First of all, big kudos to the Dancing With the Stars producers for showcasing the hardworking professional dancers up front with a fairly lengthy group routine replete with solos by the show's most celebrated dancers, Louis Van Amstel and Karina Smirnoff, husband and wife team Anna Trebunskaya and Jonathan Roberts, and a cute side-by-side duet with two of the young guys Mark Ballas and Derek Hough. The professional dancers really make the show, responsible as they are for teaching their non-professional partners how to dance, and choreographing a unique, entertaining routine that will showcase that contestant's strengths and downplay his or her weaknesses. So that recognition is well-deserved.
Overall, regarding the men, who danced Monday night, I have one word: turnout! The female pro dancers must teach their male students the concept of turnout. There is nothing uglier than a pigeon-toed foot -- particularly in the three-quarters of an inch Cuban heels used in Latin dance (think of a woman walking down the street in sexy high- heeled shoes, pigeon-toed), and particularly when the leg is extended out and back, as in a lunge, when the awkwardly turned-in foot is all too obvious. The foot is the last thing you see on the leg and it completely ruins the line. It doesn't need to be 180 degree ballet turnout; just slight and stemming from the ankle. It's a common mistake among male beginners, and one that's easily cured. And it makes all the difference aesthetically.
On to the dancing.
First competitor was magician Penn Jillette -- make that very large magician Penn Jillette, dancing a Cha Cha with the much smaller pro Kym Johnson. He did pretty well for such a big-boned, large-footed man. The larger you are, of course, the harder it is to get around the floor with smoothness, ease and grace. But Johnson's cute choreography helped with their height differences. Her opening standing splits, where she stood on one leg and he lifted the other to his chin, momentarily elongated her body and deemphasized his size. And his dive between her legs was perfectly done, and happily unexpected; with his size he looked like a whale. The routine had a sweet and fitting end when he magically pulled a bouquet of flowers from his sleeve and presented it to her. His biggest problem is that he jumps too much.
Hopping around to make up for lack of rhythm and speed are common among beginning Latin dancers. Johnson just needs to teach him that hips connected to back muscles and legs produce the rhythm, not bopping up and down. Judge Bruno Tonioli's comments sometimes are so outlandish. I think he must plan them before the actual show: "It was like Shrek does Cha Cha Cha," he yelled, arms gesticulating wildly. "The hip action was more like hip replacement action," he said, after a beat.
Next was Miami Dolphins defensive end Jason Taylor, dancing a lovely foxtrot with Edyta Sliwinska. He said he decided to do the show to challenge himself, to challenge his "manliness," to take himself out of his comfort zone. Making fun of himself during practice, he wore a ballet tutu football friends had jokingly given him. It's a pet peeve of mine when a man complains that dancing is "girly"; it's especially curious when American men complain that Latin, with its hip action, is feminine. Latin men take pride in their culture-based "machismo" and dance is a huge part of that culture. Well, however uncomfortable Taylor might be with Latin next week, Taylor's foxtrot was simply breathtaking. He was the consummate sleek, dapper, gentlemanly ballroom man - so smooth, so graceful, and such nice upper body lines. And what gorgeous posture -- dancing with a water bottle atop his head during practice helped. My only real problem with him is his feet -- he had the aforementioned pigeon toes a couple of times, particularly on a stretch where his back foot extended out, all five toes touching the floor, heel awkwardly in the air.
Next was Chilean actor Cristian de la Fuente, a mainstay of telenovellas who also has a running gig on popular TV show Ugly Betty. His said his reason for being on Dancing With the Stars was that he never learned to dance, a huge embarrassment to him as a Latin man. He also said, stealing ladies' hearts, that he wished to bring romance back to dance. With endearing drollness, he was hilarious during practice sessions when he told teacher Cheryl Burke how great he was doing. His Cha Cha was a lot of fun. He had a natural sense of rhythm and though his movement ability hasn't been cultivated, he can improve easily, and end up doing well here. And he was very romantic, the way he never took his eyes off Burke. Burke in turn really trusted him, the way she threw herself into his arms with abandon, knowing he wouldn't let her fall. He wasn't grounded enough though; he was a bit too bouncy, like Jillette. And, again, it was his feet that bothered me most. He wasn't as pigeon-toed as Taylor, but on those New Yorkers (cross over steps where both dancers end up facing the same direction) the back foot was very awkwardly turned in; it almost looked like he may twist an ankle.
Radio show host Adam Carolla was the opposite personality-wise of de la Fuente, Carolla being endearingly self-effacing as he moaned about partner Julianne Hough, who, with her celebrity students, has won the past two seasons. "I felt so horrible for the kid, ruining her perfect record," he said. Hough cooked up a dashing foxtrot for Carolla. His footwork was near flawless and speed-wise he kept up quite well, not missing a step. And he had a battement kick that was technically wrong since it was bent-kneed, but probably unnoticeable given the surprising height he achieved with it. But Carolla had the same aesthetic problem as the others with unattractive turned-in feet. Also, at one point his rear end was sticking out too far, his pelvis breaking connection with Julianne's, thus losing that beautiful martini glass shape so important in Standard ballroom. Bruno said it was like watching "Will Ferrell with a bit of John Cleese thrown in." I didn't see any Ferrell in this routine and I thought the judges were pretty harsh; they gave him overall the lowest score. This was a pretty good first try for someone who's never danced before. Sure he looked a bit stiff, but have the judges heard of opening-night nerves?
