The glitter, the glitz and the all-important cheese factor were back in full force Monday, as “Dancing with the Stars” kicked off night one of a three-night premiere event. Tom “the host with the most” Bergeron was once again joined by his sidekick, Samantha “at least she tries” Harris, to welcome the biggest selection of ballroom wannabes the show has ever seen.
By the end of the evening, all 13 stars had strutted their stuff for the judges, and as always, the ballroom divide was evident from the get-go. But for once, the night wasn’t just about early finale favorites and dancing duds. Thanks to one veteran celebrity, entertainment value actually trumped all the fancy footwork.
Sure, she’s not going to bring home the mirror-ball bling, but with nine Emmys, a Golden Globe and an Oscar already under her belt, Cloris Leachman doesn’t even need it. The 82-year-old actress hit the floor with new pro Corky Ballas (dancer Mark’s dad), and proved sometimes even in a dance competition, moves are overrated.
After performing a good-for-an-octogenarian foxtrot, the sassy senior received a standing O from the audience, and that was before she showed the judges a little skin and forced the censors to bleep her reaction to the scores.
While Cloris is bound to falter when the more intense Latin numbers come around, she’s worth keeping around for laughs. Who else would be willing to pull the cue card to show the home audience that Samantha needs a cheat sheet to tell her six plus five plus five equals 16?
Dancers worth watching
As for actual ballroom prowess, the first soft shoe to show any potential was Toni Braxton. The built-in advantage that most singers bring to the show is the gift of rhythm, and she was no exception, as evidenced by her 22-point cha-cha-cha with season-one winner Alec Mazo.
Following in the footsteps of past competitors Drew Lachey and Joey Fatone, Lance Bass did his boy-bander roots proud. Joined by first-time pro Lacey Schwimmer, better known to some viewers as a past finalist from “So You Think You Can Dance,” Lance impressed the judges with his fast and free-style cha-cha.
Except for Len Goodman. “It was young and modern,” the head judge stated. “The trouble is, I’m old and traditional.” Still, 22 points put Lance in the top half of the pack, so Len wasn’t too grumpy.
One star who didn’t look so graceful in rehearsals more than made up for it on the dance floor. Gold-medal volleyball champ Misty May-Treanor studied under ballroom bad boy Maksim Chmerkovskiy and learned how to perform a fairly foxy foxtrot. While Carrie Ann Inaba felt Misty attacked the 21-point routine like an Olympian, Len argued that elegance was the dominating detail. Unlike his review of Lance, Len got it right.
The unexpected top performer of the show was none other than retired NFL defensive tackle Warren Sapp. What is it with this show and football favorites? Despite being “a big boy,” as Bruno Tonioli put it, and built to tear through an offensive line, number 99 was surprisingly light on his feet. He spun around partner Kym Johnson like he was born to cha-cha. Warren said dancing wasn’t his arena, but he may want to rethink that after receiving a matching set of sevens from the panel.
Stuck in the middle for now
Scores aren’t always the best reflection of ballroom potential. Take Brooke Burke. The model and television host was paired up with Derek Hough for an okay cha-cha that earned unanimous praise from Len and the gang, but lacked much in the way of personality or major moves. “Brooke was going for broke,” according to Bruno, but 23 points seemed a bit much for what was only a somewhat promising routine.
Another middle-of-the-packer was TV regular Ted McGinley. Taking a foxtrot spin with yet another newbie pro, Inna Brayer, Ted dedicated his just-fine-but-a-little-stiff number to all the men back home “who’d rather be watching football.” He looked nervous and stick-straight throughout the piece, but benefited greatly from the smooth moves of his partner. Ted’s 18 points were chalked up to nerves, as the man clearly shows room for improvement.
From the “who?” department, actor Cody Linley filled in the spot usually saved for little known “stars” like season five’s Albert Reed. Only unlike the hip-shaking Albert, Cody didn’t make much of an impact. He wasn’t bad. He just wasn’t great, either. Of course, racking up all sixes and dancing alongside two-time “Dancing” champ Julianne Hough could still serve him well.
Former “world’s fastest man” and gold-medal sprinter Maurice Greene just couldn’t kick up his heels quick enough for his fast-paced foxtrot. He’s not out for the count by any means, but the show’s other two-time champ Cheryl Burke will have her work cut out for her if she wants to make it past the midseason.
They can’t all be winners, as several hoofer hopefuls proved Monday night. The first amateur to show fans what he didn’t have was reality restaurateur Rocco DiSpirito. Karina Smirnoff clearly set up an easy foxtrot routine for Rocco and hoped it would work, but with a score of just 14, she might want to start praying instead of hoping.
Comedian Jeffrey Ross had to know he had major problems when his partner, Edyta Sliwinska, accidentally poked him in the eye before the show. Unfortunately for the funnyman, after a quick trip to the ER and a scratched cornea, his wound was the least of his woes. The man dances, well, like a comedian — think Adam Corolla without the charm. The judges even broke out the rarely used “four” paddles to give Jeffery a total of 12 for the night.
Kim Kardashian claimed she was in the ballroom to have a good time and become a better dancer. Here’s hoping the former satisfies her, because the latter seems unlikely. Even paired with reigning champ Mark Ballas, the reality TV fixture just doesn’t have what it takes to pull off a formidable foxtrot. And, as Carrie Ann pointed out before providing her contribution to Kim’s 19 out of 30, the woman famous for being famous didn’t move her head. Kind of creepy, really.
Unlike Kim’s dance-floor downfall, there’s just no pleasure in seeing Susan Lucci fail. The tiny (really, she’s like her own mini-me) daytime diva tried to channel Erica Kane, but stumbled and trembled her way through a tough cha-cha with Tony Dovolani. The judges found the routine too careful, but luckily for Susan, she should have plenty of time to improve. Erica Kane has one heck of a fan base.
The first flatfoot gets the boot tomorrow, while the rest of the stars take one more twirl on the floor. If past trends continue, the worst dancer won’t necessarily be the one to exit stage right, as that honor’s usually reserved for the least popular of the bunch.
Of course, for the first time in a long time that may be one and the same, namely Jeffrey Ross. If not, prepare to bid what’s-his-name, er — Cody — adieu.
Ree Hines is a regular contributor to msnbc.com