Thanks to the arrival of "American Idol" on the Alphabet Network, "Dancing with the Stars" lost the bulk of its spring season. What's left is a trimmed-down, four-week event spotlighting athletes.
Athletes have notoriously done very well on "Dancing with the Stars," even when they don't have as much recognition as some of the singers and actors who've graced this stage. What they do have is discipline in a very physical activity and the kind of work ethic it takes to win.
That's not to say this cast is full of chumps, either. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Johnny Damon and Tonya Harding are names that have been known for decades, while this past Winter Olympics made even bigger stars out of Adam Rippon, Jamie Anderson, Mirai Nagasu and Chris Mazdzer. Jennie Finch Daigle made a name for herself in softball, while Josh Norman is doing so now in the NFL, and Arike Ogonbowale just made national headlines for her prowess on the college basketball field.
Right away, they proved they were here to win this shortened season, but no one expected the most powerful and poignant performance of the night to come from Tonya Harding. Throughout her career, she's been known for her strength and power, but tonight she showed us a beautiful grace and vulnerability that was absolutely mesmerizing. And then, America got their chance to say what they thought as two couples were sent home, and Tonya was one of the athletes in the hot seat. Did America reject her again already?
Fair warning, since I'm safe at home, I'm probably going to be a little harsher than my colleagues Carrie-Ann Inaba, Len Goodman, and Bruno Tolioni. But I might be nicer, too. Maybe.
Chris may have mastered the toe point for the luge, but that wasn't all that helpful when he drew the salsa out of the hat. This dance requires a lightness on the floor and a looseness of the hips that didn't come as naturally as he was a little heavy. The beginning of the dance started obscured in smoke, which is a great way to hide footwork deficiencies. Once they hit the main floor, I'll give him points for charisma and effort as he went for every move Witney gave him. Unfortunately his movements were timid rather than dynamic, and he lacked the fluid energy throughout his body. That first was a bit of a labor to get into, and it was indicative of Chris' approach. He said that in luge if you're thinking you've already messed up. There's an element of truth to that in dance as well, and I could see him thinking so hard through that.
Judges Scores: 7, 7, 7
My Score: 6
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar & Lindsay Arnold
At 71-years old and 7'2" in height, Kareem is a lot of legend to work with for the 5'4" Lindsay. We've seen height differences sink a partnership, but Lindsay was down to try and make this work. It was nice to see Kareem still has some of that "Showtime" swagger, and a little bit of sway in those hips. I was perhaps mostly disappointed that Lindsay didn't at least try to do something with Kareem in this cha-cha-cha. He was mostly a prop for several girls to dance around, with a few timid footsteps here and there. The man is older, but he's not broken. He can do more than extend his arms out and walking back and forth. He proved his hips had some swish in rehearsal, so bring them to the floor!
Judges Scores: 6, 5, 6
My Score: 3
Jennie Finch Daigle & Keo Motsepe
Jennie has been retired from softball since 2010, and even she had to admit she had to knock the cobwebs off to get back into a competitive arena. One thing in her favor, though, is she's a natural mover. She impressed Keo right away on her ranch when they first met with her footwork and body control. She was a little heavy on her feet for this foxtrot, but I've got to give it up for nice arms and a mostly on point carriage throughout the piece. Keo may just have a contender on his hands once Jennie gains more confidence in herself and gets a little more comfortable with choreography.
As a snowboarder, Jamie embraces the bohemian freedom that the sport allows her to express herself, choose her movements and really go crazy on the slopes. That level of freedom doesn't exist in the ballroom as there are essentials for each format that must be represented. The Viennese waltz requires grace, delicate footwork and a consistent rise and fall across the dance floor. She had a terror smile plastered on her face and a stiff rise in her shoulders that betrayed her lack of confidence in her movement. There was some tippy-toe bouncing at parts and she never really felt comfortable at all as Artem essentially drug her across the floor. It's a shame, because it looked like her body was close to where it needed to be; her biggest problem right now is her own lack of confidence. She's way too much in her head.
Judges Scores: 6, 7, 6
My Score: 5
Mirai Nagasu & Alan Bersten
I mean, damn, that was your first performance of the season? Mirai was one of my favorites to win the whole thing coming into the season, as I thought her background in figure skating would translate well to the world of dance. As anticipated, she was a little unsure about her feet from time to time, but she absolutely made up for it in stage presence, body work and absolute fearlessness in tacking four lifts with Alan ... in their first dance! Figure skating adds tremendous weight to your feet, and that created an artificial heaviness in Mirai's movements throughout this salsa. She didn't have the pop quite as much as needed, but she is so far ahead of most of her competitors, she might be looking like a pro in three weeks when she hefts that trophy above her head. I also love that she is best friends with Adam Rippon, because he's another early favorite to do very well in this competition.
