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'Dancing With the Stars' recap: Stepping out in style

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Well, that was an unexpected treat. After all its seasons, you’d think “Dancing With the Stars” would have a been-there, done-that kind of feel to its Season 14 premiere, but this two-hour season kickoff was a swirly, toe-tapping hoot. There were no negative Nancys, the celebrities all seemed like they wanted to be there, and the pros stepped up the good humor and the choreography to match.

Its whole notion of “stars” may be forever in question, but the show did live up to the dancing. Everyone seemed into the program, the judges were impressed enough to bring out the 9 paddle -- a first rare sight for a season premiere. Even Maks had his work cut out for him, as some easy-on-the-eye pros and some scorching new stars had the ballroom hot factor turned up to 11. Sure, the scoring seemed a bit inflated and uneven, but perhaps everyone was high from all the good feelings in the room. “I think this is my favorite premiere, start to finish, that we’ve ever done,” said host Tom Bergeron. You and me both!

Let’s meet the cast and see how they stacked up, shall we?

Up at the top of the leaderboard with a whopping score of 26 was classical singer Katherine Jenkins. Whom I admit, I had no idea of, even though I do remember her performance during Season 12. The world’s most prolific classical artist? Who? After this week’s routine, however, I think I’ve found a new favorite, as her personality is infectious, as seen during the nugget of joy that was her happy "Peanuts" dance during her rehearsals with Mark Ballas. And she brought that same charm and infectious energy, along with that British élan, to her elegant fox trot set to Lenka’s “The Show,” collapsing in a nice twirl to a dip at the end. “That was cracking!” remarked fellow Brit Len, who said he liked the musicality and the detail, like the shrug of the shoulders. Bruno said Katherine’s routine was “exquisite -- the style was impeccable.” Carrie Ann said it was the “best first dance on the first show, ever.” Charming! So were the judges, who awarded two 9s right off the bat, with the highest score ever for a premiere event: Total: 26 out of 30. Crazy!

"Dancing With the Stars"Tied with Katherine was child-star-turned-Mirrorball-hopeful Jaleel White, who has shed any semblance to Steve Urkel in his return to ABC. The former nerd star of “Family Matters’ has eschewed the Urkel-esque suspenders and the Coke-bottle glasses for a more Stefon-like vest and silky-smooth demeanor. Kym Johnson seemed excited for her partner, whom she called a “natural.” "Ladies, be nice to the geeky boys," she advised, "because they grow up to be handsome men." And draw comparisons to Gregory Hines from the judges to boot! Carrie Ann said she thought their fox trot reminded her of “White Nights.” Bruno also felt like he was watching the late actor/dancer/choreographer. High praise indeed. Len loved the routine, set to “The Way You Look Tonight,” calling it “seamless,” with “elegance” and “sophistication.” Total: 26.

Whoa, did it get hot in here or is it just William Levy? Who is this guy, that inspires cheers and whoops from all of Latin America? Apparently, we have in our ballroom the "Mexican Brad Pitt"! The women in the studio were fanning and falling all over themselves with the introduction of this international star. OK, so apparently he can command the Spanish-speaking world to his feet with one sultry look and one flex of an impeccably toned arm. But will he be as desirable dancing the cha cha with Cheryl Burke in ugly grandmother shoes? Answer: Si, si — a million times si! Though let’s face it: his dance, set to a screechy Harold Wheeler version of “International Girls,” was just OK at best. It seemed like he just kind of stepped in time while Cheryl twirled around him. But the dancing was like the limp parsley garnish next to this piping hot Cuban dish.

Certainly, the judges were blinded by the hotness. Bruno looked like he wanted to scoop William up like a tortilla chip. "'Dancing With the Stars' presents the hottest package of the season!" the judge roared. “By the way, William: You’re overdressed.” The caliente factor had Carrie Ann thanking ABC and all the powers that be for her job, and then prattling off something about moving Cheryl around with ease and grace. Len mumbled on about how William “captured the spirit of the cha cha cha.” Was it entertaining? Yes. But did it deserve three 8s? Perhaps not. Total: 24.  

