As the sixth season of “Dancing With the Stars” draws near the end, the quest for the mirror ball trophy is in high gear. Monday night, the remaining celebrity hoofers brought their best to the ballroom for two of the three final rounds of competition.
In a cha-cha showdown and freestyle face-off, Kristi Yamaguchi, Jason Taylor and Cristián de la Fuente reminded everyone how they earned their spots in this stage of the game. The judges responded by handing out more perfect scores in one night than usual, but unfortunately for a couple of stars, they all went to the same dancer.
Cha-cha-challenge!The first dance of the night was a head-to-head (to-head) cha-cha-cha. Rather than getting solo slots, each of the dancers gave a taste of their Latin prowess during the same song. On the upside, it allowed for a fast-paced challenge. The drawback? Sharing the stage with better dancers highlights the more talented dancers.
First on the floor were Cristián and his pro partner Cheryl Burke. For a man who could barely move his pelvis in the early days of the game, the amount of hip shaking from the film star was a sight to behold. Especially given that Cristián continued with last week’s “tighter is better” pants theme. The pair of packed plenty of action into the abbreviated routine, not missing a single beat.
Next up, Jason offered a simple and pose-filled cha-cha. The defensive end’s forte is ballroom, and it shows in the Latin numbers. He lost time with Edyta Sliwinska more than once, and other than a leap, followed by a clumsy crawl, the dance didn’t feature any standout moves.
With a not-so-tough act to follow, Kristi took over and showed both of her fellow stars how it’s done. Starting the moves with a judge-ingratiating kiss for Bruno Tonioli, she and Mark Ballas worked the length of the floor and back again, bouncing and turning in matched time. Kristi’s sampling easily featured the best cha-cha of the season.
After the challenged ended with a group “ta-da,” the judges finally had a chance to weigh in on the mass motion. Cristián, who scored 26 points for his effort, received mostly praise, and his trousers caught Len Goodman’s eye. The head judge assured him, “You’ve got gear in the rear.”
For Jason, well, it was mostly around round of “too bad the cha-cha’s not your dance” from the panel. Still, the score of 24 was awfully generous.
The kudos came flooding in for Kristi, who aced the number with a perfect 30. Bruno told the Olympic champ that she was “Dancing With the Stars.” Carrie Ann Inaba pointed out that seeing the performances back-to-back made the best easy to spot. “Kristi, you won, hands down!”
Rules? What rules?Once the formal round was out of the way, it was on to the no-holds-barred freestyle competition. The celebs weren’t tied together by a single song or theme this time. And lifts were not only allowed, they were downright encouraged.
Kristi and Mark took the stage in pajamas that ripped away to reveal sparkling, sporty ensembles. From there they proceeded to tear up the floor with an über-fast, high-kicking, lift-filled number. Really lift-filled. Some might even say there were too many lifts wedged into the dance where they didn’t even fit.
Well, some might say it, but not the judges. “It was worthy of the championship for me!” raved Bruno. Len, the resident hip-hop-hater, even praised some moves the couple incorporated. That was a “Dancing” first. It all added up to another perfect score for Kristi, and a 60 out of 60 for the night.
Jason came out for his turn in standard beach bum attire — white pants, shirt and jacket. Edyta even wore a sundress. Of course it was just a beat or two into the music before dress came off and showed her bikini basics. Jason, whose moves were only moderately better than last time, took a page from Edyta’s book. In between some decent lifts, he shed his jacket and even ended the routine completely shirtless.
The eye-candy factor played well to the crowd, and must have distracted the judges, too. Len loved the humor, Bruno said it was like, “watching centerfolds,” and Carrie Anne just looked pleased. With a matching set of nines, Jason ended the performance night with 51 out of 60.
The one-armed bandit was back on the floor for the round he figured he couldn’t lose. “The freestyle is the dance that makes you or breaks you,” Cristián said. “I’m already broken, so bring it on.” And he did, in a Latin flavored mambo-cha-samba, or something like that. Moderate right-arm-only lifts augmented the dance, and once again Cheryl worked to her partner’s strengths in the choreography department.
The problem for Cristián came down to comparison. “Compared to the other two, your lifts weren’t up to par,” grumped Len. Bruno and Carrie Anne were kinder and applauded Cristián for working through the challenge and delivering a great performance. Twenty six points for the freestyle, and 52 overall, put him squarely in the middle of the pack.
Now that the first two rounds of the finals are over, all that’s left is one last spin across the floor Tuesday night. At the end of the results show a new “Dancing” queen (or king, but how likely is that?) will be crowned. Kristi better start working on that acceptance speech. As for Cristián and Jason, it’s looking like they can expect to spend the 2-hour celebration vying for second place.
Ree Hines is regular contributor to msnbc.com.