A dark horse emerges as the one to beat on ‘Dancing with the Stars’

Tonight was the performance finale of “Dancing with the Stars” (the results show is Tues. at 9:00 p.m.), and I’ll admit I didn’t see much reason to watch, at least not closely. Though Zendaya dropped the ball with last week’s routine, she’s been the one to beat since week one. Long limbed and naturally gifted, she was certain to get to the finale and a lock to win. 

But then again, Zendaya wasn’t alone in having a flair for the dance floor. Aly Raisman, though initially a little stiff, brought an athletic sensibility to her routines. Jacoby Jones never seemed wholly comfortable with partner dancing, but clearly loved any opportunity to freestyle. And then there was Kellie Pickler.

The former “American Idol” contestant clearly had ability, but was frequently overshadowed by Zendaya. She seemed destined to be a tough competitor, but given the judges’ gushing over Zendaya, an also-ran. 

Tonight, all of that changed thanks to a brilliant strategic move on the part of Kellie’s partner Derek Hough. Going into the Supersize Freestyle, the ranking of the dancers already seemed firmly in place. In the Cha Cha Relay (I do not make up these titles, by the way), Zendaya had earned the most “extra” points, Kellie the second, Aly the third and Jacoby bringing up the rear. 

We were informed that the Supersize Freestyle gave the dancers license to go all out — you want crazy props? You got crazy props! You want more dancers? You get more dancers! Sky’s the limit! Jacoby and his partner Karina Smirnoff clearly took “Dancing with the Stars” at its word. In a salute to his New Orleans home town, he and Karina danced with kids, other dancers, a marching band, and sometimes one another. It was a great, crazy parade, and though Carrie Ann Inaba and Bruno Tonioli grumbled Jacoby got lost in the shuffle, it was probably exactly what his fans wanted and expected.

Next, Aly took the floor, but not until we’d seen an unintentionally funny segment in which her partner Mark Ballas explained his vision. He knew she did uneven bar work, so he wanted to get a “vertical bar” for their dance. This would be a stripper pole. Even once the stripper pole was moved into the studio, Aly just shrugged and got to work (we probably didn’t see the part where she told Mark exactly what she thought of working the pole). Meanwhile, Mark applauded her natural ability to work the “vertical bar” (stripper pole), commenting that she’s probably the only person he knows who has the upper body strength to do it other than a “professional” (stripper). 

Though it was hard to get past the fact that Mark actually made an Olympic gymnast pole dance, it was an impressive routine, and one that earned an equally impressive perfect score. It looked like the routine to beat.

Until it wasn’t.

In the walk-up segment, we learn about Derek’s vision for Kellie. Instead of bells and whistles and dancing kids, he saw something simple and yet emotional. He intended to ask her to really reach for greatness, performing moves he usually reserved for his pro partners. It didn’t sound like a great idea, but hey, he had a vision and Kellie did as she was told.

But once Derek and Kellie hit the floor with nothing other than some mood lighting, it became clear how smart Derek’s idea really was. The routine was spare and emotional and perfectly executed. Carrie Ann cried. People in the audience who weren’t even there for Kellie cried. I’m pretty sure people watching cried. It was beautiful and yes, Derek and Kellie nailed it.

As Carrie Ann wept, Kellie gave her a hug. Needless to say, she loved it. Len actually stood up to give Kellie a slow clap standing O. Bruno thought it was spellbinding, and for once he wasn’t just being his usual effusive self. 

Kellie completely cast aside Zendaya’s shadow. More than that, she made it almost impossible for anyone to follow her. But that was exactly what Zendaya had to do.

If there was any way to make a bloated routine with a mishmash of styles and a bunch of kids dancing hip hop look more manipulative and overwrought, I can’t imagine what it would be. Of course, Zendaya nailed it, but this time she seemed less a natural talent and more like a smiling robot from the Disney factory. Yes, she was great, and her partner Val Chmerkovskiy had put together a routine that showcased her abilities, but slapped right next to Kellie’s routine there was no way for Zendaya to truly shine. 

Though Derek couldn’t have known the order in which the dancers would perform, he and Kellie couldn’t have gotten a better break. Whether or not voters will hand the win over to Kellie, who knows? As Tom Bergeron repeatedly reminded us, the ABC website was down, so viewers would have to find other ways to vote. Despite Kellie’s last-dance save, Zendaya still came in in first place in the scoring department. But I’m thinking Kellie might have managed to steal the win with just one perfect routine. Although, as Len assured the foursome of celebrities, all of the final four are worthy of the win. Plus, if Aly wins it, it might make up for the fact she somehow had to pole dance on national television. I’m sorry, I mean “vertical bar” dance. Right.

Who do you think deserves the mirror ball trophy?