Judges Scores: 7, 8, 8
My Score: 8
Arike Ogunbowale & Gleb Savchenko
Not only did Gleb fail to get Arika into high heels for this salsa, he failed to get her hips moving and the stiffness out of her joints. Arika looked like she was ready at any point to tighten up and leap to snatch a ball out of the air or something. She never looked settled into the groove of the dance. All of her movements were about 60 percent what they needed to be, in extension, carriage, arm movements and foot placement. She lumbered through the choreography like a four-year old stomping to their room after being told they couldn't stay up past their bedtime. It was almost like she was worried about how silly she might look to her fellow basketball players. We've seen contestants who couldn't get out of the headspace of thinking they're embarrassing themselves, and Arika's body language had elements of that, whether this was her reason or not.
Adam has personality for days and enough charm and charisma to smile his way to the Mirrorball Trophy with voters. But then he went and backed it up with an amazing cha-cha-cha from top to bottom. I was confident Adam would be one of the athletes to beat this season, but I didn't expect him to come out and not only match is best buddy Mirai, but actually surpass her in several areas. If anything, Adam was a little too on fire, as he did fall out of a turn a bit early. But his footwork was on point, his hip action was astounding and he took on some pretty challenging choreography and barely even flinched.
Judges Scores: 8, 8, 8
My Score: 8
Johnny Damon & Emma Slater
Like Jennie, Johnny retired from baseball to focus on family and feels rewarded there. But you could see that competitive drive firing up again at the thought of competing against all these other world-class athletes. I'll give him credit, Johnny really went for it. It was great to see a baseball player taking bold and big steps, even if they lacked the grace necessary to be considered a complete success. In hold, he was looming over Emma a bit rather than holding his own carriage upright and back, creating an almost sinister pairing, and he wasn't nearly light enough on his feet to make this feel like a true foxtrot, but the effort was certainly there and it was great seeing him really go for it.
Judges Scores: 6, 6, 6
My Score: 5
Tonya Harding & Sasha Farber
Tonya may be her harshest critic, and she's had decades of the world coming down on her to battle through psychologically if she's hoping to get the redemption as an athlete and performer she seems to be seeking on this show. Dance is close to ice skating in many ways, with choreography and graceful movements, but Tonya admitted she was never known for her grace on the ice; she was a powerhouse. I'm not gonna lie, I got a little emotional watching her in hold as her face lit up and she actually believed in herself. She was mesmerizing to watch, so graceful and fluid. Her lines were spectacular, her motion across the floor in this foxtrot so smooth. You could tell this was her finally finding an avenue to channel years of skating frustration and she absolutely took full advantage of it. Who knew Tonya Harding would provide the most inspirational and moving performance of the night.
There's a flexibility of movement and quickness required to succeed at the highest levels of football, which is why NFL players have done well on this show. He was flicking his arms out a little too aggressively at times in this cha-cha-cha, like he wasn't sure what else to do with them, but Josh brought it with the character of his movement and his overall performance. There were moments where he looked uncertain what he should be doing or where he should be at, but he did a good job of getting all that choreography down and being where Sharna needed him so at least she could look good throughout. He just needs to learn how to shine himself in his quieter moments. All of that said, though, Josh has the tools to continue the NFL's winning run on "DWTS."
Judges Scores: 8, 8, 8
My Score: 8
For the first time in the history of the show, the premiere was also a double-elimination. Of course, we started with ten couples and there are only four weeks of competition, so what else were they going to do?
To keep things moving along, they announced three couples in danger, meaning the rest of the competitors were safe. The first pair put into jeopardy was Jamie & Artem, followed by Johnny & Emma and Tonya & Sasha. As I was watching, I found myself hoping that Tonya was put in there as a fake-out for the viewers at home, and Tonya herself. If so, it's more than a little cruel as she's the most emotionally vulnerable person on the show. But she gave the most polished performance of the night, so could America have really rejected her outright like that?
Of course not. And I'm not going to buy any arguments that she was that low in the rankings either. America loves a comeback story, and "I, Tonya" was a success, so I think most people are through hating on her for now. I, for one, am excited to see how much she grows in this competition. She doesn't have too much further to go technically, but she could certainly stand to gain a lot more confidence and self-love.
And so, after one night on the show, we say goodbye to both Johnny Damon and Jamie Anderson. I had both Arike and Kareem below her with my scores, but you know Kareem is going to ride the love of his fans for awhile, and the judges saw more in Arike than I did.
We're back at it again next Monday, but things are moving fast. There are only three weeks left until it's all over and we have our Season 26 winner on "Dancing With the Stars," airing Mondays at 8 p.m. ET on ABC.