Justina Machado, ladies and gents!

By Maggie Fremont
September 14, 2020 at 11:47 PM EDT
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Raise your virtual hand if you arrived at the premiere of season 29 (!!) of Dancing With the Stars still upset that you wouldn’t be greeted by ballroom institution and America’s dad Tom Bergeron, and yet quite curious as to what a revamp of the show in the midst of a pandemic would look like. You are not alone. Setting aside the mind-boggling decision to let Bergeron go (for this recap, never in my heart), there are some big changes as the new season kicks off: Tyra Banks is our new master of ceremonies — she is excited! She loves dancing! We’ll see how this goes! Since head judge Len Goodman can’t travel from the U.K., he’ll be giving up his seat at the (socially-distanced) judges’ panel for a familiar face: six-time mirrorball champ Derek Hough is back in the ballroom. It could be fine? We’ll see how this goes! There is no live studio audience anymore. We’ll see how this goes! All of the audience voting is live during the show (except for tonight — there are only judges’ scores tonight and those will carry over into next week). That could be an issue but, say it with me: We’ll see how this goes! 

Things on DWTS are new and weird, but while we adjust to the change let’s focus on the familiar, the thing that brings us back season after season — the dancing. Because of COVID-19 protocols, the routines will be stripped down this season — no back-up dancers, no huge set pieces, etc — which, honestly, I’m excited about. We’ll be getting to see our new dancers’ ability and progress front and center. So how about we meet the new crop of Stars vying for mirrorball glory? It’s time everybody: So you wanna be on top? Oh wait, I meant, let’s dance.

Eric McCandless/ABC

AJ McLean and Cheryl Burke

Jive, “Blinding Lights” by The Weeknd

There’s another Backstreet Boy in the ballroom! It seems like 100 years ago that Nick Carter and Sharna Burgess took second place (it was season 21), but now AJ is taking up the BSB mantle on DWTS. Good on Cheryl for calling it like it is from their first meeting and telling AJ that NSYNC was the better dancing group (listen, I was a BSB girl and even I can admit that). It doesn’t seem to mess with their chemistry, which is clearly on display during their jive. Jive is a tough pull for week 1 — the judges call AJ out for his lack of technique in his flicks and kicks — but AJ has the performance experience to sell what he lacks in precision.

Judges’ Score: 18/30

Chrishell Stause and Gleb Savchenko

Tango, “Raise Your Glass” by Pink

Chrishell and her PR team are true geniuses, please recognize. After breaking out on Netflix’s reality real estate show Selling Sunset (a true addiction), they quickly got her into some fringe for the dance floor. She is so cute and this is a great format for her to shine. Unfortunately, the judges rip her tango technique to shreds. Bruno notes that Chrishell lost her footing and posture and Derek tells Chrishell that since she’s a little pigeon-toed, she needs to work from the feet up. Here’s the thing though: You can tell immediately that Chrishell is all in on Dancing With the Stars and really acts the part. That could go a long way. Carrie Ann sees some major potential and that’s what really matters (okay, and also getting votes to survive another week matters, but still).

Judges’ Score: 13/30

Vernon Davis and Peta Murgatroyd

Foxtrot, “All of Me” by John Legend

Oh, you know Peta was pumped to learn she got this season’s NFL player. On top of Vernon Davis being a top athlete, he seems genuinely excited to be trying out ballroom dance and is putting the effort in. Um, hi, hello, to steal Derek Hough’s word for Vernon and Peta’s Foxtrot, this whole situation is so smooth. There’s zero awkwardness in this new partnership, which is a feat on week 1. Bruno’s especially pleased to see Vernon get the rise and fall of the dance down so well. And just in case you thought this season had too many changes to take, Carrie Ann Inaba is back to knock off points for illegal lifts with inspiring fervor. See guys, some things never change!

Judges’ Score: 17/30

Anne Heche and Keo Motsepe

Cha Cha, “Don’t Start Now” by Dua Lipa

Can we talk about  Anne and Keo's meeting moment? She peeks into the room, sees it's Keo, and dramatically walks right up to him to introduce herself. Then she reveals she has hotpants on under her coat. It is a wild ride and also perfect for this setting. Anne is here to really learn about dancing and you can see her putting that attitude into action on the dance floor as she tries to nail the technique. The judges all remark on how clean and precise it is, but Bruno notes that this also means some of it was a little “mechanical.” Per usual, Bruno wants more hip action, people! Regardless, Anne looks like she’s having the time of her life and tells everyone that in this partnership, Keo is the “star.” Should we already be obsessed with these two?

