It's always dangerous when "Dancing With The Stars" plays with its format. Monday night's episode brought new dances never before done on the show: the Lambada, the country two-step, the Charleston, and the bolero. It's safe to say that some worked better than others
Chuck Liddell and Anna Trebunskaya kicked things off with the two-step. Chuck was relieved about being able to wear jeans and throw Anna around like an Ultimate Fighting opponent, but he still had no rhythm. He managed to look even stiffer than usual in the body, though his face looked a little less pained than it does when he wears feathers.
Melissa Joan Hart was the first to attempt the Charleston, and she and Mark Ballas went all-out with the period costumes. (Though the mustachioed Mark looked like he hopped right out of Super Mario Brothers.) Happily, the sillier dance played into the "big old ham" part of Melissa's personality, so she looked less nervous than usual. She's a solid dancer, and she cranked up the energy of the performance and got the crowd excited. She earned her warmest reception yet from the judges, including a surprising 10 from Bruno Tonioli. Things may be looking up for Melissa.
First to try the bolero was Natalie Coughlin. Her partner, Alec Mazo, explained that he was working with very difficult choreography in an effort to improve their scores even more after last week's sexy rumba. Natalie did seem to build on all she learned last week, and she continues to have physical grace and musicality that's as good as any of the women. The judges weren't quite as over the moon as last week, but she finished strong.
The Lambada was introduced by Aaron Carter and Karina Smirnoff. The fact that the Lambada is rather over-the-top anyway concealed Aaron's of his tendency to look like a puppet who's working too hard. But there was still a plodding gracelessness in the way he stomped and moved; he is turning out to be precise but not especially pretty to watch. As for the judges' responses, when Len Goodman starts with "I like your enthusiasm," it's never good news.
Mark Dacascos has been a better technical dancer than a performer in recent weeks, so Lacey Schwimmer encouraged him to get into character for the country two-step. A very tense Mark missed a few steps, but he also pulled off a few impressive moves. The judges recognized that his confidence was up, and he certainly outdanced several of the other men on the night.
The second Charleston came from Kelly Osbourne and Louis van Amstel, who took on the theme from "Cabaret." Kelly had a few bobbles, but her enthusiasm continues to be infectious, and the judges are always on her side. For whatever imperfections remain, she no longer looks terrified, and her scores have been inching up nicely.
Joanna Krupa and Derek Hough offered the Lambada, and he kicked off their rehearsals by bragging obnoxiously about what a great job he has, with all the grinding and thrusting all over the supermodel. The dance didn't seem all that different from a samba (except that Derek went entirely shirtless — it's forbidden!), but it looked good. The party boogie suits them, and the judges rewarded them, to the point of perhaps making a little too big of a deal out of how sexy it was. Carrie Ann went so far as to call it "fueled by the crotch area," in an odd little moment of vulgarity.
Donny Osmond is well-suited for the corny Charleston, and his partner, Kym Johnson, is very good with clownish partners (see: Jerry Springer). Predictably, it was a terrific performance, which Donny sold like it was his job, but which actually also contained some pretty good dancing and clever choreography from Kym. Donny doesn't necessarily have great range, but what he does well, he does very well, and just like the jive a couple of weeks ago, this dance was right in his wheelhouse.
Michael Irvin has been working hard, but he found himself in the bottom two last week. Partner Anna Demidova even brought in professional dancer Tony Dovolani to help pump up Michael for the sexy bolero. Michael felt uncomfortable with the heavy romantic content in the dance, but Tony went through a lot of coaching to try to bring the emotion out. Unfortunately, it didn't matter much, because most of the dance called on Michael to do little except stand still and occasionally extend one arm. He did better with the delivery, but there wasn't enough bang for the buck, and the judges let him know.
Louie Vito and Chelsie Hightower were both uncomfortable with the idea of the country two-step. Quite logically, Chelsie called in her partner from last season, real cowboy Ty Murray, to help Louie find his inner dancing cowboy. Again, the efforts at finding the right attitude were wasted time, as Chelsie did almost all the dancing, Louie didn't seem to have any sense of the music, and Chelsie almost kicked him in the head.
Last up was Mya, with her partner Dmitry Chaplin, coming off last week's impressive performance that earned the first 10s of the season. The Lambada gave Mya an opportunity to shake her hips, and she even helped with the choreography. Compared to Joanna and Derek's overblown and shirtless Lambada, Mya and Dmitry's was a little sweatier, a little more ragged in a good way, and a lot more genuinely sexy. As has been his way all season, Len managed to express disappointment, but they grabbed another two 10s anyway.
So what happens Tuesday? Michael Irvin could be in trouble: not only was he in the bottom two last week, but this week's dance was dull and charmless. Louie could also be in trouble as a result of his terribly flat two-step. Chuck Liddell and, surprisingly, Aaron Carter are also kicking around at the bottom of the standings, but Michael and Louie seem like the most likely farewells.
Linda Holmes is a frequent contributor to msnbc.com