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"Dancing With The Stars: All-Stars" Round 3: Stars in control

In a night of flawless performances, tiny Olympian Shawn Johnson brought the wow factor in an athletic quick-step filled with trampoline flips, aerial tosses, sparkling choreography and fun, fun, fun in Round 3 of "Dancing With The Stars: All-Stars."

By the time Johnson was done, two of the "DWTS" judges were on their feet, eager to proclaim the routine one of the best they've ever seen in 15 seasons.

"Spectacular. Unforgettable," said judge Bruno Tonioli.

"Best. Dance. Ever,'' echoed Carrie Ann Inaba.

"DWTS: All-Stars" continues to twist the throttle on what is the highest-level dancing and best performance quality of any season of the top-rated ABC show.

The all-stars, all previous contestants back for a second chance, were challenged this week to take creative control of their routines -- from concept to costumes to set design. The emphasis was on bringing something never before seen on the show. That translated into aerial harnesses, white body paint, a donkey that almost made it on air and an overall no-risk, no-reward approach that brought terrific results.

The contestants also had the added pressure of knowing not one, but two contestants will be eliminated Tuesday.

Across the board, the contestants danced spectacularly. Even controversial laggard Bristol Palin delivered her best dance of the season.

"The quality of the dancing is brilliant,'' said head judge Len Goodman, late in the evening. "They kept in the character and yet they came out and wowed us."

Most creative honors go to French actor Gilles Marini, who began his routine sleeping. He was then lifted by aerial harness to land across the stage in a dreamland where his only recourse was to perform a sexy tango. Which he did, never missing a beat.

Indeed, the first five dances of the night were flawless in that I never saw the dancers lose the beat. Surely there were missteps, but from a performance level, the dancers stayed in-character and on the beat, starting with Drew Lachey, who opened the show with a tight and precise cha-cha-cha.

"Like a power drill, never stopping," enthused Tonioli.

Marini's tango followed. Tonioli described it as "strong, dominant, erotic, powerful."

Melissa Rycroft, who to me is the least interesting celebrity on the show, shook her cans in a samba that head judge Goodman likened to a can of cola, "fizzy" and "refreshing."

Three dances, three high scores, three terrific performances.

Olympian Apolo Ohno kept up the standard in one of the other best dances of the night. In a fluid foxtrot to the Peggy Lee song "Fever," Ohno took partner Karina Smirnoff down from a pedestal and danced life into her in a sophisticated, elegant routine that judge Inaba called "absolutely stunning."

"I was trying to channel my inner sexy,'' said Ohno.

Season 1 champ Kelly Monaco delivered what Tonioli called a "defining performance" in a fierce paso doble, a dance that is sort of like a tango but with more stomping and angry facial expressions. Monaco tends to blend into the background, but she maintained the high level of dancing Monday night.

Next up was Kirstie Alley who, at 61, can't match the athleticism and precision of her younger colleagues. She conceived a rock star-groupie cha-cha-cha that gave the spotlight to partner Maksim Chmerkovskiy doing a Ukranian version of Mick Jagger. The judges were kind, but Alley will have to depend on the audience vote that took her to top two in her season to stick around in this one.

Sabrina Bryan, the star who won the audience online vote to join this season's cast, performed a paso doble "full of great technique," as judge Goodman called it. But she had no extra dimension or personal touch to the routine, and was called out for it by judge Inaba.

"I don't feel like you brought anything new,'' said Inaba.

Also doing the paso doble was NFL legend and former "DWTS" champion Emmitt Smith, whose mainstay is smooth funkiness. He brought a machismo attack to the dance, ending a fiery routine with a 20-foot slide through the legs of his quaking partner, Cheryl Burke.

"What you've got, Emmitt, is presence,'' said Goodman. "You come out and dominate the floor."

In trouble again this week is Brazilian race car driver Helio Castroneves, who barely survived elimination last week. Although a former champion of "DWTS," Castroneves is a notch below the level of this year's stellar dancers. It didn't help when he got tangled in his partner's dress during his quick step.

The backstage pseudo drama was provided this week by Palin, who tearfully told partner Mark Ballas that he was mentally checked out.

"You're not there...I feel like you want to go home,'' Bristol said in the backstage footage that precedes each live dance on "DWTS."

Bristol is as believable an actress as she is a dancer, which can be taken as ironically as you may. With a summer season of a Lifetime reality show under her belt, someone has explained to Bristol the value of creating a tempest in a teapot to spice things up in TV world. Which she did with the oft-seen tearful exit from the rehearsal studio.

But it was all smiles in time for yet another paso doble, this one a new wave routine that was hailed as Palin's best dance of the season. Inaba noted she needs to work on her "one-dimensional" expression.

Which led to Shawn Johnson and professional Derek Hough closing the show with trampoline flips onto the stage and death-defying leaps from the "DWTS" staircase.

Johnson, who calls her gymnastic skills her "secret weapon," is such an engaging firecracker that she has me reconsidering my preseason pick of Ohno to be this year's winner.

So I'm hedging my bet and making a new call: A battle of the Olympians (and past "DWTS" champions) in the final two: Ohno and Johnson.

It will be golden.