Little did we know, Dancing With the Stars fans, that when Season 28 ended last November, we were also saying goodbye to a version of the show we’ve known and loved for years.
During the reality competition’s hiatus, the show made some major changes: America’s Next Top Model vet Tyra Banks is now hosting, taking on the duties of both Tom Bergeron and Erin Andrews (who were let go in July). And six-time Mirrorball winner Derek Hough is now behind the judges’ table, sitting in the chair typically occupied by Len Goodman (who’s unable to participate this year due to coronavirus travel restrictions).
Plus, the global pandemic has changed things inside the ballroom, too. There’s no studio audience this time around — though there are some phantom cheers and boos coming from… somewhere — and contestants now watch each other perform from socially distanced spots in the rafters instead of the Sky Box. It’s not the ideal environment for a high-energy dance competition, but really, is anything ideal in 2020?
This season’s celebrity/pro pairings weren’t revealed until Monday’s premiere; before you weigh in on the show’s return, here are some rapid-fire thoughts on the 15 performances:
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AJ McLean and pro Cheryl Burke (Jive): Premiere night nerves didn’t seem to rattle AJ, even when he momentarily lost his balance from that jump onto the ballroom floor. I wish the Backstreet Boys singer hadn’t performed first, since his jive became more forgettable as the broadcast wore on — but on its own, this high-energy routine was confidently executed. Judges’ Score: 18/30
Chrishell Stause and pro Gleb Savchenko (Tango; pictured): I was surprised to see the judges score Chrishell so low this week. Yes, her footwork and frame need some improvement — but we’ve seen many an amateur completely fall apart once they make a misstep, and I thought Chrishell did a nice job keeping this tango from going off the rails, despite her mistakes. Judges’ Score: 13/30
Vernon Davis and pro Peta Murgatroyd (Foxtrot): When we talk about chemistry, we’re talking about moments like the middle of this foxtrot, when Vernon paused and ran his hands down Peta’s shoulders for a full eight-count. It’s not often you see both elegance and sensuality in a foxtrot; Vernon somehow pulled off both. Judges’ Score: 17/30
Anne Heche and pro Keo Motsepe (Cha-Cha): Was Anne’s footwork a bit messy during portions of this cha-cha? Yes. Is she having the most fun of perhaps any contestant this season? Also yes! Judges’ Score: 18/30
Jeannie Mai and pro Brandon Armstrong (Salsa): Jeannie first told Brandon that she loves when DWTS contestants do cool tricks, then delivered at least three very impressive tricks of her own in this salsa. That move with her legs wrapped around Brandon’s neck? Here. For. It. Judges’ Score: 18/30
Jesse Metcalfe and pro Sharna Burgess (Quickstep): For a style as tough as the quickstep, Jesse handled himself quite well in his first performance… though his intense facial expression didn’t exactly indicate if he was having fun out there. Judges’ Score: 18/30
Skai Jackson and pro Alan Bersten (Tango): Skai went from bubbly teen to passionate ballroom performer so quickly, the transformation gave me as much whiplash as those tango moves probably would. Though Skai’s movements were sometimes too powerful and choppy, her lines — and that split! — were insanely good. Judges’ Score: 21/30
Kaitlyn Bristowe and pro Artem Chigvintsev (Cha-Cha; pictured): I would love to see Artem finally reach a Dancing finale after years as a pro, and based on her first performance, Kaitlyn could very well get him there. Though she seemed a bit nervous throughout the routine, her grasp of the cha-cha choreography was strong. Judges’ Score: 20/30
Nev Schulman and pro Jenna Johnson (Foxtrot): In my initial predictions of how Season 29 would shake out, I had written Nev off as an early elimination… which I may need to walk back after this foxtrot. I wasn’t expecting such confidence and elegance from him in Week 1, and he inhabited a character better than anyone else in the premiere. Judges’ Score: 20/30
Johnny Weir and pro Britt Stewart (Cha-Cha): Derek Hough’s critique that Johnny needs to “stay consistently Johnny” was spot-on: Although this performance was sassy throughout, the figure skater seemed a bit self-conscious when the choreography pivoted to more traditional cha-cha. Judges’ Score: 18/30
Justina Machado and pro Sasha Farber (Cha-Cha): Excuse me while I Google “how to get Justina Machado’s confidence” after this swagger-filled cha-cha, which kicked off with a solo section that likely would have rattled less skilled performers. Judges’ Score: 21/30
Charles Oakley and pro Emma Slater (Salsa): On the heels of strong performances from Justina, Nev and others, Charles’ shortcomings were especially apparent during this salsa. But even though the NBA All-Star was among the weakest performers, he was still a strong and reliable partner for Emma during her many tricks. Judges’ Score: 12/30
Monica Aldama and pro Val Chmerkovskiy (Foxtrot): Monica and Val’s foxtrot was simple and straightforward — and the woman knows how to do a fan kick, folks! Judges’ Score: 19/30
Nelly and pro Daniella Karagach (Salsa): Nelly seemed so overwhelmed in his rehearsal package that I was preparing for the worst… then got a pleasant surprise when he actually performed live. There’s room for improvement, to be sure, but the rapper brought an unexpected charisma and musicality to his first showing. Judges’ Score: 16/30
Carole Baskin and pro Pasha Pashkov (Paso Doble): “Tiger King‘s Carole Baskin performs a paso doble on Dancing With the Stars” is truly a Mad Lib of a sentence (and yet, in this particular year, it somehow makes complete sense). Truthfully, I was expecting much worse from Carole; despite all the gimmicks and “Eye of the Tiger” song choice, at least it wasn’t a Rick Perry situation. Judges’ Score: 11/30
With that, I hand it over to you. Who impressed you the most (and least) during Dancing‘s season premiere? Cast your vote in our poll below, then bring the discussion to the comments!