DWTS 5th Judge: From Perfect Score to Bottom Two — What Are You Doing, America?

Two couples earned their first perfect scores of the season, but the celebration was short-lived for one of them as they quickly found themselves in the Bottom Two.

Well, this was a bonkers night of television on “Dancing with the Stars,” and it’s all America’s fault.

You’d think after successfully managing to navigate a national election (even showing up in record numbers) they’d be better at voting, but this week’s results delivered the season’s most shocking and undeserved Final 2 yet.

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We’re on the cusp of the semifinals, coming next week with a double-elimination to boot, so there is really no more time left to be getting this vote this wrong at this late stage. Do better, America!

The theme of this week’s performances was icons, which delivered powerful and very personal moments, including Skai Jackson opening up about her her inspiration has inspired more than just as a performer, but also as an activist. And through these times, Skai has found her own voice, using this platform to speak her truth and share some of her own experiences with racism.

The night featured two rounds of competition, with the couples battling head-to-head in the second round. But first, they had to celebrate their icons. The inspiration clearly had an impact on them, as the night delivered two well-earned perfect scores.

While they aren’t the season’s first perfect scores, we love that these are the first perfect scores for these couples. It’s just further proof of how well cast this season was, how talented these performers are and how it really is anyone’s season, even with seven stars taking the floor.

Who do I think I am? you ask. Well, I spent nearly a decade of my life sweating and bleeding to the music as a dancer. From a young boy learning a shuffle-ball-change to performing with the St. Louis Ballet Company, I experienced the ups and downs of one of the most difficult physically demanding sports on the planet. During this time, I was also a member of the St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra, as well as a gymnast, writer and cartoonist. I had a lot more energy in my younger years. And I’ve spent the last eighteen years analyzing and critiquing reality competition shows for various media publications. I’ve got this.

Fair warning, since I’m safe at home, I’m probably going to be a little harsher than my colleagues Carrie Ann Inaba, Derek Hough, and Bruno Tonioli. But I might be nicer, too. Maybe.

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ROUND 1

Justina Machado & Sasha Farber

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(Rumba) An unabashed Madonna superfan, Justina had big shoes to fill in bringing Madge’s brazen sexuality to the forefront, but this was certainly the right style to do that. She absolutely brought it. Her hips were swiveling, and her partnering with Sasha was better than ever. Even their “lifts” were executed just beautifully. While there were moments she could have reached or extended beyond the fame a bit more to create a stronger image, there were others where it seemed she was every bit the pro Sasha is, which just means she keeps getting better.

Judges Scores: 8, 8, 8

My Score: 8

Nelly & Daniella Karagach

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(Jazz) We kind of love that Nelly took his icon performance to the next level, actually laying down a vocal track for 2Pac’s “California Love” as well as dancing to it. It’s a beautiful way to pay tribute to his personal icon in a way that would have spoken even more to him. And, well … he got through it. This was pretty rough in a lot of places, with Nelly not even bringing his own groove down into the floor. He was stiff, way too upright throughout, lacked the loose energy and even lost the rhythm at times. Most of this, it appeared, was a lack of confidence in himself and not quite remembering all the choreography. It’s just not enough at this stage.

Judges Scores: 8, 8, 8

My Score: 4

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AJ McLean & Cheryl Burke

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(Viennese Waltz) Yikes! AJ lost his way early on with this one and never recovered. He missed a step and then followed that up by getting flustered and missing several others. He lacked grace across the stage and his extended arm looked like an airplane wing getting ready for takeoff. Clearly, he got rattled at the top and never recovered at all, which is a huge disappointment. He’s so much better than this. It wasn’t elegant or lovely or anything; it was actually kind of painful to watch.

Judges Scores: 7, 8, 8

My Score: 5

Kaitlyn Bristowe & Artem Chigvintsev

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(Argentine Tango) Kaitlyn was straight fire throughout this routine, and her body control during those lifts and tricks was incredible. Her core strength was absolutely showing itself there. On top of that, she was sherp and fierce, matching Artem’s intensity perfectly. We saw flicks, we saw intricate footwork and we saw Kaitlyn moving confidently through all of it. This was easily her strongest performance, it looked like she was born for this style.

Judges Scores: 10, 10, 10

My Score: 10

Johnny Weir & Britt Stewart

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(Quickstep) A late kick here and there and a few flat-footed moments couldn’t take from the infectious joy of this piece. This is an incredibly unforgiving style and Johnny mostly rose to the occasion of it, moving effortlessly across the floor and nailing all those little movements throughout. On ratio of steps to misses, he was definitely ahead of the curve just because there was so much to do. Great posture, great partnering and great energy throughout.

Judges Scores: 10, 10, 10

My Score: 9

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Skai Jackson & Alan Bersten

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(Paso Doble) Skai chose her icon, Janet Jackson, as much for her activism and strength as for her artistry. She opened up about some of her own experiences with racism in the entertainment industry and in her personal life and how much Black Lives Matter means to her. And it’s worth remembering that she’s only 18 years old, so she’s talking about racism alive and well in the 21st Century.

Skai has been as much an activist in her lifetime as Janet has been in hers, which is inspiring and empowering, and we love that she’s even using this platform to get her message out about the importance of equality and fighting for a right that should be inalienable for all people.

She was lacking a bit in intensity for this style, which was perfect for her message, the track and everything. We loved how she stopped her spin on the floor — that was impactful — and she seemed to have the right energy after, but it was too close to the end. At other times, she looked like she was walking through the choreography rather than attacking it. The pieces were all there, it just lacked that performance punch.

