Friday, May 24, 2013

Congratulations to Derek and Kellie, our Season 16 champions!

The amazing Season 16 of Dancing With the Stars has come to an end. We have our winners: Derek Hough (in his fourth title) and Kellie Pickler.

Season 16 Mirror Ball winners: Derek Hough and Kellie Pickler
This is not, as anyone who read my column last week knows, how I expected it to go. There is no way 
in any Universe that Jacoby is a better dancer than the gymnast Aly. But here's what I think happened, why this result went down the way it did.

I really think it's unarguable that the four pros (Derek Hough, Mark Ballas, Valentin Chmerkovskiy and Karina Smirnoff) are the BEST on this season's show. By that I mean not only sheer talent, but creativity and passion and creating memorable dances. These four are the top of the top.

Peta Murgatroyd is fabulous, Kym Johnson has a couple of mirror balls. Heck, Tony Dovolani was last year's winner. But these four have both creative genius and the ability to work with whichever "celebrity" they get, to mold a winning season. At the outset, it wouldn't surprise me for any one of them to win. It just depends on who they are paired with.

Derek Hough, paired with Wynona, would've gone out of the competition just as fast as Tony Dovolani did.

The pros' job in the beginning is to take this lump of clay called a celebrity, and turn them into a dancer. How much they succeed at this depends just as much on the pro's choreography talent as it does on their hand-holding talents.

There were many moments in this season, for example, when the blissful genius of Mark and/or Derek's choreography guided their partners over otherwise rocky unfamiliar terrain. Val C. was tethered to a rocket, firing on all cylinders, and he had to tame her. Karina mostly just had to overcome their height differential, deal with Jacoby's farts and somehow turn out his pigeon toes. 

So I am REALLY very grateful that whoever decides these pairings gave Derek (and Mark and Val) at least a shot by pairing them with someone who was somewhat capable of finishing.

Honestly, most of the season was like dropping off dead weight one by one to finally see what the real dancers were going to do.

And so, we end up at the Finals, finally. Oh blissful heaven, was it wonderful!

I have to examine Karina and Jacoby first, because I expected them to drop off sooner.

Karina Smirnoff and Jacoby Jones
This picture, to me, typifies what their whole season was like. Karina is there, working her ASS off, and Jacoby mostly looks like a clown, just sauntering through his paces, seeming like he really didn't want to be there.

They did a jive to start. And then, in their freestyle (the dance which really determines it all), they brought in a New Orleans-style jazz band, and a bunch of kids. I'm surprised there wasn't a kitchen sink. But we'll leave all that alone. They placed third.

Let's move onto the real three couples, as far as I'm concerned.

MARK BALLAS AND ALY RAISMAN (unbelievably, they placed fourth)

Mark Ballas' challenge at the beginning of the season was to take a gymnast (who is used to long practices and doing things until you get them right, all good things) with no sense of timing (as far as dance counts) and no romantic experience to speak of to convey passionate dance moves.

And LOOK. Look at this.

 Mark Ballas and Aly Raisman, doing a sexy samba. Courtesy of ABC/Dancing with the Stars 
You are looking at a very sexy woman here. Mark has always been sexy, is sexy in every dance, but to watch Aly's evolution has been amazing. This is NOT how she looked on the first show.

The signature dance, I would (and am) arguing here is the dance which makes or breaks a mirror ball champion is the freestyle. One of the things I admire the most about Mark Ballas, and so look forward to seeing in DWTS, is the creativity he brings to his choreography. He pushes the envelope, he crosses the line, he breaks new ground in his dances. Any groundbreaker is looked at askance at first. So he certainly has his detractors. I am sure, in this freestyle, he had a lot of people going, "Wow. WTF was that?" In fact, I'm sure that had everything to do with why he ended up fourth. They didn't get it.

But what I saw was the same poetry that I am going to laud Derek Hough for in a little bit. A melange of both Aly's strengths and a portrait how far she's come. A dance which not only pushed her further than comfortable limits, but also pushed him. It was mesmerizing and fantastic and everything a finale freestyle dance should be.

