It's not surprising that the first two to go in this premiere week were comedian Jeffrey Ross and actor Ted McGinley, though it's somewhat unfortunate. This show is much more of a popularity contest than the other dance programs, I think, because there's really very little basis on which to judge the contestants other than how familiar they are to you, how much you can relate to them, how much their personalities appeal to you. None are professional or up and coming dancers, most have little to no dance training, and they vary widely in age, natural rhythmic and musical ability, and level of comfort with movement. So what are you left with? I try to judge based on how hard the contestant seems to be trying, how serious they are, and how much they actually improve throughout the course of the show. But you can't really assess those things on the first go. Ross reminded me of Tucker Carslon. He looked like he was going to have a very difficult time improving. Of course it's horrid to have to dance with a painful and non-working eye - ruins depth perception critical to spacial orientation for one - but it still seemed like it was going to be an uphill battle for him. I didn't think the same of McGinley though. I thought he was doing rather well - he threw himself out of line a few times and he was obviously nervous, but his footwork was clean and overall he was pretty smooth. I love how he called himself everyman and dedicated his Foxtrot to the average guy, sitting on the couch, watching the tube, beer in hand. He was the average guy too, and did pretty well; he could've shown the average guy could do it too. I think he was voted off mainly because he was the least familiar to the public.
So, the rest:
Lance Bass and Lacey Schwimmer: Lance's strong point is that he's an entertainer; he knows how to create character in his dancing. And he has great energy, rhythm, and a charmingly self-deprecating sense of humor ("I was the worst dancer in 'NSync, was faking it the whole time" etc.). He had great hip action in his Cha Cha, good speed. I love how they both crashed to the ground in exhaustion at the end. Cutely choreographed on Lacey's part. He's definitely a Latin guy though; I was less impressed with his Quickstep. He had good, necessary energy in his quick, hoppy movements, but there wasn't enough form and control in his body. I think it was partly Lacey's teaching. When she called the back leg lift in attitude (with knee bent), a "pee like a dog" move - that's funny and all, but you put that image in a non-dance-trained competitor's head and that's kind of what it's going to look like. There needed to be more shaping in that leg, like hers, back arched, head slightly to the side, more rounding in the body, toe a bit pointed for form. One final thing regarding these two: people are a bit weird about the gay thing. I found it kind of funny when Lacey remarked how much she wanted to marry him as a girl, but that that's not going to happen now. And the audience kind of gasped; Hostess Samantha didn't know what to say. As if Lacey shouldn't have alluded to it. What's the big deal?
Misty May-Treanor and Maks Chmerkovskiy. Her strong point is that as an athlete she's comfortable with movement. And she has Maks, who has probably the biggest personality on the show, for a partner. And she can keep up with him. Her Foxtrot looked a bit stiff and rigid at first - likely nerves -- but after a series of turns in which she kept her balance very well, she kind of let loose, went toward him shimmying her shoulders and really having fun with it, nerves were all gone. She also had very graceful arms, perhaps surprising for a volleyball star, perhaps not. On the second night, their practice session tapes showed him leading her in a forward Rhumba walk (basis of all Latin movement, so is the first thing the pro teaches), and she looked absolutely gorgeous. Ditto for some practice cucharachas (side-to-side hip sways, feet remaining stationary). Their Mambo was cute - the opening skips were a lot of fun, very her. The hip movement in her basic steps wasn't quite there, was a bit too shallow, as if she was forcing their movement rather than making them shift as she pressed down from her shoulders and lats (back muscles). But that lack of connection between lower and upper body is completely normal for a beginner. She'll get it soon. And, really, if someone moves their hips perfectly organically, perfectly correctly on the first go, it's a sign of prior dance training. For an illustration of ideal hip action, see this.
