As a result, this is an especially tough year to predict a winner out of the gate.
But since I have to pick somebody, I’m going with Matt James. It’s hardly a risky move because the past two winners were from “Bachelor Nation.” It’s a pattern. ABC synergy at its best! And Matt looks like he has enough dancing chops to potentially take it all home.
UPDATE on October 13: Worst prediction ever! James did not get better. He was eliminated fourth. The “Bachelor” fan base did not lift him up. My other three favorites are still very much in it. After three weeks, JoJo Siwa is pulling in the best scores while another favorite of mine Amanda Kloots continues to impress. Olympian Suni Lee is doing well, too.
All 15 dancers will return next Monday, when the votes and scores from tonight will be combined with the scores next week to assess who will go home first.
EARLY FINALIST CONTENDERS
Amanda Kloots (“The Talk” host) with Alan Bersten
The 39-year-old danced professionally on Broadway for years but lost her husband last year to COVID-19. Will the sympathy factor work to her advantage? Maybe. But her dancing is so good, it’d be criminal if she didn’t make it to the finals. She brings panache and heat with her partner.
PARTNER ASSESSMENT: Alan can choreograph and really connect with his partner. No wonder he’s finished top 5 four seasons in a row, winning with “Bachelorette” Hannah Brown season 28.
JUDGES: Len said that dance was “full of tango content. It had attack. It had confidence ... That was a really great first dance.” Derek said dancing “is the best way to reclaim your joy. The finesse, your frame, you hit every single step.” Bruno said she put a lot of details, sometimes cool, sometimes cat-like, sometimes sexy. Carrie Ann said Amanda brought tears to her eyes and knows her husband is looking down over her: “You’re like an angel dancing.” (7′s across the board: 28)
Matt James (the first Black ”Bachelor”) with Lindsay Arnold
“Bachelor” contestants do very well on the show and “Bachlorettes” won seasons 28 and 29. The ABC crossover audience is obviously big. He has no dance experience whatsoever but his first cha-cha-cha was more hot-hot-hot than not-not-not. There is no doubt he will bring in votes and more votes and be around a good long while.
PARTNER ASSESSMENT: Over nine seasons, Lindsay won season 25 with Jordan Fisher and has never finished worse than eighth. Her track record is impressive. She just came back from having a baby, as host Tyra Banks helpfully noted.
JUDGES: Len Goodman said Matt’s hip action was lacking but “your future is going to be (lame pun alert!) rosy.” Derek Hough said he needs to work on his feet but liked his charisma. Bruno Tonioli said he delivered with natural stage presence. Carrie Ann Inaba said Matt’s footwork was iffy but he used the space well. (Carrie Ann: 6 Len: 6 Derek: 6 Bruno: 6 Total: 24)
Suni Lee (Olympic gold medal gymnast) with Sasha Farber
Despite her gymnastics background, the 18-year-old has never danced before and feels out of her element. Sasha asked her if she had even held a boy’s hand before. The answer? No. Still, her athleticism allowed Sasha to design for her an impressively complex first dance jive choreography. She had a couple of timing issues and you could see it in her face as she was making mistakes. Her youth may cost her in the end, but her potential is so big, she could only get better. She has a better than average shot at the finals if she can build her confidence in the ballroom world.
PARTNER ASSESSMENT: Although Farber has never won in eight seasons, he has always finished in the top nine, finishing third with Olympian Tonya Harding season 26 and ninth with Mary Lou Retton a season later.
JUDGES: Bruno was impressed with her precision, the retraction, the placement but told her to “learn to perform and sell it big.” Carrie Ann said the skills are there but she has to be more outward than inward. Len said it was neat and precise but needed a little more freedom. Derek has danced with gymnasts before and said, “A little less perfection, a little more expression.” (Carrie Ann: 7 Len: 7 Derek: 7 Bruno: 7 total: 28)
JoJo Siwa (pop star and TV personality) with Jenna Johnson
This is the big headline of the season: the show’s first same-sex coupling. The 18-year-old Siwa came out earlier this year and ABC nabbed her. She obviously has a dancing background but never ballroom. They were the only couple to do the quickstep and were accompanied by Jet’s appropriately titled “Are You Gonna Be My Girl?” It was super high energy and fun. Jenna slipped at one point but they recovered quickly. I have no clue if the fact JoJo is dancing with another woman will help her or hurt her in the voting. It’s an older audience so maybe the latter? Then again, she has a massive social media fanbase (10.9 million Instagram followers, 36.4 million TikTok followers) that could propel her to a victory.
PARTNER ASSESSMENT: Jenna won season 26 with Adam Rippon and came in second last year with Nev Schulman. So she could help JoJo take this one home.
