The field is down to seven on “Dancing With The Stars,” so we’re about done with the part where you can fake it. At this point, if you can’t dance, you’re in big trouble. Based on recent weeks, this would seem to spell problems for Ty Murray and Lawrence Taylor, though even one-time frontrunner Gilles Marini, who once seemed untouchable, had a less-than-perfect showing in his last outing.
Melissa Rycroft was told after last week’s rumba that she needed to be more of a “man-eater,” so Tony Dovolani naturally took her to … the set of “Desperate Housewives.” Hey, that’s an ABC show! What serendipitous cross-promotion! "Housewife" Teri Hatcher gave her some advice on locating her inner woman of ill repute, and then Melissa performed an Argentine tango, certainly showing more verve than she did during the not-great paso doble she completed a couple of weeks ago. Judge Len Goodman claimed to have seen a flaw and gave them a 9, but they got 10s from both Bruno Tonioli and a deeply impressed Carrie Ann Inaba. That 29 set a high bar for the rest of the night — and wouldn’t, in the end, be matched.
Lawrence Taylor took partner Edyta Sliwinska to a golf course so she could try something she’d never done before and feel as silly as he sometimes feels while dancing — not a bad gimmick, as gimmicks go. While their waltz had its flaws, including Lawrence grabbing for the floor as he reached back to arch gracefully, he looked lighter than usual and showed more grace than he’s often had (what Carrie Ann called “freedom”). While he seemed to feel much better about his performance, they wound up with a 21, which is right in line with the scores Lawrence has been getting since the competition began.
Derek Hough announced that he would have to “tone down” the sex appeal of his partner, Lil’ Kim, for their rumba. This seemed to be partly the result of the fact that Len, in particular, has seemed to believe at times that Kim was a little too out there for her own good, as far as the most risqué part of her appeal. An interesting piece that wasn't entirely successful in its reserved quality, the rumba was lovely but not as spectacular as Kim’s recent performances. The judges all pointed out that her efforts to be less raunchy, while well-intentioned, had made her seem a little stilted. In the end, she scored two 9s and an 8 for a total of 26, leaving her right in the thick of things.
Next up were Chuck Wicks and Julianne Hough, who steamed it up with their sparkly rumba last week and were taking on the samba this week. Julianne announced early that she was focusing on technique, really hoping to improve Chuck’s scores and get the 9 that they badly wanted. Their last four dances had included three 23s and a 22, meaning they’ve been having the same trouble as Lawrence and Edyta getting out of their rut. In the performance, Chuck continued to make the over-the-top intense faces that sometimes plague his dances, but he seemed a little more plugged-in this week, and Len immediately proclaimed it his best dance ever. Finally, Chuck got his 9 — in fact, he got three of them, for a total of 27.
Cowboy Ty Murray had part of his gimmick factor for the season compromised when his wife, Jewel, had to leave the competition early, but she came back this week to help out as Ty was practicing the waltz. Ty has had a rough couple of weeks, and perhaps the intervention of his wife was the reason this performance was far better than his most recent ones. Where recent dances had put him in robot mode, he seemed to have his feet under him again, and once again, he looked like a guy who can dance, rather than a guy who can’t. The judges were tickled to see him pull it together, and after dropping all the way to a total of 18 points last week, he rebounded to a solid 24, right back in the range he reached when he was at his best, leaving him undoubtedly very relieved.
Shawn Johnson had to rehearse her cha-cha while juggling traveling commitments, and it made her obviously nervous. With partner Mark Ballas in a Michael Jackson-inspired getup, she performed a solid cha-cha to “P.Y.T.” in which she looked as alive and on her game as she ever has. Shawn can look a little restrained at times in the Latin dances, but she seemed entirely engaged in this particular routine. Carrie Ann highly praised how tuned in she seemed, and the other judges were just as enthusiastic. Shawn and Mark scored two 9s and a 10 (from the always-enthused Bruno), putting them just behind Melissa and Tony with 28 points.
Gilles Marini and Cheryl Burke, who could do no wrong in early weeks, found themselves behind a handful of other teams last week, so they were looking to reclaim their front-runner status with their Viennese waltz. After seeing some synchronized swimmers in an effort to work on the fluidity of his arm movements, Gilles decided he was ready. His arm movements still looked awkwardly overdone at times, but for the most part, it was a graceful and sophisticated routine. When all that is called for is fundamental coordination and romantic spark, Gilles certainly gets the job done. While Len found a couple of imperfections in the footwork and Carrie found a couple in the hold, they still looked lovely together and scored 27 points — good, of course, but who would have ever thought they’d wind up tied with Chuck and Julianne?
The show ended with the season’s first group dance, a ‘60s-inspired number like one you might see in an Austin Powers movie. The choreographer challenged the celebrities by separating them from their partners and making them dance alone for at least part of the routine — which, in some cases, created some insecurities. The final performance, stylishly designed in black and white, wound up being a lot of fun, not as much competitive as cooperative. There was no scoring by the judges, but everyone wound up looking good, which is just the way the group dances should be.
As for who goes home this week, most of the scores are clustered together, with Lawrence and Ty dragging a little behind. They both seem vulnerable, but with the scores close together, a sharp drop in viewer votes could mean trouble for almost anyone. Given that Ty was in the bottom two last week, he might be the best bet, but Lawrence has seen the red light as well — and at least one of them is going to survive another close call.
Linda Holmes is a frequent contributor to msnbc.com