Fun fact: The cha cha is nothing like freestyle dancing! So says young Roshon Fegan, Disney star who made sure to slip in the fact the he was in "Spider-Man 2." Luckily for him, winsome Chelsie Hightower was back to harness all that youthful energy and make a ballroom dancer out of him yet. And she came to a nice middle ground with their nightclub-themed cha cha, with Chelsie as the girl of his dreams who came to take Roshon out for some spins on the bumpin’ dance floor. Roshon’s moves had Bruno in paroxysms. “You! Roshon! Can go on and on and on!” he exclaimed. “The way you cut the beat -- laser sharp!” Carrie Ann said their twirl was “the coolest spin I’ve seen on a cha cha in all 14 seasons -- I like your cool, youthful flava.” Len, as per usual, thought there was too much messin’ about -- too much hip hop, too little cha cha. Though he did say, “there’s no question you can dance.” Total: 23.

Soap star, singer, proud turquoise-wearer Jack Wagner is not afraid of wooing his partner. And while he usually goes with blonds, it seems his pairing with redheaded beauty Anna Trebunskaya was “a good choice” for this ballroom landscape. Particularly because she has no qualms about pushing him hard. Though it was mostly sunny skies and visions of spring with their easy, breezy fox trot. Bruno said it was “beautifully acted” and “beautifully danced.” Carrie Ann was taken to her “happy place,” and Len said “the feel of the dance was fantastic,” though his footwork was “haphazard” and the posture’s “over the top a bit.” Over the top? On "DWTS"? Come on! Which is like charging Paula Deen for using too much butter. Their 23 total was “unbelievable,” according to a flabbergasted Anna. I have to agree.

Gladys be nimble, Gladys be quick. Gladys showed off her dancing to the other Pips! “I’m music legend Gladys Knight, known as the Empress of Show,” said the famed singer. She says it like it is, and I think I kind of love her for it. Gladys is here to show off her moves because the Pips didn’t let her dance! But not just to dance -- “Who don’t want to win? You think I’m here just to be dancing?” An American treasure, ladies and gentlemen! And coupled with Irish treasure Tristan MacManus, this pair could make it far on charm and the chugging power of "Midnight Train to Georgia." Did I mention she can dance? “Ladies and gentlemen, the legend has got the moves!” Bruno exclaimed. “You’ve got class, you’re the star -- a real one!” Carrie Ann was so honored to have her on the dance floor. “There’s a naturalness about your dancing,” said Len. “It’s not false. It oozed rhythm and I thought you did a wonderful job.” Take that, Pips! Tristan’s mom must be so excited right now. Total: 23.

Maria Menounos, entertainment reporter and co-host of EXTRA (alongside former “DWTS” competitor Mario Lopez), kicked off the proceedings with partner Derek Hough. Turns out she’s more of an athlete boy (with a laugh that sounds like a possessed horse) than a girlie girl, so three-time “DWTS” champ Derek (who’s looking to collect as many Mirrorball trophies as he has chest hairs: four) had his work cut out for him, despite that ballroom-ready body. Their cha cha was set to Kelly Clarkson’s “Stronger,” but was a bit wobbly for my taste. Bruno told Maria to think more Sofia Vergara and “open up the sex spot.” Len thought she coped very well, but wanted a “little meaner hip.” Carrie Ann said it was a “strong, solid cha cha.” Total: 21.

I know we’re only one week in, but if there was a category for most enthusiastic cheerleader, all my votes would go to Sherri Shepherd. The actress, comedian and “View” co-host is just so excited to be there. And so excited to be with her partner, Valentin Chmerkovskiy. “He brings the heat, he brings the passion and he takes his shirt off!” she exclaimed. Val seems up to the challenge of harnessing such a vibrant force, allaying all that restless energy by allowing her to cop a feel of his rock-hard butt cheeks (“God is real!”). And she seemed to be having a blast out there during her fox trot. Sherri’s amazingly light on her feet for someone who looks so, erm, top heavy. Short of birthing her son, this is the hardest thing Sherri’s done in her life! Len called it “fun, fun, fun -- what you brought is the joy of dancing in this ballroom.” Carrie Ann loved watching the transitions from “sassy into ballroom elegance.” Bruno “could do with a bit of Sherri every day of the week.” She is a delight. Total: 21.

