'Dancing With the Stars' recap: It's the Finals Countdown

“This is the spray tan traffic zone, right here.” — host Tom Bergeron

We’ve reached the “Dancing With the Stars” Season 16 finals, ballroom fans! And this two-hour, heavily padded first-night showcase had each of the remaining four couples dancing three dances. The first was the judges’ choice, in which Len Goodman, Bruno Tonioli and Carrie Ann Inaba selected a dance style that would best suit the finalists’ capabilities. The second was a cha-cha relay, where the couples had to dance the same dance style one after the other. And then there was the “DWTS” favorite, the freestyle. Only it was super-sized this time around. There were props. Poles. People got pummeled. And a lot more perfect 30 scores were bandied about.

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Zendaya and Valentin Chmerkovskiy came out of the first night of the finals as the couple to beat. And sure, Zendaya’s always shown great dancing chops, but they did suffer some blows: Last week’s misguided quickstep earned them some of their lowest scores and put them in jeopardy. And then Val was literally knocked down by his one-named wunderkind’s elbow earlier in the day during rehearsals, which turned his face into a bloody Quentin Tarantino movie. Val’s brow still had a Rocky-like cauliflower look going into the judges’ pick samba. Carrie Ann visited the duo during rehearsals to remind Zendaya not to be so loosey goosey in her core and to have a “perfect balance of technique, content and doing Zendaya’s thing.” And all that came to the forefront in their first dance, which felt very grounded and real despite Zendaya’s fringe and sparkly pink leggings. “That’s what I’m talking about,” praised Carrie Ann. “You lost nothing in that.” Len called the dance “eye-popping, show-stopping, jaw-dropping. That’s the samba!” “You’re just incredibly fierce, child,” Bruno said admiringly. “You have a natural flamboyance that’s so easy … and incredible technique.” Score: 30. And Zendaya also had the uncanny ability to turn into a cha cha, which helped her and Val win the cha-cha relay and gain another full five points.

Zendaya and Val achieved the perfection hat trick with their super-size freestyle routine. Everyone (myself included) figured the last dance would be purely hip-hop, but Zendaya and Val gussied up their routine with some cha-cha and contemporary to make it more of a ballroom dancing event. And they added kids! Loved seeing Zendaya interact with the lil’ ones and give them hugs after the performance. And what the super-size freestyle lacked in emotional depth it made up in technique and fun. Plus, I always get a kick out of seeing Val get down with hip-hop. “There were so many parts to that number but it all came together,” Len said. “Kids in America rejoice: Zendaya the teen idol is here,” Bruno proclaimed. “So unique and always you … simply irresistible.” “Way to take us home,” Carrie Ann commended. “You showcase why you’re an incredible role model.” Total: 65 out of 65.

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Nipping right at their heels were Kellie Pickler and Derek Hough. The judges chose the quickstep for the country singer and her similarly coiffed pro partner. The last time they danced this dance, Carrie Ann pointed out the space in the hold, and she who jars the pickles was determined to stick close to Derek. “We’re gonna duct tape ourselves if I have to,” she said. But when Len came to help out during rehearsals, he painted a more vivid picture. “Your nobbily bits should be just on this side of his nobbily bits,” the head judge said. And their quickstep was great from start to finish, beginning in black and white and with a volley of dialogue and a split leap, and ending in vibrant Technicolor with a crazy twist between the legs. “I was palpitated, perspirated, I was so excited I nearly flatuated,” Len rhymed. Bruno called Kellie “the Southern Belle of the ball.… Technically it was really a tour de force.” “The one thing I was looking for was an improvement in your body contact,” Carrie Ann said. “And I saw it!” Score: 30. Kellie and Derek got second place and four extra points for their cha-cha relay.

Some people chose to fill their freestyles up with people and props. After toying with the idea of hammocks and silks, Kellie and Derek decided to pare down their super-size freestyle routine, stripping down the production element but making the dance more difficult. And the risk paid off: This contemporary routine, set to the lovely “Beneath Your Beautiful” by Labrinth featuring “DWTS” performer Emeli Sandé, had so much more of a lasting impact than some of the other big-budget numbers. Her light leaps were anchored with an emotional weight, and that pose where she leaned forward at a 30-degree angle to the floor was achingly beautiful. “It’s about trust and letting those walls down,” Kellie explained. And you could tell both Kellie and Derek poured both their hearts into it, with Derek wiping away tears in the end. Carrie Ann was awash with emotion. “Kellie, you just bared your soul on the dance floor and it was one of the most beautiful things,” she said. Len stood up and applauded. “You did a dance of spellbinding beauty,” Bruno commended. “That really was a contemporary work of art. It sticks to you. It touches everybody.” Of course, they were awarded another perfect 30, though Len and Bruno both agreed they would give it 11s if they could. Total: 64.

