Criticism can be hard to hear, but it's clear many of Dancing with the Stars' competitors took last week's advice from the judges to heart, as they brought their A-games this week for the dance-offs. Just how on pointe were the stars and their partners this time? Not one, but two couples notched 30s — the first perfect scores of the season.
From a spicy salsa to a tear-jerking contemporary, here's how the night went...
Sean Spicer and Jenna Johnson (filling in for Lindsay Arnold)
Jazz / "Come Sail Away" from Styx
Following a death in her family, pro Lindsay took the week off and was replaced at the last minute by friend Jenna, who partnered with the former press secretary for a nautical-themed routine. If anyone knows about sailing away, it's Sean, who grew up on the water with his boat-seller dad. (Something he doesn't know about? Jazz hands, apparently!) Anyway, Len isn't pulling any punches when it comes to the performance saying, "we keep throwing you out of the boat and the viewers keep throwing a life preserver!" Carrie Ann, however, was more forgiving, saying that the change of partner brought something new out in Sean.
Lauren Alaina and Gleb Savchenko
Jive / "Hound Dog" from Elvis Presley
After a "breakthrough" week performing the Argentine tango, Lauren has a lot to prove this week. Unfortunately, her turn isn't quite living up to expectations. Bruno hails it as "bright and optimistic" before pointing out the three (yes, three!) mistakes Lauren makes while jiving. Carrie Ann also praises her strong start, while Len says he hopes tonight doesn't conclude in Heartbreak Hotel, as Lauren deserves to be there. As the King would say: "A little less conversation, a little more action please."
Kel Mitchell and Witney Carson
Salsa / "This Is How We Do It" from Montell Jordan
Kel also performed extremely well last week, earning his highest score to date. And it's obvious from his performance this week that he is feeling the Montell Jordan soundtrack. But do the judges agree? That's a resounding yes! Carrie Ann calls the pair's salsa "All That and a bag of chips!" while Len compliments the junk in his trunk. (Oh, Len!) Bruno tells him he is the "main attraction" of the performance, and shows his appreciation with his score, awarding Kel the first 10 of the season. All That, indeed!
Ally Brooke and Sasha Farber
Paso doble / "Higher" from Ally Brooke
Ally's a double-threat this week as she sings (or, rather, lip syncs?) and dances to her own song "Higher." The pair's high-energy performance earns an extra punch of applause from the audience and nothing but kudos from the judges. Len calls it a "mix of good technique and high performance." Bruno says she "had it all," while Carrie Ann tells her she is a freaking super star. And boy is she ever: Ally and partner Sasha earn the first perfect 30 of the season. Miss Silver Lightning strikes red hot!
Hannah Brown and Alan Bersten
Quick step / "American Girl" from Tom Petty
After last week's critique from Carrie Ann that Hannah was "disconnected" from the movements, she takes a field trip back home this week to refocus on who she is. And it actually works. Hannah's quick step is hailed as a "game-changer" by Bruno, who compliments the "action through her feet." Carrie Ann gives Alabama Hannah a big hug before dubbing her "the comeback of the season." Len is a little less effusive, pointing out some gapping in her steps, but is ultimately impressed by her showing. So, yeah, you could say Hannah earns a rose from all three judges.
Kate Flannery and Pasha Pashkov
Jive / "Heat Wave" from Linda Ronstadt
In a tribute to her sister Nancy, who passed away right before Kate signed on to do DWTS, the former Office star decides to jive to one of her sister's favorite artists this week: Linda Ronstadt. The inspiration proves powerful, as Kate delivers a performance that the judges unanimously call "joyful" and "charming." However, the enthusiasm can't hide a few flubs, including a few out of sync moments. The couple earn 8s across the board. Will it be enough to keep them out of the bottom two again?
James Van Der Beek and Emma Slater
Contemporary / "Don't Stop Believin'" from Journey
Everyone's favorite last-call bar song gets a moody, slowed-down remix for the actor's take on contemporary. The earnest performance inspires tears from James's mom and daughter, who are in the audience watching, and praise from all three judges. He earned special kudos for the "fluidity" of his lifts.
Score: 32/30 (reflecting the two bonus points the pair earned last week)
After individual rounds, the couples are paired together for dance-off rounds, which will earn each winning couple two bonus points for the night. Thanks to last week's stellar performance, James and Emma are immune from this part of the competition (but not the bottom two if it comes to that).
Ally Brooke and Sasha Farber vs. Kel Mitchell and Witney Carson
Jive / "Don't Stop Me Now" from Queen
The first of the dance-off couples don't make it easy for the judges — their jives are nearly identical in quality and enthusiasm. "Impossible to call!" Bruno declares. "I don't want to make this decision," says Carrie Ann. Len calls it a "jive to survive" with both coming out "top-notch." The judges do finally make a call (that is what they earn the big bucks for, after all), but the votes are close.
Winner: Kel and Witney
Kate Flannery and Pasha Pashkov vs. Sean Spicer and Jenna Johnson
Cha cha / "Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now)" from C+C Music Factory
Although both couples have already performed the cha cha, Kate clearly has a leg up as she and Sean take the floor. (Let's just say Sean's moves aren't making anyone sweat.) Despite the obvious disparity in performances, the judges are diplomatic in their critiques, with both Bruno and Carrie Ann alluding that one couple really nailed while another really... didn't. Len, on the other hand, somehow thinks they both did a "really good" cha cha. The final scores, however, say otherwise.
Winner: Kate and Pasha
Hannah Brown and Alan Bersten vs. Lauren Alaina and Gleb Savchenko
Salsa / "Rhythm Is Gonna Get You" from Gloria Estefan
The two Southern belles go head-to-head to Gloria Estefan, and they're pretty equally matched, though Hannah seems to be the one with the harder choreography here. The judges all agree that they had "gear in the rear" (whatever that means), but they too must have recognized the higher gear the former Bachelorette star shifted in to.
Winner: Hannah and Alan
The judge's scores combined with the live votes to bring us to this week's bottom two: Ally and Sasha and Kate and Pasha. Given Ally's 30/30 this week (seriously, a perfect score, people!), it's a gimme that the judges elect to save Ally and Sasha.
After a week in which the stars truly leveled up, it will be interesting to see if they can go even higher next.
Dancing with the Stars airs Mondays at 8/7c on ABC.