It's a good thing that Dancing With the Stars has a long history of surprising end-of-season results, because that's the one factor keeping suspense in this season.
While not all viewers have warmed up to Nicole Scherzinger, believing her to be good but overrated, too whiny, too much of a ringer, or not a big enough star, there's no longer a serious argument to be made that she isn't far and away the best dancer in this cast, and may in fact be the best ever, as Carrie Ann Inaba claimed last week. This doesn't mean Nicole will win -- viewers vote on the basis of factors other than dancing ability, and her personality really is a concern -- but she has to get credit for her skill. It's actually possible to watch her and temporarily forget who the pro dancer is.
Monday was top five night, meaning that the dancers had to perform two full routines for the first time. Having less rehearsal time generally means that skill and quickness in learning come to the fore, and it helps to have a great choreographer on your side also. And like last season, the ballroom dances were followed by a Latin dance meant to evoke a specific decade, or "the future." It could not have escaped the notice of the contestants that their performance order was arranged in roughly their perceived ranking coming into Monday, putting extra pressure on the evening's leadoff dancer, Chad Ochocinco.
To his credit, the perpetually hammy Chad has been much more businesslike of late, but he's probably about maxed out his potential on the dance floor. His tango with Cheryl Burke incorporated some nice dramatic movements, but it didn't have the technical content the judges demand to see this late in the season. Chad got credit for embodying the role, but his failure to be more polished led to a trio of 7s. He seemed more committed to his 1960s-style jive, even though his ridiculous red velour pimp costume looked more like it came from a 1973 blaxploitation film. For much of this dance Chad looked as good as he has all season, but he appeared to lose some energy about two-thirds of the way through, which you don't expect from a professional athlete. Still, the judges bumped Chad up to scores of 8 across the board, and that might be the boost that keeps him around for another week.
The rehearsal footage for Niecy Nash stressed how hard she works (she has already been to work on The Insider before heading off to practice in the late morning), and she may need that bit of human interest to keep her going after a rough night. Louis van Amstel has done some excellent work with her, as their Viennese waltz displayed what was clearly her best footwork of the season. Only some weird floppy movements with her free arm detracted from the overall impression, and she received a fine score of 23. I don't know what was supposed to be so '90s about her '90s paso doble, but the quality of the dance made it appear that lack of rehearsal time may have finally taken its toll. Niecy came into the dance doubting she could bring the proper dramatic poses to the paso, but the issue was less her attitude (which was acceptable) than the lack of any real skill level. Her score of 20 (Len Goodman gave her a 6, the lowest score any judge has handed out in three weeks) dropped her into last place for the night.
The rehearsal footage for Erin Andrews's Argentine tango showed her fretting about ... something, with Maksim Chmerkovskiy telling her there was nothing to worry about. At first, this just seemed like garden variety DWtS drama, until the dance began and we saw exactly what they were practicing -- Erin leaping off the stage and onto the shoulder of her partner below. That maneuver and the insane athleticism Erin displayed guaranteed a huge crowd reaction, although Len Goodman's score of 10 was perhaps a little overgenerous (the other two judges gave her a 9).
Maks had the right approach to their "'80s rumba," which was to choreograph a decent rumba routine and ignore the decade entirely, except for the costuming. He also noted his partner's problem with the rumba, which is that Erin's dancing has "edges" rather than a nice Latin flow. It was a mild letdown after the tango, but her score of 25 was more than acceptable; and Bruno Tonioli flatly stated Erin deserved to be in the finals. Hard to argue with him at this point. But Erin needs to stop whimpering about being too tall, having long arms, etc. The female audience for DWtS doesn't like it when a gorgeous woman pretends that she's not.
During rehearsals for their waltz, Anna Trebunskaya warned Evan Lysacek that he can come across as cold, whereupon he rolled over in bed and went to sleep. I'm sorry, but of the five people remaining in the competition, he is easily the most boring. And his attempts to give mock-harsh critiques to Anna while she skated didn't make him seem any more madcap. His posture on the dance was fine, but there wasn't much drama or energy to it, and he doesn't have the visceral connection to Anna to overcome lack of difficult content. But he's heading to the finals no matter what: the judges gave him 9s across the board, making this easily the most overrated dance of the season.
For their Latin dance, Evan and Anna were assigned a "futuristic cha cha." I'm not sure it was a good idea to go back to the future so soon after last season, when Derek Hough's and Joanna Krupa's futuristic paso doble was probably its highlight. The other problem with these routines is that the template for them already seems like a cliche: just dress like a robot and dance without visible emotion for a couple of minutes (surely not all music in the future will be electronic). But the partners had some fun with the notion of Evan getting the perfect excuse to be robotic and herky-jerky during a Latin dance. The resulting cha cha pleased the audience, although Anna may have carried the choreography too far away from anything remotely Latin. Len thought so and gave Evan an 8, but the other two judges scored him at 9, and he finished the evening tied with Erin for second place.
First place for the night went to Nicole, although from her continual stream of tears in rehearsal, you'd think she was Kate Gosselin with a lost Xanax prescription. How does this woman not realize that she's dominating the season? As good as she's been all along, she and Derek really stepped up their games this week, first with a foxtrot that was nearly perfect, except for the amount of time they spent apart. Len noted this, and his 9 was the one thing keeping the pair from their first 30 of the season.
As it happened, they had to wait only an hour more. Derek seemed flummoxed at first by the idea of setting a paso doble in the 1950s, but like Maks, he eventually decided to basically ignore the decade and just choreograph an amazing routine, something that could have easily been mistaken for one of the demo dances we sometimes see two of the pros doing. It was easily the best dance of the season and an obvious 30. Carrie Ann could say nothing in the way of judging the performance except giggle. The big question going forward is whether Nicole is simply making it look too easy, despite her protests of how difficult learning all of this has been for her.
My guess is that despite the signs of weakness Erin showed last week, the gap between her scores and those of Niecy and Chad will keep her safe. Niecy will likely have some more free time come this Wednesday.