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'Dancing With the Stars': All the right moves

April 21, 2009 |  7:12 am

115636_2986a_pre Well, color me surprised. And I’m not talking about the change of leader board or the swinging group dance. No, I'm talking about the costumes. After the big deal that was made last week that the contestants would be put in charge of designing their own outfits, I was a teensy bit disappointed that (A) more wasn’t made out of that whole escapade, and (B) most of the costumes looked perfectly respectable (well, relatively speaking, of course). Not one looked like it was shipped directly from Heinousville. Where were the leopard print and denim cutoffs? Hopefully, they’ll be saved for next season. Though with only seven couples left in this cycle’s competition, it seems like the heat’s been turned up this week — and I’m not just talking about the scorching SoCal temperatures. Everyone’s upped their game, and there are now just eight points separating first from last place. And we have a new leader:

Melissa Rycroft and Tony Dovolani, whose Argentine tango earned them an almost-perfect score of 29. Melissa needed some help in the aggressive man-eater department, but rather than taking her to the zoo or a Hall and Oates concert, Tony helped his partner channel her inner animal by bringing her to the Wisteria Lane set for an encounter with Desperate Housewife Teri Hatcher (crossover alert!). And the tango that resulted was precise, with great lifts, and I liked their fun leg flicks, but it wasn’t as feral as I had hoped. And maybe it was the odd techno tango music, but I found the routine to be the slightest bit disjointed. The judges couldn’t heap enough praise on it, however: Len thought it was “fantastic,” Bruno said Melissa’s “legs were like magic tools in the hands of a master” (whaa?) and Carrie Ann dubbed them “the king and queen of legal lifts.”

Just one point behind with 28 were Shawn Johnson and Mark Ballas. And their cha cha cha was my favorite routine of the night. Shawn was all over the place this week, collecting awards (go, Sullivan Award winner for top U.S. amateur athlete!), which left her less time to prepare the two new dances. But you never would have been able to tell by her performance, set to Michael Jackson’s “PYT”: She was shaking her hips like she owned the joint, and her mischievous smile revealed she had thrown caution to the wind. And I couldn't be more proud: Our little girl was all grown up and looked like she was having the time of her life ("Dirty Dancing" alert!). “You nailed it!” exclaimed Carrie Ann. I love Shawn’s arc throughout this competition, starting out as a young, naive, structured teen but slowly learning to let loose and grow up in the process. Had it not been for the mature rumba the week before, I don’t think that she would have been able to shimmy with quite such abandon. Am I still alone in these "Dirty Dancing" parallels?

Also letting loose was Chuck Wicks, whose samba with Julianne Hough was my second-favorite dance of the night. I was ready to write off this country singer for his flippant attitude and spaghetti arms, but this fun number showed “Chuckie” is a contender after all! Despite his costume, which looked more like silky Playboy Mansion pajamas than a dance outfit, Chuck’s arm extensions finally jibed with his musicality and it all came together in one very impressive and caliente routine. I loved that Chuck didn't miss a beat in his and Julianne's fierce progression of steps down the length of the floor. It was also impressive to see Julianne shake it in all that long fringe and not get tangled. “It was by far your best dance to date,” Len said, and I had to agree. And the judges’ praise was reflected in their scores. Chuck finally earned his first 9: three of them, to be exact, for a total of 27.

Also earning a 27 were Gilles Marini and Cheryl Burke. And their Viennese waltz was perfectly fine and elegant, if lacking in some passion. Cheryl looked like she was Belle from "Beauty and the Beast" come to life with her yellow ball gown and gloves, and they floated and flitted gracefully across the dance floor. I liked how Gilles infused his own little artistic flourishes into the routine, like the little head swivel right before hitting a pose. Len said “it had romance, it had lovely rotation, I loved the way you worked the different nuances,” though Carrie Ann told him to watch his posture.

Falling a couple of notches were Lil’ Kim and Derek Hough, who tried to please stodgy Len by toning down the sexiness and putting the rapper's trademark raunch on the side but ended up with a disappointing rumba that seemed a bit robotic at times. And you could definitely see Lil’ Kim holding back on the moves. Carrie Ann called it “underwhelming,” and Len told them to “go with what you know.” “Taking the raunch out of Lil’ Kim is like having a margarita without tequila,” complained Bruno. Let this be a lesson for all of us not to pretend to be something that we’re not. If you’ve got the raunch, then flaunt it. Still, the scores were pretty generous for all the judges’ discontent: They received a total of 26.

Bounding in two points behind them were Ty Murray and Chelsie Hightower, who earned a total of 24 for their waltz. And after two tough weeks, thank goodness they were able to claw their way back into the competition with a ballroom dance that emphasized the rodeo rider’s strength, impeccable posture and his unrivaled ability to “hold on.” It was obvious from the outset that clinging to his partner immediately put Ty in his comfort zone.  Len, continuing the trend of things more suited for the bedroom than the ballroom, remarked that Ty's dance had “more rise and fall than a bride’s nightie" — in a good way. Though when Bruno exclaimed that his was “a bigger comeback than Mickey Rourke,” was it just me or did Ty mouth, “Than what?”

Rounding out the leader board were Lawrence Taylor and Edyta Sliwinska, whose waltz earned them a total of 21. We got to see a couple different sides of the Hall of Famer this week: First, LT took his partner to Florida for a charity event he was hosting, and it was cute to see him playfully critique his partner on her less-than-stellar golf skills. “You look good … but your technique sucks!” And who knew how stylish the man was? I absolutely loved the dress he designed for Edyta, even though she was so buttoned up I didn’t recognize her at first, and that renegade sash nearly blinded her. “I’m wearing so much clothes that I got tangled in it!” exclaimed Edyta. (She was then immediately rushed to a strip-down tank so her deprived skin could be free of all that icky, clingy fabric and replenished with the oxygen it so desperately needs.) The judges, however, have not relented on their backhanded compliments of the Giant. Bruno said it wasn’t terrible but it wasn’t brilliant, and Len had the harshest words of all when he said, “Overall, I was shocked at how well you performed.” Ouch.

After all the judged dances, it was nice to see the contestants get together for the group routine, which was modeled after the Mod '60s and looked like it was an homage to "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In." Loved how choreographer Christian Perry treated absent Shawn Johnson’s cardboard cutout like a real person during rehearsals. Though I had a hard time finding Chuck Wicks during the performance. I blame that shagadelic ’do, which I first described as Dutch Boy, and then, upon closer inspection and Tom’s comments, realized it was more Fred from Scooby-Doo with some Derek Hough coif mixed in. Overall, it was a fun swinging number with some Austin Powers cheekiness thrown in for good measure, and it was a treat to see everyone mostly kept up with the moves (yeah, baby, yeah!). Though didn’t LT look like he was ready to hit the links with his outfit? Wonder if his mind is still on the back nine in Florida. And if I had to choose, I’d say he’d be the next to go.

What was your favorite dance? Who do you think will get the boot? And why was Steve-O way back in the third or fourth row — were they afraid his “steam breath” would be too distracting? Check back Wednesday for the results!

— Allyssa Lee

Photo: ABC