Judges Scores: 9, 9, 9

My Score: 7

Nev Schulman & Jenna Johnson

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(Jive) Nev explained some of why he’s doing so well here, and that is that while he has a background in the performing arts, he’d mostly packed it away in recent years as his career took off. But this show reignited in him a passion for it, and you can see the joy of performance each time he takes the stage. Whether he wins the show or not, what an incredible gift that is!

He even went so far as to say it fired back up his passion to perform in a Broadway musical, something he’s not willing to take off the burner just yet. Everything about this performance was pure joy, but Nev was also working hard.

Jenna choreographs him like a pro and he takes to it with that level of commitment. He had an incredible hop and bounce throughout this, with great footwork, carriage and body positioning, but there were a few problems with his feet, as if he forgot to roll his commitment all the way down. But there’s no doubt he could hit a Broadway stage right now.

Judges Scores: 9, 9, 9

My Score: 9

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ROUND 2: DANCE-OFF

Before even getting into the round, Tyra Banks quickly announced that Nev and Jenna, who’ve enjoyed the highest overall scores this season, scored immunity for the round. They didn’t even have to perform and they still scored the two bonus points.

For everyone else, it was head-to-head competition. They were paired off randomly — though it seemed a bit strategic to us — and given the same style to dance at the same time on the same dance floor in front of, well, the same judges.

But we were blown away at just how differently they approached each style.

Cha Cha Dance-Off

(Justina & Sasha / Kaitlyn & Artem)

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Both of these dancers hit this style last in Week 1. While it’s more suited to Justina’s saucy performance style, Kaitlyn is the stronger technical dancer. To really nail it, they need to meet somewhere in the middle of those two areas to find the perfect blend of technique and performance.

On top of those concerns, they actually hit the floor taking different temps (both correct) from the song, thus creating even more differentiation. Justina’s cha cha was fast, with lots of swivel action and lots of passion, while Kaitlyn’s was slow, more precise and filled with lovely, sinuous movement. In other words, they both gave what was expected, but made it harder to compare.

Judges’ Winner: Kaitlyn, Justina, Justina

My Winner: Justina

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Salsa Dance-Off

(Nelly & Daniella / Skai & Alan)

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Neither of these dancers has excelled in this particular format. Both have struggled with being a little too stiff at times throughout this competition, so in many ways, this is a chance at redemption for them both. Nelly last did it in Week 1, while Skai just did it Week 8 and was a little out of control. Did that give her an edge, or could it work against her?

As expected, neither of them were quite on point with this one, Skai and Alan again were a little frantic on their lifts, but there was more control and improvement there, especially in the final combo. Nelly, meanwhile did great with his lifts as well, but other than generalized grooving, we didn’t see as much quality salsa from him, and he literally stopped and just clapped for Daniella at one point.

Judges’ Winner: Skai, Nelly, Skai

My Winner: Skai

Jive Dance-Off

(AJ & Cheryl / Johnny & Britt)

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Both of these guys are strong dancers, and it’s been a while since they’ve tackled this style. AJ was too stiff in Week 1 (but who wasn’t), while Johnny struggled with full extension and footwork in Week 4. But both have also improved tremendously since then. AJ is stronger on more high-energy styles, while Johnny seems more comfortable in a more lyrical dance.

This time around, Johnny really stepped it up and into this style with abandon and it was really an impressive overall performance. His might have been the strongest of all six competitors this round, which isn’t good news for AJ. He had a little less pep in his step, and his foot was flexed awkwardly at times through the kicks. The content was there for both, but Johnny just executed more consistently and with a little more energy.

Judges’ Winner: Johnny, AJ, AJ

My Winner: Johnny

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RESULTS

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While tonight featured two couples earning perfect scores, we love that neither of those couples turned around and won their dance-off. That’s what makes this season exciting, because things can change so much week to week and even dance to dance.

Based on tonight’s scores, the stars in danger should be Nelly, Justina Machado and AJ McLean. If we had our say, it would probably come down to Nelly and AJ. Justina just has that extra fire and performance that makes her so much more fun to watch.

Ultimately, though, our pick for elimination would be Nelly as we felt he shoudl have been in the Bottom 2 last week and he managed to avoid that. He just seems to have settled into a comfortable groove that’s pleasant enough, but not growing enough at this stage of the competition.

Next week is the semi-finals and we need the strongest dancers there. Of this batch, we’d argue Nelly is the weakest of them. Not a terrible dancer, but comparatively speaking, he’s outclassed overall — if ever so slightly from some of his competitors.

America was agreeing with us when Justina was marked safe, but then she was followed b Nelly once again avoiding the Bottom 2, despite having the lowest score for the second week in a row.

Even more shocking, Johnny Weir got a perfect score from the judges tonight on his way to a Bottom 2 face-off with AJ. And that’s gotta be just brutal for his ego. But also, how the hell did that happen?

So does that mean it’s back to Backstreet for AJ? How do you keep him over the guy who just got a perfect score?

Bruno and Derek split their votes between the two of them (Bruno for Johnny and Derek for AJ), leaving the final choice to Carrie Ann, who ultimately made the right call. It was a close call, but Johnny is heading to the semifinals next week as AJ McLean left with his head held high.

“Dancing With the Stars” reaches its semifinals — with a double-elimination — next Monday at 8 p.m. ET on ABC.

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