Maurice Greene and Cheryl Burke: Maurice's strengths are humor, personality, extreme ease with movement, and natural sense of rhythm, as Cheryl noticed, probably stemming from club dancing. But his Foxtrot kind of exhibited the problems a lot of club dancers have with ballroom. He's a natural mover, and I love how she let him move on his own with those little fun, jazzy side-by-side sweeps at the top of the dance, but once he connected with her, got into Standard position, he looked very stiff and strained, looked like he was trying very hard to be restrained and upright, and he lost the rise and fall, the natural rhythm of that dance. Just because it's a lot of walking in close connection to a partner doesn't mean there's no styling in those walks! So, something for him to work on: dancing with a partner in a close handhold. I thought his Mambo would be much better, but I felt the same about it. Cheryl let him have a lot of solos, where he could do his own groove, which he does very well, and his worm / "free Willy" was hilarious - but the dance was short on basic Mambo steps, and on basic partnering.
Brooke Burke and Derek Hough. Brooke is very good; one of the best up front, I think. Unlike many models, she has a strong center, necessary for balance and coordination, and control. She had great body rolls and twisting action in the Cha Cha -- she's very loose in the torso and can move fluidly both from side to side and front to back. And good flexibility with that lovely leg lift. I thought their practice tapes of the Quickstep were kind of corny and unbelievable. It IS hard to hold your frame properly; leaning back to form the "martini-glass" frame can give you a real backache if you're not used to it. But the "get your boobs off of me" jokes went a bit too far, and I can't imagine dancing in that position with your baby attached to your front side is going to enable you to connect properly at the pelvis either. So a bit gimmicky. But her Quickstep turned out to be pretty good as well. She's very light on her feet, and the whole thing had a classy, elegant feel. Bruno rightly (for once) called it "pure Hollywood."
Cloris Leachman and Corky Ballas: Geez, judging by all the blogs, Cloris is probably the most controversial person ever to be on the show. I hardly got any sleep last night because my cell phone kept buzzing with messages from angry West Coast Twitter-ers complaining that McGinley was eliminated over her. I agree that her first-night post-dance antics - the leg on the table, etc. - might have been a bit corny, but I can't help but love her anyway. I love how she made fun of all her physical ailments to Corky up front. And I have to say dance-wise, she is the queen of chaîne turns, as Carrie Ann noticed. Continuous forward turns are hard for anyone, let alone someone who's a bit older, likely with some inner-ear cartilage wear and tear, and the resultant difficulty maintaining balance when whizzing around like a Whirling Dervish. Her Foxtrot was sweet. Nice and slow, and lovely. Pivot turns (turning with the man) were amazing as well. Very sweet choreography, sweet ending, with the two in a little hug. Her Mambo wasn't so hot, expectedly. It's very hard to get that rhythm in your body, learn to twist and grind and shimmy and roll when you're coming to dance at an older age. Standard is much easier, with its straight posture. But I still hope she gives the Latin a good solid try.
Toni Braxton and Alec Mazo. Toni is another of the best starting out. And of course she's someone you want to root for with her heart ailment. Yet she doesn't need any "handicap" - to make you want to cheer her own. Both dances were very good. Her Cha Cha was nearly perfect. She was visibly nervous, and that affected the acting parts (ie: her fingering him toward her looked rather choreographed than natural) but she seems to have a rhythmic muscle memory that won't fail under pressure - a most envious thing to have! Cute twisting forward steps, and her "tricks" were excellent - her throwing her leg into a wrap around his body like it was nothing, his ease in turning her on the ball of her foot, the perfect form of the ending dip. The Quickstep was equally good. She had great speed and fluidity, elegant lines, and the death spiral was gorgeous.
Warren Sapp and Kym Johnson: Warren's another natural mover, comfortable in his big, cheerful body. And he's got character galore. Kym kind of looks like a doll in his arms, particularly when he pulled her under him, flipping her, in the Cha Cha. Very rhythmic, great forward lock steps, very fun shoulder-shaking. He's a real groover, and it's nice of Kym to, like Cheryl with Maurice, give him some solos so he can get down on his own, show what he's made of. But unlike Maurice, I thought he did well with the partnering too, in both dances. Cracked me up with his words on Quickstep: "That's so damn awkward. Who ever thought of that?!" My thoughts exactly when I first learned the dance, when I learned that people in England actually danced those steps not only in competition but socially. For fun. But then when Warren took to the floor, you'd never know he found anything awkward about it. Perfect runs, great jetes, wonderfully splashy Charleston-y kicks. Len's right about his technique not all being there, but it's so early, and he got all his steps down. And how much can you learn in a week? I have faith he'll get the technique. I'm a bit tired of footballers winning this thing, but he's an early favorite for the trophy.