Judges’ Score: 18/30

Jeannie Mai and Brandon Armstrong

Salsa, “Tell It to My Heart” by Taylor Dayne

Jeannie Mai, co-host of The Real, is 100 percent in for whatever Dancing With the Stars has to throw at her, including being thrown. She wants the tricks and the lifts! Fortunately, she gets the salsa for week 1, which begs for tricks (and allows lifts!). Jeannie and Brandon immediately connect, which is a good thing because Jeannie needs to put a whole lot of trust in this guy she just met who, yes, is going to fling her around the dance floor. There’s so much energy in this performance and Carrie Ann’s right: If this is where Jeannie is starting, that's a great way to kick things off.

Judges’ Score: 18/30

Jesse Metcalfe and Sharna Burgess

Quickstep, “Part-Time Lover” by Stevie Wonder

First of all, I cheered when Sharna Burgess popped up in the opening pro number. DWTS corrected a grievous wrong from last season by bringing her back. She and Passions and Desperate Housewives actor, the John Tucker himself, Jesse Metcalfe are sure to be hot together but have some kinks to work out first. Carrie Ann thinks Jesse’s intensity and enthusiasm caused the refinement of the quickstep to get away from him a little bit. Derek wants Jesse to work on his frame, but can see that he’s already a leading man and strong partner. Bruno makes reference to Jesse’s character on Housewives by exclaiming that his “bushes look fantastic” thanks to Jesse and honestly, it’s good to be back.

Judges’ Score: 18/30

Skai Jackson and Alan Bersten

Tango, “Super Bass” by Nicki Minaj

Disney Channel star Skai Jackson just graduated high school and will be our youngest competitor this season, but she’s in good hands — she’s paired with our reigning champ Alan Bersten. There is so much energy in that rehearsal studio it is exhausting (in a good way!). It also makes it extra-surprising to see how committed Skai is to her serious and mature tango routine. She carries the feel of this dance so well. Carrie Ann is the only judge to point out the height difference between Skai and Alan, which may account for some of the awkwardness while in hold. Bruno also thought this routine was a little too stagnant for tango, which calls for lots of stalking across the dance floor. It needed more traveling, says Derek. Even with those critiques, Skai and Alan are the first to break the "6" ceiling.

Judges’ Score: 21/30

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Kaitlyn Bristowe and Artem Chigvintsev

Cha Cha, “Stupid Love” by Lady Gaga

This season’s Bachelorette alum dreamed of being a dancer growing up and that enthusiasm informs everything she does. Even just meeting Artem — another wrong righted, blessings — brings squeals. I mean, I get it, it’s Artem. That intensity is a little lacking in Kaitlyn’s cha cha. She has the routine down and has a lot of good technique — Bruno is especially pleased by her foot placement — but, as Derek points out, there’s no bite to her movements. Her arms were “placed” rather than hitting her lines. Carrie Ann wants to see more tension in her feet. These highly-technical critiques are actually a good sign — it means the judges see a lot of potential.

Judges’ Score: 20/30

Nev Schulman and Jenna Johnson

Foxtrot, “The Way You Look Tonight” by Frank Sinatra

Nev was catfished, and then started the TV series Catfish, and now he’s here dancing. That's what we call a journey. Nev seems pretty natural on the dance floor, and I’m always happy to see a good and honest traditional foxtrot. He and Jenna are shooting for old school Hollywood glam, and it is mostly there! Carrie Ann calls the routine “uplifting and refined,” but the rise and fall was too staccato. Derek also found it “pleasant to watch” but had notes on Nev’s butt and elbow (who among us, really?). Bruno thought the side-by-side choreography was great, but that things went hairy while in hold. Lots of constructive notes for Nev and Jenna to work on for next time.