JUDGES: Bruno said this was a groundbreaking moment and “is full of joy.” Carrie Ann said JoJo not only took a lead but lifted her partner when she slipped. Len liked the attack and enthusiasm. Derek said “you are born for ‘Dancing With the Stars.’” (Carrie Ann: 8 Len: 7 Derek: 7 Bruno: 7 Total: 29)
IN THE MIDDLE
Brian Austin Green (”90210″ actor) with his girlfriend Shauna Burgess
A smart way to get buzz going is to have the star dance with someone he sleeps with, too. The 48-year-old actor definitely let Shauna do the heavy lifting during the first dance. The choreography was relatively basic considering the circumstances but he did them well and the comfort level between the couple was palpable. They kissed hard at the end. By the way, past “90210″ alums have had mixed results: Ian Ziering finished fourth. Jennie Garth finished fifth. Shannen Doherty was first to be voted off her season after the judges pilloried her. Brian could follow in Ian and Jennie’s footsteps and finish top five. It’s doubtful he’ll be one of the first to go.
PARTNER ASSESSMENT: Shauna has finished in the finals five out of 13 seasons, including an inexplicable victory season 27 with Bobby Bones. So can she bring some magic to the equation. Can she do the same with her boyfriend?
JUDGES: Derek said there was an ease to him. Bruno said he was sensing sizzling chemistry and called him “Prince Charming.” Carrie Ann said they are both giddily happy but he has to perform for the audience and not just stare at Shauna. Len said his footwork was not great but overall, it was well done. (6′s across the board for 24)
MIke “The Miz” Mizanin (pro wrestler) with Witney Carson
The 40-year-old Ohio reality show star (”Real World”/”Road Rules”) is charismatic and comfortable in the spotlight from two decades of pro wrestling. He hammed it up and had moves to boot. It was a joyously commanding opening dance.
PARTNER ASSESSMENT: Witney, who took season 29 off to have a child, is a good partner to have, having finished in the finals four times in 11 seasons including a win with “Fresh Prince” actor Alfonso Ribeiro.
JUDGES: Derek said he was surprised by the Miz, who he said was “flowing and going” and not stiff. Bruno was expecting mayhem but instead, he was a “well-oiled loin machine. Very very impressed.” Carrie said she loved his energy but he hit some marks too hard. Len said he was better than expected. (6′s across the board: 24)
Melora Hardin (”The Office” actress) with Artem Chigvintsev
She is a relative old timer of the cast this season at age 54. She did ballet when she was younger but had never done ballroom. Her dance background showed. She attacked the tango with fervor and abandon. “I feel like the luckiest gal in the world,” she said. She could go far with performances like this and having “The Office” credentials can’t hurt her when it comes to votes.
PARTNER ASSESSMENT: Arten’s track record before last season was spotty but he did finally pull off a win season 29 with Bristowe.
JUDGES: Derek said that was “unbelievable. It had light and shade, all the dynamics, the control, gliding across the floor and doing the dips with control. I’m keeping my eye on you.” Bruno said great glides and placement but at times she lost balance. Carrie said she brought drama, the grace, “the ferocity of spirit.” Len: “Well done.” (Carrie Ann: 7 Len: 6 Derek: 7 Bruno: 6 total: 26)
Kenya Moore, (”Real Housewives of Atlanta”) with Brandon Armstrong
The 50-year-old Atlantan’s fox trot was elegant and refined. She did an impressive job for an opening dance.
PARTNER ASSESSMENT: Brandon has great energy but none of his first three celebrity dancers from seasons 27 to 29 made it into the top 8. If Kenya could keep dancing this well, she could easily land in the top 8. Will “Real Housewives” nation help her out?
JUDGES: Bruno said it was like Venus emerging with a “luxurious sheen” and told her to keep extending her lines. Carrie Ann said she looks like a queen. Len loved her fluidity, charm and sophistication. Derek said she has a lot of potential. (Carrie Ann: 7 Len: 6 Derek: 6 Bruno: 7 Total: 26)
Jimmie Allen (country singer) with Emma Slater
The 36-year-old country star was a little stiff during this tango and a wee bit uncomfortable. You could see it in his face. But there was definitely a potentially good dancer there.
PARTNER ASSESSMENT: Emma is a veteran 12-season dancer who won season 24 with Rashad Jennings and somehow got Bill Engvall to fourth place season 17. She was first out last season with Oakley.
JUDGES: Len said this dance does not suit Jimmie’s personality and that there is more talent than was shown. Derek said he liked his frame but needs to keep it consistent. Bruno said it was uneven. Carrie said it’s a tough dance with its specificity but considered it a great first effort. (Carrie Ann: 6 Len: 5 Derek: 6 Derek: 5 Total: 22)
Cody Rigsby (Peloton cyclist) with Cheryl Burke
He has danced but not ballroom. In hot pink, the 34-year-old sold the tango with intensity and determination. His movements lacked a certain smoothness but time and experience will help.
PARTNER ASSSESSMENT: The longest-running dancer on the show, Cheryl started season 2 and won with Drew Lachey, then won again season 3 with Emmitt Smith. Amazingly, she has not won again in 21 subsequent seasons. But she has made the finals with folks like Rob Kardashian and Jack Osbourne so she could help Cody get some votes, too.
