DWTS 5th Judge: AJ McLean and Cheryl Burke Connect Over Their Addiction and Recovery Stories

After Jeannie Mai was forced to withdraw from the competition, the double elimination was off, but the remaining eight couples still had to face the double danger of performing twice for the first time this season!

With Jeannie Mai forced to withdraw from the competition, “Dancing with the Stars” was able to simply shift from a planned double elimination to a traditional single elimination episode.

Regardless, there will only be seven couples remaining after the night finishes. Jeannie was unlikely to win this competition, having fallen into the Bottom 2 last week, but she was an infectious performer and a lot of fun to watch on the dance floor.

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Even more, she was getting better each week. We wish her a speedy recovery.

“It was hands down one of the best journeys of my life,” she said in a video message taped from her hospital bed. Her emergency surgery was successful, so all that’s left now is the recovery.

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So while it’s heartbreaking for her journey to end like this, it’s clear already that this was a life-changing experience for her in the best possible way.

As for the Top 8, they were hit with a one-two punch of performances, as each of them had to hit the dance floor twice on the night. The first round was just the traditional fare we’ve grown used to, while the second saw them facing off against one another directly.

The relay round split the couples into three groups, with each taking to the floor one after the other in the same style, so that’s direct competition like they’ve never seen before.

Beyond the competition, the night was filled with emotions as AJ McLean and Cheryl Burke opened up about their respective journeys to overcome addiction, while Nelly dedicated his performance to his late sister, who died from leukemia 15 years ago.

Who do I think I am? you ask. Well, I spent nearly a decade of my life sweating and bleeding to the music as a dancer. From a young boy learning a shuffle-ball-change to performing with the St. Louis Ballet Company, I experienced the ups and downs of one of the most difficult physically demanding sports on the planet. During this time, I was also a member of the St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra, as well as a gymnast, writer and cartoonist. I had a lot more energy in my younger years. And I’ve spent the last eighteen years analyzing and critiquing reality competition shows for various media publications. I’ve got this.

Fair warning, since I’m safe at home, I’m probably going to be a little harsher than my colleagues Carrie Ann Inaba, Derek Hough, and Bruno Tonioli. But I might be nicer, too. Maybe.

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Kaitlyn Bristowe & Artem Chigvintsev

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(Jive) After pretty brutal feedback from Carrie Ann last week, Kaitlyn broke down during rehearsals. But Artem reminded her that they need to find their own joy and dance to impress themselves first and foremost. It was a great message for anyone struggling to please others.

And it clearly worked as Kaitlyn had more verve and energy this week than last, for sure, in a dance packed with great jive content. She was still a little stiff at times (that pull through shouldn’t have been a stutter-walk from her), and she didn’t get quite enough pep in her high steps or extensions, but for the most part, she was everything she needed to be in this one.

Alas, this week Carrie Ann — the jump stickler — got into it a bit with Artem and Kaitlyn over what was either an assisted flip or a lift. Carrie Ann took it as the latter, thus docking a point, while they tried to argue the former.

Judges Scores: 8, 9, 8

My Score: 8

Nev Schulman & Jenna Johnson

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(Viennese Waltz) Lacking ever so slightly in grace and extension, likely due to his longer limbs, Nev was nevertheless beautiful in this waltz. In particular, we love his partnering and the way he fills the dance floor with movement. There was a lot of great content here. Probably the thing we liked the least, and it’s so minor, was his posture at times didn’t feel quite as upright as it should.

Judges Scores: 9, 9, 9

My Score: 9

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Justina Machado & Sasha Farber

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(Samba) Dedicated to her co-star and performing inspiration Rita Moreno, Justina was full of all kinds of Latin sass and energy. Unfortunately, her footwork couldn’t’ quite keep up with her joyful energy. She nailed the attitude and hip action, and definitely found a groove later on, but she missed a few steps and fell behind the music early on through those first body rolls.

Hands down, the funniest moment of the night came with Justina’s off-the-cuff reaction to Bruno saying she “gives the full monty” all the time. Well, she did right then (modified for family television) and it was hilarious!

