score perfect 60s for the night, while Apolo Anton Ohno is a close third with 59 and Ian Ziering winds up in fourth with 58. By Linda Holmes
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

It’s one of the irritations of “Dancing With the Stars” (ABC, Mondays/Tuesdays) that, as the season wears on, the judges start giving such high scores to almost everything that almost no space is left to differentiate between a great dance, a very good dance and a truly spectacular and special dance. Almost everything becomes a blur of 10s late in the game, and the rare 9 begins to look like a nudge in one direction or another — a particular slap to place a contestant where the judges want him or her to be.

Coming out of last week, there was a clear frontrunner in Apolo Anton Ohno, a knocked-back former favorite in Joey Fatone, an on-the-rise upstart in Ian Ziering and the much loved Laila Ali, the last woman standing. To edge toward a good finale, storytelling would suggest that Laila and Joey should have strong weeks, while Apolo should be a little off, and Ian should be nipping at the heels of those he formerly couldn’t match. Let’s see how it played out, shall we?

Apolo announced in the rehearsal footage this week that he wanted to get six 10s for the quickstep and the cha-cha. He chose those dances, he explained, because they were the first ones he did for the season, and he thought they’d be best to demonstrate his improvement. Indeed, the opening quickstep, set to the go-to quickstep song “Mr. Pinstripe Suit,” was a controlled, high-energy performance full of intricate footwork and big smiles. They were indeed rewarded with three 10s, a strong start for a big night. There appeared to be no question that once again, Apolo and his partner, Julianne Hough, had set the bar very high.

Ian counting on fan supportIan Ziering was pounded with scores last week that were strikingly low for this point in the season. Coming into this week, he was clearly looking to capitalize on the fan support that kept him out of the bottom two last week, and he and Cheryl Burke chose the tango and the jive to demonstrate both passion and their “fun side.”

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Their tango, while crisp, seemed to have trouble getting off the ground and developing any kind of flow, and it looked weirdly stiff at times, a complaint Ian has repeatedly heard from the judges. Still, Ian got good scores on it, surprisingly getting his first 10 of the season from the notoriously critical Len Goodman, while Bruno Tonioli and Carrie Ann Inaba both gave him 9s. For some dancers, that would be disappointing, but for Ian, who took weeks to wipe the look of terror off his face while he was dancing, it was a huge relief.

Laila Ali and partner Maksim Chmerkovskiy started the week with what appeared to be some actual tension and bickering surrounding rehearsal styles and who wasn’t listening to whom. It looked like Maks might wind up with quite a shiner on performance night, but they made up when he appeared with flowers and she took him to a barbecue with her family.

By the time they hit the floor for a lighthearted quickstep to “Walk Like An Egyptian,” they seemed to be back on track. The dance looked a little “basic,” as Len would later say, compared to Apolo and Julianne’s, but it nevertheless scored straight 10s. It seemed odd that the dances were scored the same, but when the scores are this tightly compressed, only a very bad dance doesn’t get a 10 if it comes from a strong candidate.

It was fairly clear from the moment Joey Fatone appeared in his all-white tails to do a foxtrot that he would indeed get all 10s. Indeed, while the level of difficulty of the fairly frothy foxtrot to “My Guy” didn’t seem to even approach the level of difficulty of Apolo’s quickstep, Joey too received straight 10s, and was even told by Carrie Ann that he had “won the ballroom round.” Also: sparkle lapels!

Len then hosted a segment in which he traveled around to visit the various celebrities and help them prepare for the Latin round. While it came off like filler during a performance show, which is the last thing people want to see when dances are already fairly short, it was charming to see Len do a little actual dancing. He demonstrated foot positions to Apolo, arm placement to Laila — it actually made it look like he has some experience and practical suggestions to go with the grouchy-pants commentary.

Scores become suspiciousApolo and Julianne kicked off the Latin round with a cha-cha, from which they badly wanted another round of perfect 10s to go with their first. The cha-cha, performed to the already eyebrow-raising “Push It,” had about as much R-rated content as you’ll see on this particular show, but it came off as playful rather than vulgar. The explosive laughter into which Apolo and Julianne immediately exploded when it was finished seemed to put a playful capper on the performance.

Nevertheless, Len decided that it was “too raunchy,” and he dinged them one point, dropping them to a total of 29 rather than 30. Given the fact that the dance was crisp and interesting throughout, Len’s rather subjective deduction based on what appeared to be distaste rather than criticism had the effect of supporting the suspicion that perhaps the decision had been made not to award Apolo, the current presumptive frontrunner, the straight perfect scores that would cement his status.

Laila Ali, on the other hand, is more of an underdog, particularly since there haven’t been other women in the competition for a few weeks. She and Maks also performed a cha-cha, featuring lovely purple costumes and the cheesy classic, “She’s A Lady.” The dance was charming, but like Laila’s quickstep, it seemed to lack energy at times. Laila is a fine dancer, but her cha-cha certainly looked like it was not as interesting or as difficult as Apolo’s. Nevertheless, unlike Apolo, Laila took home straight 10s, meaning that she earned six out of six 10s on the night — the first perfect 60-point total of the season.

Ian’s second dance was a jive in which he — seriously — came out dressed as Elvis, complete with white jumpsuit and high Elvis hair for a performance of “All Shook Up.” While a high-risk move, it was certainly one way to come back from the judges’ constant complaints that he’s boring. The hair was a little much, but Ian carried off the dance itself just fine. While it may not have been as clean as some of the other performances, it was an act of showmanship of just the sort he’s usually lacking. To his obvious long-suffering delight, Ian earned three 10s for the first time ever, grabbing a perfect 30 and putting him only one point behind Apolo for the night.

The evening was topped off by Joey and Kym dancing the jive. Once again, the outfits made it clear that Joey would get nothing but 10s, because he was performing a jive to “Jump, Jive and Wail,” and Joey Fatone couldn’t get less than a perfect 30 in that scenario unless he fell down after punching someone in the front row. This kind of dance is right in Joey’s wheelhouse, and he came through strong. It’s the one kind of dancing in which his hammy, obnoxious personality seems right at home and not annoying in the slightest. Unlike the perfect 10s for his foxtrot, which seemed out of whack with the rest of the scoring, the perfect 10s Joey received for his jive seemed entirely appropriate.

So for the evening, both Laila and Joey received perfect scores, despite the fact that Apolo probably had the best dances overall. Ian was at the bottom of the leader board again, but only one point behind Apolo. If the show had intended to nudge the scores toward a result where the dominant Apolo would drop a notch, while last week’s bottom-two-dwelling Joey and woman-representing Laila would be pushed to the forefront, it would certainly have done so effectively. Hypothetically, of course.

Linda Holmes is a writer in Bloomington, Minn.