Cody Linley and Julianne Hough: He's clearly very young and has the confidence of youth. Which is sweet. Cute how he couldn't focus on his own dancing during practice because he was so enraptured with her. We've all been there, regardless of age. He's pretty good. Latin hips need to be a little looser; he's too upright. There was a cute little slide Julianne snuck into the choreo; suited him well and went with the music. He was a little over-confident and energetic in parts though. He kind of threw himself out, and her with him, a little too far at times. His footwork was pretty good, but his feet got turned in at points, which is a no-no in Latin. His Quickstep was better. He was a little stiff at the beginning but he loosened up. Again, his youthful vigor and confidence got the best of him and he went a little too fast, and didn't have a lot of control. She looked a bit nervous in his arms at points, like he was dragging her around. But I have confidence he'll improve and mature as a dancer as the competition goes on.
Rocco DiSpirito and Karina Smirnoff: His big advantage - he has several including of course that he's a teddy bear-ish cutie with a sweet personality who can whip up a mean bucket of spaghetti scarpariello -- but his big dance advantage is that he's a great partner. He was really taking care of Karina out there, focusing more on her than himself, holding her right, making sure he was in place to catch her when she went flinging herself into that deep dip at the end of their Foxtrot. And he (very rightly!) noted that he has as his partner the best dancer on the show. Connection, respecting and working with your partner, are what ballroom dancing is about, more than anything else. He's clearly a bit out of his element, but he's obviously working hard. His footwork in both dances was good, and Karina even threw in some (harder) kicks in place of forward steps in the Mambo, which is always fun. I think he'll improve if the voting public gives him the chance. He could be the Cristian de la Fuente, the sleeper, of the season.
Kim Kardashian and Mark Ballas: Kim was much better than I was expecting, especially after she kept saying during practice that people expect her to be fluid in her hips, etc., but she's just not. She's understandably concerned about not living up to the public's expectations, but she's too much so. She had good footwork and moved well during both dances, but looked very nervous, throwing her lines off and preventing her from developing the character of the dance. Her knees were too bent in places during the Foxtrot and she just threw her arms out at points, not flowing through with extension, and lacking control. And Carrie Ann was right about her head and neck being too stiff. That dance was cutely choreographed though, and the Pink Panther music and pink costumes a lot of fun. As her nerves fade, she should improve. Cute Mambo choreography as well: I like how he started out shaking her hips for her. Mark needs to be careful about out-dancing his partners. We all know he's an excellent dancer, he has nothing to prove. When he outshines his partners it can make them look worse than if he'd toned himself down to their level.
Susan Lucci and Tony Dovolani: Susan's strengths are that she has poise and elegance, and a winning personality. She's just someone you want to root for, like Toni. Maybe it's just that I can personally relate to her, but when she said she was a perfectionist and actually began to cry, not to sound corny, but I nearly cried with her. I think everyone who begins dance as an adult and soon realizes how unbelievably, how unexpectedly hard it is, how you've done everything else in your life well and just can't understand why you can't seem to get this seemingly-simple footwork down, these blasted body rolls and shimmies to look right, who wants to just vomit watching on tape their flimsy limbs flail about after spending countless hours trying to look proper and be solid, has experienced that tear-inducing frustration. Her Cha Cha was cute - the sassy red dress was perfect for her -- but her Quickstep was far better. Standard is definitely going to be her thing. Her Cha Cha wasn't grounded enough, was too jumpy, a mistake many beginning Latin dancers make to accommodate for not having proper hip action. She really came alive with the little Charleston steps in the Quickstep. And cute ending with her sitting on his knee. I don't like Tony telling her to be a "diva" though. I know she's an actress but dancing is hard enough without being able to be yourself, whoever you are.
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