Judges Scores: 9, 9, 9

My Score: 8

Nelly & Daniella Karagach

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(Rumba) Nelly opened up about his big sister Jackie, who helped steer his career until she came down with leukemia. Despite their best efforts to up donor registrations for bone marrow, they were not able to find a match for her and she passed in 2005.

He remembers the family stepping up to take care of her kids and lamented she’s not around now to meet her grandkids because he knows she’d just be the best grandmother. While they weren’t able to save Jackie’s life, the program did find donors for seven other people, so it did save lives.

Tonight, he took to the floor for one of her favorite songs, While he was still a little mechanical with his arms and flat-footed overall, there’s still a tenderness and grace to the performance. Yes, Danielle did the heavy lifting this week, but the rumba is supposed to be her dance and he was absolutely there for her. We’d have liked a little more fluidity and dig in his hips and feet, but we loved how he was fully present.

Judges Scores: 7, 7, 7

My Score: 6

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Chrishell Stause & Gleb Savchenko

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(Viennese Waltz) Chrishell was definitely too soft in being “tossed around” on the bed at the top of this number, After that, though, she acted the routine perfectly. On top of that, she danced it beautifully, with a lovely rise and fall throughout. She was a little inconsistent in and out of frame, but she pulled off some amazing tricks with Gleb and steamy partnering. Chrishell is rising in this competition at just the right time, as this kind of growth is always rewarded.

Judges Scores: 8, 8, 8

My Score: 9

Skai Jackson & Alan Bersten

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(Salsa) We absolutely adore this duo, and Alan is clearly having too much fun with how easily he can lift Skai, though not all of the landings are as sharp coming out. The lifts are amazing every week, with the one that kicked off this piece just a fantastic piece of art. The whole piece was filled with very fast, aggressive salsa work and Skai was there for all of it. She had a lot of grounding and grit for this one; it was her most complete performance.

Judges Scores: 8, 9, 8

My Score: 8

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Johnny Weir & Britt Stewart

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(Foxtrot) We saw one slight misstep midway through where it looked like Johnny’s foot hit Britt’s shin or something, and it’s a shame because this was otherwise an absolutely stunning bit of dancework. We loved the staccato opening, setting contrast to the gorgeous and graceful movement across the floor, and they covered this floor. This was Johnny’s strongest piece yet, he was so present and in character throughout. This is a partnership that’s also growing at just the right pace. And we enjoyed the slightly unexpected drama of his rise-and-fall, which we think offered more musicality and intention, Mr. Derek Hough!

Judges Scores: 9, 9, 9

My Score: 9

AJ McLean & Cheryl Burke

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(Rumba) This week’s song had both AJ and Cheryl thinking about their dual struggles with addiction. AJ spoke about the 20 years he spent trying to numb his insecurities with drugs and alcohol. He actually has two years of his life he doesn’t even remember, and overdosed twice in that time, sharing that he’d been in and out of recovery and sobriety up to as recently as 11 months ago.

Cheryl famously came out about finally finding her way to sobriety recently, as well, celebrating two years of sobriety, so this is something they both intimately understand and can connect with and on.

While we’re not entirely sure that opening stumble was intentional, it did work with the story of the piece, if not the grace that immediately followed it. Nevertheless, this is a strong partnership, just as AJ had a very strong presence throughout this dance. Had we not been told it was a rumba, though, we’re not sure we could have identified it as such. It was powerfully performed and moving in its way, but lacked that sensual hip action. It was as if they had a story to tell, assigned format be damned!

Judges Scores: 8, 8, 8

My Score: 7

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For this round, the couples have been divided into three groups based around styles they’ve already performed this season, to even the playing field as much as possible. And this round isn’t for a full set of points, but rather bonus points that can pad their standing before audience votes are added in.

Had Jeannie stayed in the competition, this would have created an even 3-on-3-on-3 divide, but with her missing, one group only had two members. They also divided the groups up with one performing specifically for each judge

Carrie Ann’s Cha Cha Relay

(Nev & Jenna / Chrishell & Gleb / Nelly & Danielle)

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All three couples performed this style in Week 2, with Nev scoring 21, Nelly getting 18 and Chrishell 17. All three have come a long way since then, but they definitely had something to prove, both to Carrie Ann and to themselves. And they had their work cut out for them if they want to take down front-runner Nev!