Aly R and Mark Ballas in their groundbreaking freestyle dance.

Going into the final episode, Val and Zendaya had the most judges points, and everywhere you went on social media, people were rooting and rallying for them to win. I thought for sure it would be a landslide for them.

They did an amazing samba, including a step that Len said he hadn't seen since the 50s. (What?) Fluid and mesmerizing. Beautiful.
Zendaya and Val C. do their samba during Finals. Courtesy of ABC/DWTS.

Zendaya and Val C. do the cha-cha relay (winning it).

Zendaya and Val were indeed the gold-star standard on that dance floor, and for my money, given the entire season, certainly deserved to win the mirror ball.
For their freestyle dance, Zendaya, who has an affiinity for kids, wanted to bring them in for part of the dance. As these two "dances with kids" freestyles went, I much preferred what Zendaya and Val did with theirs (compared to Karina and Jacoby's version). But I much preferred what they did alone too.

They were luminous and dynamic in their freestyle. Every bit champions.

Val Chmerkovskiy and Zendaya, absolute perfection.

DEREK HOUGH AND KELLIE PICKLER (winners of the Mirror Ball trophy)

But the actual winners of Season 16 were Derek Hough and Kellie Pickler. And here's why, IMHO.

Every week, the folks at home are encouraged to vote on the dances they just saw. I think they did that again this time. They weren't voting on who was the best all season long. They were voting on best dance, in fact, best freestyle dance.

By that measure, it was Derek Hough's win by miles. And I do credit Derek Hough with this win, as with his other wins. Sure he gets willing participants who are more or less able to do what he commands, but it is his vision, his passion, his choreography which wins trophies.

So, too, here.

Derek Hough and Kellie Pickler, reaching for the stars. ABC/DWTS

The freestyle dance he created smartly didn't include gimmicks like kids or brass bands. It was all about the dance, and also smartly, it was all about in one dance recreating all the dances of Season 16 for him and Kellie. It was passionate, fluid and very moving. I, like Carrie Ann Inaba, was in tears at the end of it. It was stunningly beautiful.

One of those dances where you just thank God that Derek Hough is in the world, creating dances for us to watch. 

This, more than any other thing, is why they won the Mirror Ball (IMHO). Kellie Pickler and Derek Hough
They deserved to win, after this dance. Its poetry and perfection was beyond compare.

And, on that subject, I want to mention how glad I am that nowhere in the season did we have (well maybe some nonsense at the beginning) ridiculous asides to camera about how "badly they want to win" this trophy.

This cast, and most specifically, Derek and Mark and Val C., continually throughout the season rightfully declare how it's all about the process, and that each dance is special, and that they are all a family. I really liked how the emphasis wasn't on "winning." It was about creating beautiful dances, in concert with your partner. That's as it should be.

A beautiful, memorable season.


Thursday, May 16, 2013

DWTS: It's the Semi-Finals (and the 300th show), baby!

Yes, I know. I missed a few episodes in there where we had some lovely dancing. What can I say?

Let's skip ahead to this week. It's the semi-finals. Nearly everyone who can't really dance is gone now (except Ingo, and he left this week). And I'm just going to leave him (sorry Kym) out of this week's recap too. Time to focus on the real dancers.

What we are left with is dancing, sublime dancing. So much of it, the 10 paddles were flying all over the ballroom. It was wondrous to behold. I hope you did.

Each of the remaining dancers had two dances, one chosen from whatever dances they still haven't done yet (not surprisingly, at least two couples had the Argentine tango still left, since that's one of the really hard ones); and the other dance was "chosen" by the Internet public at large from a pre-selected group of dances that have nothing to do with each other and haven't really been tried by most of the pros. FUN!

So I will describe both their real dance and their (for lack of a better term) frou-frou dance, in order of how I would place them overall (and hope how they place at the finals).


Their frou-frou dance was the lindy hop. Just forget about it. Seriously.

For their real dance, they had the Argentine tango. There are times when Karina's choreography takes my breath away just as much as the big boys' does. This dance was one of those times. Truly sublime. (Just wish I didn't dislike Jacoby so much.)

