The premiere night of “Dancing with the Stars” showcased one half of the ballroom ambitions, as the male celebrities took the dance floor. Unlike last season’s batch of better than average star hoofers, left feet led the way in what host Tom Bergeron dubbed “macho Monday.”
No amount of sparkling sequins and stage lights could hide the fact that the six men, with the help of their pro partners, delivered more misses than hits. Still, one guy managed to break away from the paltry pack.
Towering over the competitionThe first gent to hit the floor was Penn Jillette, who declared “I’m not the youngest, the best looking or athletic.” But he is tied for the biggest. At 6-foot-6, the illusionist practically eclipsed partner Kym Johnson during their cha-cha-cha effort. And what an effort it was.
Early in the routine it became obvious Penn still has miles to go before he’s ballroom-ready. He displayed a personality as big as the rest of him, but lumbered and walked through the dance. Head judge Len Goodman generously said, “I thought you captured the flavor of the cha-cha-cha… Your problem is your feet.”
Those feet were hard to ignore, as Carrie Ann Inaba called them “monstrous” — referring both to their size and how they were used. After a dose of spot-on criticisms, the panel gave the big guy a score of 16 out of 30.
Also measuring in at 6-foot-6 is Miami Dolphins defensive end Jason Taylor. His partner, Edyta Sliwinska referred to Jason as “very sexy and super athletic,” and while that was undeniable, he lacked the one thing the previous tall guy had loads of — personality.
With a technically OK foxtrot, Jason delivered a mostly boring dance. Nothing impressed or horrified, it just was. The footwork appeared well studied and his arm lines were especially good for someone a full foot taller than his partner, but as Bruno Tonioli mentioned, he needs to show some spark, some romance in the moves. Still, a score of 22 out of 30 left Jason with nothing to complain about.
From average to awfulLittle-known film and television star Cristián de la Fuente joined two-time “Dancing” champ Cheryl Burke for the cha-cha-cha. Before taking the stage, Cheryl predicted she would take home trophy number three this season, but after seeing what Cristián had to offer, that looks like a long shot.
In rehearsals Cristián, who seemed charming and little goofier than expected for someone billed as an international heartthrob, looked stiff. By the live show, his legs and hips were in overdrive, but he still couldn’t manage much motion from the waist up. Meanwhile Cheryl danced circles around him, just drawing more attention to his shortcomings. “She bangs,” Bruno told Jason. “You’ve got to bang as hard as she does.”
The sevens that followed from the judges’ table were kind, but Cristián’s overall spot in third place was just about right.
The evening’s lowlight came courtesy of comedian and radio host Adam Carolla, who seemed less invested in the experience than the other would-be soft shoes. “‘Dancing with the Stars’ sounded humiliating so I thought I should probably do it,” he said. Adam found out just how humiliating it could be after showing the world his version of the foxtrot.
Despite the best training efforts from last year’s pro winner Julianne Hough, Adam’s moves made a mess on the dance floor. And even though he has nothing on Penn or Jason where height is concerned, he’s so much taller than Julianne, the reaches left him hunching over.
When Len complained of poor footwork and overall stiffness, Adam shot back, “I’m supposed to get in a nine piece suit and look relaxed doing something I’m not good at.” He has a point. With 15 out of 30, Adam sat at the back of the pack.
Saving the best for the second-to-lastThe surprise dance star of the night was R&B singer Mario. Though he’s the youngest competitor, he clearly had more experience moving to the music that any of the men.
In a sexy and fast-paced cha-cha-cha, Mario and partner Karina Smirnoff swiveled in unison. The well-choreographed number hardly looked like a premiere night performance. Hands down, Mario’s the man to watch this season.
After getting praise from the judges, like repeated rounds of “Dang!” from Carrie Ann, Len offered a slight heel-lead nitpick. In the end, Mario and Karina walked away with all eights, and the top position so far.
Last but not least (because that honor still goes to Adam), Steve Guttenberg and Anna Trebunskaya foxtrotted their way into the competition.
In a low-risk routine, the 49-year-old actor showed good posture and fair at best moves, but he also brought an abundance of appreciation just to be on the show. That “oh, gosh, this is so great” attitude should charm fans into keeping him around for a while.
Hey, even the judges fell for it, as Len pointed out, “You’re the first one who’s come out and looked as if you’re enjoying yourself.” And for that he earned a could-have-been-worse 18 out of 30.
The best news for this mixed bunch is that there’s no elimination this week. They’ll all have a chance to strut their improved moves next Monday. But tomorrow night the guys get a glimpse of their competition, as the women show what they can do. Or, you know, if they’re anything like the men, what they can’t do.
Ree Hines is a regular contributor to MSNBC.com.