Week two of "Dancing With The Stars" can sometimes suffer from the equivalent of a sophomore slump. Contestants get three weeks or more to prepare their first dance, giving them the best chance to shine in their debut. From then on, they have just one week to learn a new routine - which can sometimes mean a dramatic drop in quality from week one to week two.
The all-stars of Season 15 kept the energy high and technique sharp in a night of jives and quick steps.
Olympic gymnast Shawn Johnson delivered a sparkling jive that, like her, was as cute as a button. Comic actress Kirstie Alley, the grand dame of the cast at age 61, dolled up as a French prostitute for a jive that was much better than her flat performance of the previous week. Girl band singer Sabrina Bryan, whom the judges said "overdanced" last week, dialed it down just enough to deliver a fierce quick step with style and attack.
As head judge Len Goodman said at one point in the evening, "the hits just keep coming."
After a few more minor leaguers are weeded out, it's going to be a very tough call when this show gets into the second half of the season. The dancing already is so good and the performance quality so high the margin of separation among the top six or eight will likely be razor thin.
Highlights of the night:
After coming up 4th in the judges' ranking last week, eight-time Olympic medalist Apolo Ohno was fired up this week.
"As an Olympian, if you're not in the top 3, you're not on the podium," said Ohno before delivering a sharp quick step that hit all the right moves for the judges.
Len Goodman: "Speed with control."
Bruno Tonioli: "Determination, focus and hard work."
Carrie Ann Inaba: "Someone put on his competitive pants today!"
French actor Gilles Marini, who showed the best synchronization of the night with his partner, also looked like someone who will be around for the semifinals. In a precisely rendered jive, Marini showed no effects of a strained hamstring that was part of the backstage rehearsal drama.
My favorite dance of the night was a peppy, sassy jive from Shawn Johnson and partner Derek Hough to the song "The Nicest Kids in Town" from the movie "Hairspray." Shawn's stage presence has grown by leaps and bounds from Season 8, where she was a bit wooden and bashful before turning on the gas late in the season to snatch the trophy from Gilles Marini.
Johnson and Hough opened their dance with a cartwheel down the steps leading to the dance floor.
"I have something no one else can do, it's like my secret weapon," said Johnson, a gold medal-winning gymnast.
"Vibrant. Exhilarating. Eye-popping," Tonioli said of her performance.
In the middle of the pack were Melissa Rycroft, Joey Fatone, Drew Lachey, Helio Castroneves, Kelly Monaco and last week's frontrunner Emmitt Smith, whose smooth funkiness didn't translate as well to the quick step.
It's officially time for Bristol Palin to go home. She showed more of that bouncy hip shaking from last week in a weird country western quick step to the hit song "Redneck Woman," which Palin likened to her theme song.
"I'm a redneck woman with a baby on my hip. I like to shoot and hunt,'' said teen mom Bristol, quoting the lyrics of the song. But she looked more like a deer in the headlights as partner Mark Ballas pushed and pulled her across the floor.
"DWTS" is a reality show, and the dance routines are preceded by segments of rehearsal footage where mini dramas are played out - tears shed, injuries fretted over and temperamental clashes. A lot of these segments can be labored, but Kirstie Alley is usually good for a laugh. This week, she explained how partner Maksim Chmerkovskiy tied a few latex gloves together around her knees to keep them from going too high like "a country hoedown."
"Tying the latex gloves around my knees was a little creepy, a little effective and definitely 50 shades of Maks," said Alley. She went on to perform a smooth quickstep in the theme of a French streetwalker seducing a roustabout.
"Flirty, dirty Kirstie,'' said Goodman, approvingly.
If the tea party comes to Palin's rescue again in the audience phone vote, then I would say Fatone and Lachey might be in trouble. Time may have moved on without these boy-banders, whose dwindling fan base has likely not migrated to "DWTS."
Next week the stars "will take creative control," as chief judge Goodman explained. The dances will be conceived and driven by the all-stars, rather than their professional partners. And the emphasis will be to see sides of the contestants that they haven't shown before.
"We want eye-popping stuff," said Goodman.