Nev came out strong, as expected, though a little over-eager at the top, while Chrishell was immediately a little behind the music, and eve totally blew her footwork by the end of their time on the floor. Nelly was grooving, but a little too flat on his feet, and stiff with his arms. The one he put on his abdomen had absolutely no presence, so we’d definitely have to give this round to Nev’s classy take.

Carrie Ann’s Scores: Nev (+3), Chrishell (+2), Nelly (+2)

My Scores: Nev (+3), Chrishell (+2), Nelly (+1)

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Derek’s Viennese Waltz Relay

(Justina & Sasha / Johnny & Britt)

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Justina was feeling the pressure on this one after Jeannie left the competition, leaving her to face off against Johnny. He did this style much more recently, and got a higher score than when she did. But both have proven themselves incredible dancers with a lot of musicality and grace.

Surprisingly, Johnny came out a little frantic and ahead of the music. He was also a bit more aggressive and choppy than the dance wants, while Justina struggled a bit with her footing but had a tremendous fluid grace throughout. Neither was exactly where they needed to be, with both executing very different, yet equally compelling performances..

Derek’s Scores: Justina (+2), Johnny (+3)

My Scores: Justina (+3), Johnny (+2)

Bruno’s Samba Relay

(AJ & Cheryl / Kaitlyn & Artem / Skai & Alan)

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Skai had one of her worst lift experiences with the samba back in Week 2, while both of her competitors performed it in Week 6 and did very well with it. So they needed to prove that they could still get stronger, while Skai had the most to prove of everyone. She’s also been the most inconsistent, but was riding a high coming into this round.

AJ came out very strong, with great grinding hip action and rhythm right off the top. His partnering was spot-on as he definitely continued his hot streak. Kaitlyn, by contrast, looked a little more unsteady with herself and didn’t quite have the hip flare we were expecting. Alas, Skai was stronger than her first time, but still lacking in some of the fundamentals necessary to sell the groove of the style. She was just too high in her feet and body.

Bruno’s Scores: AJ (+3), Kaitlyn (+3), Skai (+2)

My Scores: AJ (+3), Kaitlyn (+3), Skai (+2)

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Well, the bonus round didn’t do much to change anyone’s rankings with the judges. The only change was AJ climbing out of that tie for second-to-last by one point, while Skai slipped from having tied for the night’s second-highest score to its third.

Regardless, there was on real change at the bottom, and thus those dancers facing elimination. Nelly is the clear weak link in the competition at this point, and his scores reflected that. Thanks to AJ’s slightly stronger Relay Round, Chrishell is now alone in that second-to-last spot.

If we had to pick who should be in danger this week, though, we’d have to look at Nelly, Chrishell and Skai. AJ has shown a more consistent performance level than all three of them. And honestly, we’d put Skai below Chrishell at this point, just because she’s been so inconsistent (even again tonight) based on the style she gets.

But apparently America didn’t see it that way at all, as the very first couple revealed was Nelly & Daniella. Seriously? We love Nelly as much as the next faceless critic, but he is not killing it on this dance floor more than any other person there!

AJ were marked safe shortly thereafter, proving that we’ve reached the point in the competition where America’s vote is able to overwhelm at least some of the judges’ scores. But it wasn’t enough to save Skai and Chrishell from facing their final judgment.

As they stood there, we’ve already broken down what we think of the couple (though we didn’t expect this to be the Bottom 2). As such, we were prepared to say goodbye to Skai nd last season’s winner, Alan.

Carrie Ann chose to save Skai, despite her bumpy road, and then Bruno did the same. So Chrishell Stause’s upward trajectory got cut short. Here’s hoping Skai settles down and starts her own consistent growth pattern to prove this the right call.

“Dancing With the Stars” continues Mondays at 8 p.m. ET on ABC.

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