This week marks the return of Dancing with the Stars‘ venerable Latin night, in which the stars perform rumbas, salsas and paso dobles. More intriguingly, the second half will feature the remaining six couples pairing off for dance-off bonus points — this is the third straight week that the contestants are asked to dance side by side with others, and the stragglers will have a harder time than ever.

This hasn’t been a terribly suspenseful season, in large part because the talent difference is so pronounced. I’ve enjoyed rooting for Andy, but give or take a bad night from Ingo or Sean, he’s probably next to go. If anything changes substantially tonight, it’ll be the most miraculous dance-off this side of an ’80s movie.

Live blog starts now:

Jacoby Jones and Karina Smirnoff

Dance: Salsa

Jacoby is up first, setting the high energy tone for the evening that one expects of him. The highlight of his performance for me is a strange move that may or may not have been planned, in which he does not jump over Karina, and instead knocks her backward while she grabs his legs. Based on their scores, the judges are ruling it intentional, which sort of ruins the fun for me.

Judges’ Comments:

Len: “Was that an earthquake, or did you just rock this place?”

Bruno: “You spent more time flying around than Iron Man!”

Carrie Ann: “It’s like you could fart the salsa.”

And then there’s the weird tangent about farting. Hot and steamy indeed.

Scores: 9+9+9=27

Ingo Rademacher and Kym Johnson

Dance: Rumba

Ingo hasn’t inspired any strong feeling in me at all this season, and he keeps that streak alive tonight. His rumba is the very definition of solid, with no mistakes, no major problems and no appreciable risks. I’m not rooting against the guy, but I’m not really looking forward to him returning either.

Judges’ Comments:

Bruno: “It was too staccato; it has to be fluid.”

Carrie Ann: “I felt it was lacking a little bit of a connection.”

Len: “I thought there was a lot of content in there; I thought your lines were good.”

Scores: 7+8+7=22

Kellie Pickler and Derek Hough

Dance: Samba

Kellie has certainly had a busy week, having performed three big shows on the road in addition to her new routines for the show. The results are still impressive, falling short of her personal best in my opinion, but definitely setting the bar for tonight’s performances so far. Their peak comes in the very last move, a head-spinning dip that blows Ingo’s full two-minute routine out of the water in about three seconds.

Judges’ Comments:

Carrie Ann: “I don’t feel you when you dance.”

Len: “It was a mix of bootie, dance and bongos.”

Bruno: “It was the perfect balance of technique and performance.”

Scores: 9+10+10=29

Andy Dick and Sharna Burgess

Dance: Rumba

This is one of Andy’s better performances in recent weeks: you get a healthy does of his personality as he smears his face on Sharna’s leg, but you can also see a pretty serious engagement with the steps. That said, I think I have to face the fact that my personal affection for the guy is biasing my writing on him: the judges clearly have a very different impression of this routine.

Judges’ Comments:

Len: “It was more erratic than erotic.”

Bruno: “You’ve taken an unforgettable dance … and now I wish I could forget.”

Carrie Ann: “Work on making the arms consistently a part of the dance.”

Scores: 5+6+6=17

Yikes, that’s pretty brutal. We’ll see how that dance-off goes for him.

Alexandra Raisman and Mark Ballas Henry Byalikov Mark Ballas

Dance: Salsa

Mark had a pretty crippling injury this week, forcing Aly to rehearse with troop member Henry and leaving his participation up in the air. Fortunately, he seems to have made a full recovery, as the pair dance the most spirited, athletic, physical and fun routine of the night. I had acclimated to a certain level of energy for Latin night, but this one seriously takes the evening up a notch, and everyone else down a notch by comparison.

Judges’ Comments:

Bruno: “Man, you can shake it down!”

Carrie Ann: “I love you.”

Len: “The way you attacked it, you couldn’t ask for more.”

Scores: 10+9+10=29

Sean Lowe and Peta Murgatroyd

Dance: Rumba

Sean and Peta do the Big Sensitive Thing of the Night, dancing a sweet-natured rumba to that tangentially Latin anthem, “Hero” by Enrique Iglesias. Sean is a victim of poor placement: he’s perfectly graceful and charismatic here, but the whole approach feels like a step down after Aly’s ferocious performance. Sean has struggled to break out of the middle, and it seems like he’s still stuck there.

Judges’ Comments:

Carrie Ann: “That was just wonderful, Sean!”

Len: “Peta was hot, Sean was a bit wooden.”

Bruno: “A vision in gray — 50 shades of Sean.”

Scores: 8+8+8=24

Zendaya and Val Chmerkovskiy

Dance: Paso Doble

Where Mark and Aly hit the high point for Latin energy and fun, this paso doble is a perfect embodiment of the genre’s fluidity and passion. Staged like a bullfight, their artful paso doble feels epic and engaging — kudos, by the way, to the steadicam operator; the sweeping camera goes a long way toward heightening the routine’s scope.

Judges’ Comments:

Len: “I was there, I was at the bull fight.”

Bruno: “Darling, you look like an angel, you dance like a fury.”

Carrie Ann: “It was beautiful, the lines were gorgeous.”

Scores: 9+9+9=27

Then it’s time for some immunity:

Safe: Kellie and Derek

Though Aly and Mark tied for the highest score tonight, Kellie and Derek earned immunity by virtue of a higher cumulative score over the season. I suspect, however, that Aly will be fine.

Now we have a convoluted dance-off challenge. The top scorers get to pick their opponents, and the opponents get to pick the dance.

Aly and Mark vs. Andy and Sharna

Dance: Cha-cha-cha

Aly and Mark lead with a capable if somewhat unambitious cha-cha-cha. That said, they’re clearly the better dancers: Andy’s footwork is way off, and he never quite recovers. Short of a democratic groundswell, Andy is out.

Judge’s Comments:

Len: “Andy, I admire your pluck.”

Bruno: “Obviously someone is technically stronger, but I admire you both.”

Carrie Ann: “Andy, you never give up.”

Winner: Aly and Mark — Unanimous

Zendaya and Val vs. Jacoby and Karina

Dance: Jive

Thank goodness for Val: with a coy “Let’s pick on somebody our own size,” he sets us up for some actual competition here by calling out Jacoby. Zendaya seems to be having a lot of fun within her discipline and synchronicity, while Karina dances the most ferocious Jive I’ve ever seen.

Judges’ Comments:

Bruno: “It was like watching two champions, really.”

Carrie Ann: “You were in it to win it.”

Len: “It’s a tough call, it was great!”

Winner: Zendaya and Val — Unanimous

Sean and Peta vs. Ingo and Kym

Dance: Rumba

Battle of the handsome mediocrities. Sean leads with a strong, content-heavy routine, easily upstaging Ingo’s typically anonymous dance. To his credit, though, his form has definitely improved.

Judges’ Comments:

Carrie Ann: “Ingo, nice improvement.”

Len: “I gave you both eights, this is gonna be tricky.”

Bruno: “It was like the battle of the hunks.”

Winner: Ingo and Kym — 2:1

Hmm, got that one wrong. Ah well, they’re the two least memorable performers anyway.

So that’s the dance-off. It’s interesting to see what it brought out in people: Mark and Aly are the cold strategists, Jacoby and Val are adrenaline-fueled competitors, and Ingo and Sean are definitely still here, I guess. While other supposedly game-changing gimmicks have felt kind of superfluous, this crazy dance-off was pretty compelling. I don’t know that it changed the standings, but the tone is definitely different now: we have ourselves a competition.

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(Image courtesy of ABC)

Ted Kindig

Contributing Writer, BuddyTV