Season 18 of "Dancing With the Stars" has been one of the best, with a generally high quality of dancing right from the start and despite a plethora of injuries. The latest addition to Danica McKeller's broken rib and Amy Purdy's back/rib injury was Mark Ballas' shoulder, which popped out during rehearsal Sunday, sent him to the hospital and left open the question -- would he be able to dance with Candace on Monday night? The answer to that was ... of course.
But at the end of the 90-minute show, one of the couples had to go. I thought that last week's elimination of Charlie White and Sharna Burgess was a shocker, but tonight's announcement took shock to a new level. As the four couples -- James Maslow and Peta Murgatroyd, Meryl Davis and Maksim Chmerkovskiy, Candace Cameron-Bure and Mark Ballas, and Amy Purdy and Derek Hough -- waited onstage, Candace and Mark wore the smiles of those who know the end is near but who were satisfied with their efforts.
After Meryl and Maks and Amy and Derek were included in the Top Three, host Tom Bergeron announced who would be shut out of the finale -- James and Peta. What? How? The audience gasped and booed, Candace and Mark were stunned, and others on the stage stared in what Tom called a "shocked reaction." Obviously disappointed to be sent home, James said, "I've had an amazing experience. I enjoyed this more than I ever thought possible." Peta, his pro partner, added, "I was blessed to have him as a partner. Absolutely amazing." And as the other dancers gathered around the pair, James could be seen saying, "It's OK. It's all right," over and over.
Everyone knows that "Dancing With the Stars" is as much a popularity contest as it is a dancing competition. However, when the celebs and pros get down to the finals weeks, I think the best dancers should be rewarded over the best competitors. Candace has made incredible progress this season and should be commended for her determination. In addition, Mark also made progress in putting the spotlight on his celeb, instead of on himself. The result brought Candace to the finals, but at this point, should she be given the Mirror Ball Trophy over another, better dancer? We will find out Tuesday night.
Now to the dances, which were often extraordinary. Each pair had to dance a Judges' Choice, which this season were the dances the celeb did in the Switch Up week, followed by the second round -- the renowned freestyle, a no-holds-barred competition.
James and Peta were first up, dancing a tango that was awesome. Was James wearing guyliner? Wow. The routine had it all, including a kiss that everyone has been waiting for all season. Head judge Len Goodman said it was "clean as a whistle ... tighter than a trumpeter's cheeks. You gave it your all." Judge Carrie Ann Inaba thought it was good, but that James seemed "a little uptight, a little too rigid" as boos rained down on her from the audience. Scores: Carrie Ann, 9; Len, 10; Bruno Tonioli, 10 = 29 out of 30 (thank goodness, no guest judge).
Their freestyle routine just wasn't, to quote Len, my cup of tea, but the judges liked it. It was heavy on acrobatics and martial arts, with several extra dancers in the mix. Len liked the attack, calling it the Battle of the Ballroom, and Bruno said it was a mix of "Mad Max" and "Hunger Games." Carrie Ann simply said, "James, to me you are a star." Scores: 10, 9, 10 = 29 + 29 for a total of 58 out of 60.
Meryl and Maks left nothing out on the floor, giving their Argentine tango and freestyle all the sexy nuances to send the temperatures rising in the ballroom ... and at home. Bruno called their Argentine tango, "sumptuously seductive," and added that watching the storylines incorporated in the pair's dances over the last few weeks "has been like watching a dance version of a concept album." Although he had only seen one other dance at that point, Len called it "the dance of the night." Scores: what do you think? Perfect, of course. Three 10s for a total of 30.
And their freestyle set the bar for their routines just a little bit higher. It makes me wonder where they will go in the finale routine, which I've read could be a 24-hour fusion dance. As a couple, Meryl and Maks can put together such emotional routines that make the audience and viewers feel like peeping Toms, and this was no exception. Going out of order, Tom asked Carrie Ann first for her opinion as she was in tears, and she first said that the pair should get married and then called the dance, "a stunning example of divinity in motion." Len added that "there is good, there is great and there is Meryl." But it is Meryl with Maks that has created this chemistry. Scores: Yes, perfection again, but you knew that was coming, didn't you? The pair had a total of 60 out of a possible 60.
Candace and Mark had a few extra problems this week. He began the show with his right arm in a sling, but discarded it for their first dance, a quickstep. Tom explained that the doctor had cleared Mark to dance. As a nondancer before this show, Candace has done a remarkable job of learning routines. Bruno thought she was lighthearted, and Carrie Ann said she was surprised and totally impressed. Scores: 9, 9, 9 = 27.
Their freestyle was a disco-type routine with Candace clad in a gold jumpsuit and four golden pro dancers backing her up. However, Carrie Ann didn't feel as if Candace was connected to the music and although Bruno said she "went for it with gusto," he chided her to stay "on the beat." The judges' scores were the lowest of the night and put the couple at the bottom of the leaderboard. Scores: 8, 8, 8 = 24 + 27 for a total of 51 out of 60.
Last, but definitely not least, were Amy and Derek who danced an energetic, lift-filled salsa, even though her back spasms returned to hamper their rehearsals. Len called it "great, colorful, fabulous," and Carrie Ann was temporarily speechless, completely blown away. Finally, she said, "It was ridiculous! You've grown so much." Scores: Here we go again ... three 10s for a perfect 30.
For their freestyle, Derek choreographed a routine that emphasized daring to try along with defying gravity. It was lift after lift in a smooth series of graceful moves and culminated in a rope aerial straight out of Cirque du Soleil, and brought the audience to their feet. Bruno said she was in orbit and "redefined what is possible," and Carrie Ann thought Amy was "dancing with your soul." Perfect scores? Think again -- Len "didn't think the rope was necessary." Scores: 10, 9 (to a chorus of boos), 10 = 29 + 30 for a total of 59.
So, we've got the Top Three, and it will be interesting to see how far the votes of the viewing public and Candace's fan base can push her up the leaderboard. Will she be crowned champ? I'm hoping that appreciation for two dancers who have a unique chemistry and incredible talent will help Maks and Meryl to claim that Mirror Ball Trophy.
First, there will be a special, "The Road to the Finals," at 8 p.m., followed by the two-hour finale. And the show will be packed with entertainment by reigning champ Amber Riley, a special number by this season's Cody Simpson, and all of the season's celebs and partners, plus Iggy Azalea, Ariana Grande and Christina Perri -- I need to go Google those last three. Most entertaining of all, Meryl and Charlie, partners on ice and winners of the Olympic ice dancing gold medal, will dance with each other on wood for the first time. See you tomorrow -- keep dancing.