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Kristi skates back to the top on ‘Dancing’

Yamaguchi proves that she is the dancer to beat, but Cristian is on her tail. Can Marissa stay in the game with three stronger dancers? Probably not. She's likely to head home Tuesday.
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

The sixth season of “Dancing With the Stars” hit the semifinal round Monday night, and lady luck played a role for a change. Just to mix things up, last week’s lenient lift law was dropped in favor of a shiny, new twist: random dance picks. Drawing the dances du jour from a mirrored ball (containing several smaller mirrored balls — got to love those layers of cheese!), chance dictated who was ready to rumba and who would face the foxtrot.

For their part, the stars put their best feet forward, or close enough to it, for the penultimate challenge. Still, for the second week in a row, the standout move of the night took place on the leaderboard, as this season’s dancing queen regained her reign.

Improved in moves, not standingGood fortune favored Jason Taylor, as he drew the foxtrot and the paso doble for his soft shoe routines. Both dances have proved winners for the defensive end in the past, so it was just a matter of putting a new spin on old classics for performance night.

Jason looked nervous while he sat on the steps waiting for the music to start, but once he took the floor, he was back in fine foxtrot form, reprising his week-one dance. Overall, the graceful glides and smooth moves made for an understated effort — no stunt moves, no big showstoppers. The paired down approach was a hit with the judges.

“Like a dolphin glides in the sea, that’s how you glide across the dance floor,” said head judge Len Goodman, who may not be entirely clear what sort of dolphins Jason normally plays with. The rest of the panel agreed with the poetic assessment, awarding Jason 28 points. That included the football fave’s first 10 from Len.

Returning for the paso doble, Jason and partner Edyta Sliwinska attempted to top their previous Monday Night Football-themed version with more bare bones and classic moves. Though the paso was heavier on poses than fancy footwork, it was another success.

Bruno Tonioli dubbed Jason “Iron Man” (someone might want to make sure Bruno isn’t getting sponsor kickbacks for comments like that) and Jason earned the praise. The only downside of the night for the athlete was, despite an improved total of 55 out of 60, he still placed second to the last in the competition.

Bringing up the rearIn rehearsal footage, Marissa Jaret Winokur said, “No one expected me to make it this far, not even myself.” And maybe they, and she, had a point. While she’s still fairing well in the contest, Marissa just wasn’t up to ballroom par in the semifinals.

For the quickstep, she and Tony Dovolani stared out with a slower than usual approach. Eventually, the number gained the bouncing glory it’s known for, but once it did, Marissa fell out of synch with her partner. Timing is everything in the quickstep. Or so it used to be.

Given the 26 points she racked up for it anyway, it seemed like the judicial types failed to see the flaws. At least Bruno pointed out Marissa missed one jump entirely, but Len balanced that against the difficulty of the dance and decided it hardly mattered.

In a scoring repeat, the Broadway baby delivered an adequate rumba. She still suffers from static hips in the dance, but at least she amped up the sex appeal by actually appearing to have chemistry with Tony. By the end of the routine, the pair got tangled in a mix of tassels and sequins, proving that the two just don’t mix.

Once again, an oddly peppy Len loved the dance, but Carrie Ann Inaba played the voice of reason, interrupting both of her co-officials to point out how just boring the rumba was. With a 52 overall, Marissa landed last. That’s got to feel pretty familiar by now.

One-armed strongholdBack on the dance floor after stealing the top spot last week, Cristián de la Fuente faced a frightening dance pick. While the selection of the Viennese waltz played to his particular favor, the samba wasn’t exactly a sign of good fortune. That was the dance that left Cristián hospitalized with a ruptured tendon just two weeks ago.

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With the Viennese waltz leading the way, Cristián benefited from Cheryl Burke’s clever choreography. His injured arm distracted a bit from the intense posture and arm lines the dance calls for, but it was an otherwise laid back and smooth routine.

Bruno said the waltz wowed, and Len and Carrie Ann kindly agreed giving Cristián a higher than anticipated 27 out of 30. But it was the film star’s worst luck that made for the best dance to come.

Tackling the samba with an open shirt and the tightest pants of the season — seriously, no bum arm could draw attention away from those britches — Cristián threw all the hip and booty shaking his body would allow into it. And it paid off in praise.

Carrie Ann likened Cristián to “Twinkle Toes,” aka past winner and current audience member Emmitt Smith, and Len said he was, “hotter than a chili pepper, my Chilean friend.” In the end, with a score of 56, Cristián fell just one point shy of his big comeback last week, swapping out his first place finish for second.

Back to her former gloryCristián’s top spot loss was Kristi Yamaguchi’s gain. The golden girl of the season was finally back in form and reminded viewers why she held onto the lead for the first six weeks of the competition.

In one of the rare cases of a rehearsal outing actually packing a lesson rather than a low dose of comedy, Mark Ballas took Kristi to a genuine professional tango class. After seeing what she had to offer, the dancers gave helpful hints concerning mood and movement.

Those tips made it to the dance floor, as Kristi showed more passion than her last tango attempt, and pressed close to Mark’s side throughout the complex number. It easily made for one her best routines so far.

On the panel, Len was the only one to find the dance lackluster, calling it “a bit hectic.” For that nitpick, contested by his fellow judges, he knocked off a point, leaving the Olympic champ just short of perfection with a 29.

The bigger challenge for Kristi and Mark came with the jive, which they aced with a perfect 30 the last time around. How do you improve on perfection? Apparently you don’t. The ambitious number featured plenty of far stepping footwork, but Mark was responsible for a disproportionate amount of it.

Noticing that the jive was “a hair out of synch,” Carrie Ann matched Len’s nine, but Bruno handed the pair a 10 for what he called, “the cherry on the icing on the cake of the sweet, delicious jive.” That made for a total of 57 out of 60 points, and all Kristi needed to step back into the limelight.

The obvious homeward bound pick for Tuesday night’s results show has seemed obvious for a while now. Marissa’s time has come. But the faithful viewer voters that kept her safe at Mario’s expense last week could strike again. That means, though it would hardly seem fair given his progress in the competition, Jason could get ejected from the game early.

Ree Hines is regular contributor to msnbc.com.