Jacoby Jones and Karina Smirnoff perform the Argentine tango. Courtesy of ABC/Dancing with the Stars.


For me, there are two things going on here. First, Kellie Pickler bugs the crap outta me. I started Day One wanting them to win, and consistently more and more throughout the season, she's been like a burr on your saddle, if you know what I mean. She would space out, as Brooke is asking her questions. "Squirrel!" kind of stuff. Non-focused. Annoying. Really seems like the kind of person that I wouldn't want to spend five minutes in conversation with.

All that said, Derek Hough is indeed a miracle worker. He is surely one of the finest choreographers on this show, definitely one of the reasons it has lasted 300 shows. His choreography (and dancing) is a joy and blessing to watch every single week. I adore him, flat out.

This week, for example. Their frou-frou dance was the flamenco, which Derek has "never danced." Wow. And he was flat-out amazing. I won't even mention how hot he looked in those flamenco pants... Ahem... Ok, I guess I will. But he was flamencoing to beat the band up there, and Miss Kellie was just kinda laying around. (IMHO)

Derek Hough's first flamenco. With Kellie Pickler. ABC/DWTS
One of the things that I truly hope happens from this season is that one of the costumers is fired. The one who keeps putting diminutive women in bustling dresses that weigh them down. (In fact, one of the things Ms. Pickler blamed her poor performance on was that her dress "was so heavy." Those words should never be uttered into a microphone, and whoever was responsible for that should be fired.) Seriously, all season long, there have been costume mishaps, women tripping, women weighed down, partners stepping on long gowns. It's unnecessary.

They are dancers. We need to see THEIR FEET. How they execute the steps. That's all. As little clothing to get there as possible. Certainly not volumes of fabric! For heaven's sake. It's not a period drama here.

And while I'm on my costuming tangent, whoever was responsible for the women sometimes wearing low or no-heeled shoes, God bless you. Maybe it was Zendaya herself insisting she just danced better in tennis shoes. Wonderful. If heels make you trip or miss steps, then don't wear them. Sounds like a no-brainer to me.

I'm sure dance purists are having a fit right now, but tough. It's about the Dance. That's all it's about. It's not the Academy Awards of costuming. You telling me there aren't dance costumers out there who know how to do this? Come on, ABC! Get it together.

But to get back to the matters at hand, Kellie's voluminous costume was at least part of the reason I didn't like her flamenco. Now maybe it was, in fact, covering up the fact that she wasn't dancing very well, but I'd rather see that.

But then, we have their tango. Oh my, their Argentine tango. Stunning. Even the footwork, which is oh so complicated, was very well executed, by both partners. Tens across the board. So beautiful to watch.

Derek Hough and Kellie Pickler. Courtesy of ABC/DWTS.
For the most part, their dances lack passion between them, but this one... ahem... had its moments.


You know, Mark Ballas, also one of the most brilliant choreographers to walk the planet, has really had his share of bad luck on this show, being saddled with partners who don't want to disrobe or dance scantily (as is this show's wont), partners who just plain don't want to dance, all sorts of nonsense. As a result, he hasn't been in the finals as much as he really should, given how stunning his choreography is.

But, on the occasion when he gets a partner who is willing to go down whatever crazy pathway he devises, we are witness to magic, ladies and gentlemen. Take this week, for example. The cast has all these crazy dances thrown at them. Mark and Aly were literally begging for "AfroJazz." Guess what? They got it. And here it is.

Aly R and Mark Ballas dancing "AfroJazz." Courtesy of ABC/Dancing with the Stars.
Mark beats anyone on this show ever with getting in touch with all things primal. And this dance in the hands of anyone else would've been ripe pickings for a joke or two. But the way Mark Ballas constructed this, WOW. There was this moment where he was lying on the floor, and Aly was sort of bouncing on top of him that looked for all the world like sex, you know in a primal African sort of way.

It was sublime.

Speaking of that, both Aly and Zendaya are young girls who haven't had much experience with relationships, passion or even sex (the show didn't say that, I'M saying it). So how does one dance very sensual, romantic, passionate songs with no reference points? Mark Ballas is in the finals now because he was able to somehow get Aly to convey that which she knows NOTHING of.

