9:51pm PT by Michael O'Connell
'Dancing With the Stars' Heads to Finale With Tight Scores and One Exceptional Freestyle
The freestyle is make it or break it on a Dancing With the Stars finale. Since the awarded points are almost always even during the last round of competition, it takes a watercooler-worthy performance to lock in the vital votes.
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Donald Driver might have done that on Monday night. After an hour that saw the remaining three couples perform a dance of the judges' choosing and one of their own creation, the Green Bay wide receiver and Peta Murgatroyd closed the night with one of the most absurdly adventurous dances in recent memory.
"I think it's a stiff competition, but at the end of the day, people say what it takes to win this, and that's the freestyle," Driver said, backstage after the show. "Millions of fans were probably watching it at home thinking, 'they've got to be the craziest couple in the world.' But we pulled it off. If the freestyle wins it, it should be our mirrorball.
If that sounds cocky, he likely didn't intend it that way. Driver is a fan of the show and he knows that an even spread -- he joined William Levy and Cheryl Burke with an overall 59 and came just one point shy of Katherine Jenkins and Mark Ballas' perfect 60 -- leaves much of the work to the freestyle.
And it doesn't hurt that it's the last thing the viewers saw before voting opened.
"It's a great position to be in," said Murgatroyd. "I think they strategically put us there because they knew it was going to be a hit. It just helped push us to another level, especially after that 9 [from judge Len Goodman], because I was infuriated."
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The dance, while a bit more acrobatic, had press, staffers and fellow pros talking about another famous freestyle: Cheryl Burke and Drew Lachey's season 2 line dance. For the series' 200th episode, it was voted an all-time fan favorite. And as for any comparisons, Burke was mum. "I take it as a compliment, " she said, laughing.
Speaking of Burke, the two-time winner and her partner's Cha Cha kicked off the night with the first of four perfect scores doled out over the course of the broadcast. Their freestyle, while still pulling a 29, did not wow Goodman. "It's freestyle," said Levy, one of many visibly irked by the night's least approving judge. "You're allowed to do whatever, and we picked salsa, so what?"
As for the lone perfect performer, the nearly eliminated Jenkins was absolutely breathless by the time her rigorous freestyle came to a close. "There were definitely moments where I thought, 'I'm not sure if I can do this,'" she said of the complex choreography. "It was our first perfect score, though, so I'm thrilled with that."
In the interest of suspense, all is not yet set in stone. The remaining three still have the chance to garner votes through the morning, and after studying the music they receive late Monday night, they're be one last dance to perform during Tueday's two-hour -- yes, two full hours -- finale.