Next on was R&B musician, Mario, dancing with Karina Smirnoff. Watching him makes clear he does have some dance background. He insisted he knows only hip hop and R&B, which are different than ballroom, but dance is dance. Being comfortable with movement means you can dance any style better than a pure beginner. Not that it matters: I think the show needs some people with dance background. If all contestants are equally unskilled audiences would get bored. But it is annoying that the judges refuse to recognize the advantage dance background gives you. With the exception of Len, who pointed out some wrong heel leads, the judges had only praise for Mario, and he received the highest score. Youth -- he's 21, the youngest ever on the show -- is also a big factor in learning to dance well fast. Mario, a true talent though he was (for the first time ever while she was on the floor, my eye was drawn to someone other than Karina), was not immune from the ubiquitous pigeon toe problems. But with his natural groove, and fluid hip action, it was almost non-noticeable.
Kudos to pro dancer Anna Trebunskaya for taking her student celebrity, actor Steve Guttenberg (along with the viewing public) to a real ballroom dance competition. Like Carolla, Guttenberg has an endearingly self-deprecating personality. When Trebunskaya told him she was a fan of his, he responded, "Oh, you're the one. I knew there was one." Their foxtrot was sweet, but I felt like there was a story there that didn't quite pan out. I could see that he and Trebunskaya were play-fighting, then making up and even flirting with the judges, but I felt like there was a larger narrative I missed. A jump with sailor kick that he performed early on was excellently rendered, very polished, and such a surprise. Guttenberg is a great showman, a great actor, and has loads of charm. He'll be the Marie Osmond of this season. Even if his technique is lacking, his performance abilities are going to carry him through.
On to the women, who danced Tuesday night. First on was actress Shannon Elizabeth, an admitted tomboy who, in getting used to dancing in heels, wore the Latin shoes 24/7 for a few weeks. Cute story, and something I personally have done as well. But she was way too manly on the floor; she stomped straight through that Cha Cha. All the judges were completely right about her legs: she needs to straighten those knees, point those toes. I say she's a definite candidate for the ballet lessons Marie Osmond took last season.
It was cute how they introduced tennis champ Monica Seles: on a tennis court swinging that racket but in ballroom attire. I hate to say it, but that's kind of how her foxtrot looked, too. I did appreciate the routine Jonathan Roberts' created for her. It had a sweet story: boy trying to win girl over, girl a bit sad, boy presents her with a flower, girl brightens a bit. Seles did a sweet acting job. But she definitely needs to get that sweeping ballroom action down. She was jumping a bit to compensate, and that doesn't work; it needs to be a fluid, feathery sweep. And her pelvis lost contact with Jonathan's at noticeable points, losing the quintessential ballroom martini-glass shape. But I think she can learn, and I agree with judge Carrie Ann who said that moving across the tennis court is not all that different than moving across the ballroom floor. Movement is movement, and she needs to not stress out so much over being a sports girl trying to ballroom dance.
Broadway actress Marissa Jaret Winokur was great fun. Tony Dovolani's confident, hip hop-esque, 'look at me, I rock even if I don't have the perfect body,' was perfect for her. What was less than perfect though is that Dovolani appears to be nearly a foot taller than she. Couldn't they have found someone a bit more matched height-wise? I do think Tony's going to have fun with her though. Perhaps they were paired because their personalities meshed. Still, ballroom can be hard if your bodies don't match well. She also performs a little too Broadway: projecting out, to the whole audience, rather than concentrating on connecting with her partner. Part of the charm of ballroom is its toned-down subtlety.
Louis Van Amstel is such a fantastic dancer; it's good to have him back on the show, especially now that he learned his lesson about being arrogant about his accomplishments. Priscilla Presley did wonderfully. He designed a classic, classy Foxtrot for her. She really "acted" the dance well. And her death spiral was perfectly rendered. She has a really sweet, likable, even strangely relatable personality. She came across as sincere in saying the show is a real challenge, unlike others she's faced in her life.
But Olympic gold medalist Kristi Yamaguchi was the show-stealer. Hands down, no competition; she is simply the best of the men and women. I think perhaps she's the best non-professional dancer ever on this show. Of course this week was her foxtrot; next will be Latin. Often, people who excel in one do poorly in another, but we shall see. Something tells me she's going to nail it as well. She just knows movement. I think she will be this season's Stacy Keibler.
And finally, Marlee Matlin simply shone. I don't wish to focus on one's "disability," but it is near impossible to dance a rhythmic dance -- like Cha Cha -- without music. Imagine dancing in silence, no beat. And there was almost nothing wrong with her routine. She missed not a single beat. She was a bit pigeon-toed in cross-overs, like the men, but other than that, she was perfect. Calling herself "profoundly deaf," she said she must rely entirely on Fabian Sanchez, her professional partner, following him completely... which actually is what the "follower" of the couple should do anyway. Sanchez, goofy as he seemed during practice, must be an excellent lead. It's a good show so far. There's a good range of talent, body type, personality type, and age, and no one is unlikable. And with nearly all of them lacking somewhat in technique, there's lots of room for improvement, especially, for the men, on that turnout!