“Dancing with the Stars” put the celebrity amateurs on the ballroom fast track Monday night, as the 11 remaining contestants took on demanding dances that normally debut four or five weeks into the competition.
In addition to the advanced routines, the stars had to adjust to the rigorous regular rehearsal schedule. Unlike their premiere performances, for which they prepared for five full weeks, they had just three or four days to train for their paso dobles and rumbas. Unfortunately, it showed.
While lackluster performances were the order of the night, a couple of soft-shoe wannabes managed to stand out. None more so than NFL veteran Warren Sapp, who soared to the top of the leaderboard. That rank came courtesy of an intense paso that once again showed off the fact that, for a big guy, he’s remarkably light on his feet.
Dressed in matching pleather “Matrix” coats, the retired defensive end and pro partner Kym Johnson stayed true to the toreador number, but squeezed in a tribute to the film that inspired their look — a couple of cheesy but somehow fitting slow-mo shoulder rolls.
Luckily for number 99, those moves went unnoticed by Len Goodman, who was in a very traditional mood Monday. The head judge dubbed the dance "dark and menacing" just before Warren landed his best score yet with 24 points.
Sharing top honors with Warren was this season’s “Dancing” queen, Brooke Burke. Of course, for Brooke, the top spot is nothing new, as she’s claimed it for all three of her routines so far.
Still, with her paso earning a matching set of eights, Brooke slipped two points from her last effort. Carrie Ann Inaba chalked up the TV host's slightly off-balance routine to the short rehearsal time, and Brooke agreed, saying the dancing was as good as she and Derek Hough “had time to make it.”
Toni Braxton remained hot on the heels of the front-runners with a romantic rumba that revealed plenty of chemistry between her and partner Alec Mazo. With a little more finesse, the R&B singer might have even surpassed the competition.
A few technical errors held her back, including several toe drags during transitions, and as Carrie Ann is always eager to point out, a couple of lift infractions. Even with those obvious problems in play, Toni was only one point away from a three-way tie for first.
Not-so-lucky number sevenFor those in the middle of the pack, the judges hardly put their “seven” paddles down. Misty May-Treanor was the first of the group to get a 21-point three-of-a-kind, a score she should be used to by now, since it’s the same one she saw for her first two dances.
In rehearsals, ballroom taskmaster Maksim Chmerkovskiy had the Olympian close to tears in an attempt to whip her into shape for the paso doble, but from the look of her deer-in-the-headlights performance, he may have only managed to freak her out.
Cody Linley’s hip-swaying rumba had the “Hannah Montana” star cuddled up close to Julianne Hough in a sweet, teen-appropriate interpretation of the romantic dance. The couple looked great for the most part, but Bruno unfairly nitpicked Cody’s “kid in a candy store” approach to his partner, and Carrie Ann cited a need for more hip action, which was one thing Cody didn’t lack. It all added up to another round of sevens.
Susan Lucci and Tony Dovolani went for a sexier version of the same dance and earned the same predictable score. Still, she pulled off the routine better expected, given her past performances. The soap star even popped off her partner’s shirt buttons in the red-hot rumba, a move that didn’t impress Len.
“I didn’t like it when Tony exposed himself,” he said, but gave Susan credit for “acting the dance.”
One point behind the pack was Lance Bass. In rehearsals, the former boy bander and his too-hip-to-play-by-the-ballroom-rules partner, Lacey Schwimmer, came up with the bad idea to take the bullfighting drama out of the paso doble.
The resulting theme-free dance consisted of confused moves and random paso postures, all set to “I Kissed a Girl” (which Lance did by the end of the song). Not good, not particularly modern, and not a way to get on Len’s good side.
“I know your game, and I know your brain,” the official grumped at Lacey. For the first time in ages, the old man seemed genuinely angry at a pro for trying to strip the drama from a dance. Go, Len!
The dances went from blah to bad as the night wore on, starting with Maurice Greene, who talked a lot about hip action during rumba practice, but barely moved his middle on the dance floor. Pro partner Cheryl Burke derserves her share of the blame this time. The choreography was boring and demanded little flexibility of the world-class sprinter.
As Bruno put it, Maurice “should be Mr. Smooth and Slinky, but (he’s) all robotic.”
Maintaining her reputation for dance-floor flops, Kim Kardashian just couldn’t loosen up next to her pro partner Mark Ballas. There was no chemistry between the pair despite Mark’s endless and distracting neck nuzzles, and for such a curvy woman, Kim still stands stiff and straight.
Carried Ann told the “Keeping up with the Kardashians” star she felt like she’s “seen the same dance three times.” At least Kim’s mixing it up a little. After all, she scored one less point with each passing dance — this time, earning only a 17.
Chef Rocco DiSpirito may be wearing an apron and sprinkling gold “spices" on the stage, but he’s not cooking. His lazy and poorly timed rumba, which looked like it left Karina Smirnoff snoozing, just proved his past efforts weren’t flukes. The man can’t dance — he can’t even catch up with Kim.
Landing in last place, yet again, was Cloris Leachman. Unfortunately, this time the living legend lacked the madcap moxie to make up for a barely passable paso. It seems Corky Ballas convinced Cloris to work on the dance and drop the shtick this week. One problem, Corky: it’s the shtick that got her this far.
Viewer votes team up with the judges' scores Tuesday night to determine whose “Dancing” days are over. But after the clumsy clunkers the celebs offered up Monday, there’s just no telling who’s out of the ballroom blitz. Based on performances alone, Rocco or Kim should get ready to take a bow, but Cloris’ all-work-and-no-play paso could put her in the red light of doom.
Ree Hines is a regular contributor to msnbc.com.