Monday night marks the return of "Dancing with the Stars," and the latest ads promise "the most spectacular season yet!" A bit boastful considering the stars haven't even put their soft shoes on yet, but with an interesting mix of actors and athletes, not to mention one illusionist, there's no doubt fans are eager for the two-night premiere of season six to kick off.
Before the glittering gowns and sequined shirts waltz back into our lives, there's still the matter of sorting out the 12 contenders. Who's likely to go home first? In a rare double-elimination, two unfortunate "stars" will share the honor this time. Who's destined for finale night? Hey, it's anyone's ballroom blitz at this point, but it's not hard to spot the front-runners.
The ones to watch
And the winner is … OK, maybe that is a little premature, but Yamaguchi tops the list of potentials. She's popular, athletic and a well-loved Olympic gold medalist — nothing but strong points. And while figure skating isn't the same as ballroom dancing, with all of the graceful moves and rigorous training, it's not exactly a world away, either. Under Mark Ballas' tutelage, which worked wonders for Sabrina Bryan last season, expect Kristi to go far.
If the last three celebrity champions (Emmitt Smith, Apolo Anton Ohno and Helio Castroneves) have taught us anything, it's that "Dancing" fans favor male athletes. Given that the Miami Dolphins defensive end is capable of some amazing moves on the field (and he's easy on the eyes, to say the least), he already looks like a shoo-in. His partner, Edyta Sliwinska, known for her barely-there ballroom attire, can only help boost the sex-appeal vote.
"American Pie" cutie and celebrity poker champ Elizabeth could win on enthusiasm alone. Long before her name landed on this season's dance card, Shannon told every media outlet that would listen how much she loved the show. Chances are that eagerness will pay off in rehearsal efforts. Boasting an impressive fan base (that's half the battle right there) and the impressive young Derek Hough by her side, Shannon could rumba in the final rounds.
Who? OK, Mario isn't exactly unknown, but he's not a household name, either. That's his biggest hurdle. Still, the "Let Me Love You" singer has a shot to go all the way. Not known for dancing, Mario's no ringer, but as a successful R&B performer, he isn't a complete stranger to moving to the music. And he might charm the crowd, being another eager beaver about the whole "Dancing" experience. With a partner like Karina Smirnoff, who has something to prove after being saddled with Floyd Mayweather Jr. last season, look for Mario to be the dance-floor dark horse.
The wild cards
The big question mark where Carolla is concerned is whether or not he's really going to dance. The former "Loveline" legend is known for having a laugh at ”Dancing’s” expense on his current radio program, and the man has a reputation for taking nothing seriously. Adam's in good hands with last year's pro winner, Julianne Hough, but she can work her magic only if he takes the ballroom business to heart.
Earning the lion's share of the pre-season buzz, Matlin is sure to bring plenty of determination and poise to the show, but no one knows what to expect on the dance floor. Her partner, Fabian Sanchez, says Marlee, who lost her hearing before the age of 2, has never heard music or danced. But rather than viewing it as a setback, he feels he can mold her however he wants. Then again, Fabian is a wild card, too. While he's an accomplished pro, he's also a "Dancing" newbie, replacing pro Maksim Chmerkovskiy this season.
Seles boasts the strong athletic constitution of a tennis champ, but does she have the grace to groove? On the court grunts and groans were part of her signature style — not exactly the hallmark of the tango. If she can find the softer side of movement with Marie Osmond's former partner, Jonathan Roberts, she stands a chance.
With his status as '80s film favorite long behind him, Steve Guttenberg still banks plenty of cheesy likability. That alone should keep him safe for a few weeks. But, to put it delicately, he doesn't look like a dancer. Just imaging the "Police Academy" hero attempting the paso doble inspires laughs. Then again, even if he's a complete left foot like so many Jerry Springers before him, that just means he's in for a long ride rather than a win.
Marissa Jaret Winokur
She's cute and bubbly, but Winokur has one big problem: the dreaded lack of fan base. No doubt she has the endurance for the competition as a Tony Award-winning Broadway sweetheart, but she has to appeal to TV viewers early on to stick around. That's where that bubbly personality comes in. Is it too much? Here's a sample of her caps-lock reaction to landing a spot on the show: "IT’S TOTALLY DREAM OF MINE TO DANCE LIKE A DISNEY PRINCESS!!!!!" Good luck to her partner, Tony Dovolani. He'll need it.
A prime pick for a week-one exit if ever there was one, illusionist Jillette of "Penn & Teller" fame is about as far from ballroom material as one can get. At 6'6", he towers over his poor pro, Kym Johnson (and most everyone else). The disproportionate match up is bound to make already tricky routines and just-so arm lines that much harder. Fans of magic or his Showtime hit series "Bulls---!" are his only hope.
At 62, Presley is the oldest contestant this season, and if the show's history is any indicator, that works against her. Even 57-year-old, classically trained dancer Jane Seymour lasted only seven weeks in season five. Unless Elvis' ex is hiding some major samba skills, she and returning dancer Louis van Amstel have the ageist odds against them.
Cristián de la Fuente
Here's hoping Cristián de la Fuente moves as good as he looks. His career, listed on ABC's Web site as "international film star," doesn't guarantee most boob-tube watchers know him (unless they remember him from a handful of "CSI" and "The Class" episodes). He needs to impress in the first week, or Cristián won't make it to the second, not even with two-time “Dancing” champ and fan favorite Cheryl Burke on his arm.
That's how the dancers stack up so far, but the real test comes Monday night at 8 p.m. EST when the mirrored ball comes out and celebrity amateurs show the judges what they can (or can't) do. No doubt Len Goodman, Bruno Tonioli and Carrie Ann Inaba already have their score paddles at the ready.
Ree Hines is a regular contributor to msnbc.com.