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What dancing? Where are the stars?

It’s difficult to speak the name of ABC’s surprisingly successful “Dancing With the Stars” without invoking a few finger-quotes, like the ones that belong around “Stars.” And “Dancing.” And, as a matter of fact, “With.” Sure, it’s likely that “Wiggling All Around The B-Listers” would lack mass appeal, but that’s what the show entails. In its penultimate episode Wednesda
/ Source: contributor

It’s difficult to speak the name of ABC’s surprisingly successful “Dancing With the Stars” without invoking a few finger-quotes, like the ones that belong around “Stars.” And “Dancing.” And, as a matter of fact, “With.” Sure, it’s likely that “Wiggling All Around The B-Listers” would lack mass appeal, but that’s what the show entails. In its penultimate episode Wednesday night, the fact that the title represents the perspective of the professional dancer put in the position of steering a person of foggy fame through a ballroom dance makes even more sense.

The celebrity front-runner from the beginning has been  J. Peterman of "Seinfeld," actor John O’Hurley. John (in ballroom, we refer to everyone by his first name, as if he is our personal lindy-hop partner) is a silver-haired, smooth-talking gentleman of a certain age who appears at times to have forgotten that he is not, in fact, a “Seinfeld” character.

He dances with a lithe blonde named Charlotte, whose name rhymes with “ricotta” — only one of many allusions to cheese that the show inspires. On Wednesday night, each couple opened with the foxtrot, which perfectly showcases what has made John totally appropriate for this competition: a delightfully unctuous glide that he successfully passes off as elegance.

The second dance, however, was the paso doble, which he and Charlotte gave a rather literal reading. The matador-bull dynamic that the dance intends was played out complete with cape, not to mention John’s unsettling insistence on referring to himself as “Fernando” in a hackneyed accent.

The paso doble, in contrast to the foxtrot, showcased what makes John intermittently creepy: a tendency toward mugging that can make him come off like an embarrassing relative who gets drunk at a Cinco de Mayo celebration and keeps waving a tablecloth at people and daring them to charge him. The judges, however, scored both dances identically, because apparently, when it comes to ballroom dancing, creepy is the new totally appropriate.

Kelly Monaco of "General Hospital" had a bad start in this competition. Clearly cast as the eye candy, she got on the wrong side of the judges almost immediately and was lucky to escape elimination when the show cut loose first the unsettlingly puritanical Trista Rehn Sutter and then the wildly ungainly Evander Holyfield. At some point, however, Kelly clearly got irritated with being written off as the cheesecake of the week, and she and her scalding-hot partner Alec began to improve.

On Wednesday, their foxtrot, featuring Kelly’s lavender “I’ve always wondered what Cinderella would look like if she absentmindedly left for the ball wearing only her skirt and her enchanted push-up bra” outfit, was surprisingly effective. While it featured the usual repeated opportunities to ogle Kelly as she posed, catlike, it was nice to see her outgrow her klutzy image and show some real grace. Kelly and Alec’s paso doble, on the other hand, was fast and furious. While it was flawed, it was a lot more fun to watch than John waving a cape and stomping around in his too-high cummerbund.

The final couple still in the running on Wednesday night was ex-New-Kid Joey McIntyre and his partner, whose name is Ashly. Yes, “Ashly.” Apparently, the “e” that so many Ashleys are carrying around turns out to be superfluous — who knew? Joey and Ashly have attempted to turn every dance into a brief play of sorts, as they did when he was some sort of carousing military man during their jive of a few weeks ago, and as they did during whatever strange tale of love and ants-in-the-pants they were trying to tell during last week’s samba.

Their “foxtrot” was no exception. Continuing the show’s absolutely baffling use of music — last week, John and Charlotte had to samba to “Just The Two Of Us” — Joey and Ashly did the elegant, Fred-and-Ginger-ish foxtrot to … “Hey, Big Spender.” No, really.

Despite the fact that this is not a number known for its depiction of a couple bathing in sophistication as they fall in love, Joey and Ashly went ahead and danced, playing out a flirtatious and clichéd I-love-you-no-I-hate-you dynamic that’s been seen many, many times before. They threw in a bar or two of things that looked vaguely like they might be in the “trot” family, but mostly they danced around as rational people normally would to “Hey, Big Spender”: separately.

The absence of foxtrot-like qualities in their foxtrot was powerfully evident to two of the judges, both of whom basically told Joey and Ashly that if this had been the dance they were supposed to do, all would be well. Despite Ashly’s attempts to break in on clearly regretful host Tom Bergeron to talk about “open foxtrot” and “international rules” and something about the designated hitter, she and Joey were sharply downgraded for, essentially, failure to do the homework as written. As one of the judges points out, there is no foxtrot in “Guys And Dolls.”

Their paso doble again brought the bizarre musical selection, as they were sent out to do a bullfighting dance to “Eye Of The Tiger.” Okay. If the dance were supposed to literally, literally be about bullfighting, and if it all added up to a sort of “The Bullfighting Kid” movie where beating the bull is actually the objective, that song might be appropriate. But really, the paso doble is a sex dance. Do you get it? Do you? The bullfighting between the man and the woman represents S-E-X. What does not represent S-E-X is, of course, “Eye Of The Tiger.” Still, Joey and Ashly at least met the technical requirements for a paso doble, and they got better scores in this round than for the foxtrot.

Nevertheless, it was not to be. Joey and Ashly were indeed the last team eliminated before next week’s finale, which will feature John and Charlotte and Kelly and Alec.

The most striking difference between the teams that will be around for the finale and the team that went home tonight? It’s clear from the rehearsal footage that Charlotte is the boss of John. Likewise, Alec is the boss of Kelly. And so it must be, because Charlotte and Alec know what they’re doing. When it’s time for “Emoting With The Soap Stars,” John and Kelly can lead.

But in Ashly and Joey’s case, she always seemed a little tentative with him. Maybe because she’s young, maybe because he’s pushy, or maybe for some other reason. But Ashly never got her confidence and never was truly in charge, and it seemed to keep her team from jelling. When you’re “dancing with a star,” it’s apparently critical to remember that indeed, most of those words aren’t meant literally.

Linda Holmes is a writer in Bloomington, Minn.