Oooh, here’s a potential Cinderella story: Donald Draper Driver. This guy took 13 seasons with the Green Bay Packers to make it to the Super Bowl; will he be able to catch the Mirrorball at the end of Season 14? First of all, the professional football player’s a fan of the show. Been watching since Evander Holyfield made a go of it way back when the Mirrorball was in diapers in Season 1! Loved how he knew exactly who his partner, Peta Murgatroyd, was, even though she’s not one of the veteran pros. Never mind those knobby-kneed chicken legs; this guy’s got enough oomph and energy and verve and rabid fanboy passion to make it far. His cha cha was all energy and fun and swagger, if a bit unbridled. Peta brought it with hairography ablaze. Donald totally gets a gold medal for his shirt and his desire. “You are nothing but charisma and charm … you kicked that cha cha’s booty!” exclaimed Carrie Ann. Len liked Donald’s “flair,” but said he “got overexcited a couple times” and lost time. Bruno said he “got the impact,” but his overexcitement was akin to a “rooster chasing a hen.” “The attitude is right, but you have to refine it.” With all that praise, you’d think the scores would be higher than the 21 Donald and Peta received. Certainly the audience thought so.

Singer Gavin DeGraw sits confidently behind the keys of a piano, but when he gets out from behind the ivories, he feels a bit shy. So the singer’s employed the all-knowing ballroom gurus, and defending champ Karina Smirnoff in particular, to get himself comfortable with strutting his moves. And his resulting fox trot was sweet, if a bit rigid, suffering from a malady where he “stiffen[s] up at the wrong places.” Len thought the heaps of rigor mortis took away from the musicality. Carrie Ann thought the musical interpretation was just right, “there’s a tenderness to your dancing that’s very easy to watch.” She just thought he hyperextended his arms. Karina just wants him to be comfortable, so she arranged him to be in the middle of a pretty sandwich. Now, when will he be comfortable enough to part with his hat? Total: 20.

Half-pint is here! After two ex-husbands, a broken back and four sons, Melissa Gilbert, a.k.a. Laura Ingalls from “Little House on the Prairie,” has turned in her pig-tails and prairie dress for high heels, and straight into the strict, yet capable arms of Maksim Chmerkovskiy. And while Maks is still his curmudgeonly blowhard self, Melissa seems like she can handle it, even though she does say things like: “There’s no cha cha on the prairie, dude!” Maks and Melissa (M+M) went out guns a’ blazing on their first outing, a cha cha set to Ashford and Simpson’s “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” with an outfit that looked straight out of the brothels of "Deadwood." “There’s no calico or gingham here” in the ballroom world. Oh, if Pa could see her now! The judges all acknowledged that this was a seriously complicated routine. If only they had scored them higher! Len asked for more hip action and arm shaving, though some of the lines were great in the “ambitious” routine. Bruno affirmed Melissa’s ability to “grind it” and called it a “very inspiring first performance.” Carrie Ann saw “great potential” in a “very difficult routine” in which she “never missed a step.” She just wished Melissa would relax and let it go. So why such low scores? Could there be some Nellie Olesons on the judging panel? Total: 20.

Martina Navratilova is operating without a net, and is completely out of her comfort zone. The tennis champ and all-around powerhouse hasn’t worn a dress in 20 years, for Mirrorball’s sake! “I’m just not that feminine,” she says, matter-of-factly. Perhaps not, but underneath that tough exterior, however, lays a more gentle and sensitive side that’s quite appealing. Major props to Tony Dovolani for being the self-proclaimed gentleman that he is and approaching Martina with the right amount of encouragement and understanding to coax that out of the tennis champ -- as well as a respectable fox trot. “You were so elegant and so refined out there,” Carrie Ann said earnestly. “It’s so beautiful to see this transformation.” Len said it was “close, but it wasn’t quite there,” and advised that she’s “got to go for it more.” Bruno, however, thought she “never looked better.” Total 20.

What did you think, ballroom fans? Were you as excited by this season’s bumper ballroom crop as I was? Who are your early favorites?

-- Allyssa Lee

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Photos: (top) Sherri Shepherd and Val Chmerkovskiy. Credit: Adam Taylor / ABC

(bottom) Katherine Jenkins and Mark Ballas. Credit: Adam Taylor / ABC

 
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