Case in point. Their rumba.

To me, this dance was heartbreaking. About love and loss and passion and strength. I had tears in my eyes at the end, and Aly is a girl who hasn't yet experienced this!!! Amazing. Incredible what great choreography and sensitive coaching can do. BRAVO Mark Ballas.

Aly R and Mark Ballas dance a stunning rumba. Courtesy of ABC/Dancing with the Stars.


Most people who read my stuff know that I think Mark Ballas, Derek Hough and Karina Smirnoff are the best choreographers on this show. I start every DWTS season rooting for these three to be at the end. (I just selfishly want to see what dances they create along the way.)

But who wins, or whom I want to win, depends greatly on other variables. Namely, the person involved (the "celebrity" or "star" they are paired with). What the chemistry of the two of them is like. Other things.

For me, I've had a strong love-hate relationship with this show and Maksim Chmerkovskiy (as documented here). But most of the time, he was up there, listed with those other three in my book. And he was such a strong overwhelming personality, that when his little brother Val came on the show, well, I kind of ignored him.

Then the love affair/strong friendship/special bond of last season with Val C and Kelly Monaco made me look at Val in a different way. Especially their contemporary dance. Mind-blowing.

But it was this season, when Val was paired with teenager Zendaya that everything broke loose. He started breaking loose from Maksim's shadow in the Kelly Monaco season. But this season: WOW.

Really every single dance they have danced has been a treasure (always a hallmark of the eventual winner). Val has come up with very inventive choreography and new takes on boring dances. And it's been amazing to watch.

Their quickstep from tonight (which got Len all bent out of shape, but I loved) had a racecar theme. Brilliant. Full of speed.

Valentin Chmerkovskiy and Zendaya, dancing a quickstep really quick. Courtesy of ABC/DWTS.
But, for me, one of their most memorable dances of the season will have been their frou-frou dance of this week. They were tasked with dancing hip hop. Now, teen Zendaya is from the hip hop world. That's what she knows and makes her money at. Poor Val has never danced hip hop. (Remember when lovely Karina was tasked with dancing hip hop last season? She was so far out of her element, I thought she would have a nervous breakdown. She missed steps, she started crying, it was not a pretty moment.)

In contrast, look at Val. (And whoever's decision it was to have Val dressed in a suit while Zendaya is decked out in traditional hip hop clothes gets BIG props from me. That was just brilliant.) 

Zendaya and Valentin Chmerkovskiy doing hip hop. Courtesy of ABC/DWTS.
Just look at them. She is totally in her element, he is also, actually, in his (the dance floor). This, unlike anyone else this season, is an equal pairing.

She's got miles of star quality, he's got years of dance training. It's a match made in heaven for us.

Val C and Zendaya doing hip hop. Courtesy of ABC.
These are the people I want to win the Mirror Ball this season. Not because the other competitors aren't great (they are). But Val and Zendaya just have a really special sparkle this season together. (And Val has never won a Mirror Ball yet.) Just look at their chemistry together.

Zendaya and Valentin Chmerkovskiy dance hip hop. Courtesy of ABC/Dancing with the Stars.
Big brother Maksim has never won a Mirror Ball either. But then, he got into tussles with the judges, and was pouty and belligerent when he even came close. Little brother Val, in contrast, seems to be just enjoying the journey, taking things as they go and seeing what happens. 

The mark of a true champion. Heck, Zendaya's even taught him to smile this season.

*fingers crossed for them*


Monday, May 13, 2013

Survivor Crowns the Rightful Winner

Survivor: Caramoan just ended. I haven't written about it, or even shared in the weekly evening Tweet sessions much, if at all, this season.

Here's why, in a nutshell. I really got inspired a few seasons ago with the players who really showed their religion on their sleeves, showed how it got them through those long lonely days. I got spoiled on that. I could see, for a few, shimmering moments, how Survivor really could show the good in people, the quality, the integrity, the class. The spirituality. It was really blissful and inspiring.

