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'Dancing With the Stars': The West Coast swing, the hustle, the salsa and the jitterbug

October 21, 2008 | 10:40 am

Cody When you have a show that attracts 20 million or more viewers, like “Dancing With the Stars” does, you’re probably presented with a conundrum: How do you keep the show fresh (so that the 20 million viewers won’t get bored) while not messing with whatever it is that makes all those people watch so devotedly in the first place? I suppose adding Cloris Leachman to the cast is one tactic. Another is tinkering with the dancing, which is what we saw Monday night, when each couple was assigned one of four completely new dance styles: the West Coast swing, the hustle, the salsa or the jitterbug. Because eight couples remained in contention, this meant that each dance was performed by two couples, back to back for ease of comparison.

This proved to be a tall order for the pros –- many of whom had never taught and had seldom even done the dances they were assigned. It also proved to be a tall order for me as a viewer, since it was hard to know exactly what to look for. But I did like having four new dances and some crazy costumes to observe. Also, Cloris said “skanky ho” repeatedly, with co-host Samantha Harris’ approval. And Misty May-Treanor was in the audience, wistfully pondering what might have been.

Let’s just go in order, shall we?

First up was the West Coast swing, and the first contenders were last week’s darlings, Lance Bass and LaceySchwimmer. It turns out that Lacey is a former West Coast swing champion, descended from a king of swing, Buddy Schwimmer. In his heyday, Buddy looked the part; now he looks like someone who could have had a small role on “The Sopranos” — a big guy with rings on all the wrong fingers. Anyway, you’d think Lacey’s being a ringer on this dance would be an advantage, right? Wrong. The judges didn’t like their dance because it was too much Lacey and not enough Lance — it’s Lacey’s job, the judges admonished her, to make Lance look good. In the post-dance interview with Samantha, they tried to brush off the criticism but looked shocked throughout. Score: a rather paltry 21 out of 30.

The next West Coast swingers were Toni Braxton and Alec, who started the season strong but who haven’t really lived up to their potential. In rehearsal, Toni acknowledged this, and she worked very hard on keeping her shoulders up, which was something judge Carrie Ann mentioned last week. In the performance, Toni wore a short wig and what seemed to be a sequined aerobics outfit complete with leg warmers. Not really knowing what to look for, I found that the only observation I could make was that Toni was perhaps focusing so much on her shoulders that the dance never really opened up. Carrie Ann described it thusly: “I thought you were overdancing” and that the West Coast swing, while difficult, should look easy. Len said they could be fantastic, but they need to regroup and pull all of the pieces together for the next time. Score: 22/30.

Susan Lucci probably won the costume battle for the night — she looked great in a gold disco/flapper/go-go boots ensemble, her hair feathered and highlighted. And she brought with her the advantage of having been to Studio 54, which she described as “magical.” Her earnest voice made it sound like the Ice Capades. In rehearsals, Susan continued to have problems with the ankle injury she experienced a couple of weeks ago, and after getting an MRI, she learned that she actually had a fracture in her foot. The question, the doctor told her, was could she dance through the pain? The short answer to that was yes — Susan and Tony’s hustle betrayed nothing about the injury. But as with Susan’s past dances, you could just see the concentration on her face, and, as Len put it, Tony treated her “like a China doll,” which means they never really broke out in the dance. Bruno said something about this being an Uptown Girl hustle but not a Times Square hustle, the implication being that you want the latter. Score: 22/30.

Warren and Kym were a close second in the costume battle, wearing full disco attire for their hustle. They were bummed by their slip in the rankings last week, and Warren asked Kym to push him hard despite the fact that he was starting to drag. The choreography Kym came up with was very fun — I think every single classic disco move was in this dance, from the pointing fingers to the rolling hands. It felt like a montage of the best moments of “Saturday Night Fever.” Carrie Ann complimented them for tapping into the “nostalgia of disco.” Score: 25/30.

Cloris and Corky were assigned the salsa, which, Corky said, required the same sort of intense character acting as the tango. As another component of their preparation, they very savvily went out to the Farmers Market in Los Angeles to thank her fans. Cloris has toned down her act a bit, and I think it’s smart — she said that dancing has given her a new lease on life, and she wants to stay in another week. The faster dances, though, are just harder for her. In their performance, the parts in which Cloris was dancing alone looked better than those with Corky, I thought, since Corky is just so much more spry than Cloris. Since, you know, he’s like 50 and she’s 82. But it was a solid dance. Bruno said with approval that it was “actually a salsa,” albeit one that looked as if Cloris had “downed a pitcher of margaritas” right before doing it. Carrie Ann professed her love for Cloris and said that “you make us forget that this is a dance competition.” So true. In the post-dance interview, Samantha asked Cloris what character Corky instructed her to have in mind for the salsa while rehearsing — Cloris replied that it was “a ‘something’ ho,” then remembered that the word she wanted was “skanky.” Score: 21/30.

Maurice Greene and Cheryl seem to me to be an emotionally fragile pair. After last week’s poor scores, their rehearsals this week seemed alternately somber and tense. This season, Cheryl herself seems somewhat somber to me. The salsa was new to her, and she felt that Maurice wasn’t really trying. This led to a few confrontations between them, and I think that this tension was so fresh in my mind when I saw the performance that I didn’t really see what the judges saw. Also, of course, I don’t really know what to look for in the salsa. The judges thought the dance was great, and they enthusiastically — perhaps overenthusiastically — gave them three nines, for a total of 27 out of 30.

The last dance was the jitterbug, which was the easiest to compare to the usual dances for me. Brooke Burke and Derek Hough went first, and Derek was forced to use information from the Internet to figure out how to do the jitterbug. He seemed to be using printouts of just words, not diagrams, which I found impressive. His and Brooke’s outfits appeared to be out of an adult movie with a 1950s setting — Brooke styled like a naughty cheerleader, Derek styled with an exaggerated greaser look. Their jitterbug was extremely high-energy and fun, and it involved, by my count, three flips (two back, one forward). The judges had kind of scored themselves into a corner by giving Maurice three nines, so I knew some 10s were coming for this one. Sure enough, Brooke and Derek got a 29/30, the highest score of the season so far.

The other Hough sibling, Julianne, and her partner, Cody Linley, were the other jitterbuggers. The dance was also new to Julianne, so she and Cody spied on Derek and Brooke and realized that they needed to add some flashy moves to their own choreography. Their dance was performed in tamer 1950s outfits — Julianne as an aproned housewife, Cody as a dorky engineer (or similar) husband. Their dance was also very high-energy and filled with flips, jumps, lifts, and other bells and whistles. Moreover, as Bruno pointed out, it had a nice slapstick element to it. Cody and Julianne got their first 10 of the season, for a total of 28/30 and second place this week.

That means that Lance and Lacey and Cloris and Corky are tied for last place. Whose fans will come through? And should Susan/Tony or Toni/Alec be worried too? I don’t have a good read on their fan followings. If I had to guess now, I would say the finalists this season will be Brooke, Cody and Warren. What do you think?

In tonight’s filler, we’ll see the Brian Setzer Orchestra and, if the promos are to be believed, some insanely elaborate dance number. Next week, co-host Tom Bergeron told us, we’ll see all of the stars perform a group hip-hop routine (that alone may be reason to keep Cloris around), and there will be a “famous guest judge” on the panel to give Len a break.

-- Sarah Rogers

(Photo courtesy ABC)

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