Judges’ Score: 20/30

Johnny Weir and Britt Stewart

Cha Cha, “Buttons” by The Pussycat Dolls

I’m very excited that Britt is a pro this season. I’m very excited that she has Johnny Weir as her partner. AND I AM VERY EXCITED THEY ARE DANCING TO "BUTTONS" BY THE PUSSYCAT DOLLS. What a time to be alive. Coming into DWTS, figure skating king and two-time Olympian Johnny Weir was most worried about partnering since he’s used to performing alone. Johnny and Britt seem to click immediately in rehearsal, but that’s not enough to help Johnny get out of his head on the dance floor. Derek notes that he could see the moments when Johnny felt more comfortable performing, but when it came to the more technical and unfamiliar aspects, Johnny was overthinking. Bruno knows Johnny’s lyrical movements will come in handy eventually, but in cha cha, he needed to be much sharper.

Judges’ Score: 18/30

Justina Machado and Sasha Farber

Cha Cha, “Respect” by Aretha Franklin

JUSTINA!! Not that there’s been too much awkwardness thus far, relatively speaking, but Justina Machado is such a breath of fresh air. Her show One Day at a Time is lovely and delightful and so is she. She and Sasha are a dynamite pairing. You guys, the confidence she comes out with on the dance floor made me feel like I could do anything. Wait, can I do anything? And, maybe more than anyone else this evening, Justina’s musicality is top-notch and makes her and Sasha’s routine feel like they’re just having a night out dancing (remember when we could have nights out dancing?). It’s a good time, and we really need a good time, you know?

Judges’ Score: 21/30

Charles Oakley and Emma Slater

Salsa, “In Da Club” by 50 Cent

NBA legend Charles Oakley has a great attitude about tackling a sport he knows nothing about and that’s wonderful, but also the guy is 6 foot 9. That’s 6 feet and 9 inches. Emma does her best to choreograph through that, but it’s hard not to pay attention to the height difference. The fact that they’re dancing to “In Da Club” doesn’t help much either. All the judges note that Charles is ahead of the music the entire time, which isn't easy to overlook. For such a big guy, Charles dances small and he needs bigger movements and more intention behind them. Still, for all its technical problems, Derek notes that he “felt a joy” in the routine and as we know, attitude and effort count for a lot in the ballroom.

Judges’ Score: 12/30

Monica Aldama and Val Chmerkovskiy

Foxtrot, “My Wish” by Rascal Flatts

Cheer’s head coach Monica Aldama is used to giving the orders, not getting them, but she seems like a natural student once she steps into rehearsal with Val. We know the woman is obsessed with practicing in perpetuity, so she’s probably a dream partner for a pro. On the dance floor, Monica’s graceful and elegant, although she has some issues with her turns and keeping her shoulders down. Carrie Ann calls out another minor lift because guys, Carrie Ann is gonna Carrie Ann. She also points out that she could tell Monica felt much more comfortable in the second half of the routine and was impressed with her transition from cheerleading to ballroom dance.

Judges’ Score: 19/30

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Nelly and Daniella Karagach

Salsa, “Ride Wit Me” by Nelly

Will Nelly perform every dance to one of his own songs? Will someone make a “Hot in Here” joke every week? If I’m being honest, I hope the answer to both of those questions is “yes,” otherwise what are we really doing here? There’s lots of flash in this dance — I’m always here for backflips — and Carrie Ann notes that Nelly is really the only competitor who has that grounded groove down at the moment. On the, ahem, flip side (you’re welcome!), all three of our judges want Nelly to work on opening up his shoulders and chest and Derek even invokes Len Goodman a little and points out that wearing ballroom shoes instead of sneakers will help with Nelly’s feet in the future.

Judges’ Score: 16/30

Carole Baskin and Pasha Pashkov

Paso Doble, “Eye of the Tiger” by Survivor

Well, folks, it happened: DWTS put Carole Baskin on the show and had her dance to “Eye of the Tiger.” It feels inevitable and very fitting for the year 2020 because honestly, what is this world? You can probably guess from her score how things went on a technical level, but the judges try to build Carole’s confidence up by commending her for going “full out” and simply “doing it” in the first place. Well actually, Bruno gets tough and tells her that this paso was too “sedated” and it “didn’t pop the way it should.” He brings out the "3" paddle for this one.

Judges’ Score: 11/30

Well, we did it. We made it through the first night of this strange new DWTS. Aside from the overwhelming fake audience noises and Carole Baskin completely ignoring one of Tyra's questions, it went pretty smoothly, no? More importantly, it seems like we have a whole handful of contenders moving forward, which is always exciting. Who was the biggest surprise of the night and who are your early favorites?

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