Well, all that has gone away so far it may as well have been bludgeoned away. In point of fact, one of the architects that I'm speaking of (Brandon Hantz) went through a real spiritual journey on that first season he was on, taking spirituality to a whole new level on the show. So I was very excited to see him on this season again. However, between that first season and this one, things changed in a very negative way.

Personally, I think his uncle got to him, and advised him to be more of a dick to win. And so he did. Aside to Brandon: that wasn't the way to go.

So, what can we say about Survivor: Caramoan? If nothing else, it was indeed an exciting season. When looking at the strategy and the game play, some of the moves made caused a person to truly gasp in their seats, and it's been awhile since that has happened.

Here's the thing though. Somewhere along the way (of its 26 seasons), Survivor found its soul. It found, actually, that putting people in these crazy situations can actually lead to some insight that is much more profound than one expects when sitting down to a reality show.

And now, in the last two seasons, it's taken that back, with a vengeance. In fact, I would even say it stooped to Richard Hatch/Hantz Inc. level dickishness. The bottom line, at least for me, is that I don't want to see this whole "it's just a game" BS. I don't want to see someone friends with someone else and then slitting their throat.

The truth in life is that every moment of every thing you do affects every thing else. It should be that way in Survivor too. And, for a couple of blissful seasons, it was.

But in Survivor Caramoan, we had everyone out for themselves, back to backstabbing and blindsiding and hurting people that you were friends with and who trusted you. And I really dislike that ugliness.

Brandon Hantz, in point of fact, had one of the ugliest meltdowns ever in Survivor. In fact, if he wanted to surpass his uncle Russell in vile crassness and ugly humanity, he surely did. It took me this long in the article to even remember Russell's name, I just kept seeing Brandon pouring out everyone's rice over and over in my head. Ugly. Heinous.

I am, in fact, praying that the upcoming "Blood versus Water" season doesn't include ANYONE named Hantz.

I am also praying hard that Dawn never again graces our screens on Survivor. Certain people really need psychological counseling more than they need Survivor. I'm glad Dawn got rid of her Twitter. I hope she doesn't read this article. And I hope I never in my life see her on any TV anywhere ever again. She was a mental basket case. It wasn't pretty.

She went the opposite way, too. In the last season she played, she tried to... you know, have ethics. This time, she decided she didn't need to do that, and blithely cut anyone's throat who got in her way, with the trope, "It's only a game." And she wonders why Brenda never returned her calls.

As someone following strategy, I can see why Brenda needed to be voted out. It was a good strategy play, because certainly Brenda would've won. However, the female connection between Dawn and Brenda was really palpable. I felt pain when she turned around after her torch was snuffed, and said, simply, "That really hurt."

Integrity is more important than "playing a game." And if I were talking to Dawn right now, I would say: THAT is why you didn't get even ONE vote at tribal. You cannot forget that part of the game. Ask Russell Hantz.

Also interesting at the "Reunion" show afterwards, a show in which normally the entire Survivor season's cast is lined up from first voted off to Survivor winner, to chat about the past season, this season, for the first time ever, they only had the jury folks. 10 people, instead of 26.

Sure, perhaps speaking to every person gets unwieldy in an hour wrap-up show. Plus, the interchangeable blondes, Francesca who got voted out first twice... I mean, what is there really to say to any of them? Plus, again, I'm glad Brandon Hantz wasn't within 20 miles of those onstage.

Malcolm... *swoon* and his hair... well, I was really hoping Malcolm would win. And the reunion show really missed a trick in not having Malcolm's mother on to help celebrate Mother's Day. ("Enil Edam" was really "Madeline" backwards, for his mom.)

Philip and his Stealth R Us team was a fun aspect of this season. Philip, in quoting his strategies, mentioned one of Survivor's best players, Boston Rob.

Boston Rob, on the reunion show, brought along his new book (you heard me): "The Boston Rob Rulebook." You can purchase it here:

Boston Rob Rulebook

Congratulations, John Cochran. You did outplay, outwit and outlast. You deserved to win.

And now, hopefully on to (the Hantz-less) "Blood and Water" version in September. May it have more kindness and integrity than the past two seasons did.