JUDGES: Carrie said he had energy but was too tight. Len said there’s promise but he needs to keep his head up. Derek said he is going to be a blast. Bruno said he has a great attitude. (Carrie Ann: 6 Len: 6 Derek: 6 Bruno: 6 Total: 24)
Olivia Jade (Lori Laughlin’s daughter and part of an admission scandal) with Valentin Chmerkovskiy
The 21-year-old is not terribly famous and was at best a social media “influencer” before the scandal. Will this generate sympathy votes? It’s unclear. What is helpful to her is she’s actually a good dancer who appeared quite comfortable with Val’s choreography.
PARTNER ASSESSMENT: I think the fact she is paired with the super popular Val is a not-so-subtle message that the producers want her around for at least a few weeks. Val’s track record is excellent: he has made the finals 7 out of 15 seasons and two of his celeb dancers won (Rumer Willis, Laurie Hernandez). But after seven consecutive top 5 finishes, his last two celebrities finished 9th and 11th.
JUDGES: Carrie said she has “great lines and great legs.” Len said it could have been a tad spicier but it was clean, clear and polished. Derek said she has a lot of potential but has to watch her shoulders. Bruno said she has taken to dancing “like a duck to water.” (Carrie Ann: 7 Len, Derek and Bruno: 5′s. Total: 22)
MIGHT GET CUT EARLY
Iman Shumpert (Atlanta-based NBA star) with Daniella Karagach
Iman, 31, dressed like OutKast star Andre 3000 from the “Hey Ya!” video, is fun to watch during this performance. He is all legs and has a cool, sure presence even if he is a bit flat-footed at points. I am sure Len Goodman is not going to like the looseness of his technique.
PARTNER ASSESSMENT: He has a large height difference with his partner Daniella, who finished third with Nelly her first season on the show last year. That could be problematic visually at times.
JUDGES: Bruno said the jive is tough for tall people but he liked how Iman was light and nimble even if his feet were off. Carrie called him “stylish and smooth” and complimented Daniella’s choreography. Len said it was “too loose” and “the technique was poor.” (I called that one almost to a tee!). Derek said he was comfortable and while he agreed with some of Len’s critiques, still liked it. (Carrie Ann: 7 Len: 4 Derek: 5 Bruno: 5 Total: 21. It’s rare to see two judges have such a wide variance in opinion.)
Melanie C (Spice Girls’ Sporty Spice) with Gleb Savchenko
Mel C, 47, was part of a hugely popular girl group from a quarter century ago and looked terrific. Her dance background from that time was readily apparent with her comfort level on the dance floor, even if she hadn’t previously done a lot of partner work. Her opening dance was solid but I’m not sure over the weeks she is someone who will generate a lot of votes given the competition.
PARTNER ASSESSMENT: Gleb over eight previous seasons has finished as high as fourth twice but has never made the finals. I don’t think he will make it with Mel C either.
JUDGES: Len liked the choreography and found her cha-cha “polished and first class.” Derek liked her precision. Bruno said she spiced up his life but said she could use a little more hip action. Carrie Ann said she was her favorite Spice Girl and said she’s very clean but could loosen up. (Carrie Ann: 7 Len: 7 Derek: 6 Bruno: 7 Total: 27)
Christine Chiu (reality show star “Bling Empire”) with Pasha Pashkov
The 38-year-old reality star looked glamorous and sharp during her tango. She even dislocated a rib. She will need to shine even more amid a lot of comparable, bigger-name rivals to pick up votes. I’m not sure she’ll have the time.
PARTNER ASSSESSMENT: He joined the show season 28 and finished seventh with Kate Flannery.
JUDGES: Carrie Ann said “you’re like a diamond in the rough.” Len said it had staccato and great control. Derek said he loved the blingy dress and her frame but said she needs to be lower for a tango. Bruno said she’s a gem: “With a little polish, you can have full brilliance.” (Carrie Ann: 6 Len: 7 Derek: 6 Bruno: 6 Total: 25)
Martin Kove (”Cobra Kai” actor) with Britt Stewart
Look. He’s 74ish. He’s riding the wave of “Cobra Kai” and of course, “danced” to the “Karate Kid” song “You’re the Best.” He opened with a big John Kreese-like pronouncement. But it would be charitable to describe what he did after that as dancing. He did make a lot of pseudo-karate moves and stood around a lot while Britt danced around him. (It was theoretically a paso doble.)
PARTNER ASSESSMENT: She joined the show last year and finished sixth with Johnny Weir. She has her work cut out for her this time around.
JUDGES: Derek said he seemed unprepared and wants him to work harder. Bruno said it seemed like he didn’t know what was coming next. Carrie Ann said he is truly committed to character but had nothing more to say. Len said someone in the 70s came out and made “a gallant effort.” (Carrie Ann: 4 Len: 3 Derek: 3 Bruno: 3 Total: 13)