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Alexandra Raisman has come a long way. Under the tutelage of Mark Ballas, the stoic gymnast has really blossomed into a hip-thrusting, chest shimmying young woman during her “DWTS” stint, even coming up with a dance move (where she makes suggestive circles around her bathing suit area with her hands) in the process. Aly was really trying to ride her upward momentum going into these finals, and she delivered in the judges’ pick samba. Bruno came to rehearsals (which took place in the shadow of the Mirrorball trophy) and ordered up a samba roll, encouraging Aly to “go round and shoosh it!” And shoosh she did, to Shakira’s “Hips Don’t Lie.” Mark showed equality in costumes by sporting his own fringe and a tail, and they both shook what their mamas gave them to dazzling effect. Bruno said the routine was “cleaner and slicker than ever.… You’ve done everything I’ve asked you for … you got the shoosh. First-class ticket to Brazil!” Carrie Ann said Aly has “become a combination of everyone else in the final,” with Jacoby’s swagger, Kellie’s beautiful lines, and Zendaya’s sensuality. Len said Aly was “on the way up.” Score: 28. And they got 3 extra points for their 3rd place finish in the cha cha relay.

For their freestyle, Mark said he wanted to use everything Aly’s learned over the season. So he made sure they got their faces painted and had Aly working an elevated stripper pole, which served to “highlight Aly’s strengths” and is “typically something you see just professionals doing.” Can’t imagine what Aly’s dad in the audience thought of the splits-heavy performance, but it soon became clear that the pole work was kept to just a compartmentalized part of this Afro jazzical contempo freestyle routine. The judges, however, really liked the originality. Bruno called it “futuristic with a touch of exotic.” Carrie Ann revealed she also “worked a pole” during a Madonna tour. Len dubbed Aly “Alexandra the Great.” Score: 30. Total: 61. 

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What’s it going to take for the last man standing to beat these leading ladies? Said Jacoby Jones himself: “The grace of God.” Love this NFL player and how he brings out the goofy, fun-loving side of this goofy, fun-loving reality show — and his partner, Karina Smirnoff (case in point: Jacoby putting lipstick on Karina right before commercial break and Karina smiling innocently at the camera with full-on clown mouth). Len wanted to teach Jacoby to sharpen his kicks and flicks for the judges’ pick jive. He likened it to “kicking a peanut”. Ping ping ping ping! (Quipped Tom, “Ingo’s son’s sitting there, saying ‘What did I do?’”) Jacoby in turn showed his “light-skinned grandfather” a bit of swagger. And while there was a little more finesse in his jive, the residual flat-footedness still left some things to be desired. “The footwork was a bit better,” said Len, but “you got excited on occasion and you lost it.” Bruno gave props to “Gandalf the Grey” Len for working his magic (to which Len shot back, “thank you, Frodo,” without missing a beat), but agreed, “You actually missed the beat quite a few times.” Carrie Ann admired the swagger, but “the kicking the peanuts, I don’t know,” she said. “I think the peanuts won.” Score: 27. And two extra points for getting fourth place (despite a huge leap over and slide under his competitors) for the cha-cha relay.

For their freestyle, Jacoby and Karina opted for a blend of New Orleans steppers and a second line with some Baltimore flavor, because the Big Easy likes to have fun and dance, and Baltimore wins trophies. “Like a big ol’party on the dance floor,” Jacoby described. And I loved the steppers (particularly seeing that Tony Dovolani joined the party) at the beginning and the mini Jacoby and mini Karina tap dancers at the end. “You got the freestyle party started,” declared Len. “Like a 180-yard touchdown.” Bruno said he “loved the sense of celebration” and said it was “like watching a Mardi Gras parade down Bourbon Street,” though pointed out Jacoby lost timing. Carrie Ann thought the New Orleans party strategy was apt, but that all the steppers and tappers “outshined you,” she said. “I want you to be the star, and I think you got lost in the shuffle.” Score: 27. Total: 56. 

Which sounds about right going into Tuesday night’s ultimate results show. I’d say Kellie and Zendaya are neck and neck to win the coveted Mirrorball trophy, and Aly and Jacoby are in a run-off for third place. Of course, all that could go away after the Insta-Dance.

What do you think, ballroom fans? Who do you think will walk away with the ultimate “DWTS” prize? 


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