Dancing With The Stars Recap: Gaga Over The Cha Cha

They tell us every week to vote! vote! vote! for our favorites, because anyone might go home at any time. But Monday's Dancing With the Stars provided a sterling example of why every vote might be all-important, with only three weeks left in the season.

The combination of everyone having a good night, and a team challenge that served to boost the lowest-scoring dancer and work against the best-scoring dancer, left the competition as tightly bunched as you will ever see it at this stage, with the six dancers all winding up with between 49 and 54 points. It was an entire night without the 7 paddle! Is that even legal?

dwts photosMeet the cast of Dancing with the Stars

With the best two dancers fairly obvious at this point (and the third-best becoming more apparent too), and Chad Ochocinco likely safe by virtue of being both a footballer and half the remaining male cast, it seemed pretty clear going in that the elimination this week would probably come down to Niecy Nash vs. Pamela Anderson. Niecy and Louis van Amstel had the quickstep, not necessarily the best option for Niecy at this point given her penchant for funny faces and shimmies. Louis attempted to impress upon her the importance of maintaining proper technique, and this the couple mostly accomplished, though it seemed overly careful and was obviously the second best of Monday's quicksteps. But the judges were suprisingly warm towards the dance, giving Niecy a 9 (from Carrie Ann Inaba) and two 8s, and agreeing that it was the best she's looked so far.

Pamela got to drag Damian Whitewood off on some of her wildlife center do-gooder duties this past week, which helps the soul if not one's Viennese waltz. She has received praise for her characterization and overall impression she makes, but like Niecy technique is not her strong suit, and she became the only dancer not to get a single 9 during her individual routine. Len Goodman told Pamela to "firm up your upper body," something I'm not sure is possible without the use of cement. After some early efforts where she seemed to be playing up the sex goddess angle, she has been almost sedate lately, and it's hard to know if viewers are responding.

Erin Andrews began Season Ten as part of the undistinguished middle class, but with the success of her presumed showmance and a second straight week where she has kept company with the leaders, she now has to be considered a favorite to reach the final week. She and Maksim Chmerkovskiy spent much of their rehearsal time arguing (or pretending to) about how much clothing he should try to remove during the dance. How far do you really want to push Len, especially on a night where he was dressed like the mayor of Munchkin Land for some reason? Their quickstep began with some clothes removal on both their parts, but it came and went fast enough so that Len barely noticed. All the judges were rightfully charmed and gave out 9s; it may have been the best routine of the year not done by Evan or Nicole. Erin wasn't poor enough at the start of the season to where she's going to get major credit for having improved, but there's little question that she really has.

As the Erin and Maks show has gathered steam, we're hearing less these days about Chad and his thus far fruitless attempts to win the heart of the fair Cheryl Burke. Since his pro was celebrating a birthday, he decided it was time for another shot, and gave her a necklace as a gift. But Cheryl has been all business lately, and Chad's competitiveness is coming out now that we're getting near season's end. The freed Tony Dovolani was brought in to give Chad some waltz pointers, and managed to connect the dance to football in order to make the lesson stick. While he's shown real improvement on technique, especially his posture, overall the dance seemed just decent, with Cheryl once again dominating the presentation. Maybe I was just too thrown off my his weird diaphanous jacket to pay much attention. Len is emerging as Chad's biggest fan and gave him a 9 to go along with two 8s.

The effort to make Nicole Scherzinger look vulnerable has now lasted almost as long as the part of the season where she was hailed as one of the best ever. Carrie Ann went one step further Monday, flat out calling her the best dancer DWtS has ever had. Derek Hough promised a no-frills waltz to please the oh-so-ornery Len, and Nicole brought out the human interest by announcing that she would be dancing to "You Light Up My Life," the favorite song of her aunt, who has Downs Syndrome. It was tasteful and elegant, with a gorgeous spin at the end, and I felt certain someone would think it 10-worthy. But the judges weren't quite blown away. Bruno Tonioli more or less admitted she was being graded on a curve, and Len's issues with the performance were so picayune that he told Nicole he'd have to elaborate after the show. In an average week, her trio of 9s would keep her totally safe, but this week she's just one of the crowd.

After finishing last week closer to the bottom than the top, it was time for Evan Lysacek to reassert himself as a co-favorite. He and Anna Trebunskaya had the Argentine tango, and she made it a point to knock out all the "ballet" tendencies that cost Evan in last week's judging. This pair has made major strides in connecting on the dance floor, and Evan completely sold the drama of the routine. Bruno praised Evan for conquering his territory like an alpha male. Rowr! For anybody wondering if this would be an entire season where Len's 10 paddle would go unused ... nope. He and the others combined to give Evan the season's first perfect score, putting him in the lead heading into the cha cha challenge.

The challenge matched up "Team Gaga" (Nicole/Derek, Pamela/Damian, Chad/Cheryl) against "Team Madonna" (Evan/Anna, Niecy/Louis, Erin/Maks). The pairings were terrific luck for Pamela and lousy luck for Niecy, since it could be predicted that any team that had the choreography chops of both Derek and Cheryl was going to have a major leg up. The bits included a thirty second group section at the beginning and the end, with solos for each dancer in the middle. Team Gaga really shone on the group choreography, although the solos were maybe overpraised. Pamela was the clear weak link on the team, getting a bit out of sync at the start and looking unrehearsed on her solo. Chad brought forth some of his untrained flair from early in the season, and putting Nicole last, even though she has yet to do the cha cha in competition, was a shrewd move. The routine received three 9s for an overall 27. Derek scores again.

Team Madonna appeared to have less overall rehearsal time than the Gagas, as it looked like the group stuff was thrown together quickly while everyone practiced the cha cha solos on their own. And let's be frank: a quarter-century old Madonna song just doesn't have the cachet of Lady Gaga. The dancers were decent enough, although Evan is never going to be totally believable with something that requires him to cut loose. Erin was sassy and Niecy tried to sell her personality, but the audience just wasn't into it as they were with the previous group. The end result was three 8s for a total of 24, which brought Evan down into a tie with Nicole for the night's best score, while Niecy fell behind Pamela into the basement.

My guess is that Pamela has shown a bit more vulnerability so far this season than Niecy has, and might be the not-so-shocking elimination on Tuesday. But everyone is so bunched that the stage could be set for an even bigger shock.