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Women step up on ‘Dancing with the Stars’

This week it was the women whose sailing was smoother, providing a welcome reversal to the recent trend in which they seemed to be simply overmatched by the more dramatic and more charismatic men in the group. By Linda Holmes

One of the happiest moments in any season of “Dancing With The Stars” (ABC, Tuesdays/Wednesdays, 8 p.m. ET) is episode shrinkage. As the number of couples decreases, the show gets shorter, and this week, it shrank from two hours to 90 minutes. And in those 90 minutes, this week it was the women whose sailing was smoother, providing a welcome reversal to the recent trend in which they seemed to be simply overmatched by the more dramatic and more charismatic men in the group.

The nicest surprise of the evening was Monique Coleman, who had an unspectacular foxtrot the first week and a good mambo last week, but who ascended to a very good jive this week. Dressed all in yellow, she attacked with quick feet, making the jive look like the most fun you can have with your clothes on, which is exactly the way it’s supposed to look. She opened with an eyebrow-raising backwards trust-dive toward her partner, Louis, which got the routine off to a rollicking start and got the attention of the audience early. For the most part, the women haven’t pulled off as many exciting routines as the men so far, and Monique was the first of them to do something that announced her presence and established her ability.

Vivica Fox also had a good night, nailing down three 9s for a slithering tango that played to her oft-cited “diva” strengths in drama and presentation. Her gimmick of the week was a ballet class intended to improve her grace and posture, but she looked to be simply better suited to the tango than to the dances she’s done so far. She and partner Nick are developing a nicely elegant performing dynamic, and they seemed more connected and locked together this week than they have in the past — the tango, of course, will do that for you. The only woman who did a tango Tuesday night, Vivica continued the trend toward greatly improved female performances.

The most improved woman of the week, however, had to be country singer Sara Evans. Sara has looked wooden and miserable in both of her previous dances, but has stayed in the competition with apparently tenacious fan support. Her partner, Tony, made the smart move of setting their cowboy-themed jive to “These Boots Are Made For Walkin’,” and Sara instantly looked more at ease in the hat and boots. While she’s not a great dancer, the fact that the moves often resembled line dancing seemed to make her relax, and she was infinitely better than in past weeks. She got scores to match, and she’s just about guaranteed a smooth ride through this week’s voting.

Is time up for Willa Ford?Having less luck was Willa Ford. Willa has clearly hit it off with her partner, Maksim, but she struggles to get a foothold with the public and has barely dodged elimination two weeks in a row. Her youthful jive in her little hat was pleasant, but it suffered by comparison to what the crowd had already seen, lacking the spark, athleticism and speed that Monique had shown. Willa’s pleas to the audience to please reach out and vote for her to learn who she really is will probably not be enough to keep her safe, since she’s danced better and still landed near the bottom of the overall standings.

As for the men, Emmitt Smith’s star began to fall this week with a tango that seemed oddly stiff and lacking in his usual personality, as the judges noted. Emmitt has specialized in a high-energy, smiling, surprisingly smooth delivery, and it abruptly deserted him in the more sober tango. The strange music was no help as usual, as “Simply Irresistible” did not bring out the tango in Emmitt the way that “Son Of A Preacher Man” brought out his cha-cha. Emmitt’s footwork was not impressive either, and his usual quickness was replaced by a jarringly awkward stride.

Hard-working Harry Hamlin continued to improve upon his previously lifeless demeanor this week, throwing himself hard at the mystery and romance of the tango. He still is an achingly unnatural dancer, and he still looks like he’s counting in his head. But he took a shot at every gesture, foot-flourish and snap of the head that was handed to him. Last week’s quickstep was a lighthearted dance that gave him some cover as a weak dancer, but the tango put him on display with more seriousness, and while this may not seem like a great compliment, it could have been worse.

Jerry Springer is now officially the mascot of the competition, and he continued that pattern this week. His savvy partner, Kym, has learned how to present him, and she came up with an over-the-top tango to “Hernando’s Hideaway.” She suggested it was inspired by James Bond, but judge Bruno quite understandably saw more of “The Pink Panther.”

Jerry’s technique is minimal, but his presentation improves by the week, and his kind of mugging seems harmless, in part because he seems to really appreciate just being there. He explained this week that his new goal is to get to the week waltz, because his daughter is getting married soon and he’d like to dance with her. That is precisely the kind of agreeable good story that keeps contestants around when their dancing itself is poor, so don’t look for him to hit the bricks any time soon.

Rule breakers
Perhaps the most surprising performance came from Mario Lopez, a very talented dancer already chastised last week for failing to do a proper quickstep. Assigned the tango, Mario and Karina talked about wanting to stay out of trouble, but when they hit the floor, they again broke their hold in the middle of the dance, and they were attacked by the judges once again. Carrie-Ann, in particular, seemed irked, popping off a surprisingly curt “I would appreciate it if you would respect the rules.”

The judges on “Dancing” are used to high levels of diplomacy, but they apparently took the tango violation seriously, particularly after last week. As angry as Carrie-Ann was, it was Len who took the biggest bite out of Mario’s score, dropping him to a 6. That wasn’t just a deduction — it was a punishment for a perceived slight.

Joey Lawrence, unsurprisingly, was a natural at the jive. Dancing to “Blue Suede Shoes,” Joey looked comfortable, confident, and absolutely thrilled, as the plastered-on smile doesn’t seem to have left his face since he scored high with last week’s quickstep. But again, while he and Edyta received uniformly high marks for their dancing, they were also rung up for violating rules — this time, for including lifts and other non-jive-related moves. The scoring effects were exactly the same — Len busted Joey down to a 6, and Carrie-Ann and Bruno would cough up nothing higher than an 8.

So it was a week for the women to fare better than the men in many ways, particularly if freedom from scolding is part of the equation. Despite that overall shift in momentum, it certainly looks like there is no one left to spare Willa from elimination, unless Mario’s two straight weeks of rule-breaking get him in trouble with fans. If that happens, it will just go to show: you don’t mess with the tango.

Linda Holmes is a writer in Bloomington, Minn.