(LOS ANGELES) -- Paige VanZant, Ginger Zee and Nyle DiMarco pulled out all the stops Monday night on the first night of the two-night Dancing with the Stars finale, each performing two routines in their intense contest to win the Mirror Ball trophy.
At the end of the night, Paige VanZant was leading the pack in judges’ scores.
The stars each had to do a “redemption routine,” in which they reprised a previous dance to show how much they’d improved. They also had to perform an all-important freestyle, which has generally had tremendous significance in determining the overall winner of the competition.
The finalists will perform a third routine Tuesday night -- the 24-hour fusion challenge. This challenge, along with the judges’ scores and viewer votes from last week and this week, will be combined to determine the champion.
Co-host Tom Bergeron said the voting so far had been the closest in any DWTS finale.
Redemption routine: Performing with a back injury, the Good Morning America meteorologist was able to impress the three judges with her evocative contemporary routine. Head judge Len Goodman said it was “amazing,” while Bruno Tonioli said the routine showed how much Zee has blossomed as a dancer. Carrie Ann Inaba said she was “really impressed” with the strategy. Scores: 9,10,9: 28/30.
Freestyle: Zee’s ballroom freestyle -– which channeled old Hollywood musical production films -– impressed judges even more. Goodman said Zee showed her versatility, and Inaba said this type of routine was where Zee shone the brightest. Tonioli said he “absolutely adored” the number, adding that it brought back to life the legacy of dance greats Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Scores: 10,10,10: 30/30.
Redemption routine: The deaf model and actor reprised his previous quickstep, and even though judges pointed out that he was out of sync at certain points in the routine, they had high praise for him. Tonioli said the routine was “like an exhilarating ride on the Pony Express,” and Inaba said it was “a great dance” for DiMarco. Goodman agreed that the routine was “a little bit hectic in places,” but added to DiMarco: “You’re one heck of a dancer.” Scores: 9, 9, 9: 27/30.
Freestyle: DiMarco wanted his contemporary routine to represent deaf people, but at the end of the stirring performance that earned him a sustained standing ovation from the ballroom audience, Goodman said it was a dance for everyone. “Nyle, you’re a very special person and that was a very special dance,” Goodman said. Tonioli was moved to tears. “That was beyond dancing; that was a work of art...,” he said. Inaba offered her highest praise, telling DiMarco: “I have to say, in 22 seasons that is the best dance I have ever seen...I see a man who’s proving that he can change the world through dance, and I love that.” Scores: 10, 10, 10: 30/30.
Redemption routine: The UFC fighter reprised her salsa with a rapid, red-hot number that had Inaba likening her to a “meteor shower just raining down on us.” Inaba said it was clear that VanZant was still getting better and better, saying the fighter had brought her “A-plus” game. Goodman earned some boos when he said the routine didn’t have the hip action required of the dance style – although he praised the performance itself, and Tonioli was the most enthusiastic yet. “Goodness gracious, great balls of fire!” he said, praising VanZant’s footwork and telling her she was bursting with sex appeal. Scores: 10, 9, 10: 29/30.
Freestyle: VanZant’s poignant contemporary freestyle, which demonstrated her triumph over being bullied, caused tears to flow again on the judges’ panel. Inaba told VanZant that her performance showed how dance heals, and Tonioli said the routine was “really a triumph on a night of creative and artistic excellence.” Scores: 10, 10, 10: 30/30.
Judges’ Scores (1st dance, 2nd dance. Total)
Paige VanZant and Mark Ballas: 29; 30. Total: 59
Ginger Zee and Val Chmerkovskiy: 28; 30. Total: 58
Nyle DiMarco and Peta Murgatroyd: 27; 30. Total: 57
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