— Traditionally, the fourth week of “Dancing with the Stars,” which features the dizzying Viennese waltz and the passionate paso doble, separates the so-so celebs from the real contenders. Not so this season, as the dancing divide remains much the same.
Most of the resident soft shoes saw modest improvements, with a couple of notable exceptions. As for the frontrunners, they’ve been easy to spot since the first night of competition, but at least one new name was added to that short list after Monday night’s performance.
From almost perfect to perfectly awful
Judges’ favorite, Kristi Yamaguchi and her pro partner Mark Ballas opened the night with the paso doble. Before taking the floor, Kristi promised to let her emotions really show in the dance, an obvious response to last week’s nitpicks about her not-so moody tango. The effort paid off. Not only did Kristi maintain the technical side of the dance, but she also showed much more intensity than before. Carrie Ann Inaba said Kristi sets the standard for the whole competition, but head judge Len Goodman still cranked about “a slight sameness” in her routines. Len also accounted for the only nine in what otherwise would have amounted to a perfect score for the Olympic champ.
Priscilla Presley’s Viennese waltz was surprisingly delicate and moving, but suffered from a couple of tiny flaws and one rule infraction. Unfortunately for Priscilla and Louis van Amstel, that infraction also happened to be Carrie Ann’s personal pet peeve. After complementing the actress on her range of “facial expressions,” which made no sense to anyone who’s seen Priscilla’s face, Carrie Ann called out the closing move of the dance, an unforgivable lift. (Fans may remember that this was the same dance and same problem that sparked Carrie Ann’s Lift-gate controversy with Jane Seymour last season.) After all was said and done, Priscilla and Louis suffered a score setback, earning only a 22 out of 30 for the night.
While Julianne Hough claimed that she wanted the judges to take Adam Carolla more seriously, it’s hard to believe she really meant it. Heavily made-up, mustachioed and masked, a ridiculous looking Adam rode up to his partner on a unicycle. It just seemed like one gimmick too much for the inherently gimmicky paso doble. To make matters worse, he danced horribly — more so than usual, even. Len called Adam “a loveable character,” but not a dancer, which begs the question: why did Len give him a seven for not dancing? In fact, Adam’s total of 19 wasn’t even his lowest to date.
The comeback kids
While she didn’t meet her ambitious goal of besting Kristi, Marlee Matlin put on a beautiful Viennese waltz. Working against a balance issue, which she attributed to her deafness, Marlee showed no signs of dizziness throughout the constant clockwise and counterclockwise spins Fabian Sanchez choreographed. Both Len and Bruno Tonioli spotted a posture problem, but a teary Carrie Ann said the performance took her breath away. The all eights that followed brought Marlee back up to her previous high score of 24.
Mario was the only matador to take up the full cape routine on the opening of his paso doble. He and partner Karina Smirnoff performed markedly better than last week’s tanking tango, but still not up to the promise of their first two performances. After receiving compliments for his striking posture, Mario landed a litany of Len nitpicks, mostly focusing on the “sameness” issue Kristi evidently has. Whatever, Len. Still, a 24 out of 30 is a three-point gain on last week for the R&B singer.
He stumbled with the judges last week, but Jason Taylor is back to being the judges’ golden guy despite actually stumbling on stage Monday night. In a mostly lovely Viennese waltz, Jason and Edyta Sliwinska displayed a mixture of elegance and oddities. The latter being Jason’s fault. The defensive end’s strange, splayed hand gestures were a bit of a distraction, but his almost-trip three-fourths of the way into the dance was hard to overlook. Well, unless you happened to be two out of three judges who decided to overlook it completely. Carrie Ann even pointed out the blunder before quickly stating, “I’m going to forgive you for that.” (Thank goodness it wasn’t a lift!) With two 10s and a nine, Jason tied Kristi for the lead.
Though nothing in his first two performances would have hinted at it, Cristián de la Fuente is becoming a dancer. Each week he’s a little lighter on his toes and his paso proved the trend continues. Cheryl Burke deserves big praise for shaping her partner, but, as a two-time “Dancing” champ, she has some previous experience there. The grunt and gusto filled routine was a hit with the panel and Bruno boasted that Cristián embodied “the pride and the power of the biggest bull in the theater.” Cristián raked in his best score so far with a 26.
The new one to watch
Kristi and Jason need to watch out for this season’s darkhorse, Shannon Elizabeth. The same celeb who was singled out on premiere night for not knowing what to do with her legs, has nearly mastered the art of moving them to the music. Her pro partner, Derek Hough, suffered a neck injury during rehearsals last week, forcing Shannon to practice with this season’s stand-in man Jonathan Roberts, but she and Derek moved across the floor like they’ve worked the number for weeks. There’s an organic nature to Shannon’s progress, according to Carrie Ann. Scoring two nines and 10 for the Viennese waltz, the leggy actress is just a point behind the leaders.
Marissa Jaret Winokur needed to bring something new to the dance floor to get back in the judges’ good graces, and she did it this week with a more than passable paso. Tony Dovolani worked in some intense moves, and Marissa worked on presenting something other than her typical bubbly take on the dance. Bruno applauded her willingness to let go of her safety net, and Marissa admitted she “never felt so light in (her) life,” as she did during the paso doble. The matching eights from the gallery made for another personal best.
It should be easy to figure out who’s going home on Tuesday night’s results show. Fairness dictates an Adam exit this week, but, then again, this show has never been about being fair. Fans of the funnyman could save him again, and if they do, the new and improved Marissa better watch out. Viewer votes kept her in the running last week, but they may not save her again.
Ree Hines is a regular contributor to MSNBC.com.