— The ballroom game heated up Monday night as the celebrities faced the Latin music on “Dancing With the Stars.” The rumba and samba offered new challenges and higher stakes, but with obvious left-foots such as Adam Carolla out of the competition, each step counted for more than before.
Comebacks and setbacks
Starting the night off on the right foot was Mario, who threw himself into a swaggering samba. In fact, with a couple of weeks of dud performances under his belt, the R&B singer hardly looked like the same man on the dance floor. Matching partner Karina Smirnoff move for move, he shook his hips and led the energy-packed dance to near perfection. Head judge Len Goodman, who’s played the part of Mario’s toughest critic lately, applauded his progress and, along with the other officials, handed Mario his top score yet, 27 out of 30.
After last week’s lackluster and lift-infringing Viennese waltz landed her in the bottom two, Priscilla Presley needed a rousing rumba to ensure she’d dance another day. Unfortunately, the ambitious dance that followed just didn’t make the cut. With Louis van Amstel’s help, Priscilla pulled off some intense poses, including a to-the-floor split, but that only made for a small part of the flawed performance. “The problem being so slow is you see the problems,” Bruno Tonioli said of the lumbering routine. Though the judges squabbled after Len voiced his complete disappointment, they all agreed when it came to the numbers, giving the couple a matching set of sevens.
Maintaining the momentum
Following her best-yet performance last week, Marissa Jaret Winokur dubbed herself “the little engine that could.” Her souped-up samba proved the engine could do a lot better than previously thought. Finally Marissa delivered a bouncing performance that couldn’t be called “bubbly.” The shoulder shaking, sexy workout showed how far Marissa’s made it, and it highlighted some of Tony Dovolani’s best choreography to date. The panel all agreed the samba was her personal best in the competition, but, oddly enough, rewarded her with 24 points — the exact same score as last week.
Cristián de la Fuente mastered smoldering and intense in last week’s paso doble, but couldn’t handle the romantic and laid-back demands of the rumba. The boring dance was a disappointment, both due to Cristián’s flubbed footwork and Cheryl Burke’s uninspired moves — a rare problem for the two-time “Dancing” champ. The best thing Len could call it was “a competent performance.” And Carrie Ann Inaba was kind enough to point out only the missing element of eroticism in the dance. After earning a score of just 23, Cristián gave what sounded like a farewell speech, saying how much he appreciated his time on the show. Here’s hoping that wasn’t a prediction.
A communication gap led to a frustrating week of rehearsals for Marlee Matlin and Fabian Sanchez. “It’s about me speaking with my hands and him speaking with his mouth,” according to Marlee. Whatever the problem was, the results were evident on the dance floor in missed moves and out-of-time steps. Carrie Ann touched on the litany of mistakes, but Len summed up the panel position when he said, “When I look at you and think of you and realize you can’t hear any of that music … I think you did wonderful.” Grading the dance with that in mind, Marlee managed two sevens and a generous eight.
Two out of three ain’t bad
Not surprisingly, the best Latin number of the night came from dancing queen Kristi Yamaguchi and pro partner Mark Ballas. Kristi, whose only onstage shortcoming so far has been a lack of emotion, packed the rumba with a graceful and romantic spirit. Mark called the dance “the vertical expression of a horizontal desire,” and that’s just what it looked like on the floor. After receiving a standing O from the audience, the judges applauded the couple and — for the second week in a row — left them just one point shy of a perfect score.
Shannon Elizabeth’s samba made her Viennese waltz look like a fluke. After performing on par with Kristi last week, Shannon barely made the grade Monday night. Once again her partner Derek Hough battled a physical setback — at least it was food poisoning rather than a neck injury this time — but he wasn’t the problem. Shannon’s samba sans hip swinging, along with a couple of missteps, knocked the number back. It wasn’t the worst dance of the night, but after the promise she showed last week, Shannon didn’t look happy with her score of 23 out of 30.
After raking in 29 points with his waltz, Jason Taylor’s goal for Latin night was nothing short of a perfect 30. With the sexiest rumba of the evening, the defensive end fell just two points short of his ambition, but it was hardly a setback. Jason and Edyta pulled off some major moves and looked amazing all the while. Len didn’t mention it, but Jason’s footwork was spot-on, avoiding the judge’s favorite nitpick (the heal lead) altogether. At least Carrie Ann rightly complimented the couple’s “insane chemistry.”
So who’s the favorite for Tuesday night’s red spotlight of doom? Sadly Priscilla’s number may be up. Though she’s been responsible for some smooth moves throughout the season, Priscilla lacked a much-needed comeback performance. If Elvis’ ex manages to stay in the game, look for Marlee or Cristián to deliver the farewell dance this time.
Ree Hines is a regular contributor to msnbc.com.