Up to this point, the biggest surprise of Dancing with the Stars season 16 has been how rigidly it has proceeded according to expectations: each elimination has been a predictable result of scores and charisma, with nary a bombshell in the bunch. That changes tonight: with a top four this close, banality is no longer an option.

DWTS Week 10 Preview: The Final 4 Dance It Off >>>

This race is way too evenly matched to call, but that won’t stop me from calling it: the Mirror Ball Trophy is going to Kellie. Jacoby has been fun, but his technical shortcomings have left him about a point below the others on average. Aly has shown incredible range and performance ability, but she doesn’t command the same rabid fan base as an Olympian as her entertainment industry peers. Zendaya has often been toe-to-toe with Kellie, but the fact that she had prior professional dance experience has left a bad taste with some.

Kellie has Zendaya’s skill, Aly’s performance and Jacoby’s charisma all rolled into one, and I’m fairly comfortable saying that she has the best partner. Derek isn’t just trying to win this thing; he’s trying to push the very medium of three-minute reality show dance segments on a weekly basis, and nearly always succeeding. The trophy could very easily go to any one of these dancers, but in the interest of fostering discussion by taking a hard-line stand, I hereby declare Kellie to be the winner.

Oh yeah, there’s still one more performance show left. Live blog starts now:

At the start of the show, we find out Val has recently suffered a blood-drawing head injury, but he plans to dance anyway. Hopefully, no further updates there.

Jacoby Jones and Karina Smirnoff

Dance: Jive

Jacoby is tutored by Len for the evening’s first judges’ choice routine, giving him one last chance to amend his dodgy kicks. The result is a mixed blessing for him: his footwork improves noticeably, but not enough to overcome his season-long struggle with it — ultimately, the routine is as much a reminder of his faults than a demonstration of his progress. His jive is a triumph in every other sense, but that may not be enough.

Judges’ Comments:

Len: “I saw that slightly crisper footwork.”

Bruno: “Jacoby always brings a limitless supply of energy of power.”

Carrie Ann: “You brought the swagger, and you turned the house upside down.”

Judges’ Scores: 9+9+9=27

Alexandra Raisman and Mark Ballas

Dance: Samba

Bruno tasks Aly and Mark with a samba routine, specifically calling on them to include a tricky Samba roll. Though Mark seems hesitant about the move, their routine is supremely confident, operating well within the Aly and Mark wheelhouse in the best possible way. Aly has really opened up a lot since her debut on the show, and has blossomed into this totally unexpected Latin party dancer — honestly, her progression has been the biggest surprise of the season.

Judges’ Comments:

Bruno: “You’ve done everything I asked you for!”

Carrie Ann: “You’ve sort of got a combination of every other couple in the finals.”

Len: “You are on the way up, that was terrific.”

Scores: 9+9+10=28

Kellie Pickler and Derek Hough

Dance: Quickstep

Kellie and Derek have done the quickstep before, and as their mentor Len notes, it was close to perfect the first time around: the only criticism they draw is from Carrie Ann for a perceived “lack of connection.” Such nitpicks are beyond my expertise, but their high-content routine tonight looks about as tight as two people can get.

Judges’ Comments:

Len: “Like a stamp on a letter!”

Bruno: “Technically, it was really a tour de force!”

Carrie Ann: “The one thing I was looking for was an improvement in your body contact … and I saw it!”

Scores: 10+10+10=30

Zendaya and Val Chmerkovskiy

Dance: Samba

Zendaya and Val perform the second samba of the night, under the tutelage of Carrie Ann. Zendaya’s age has created something of a tacit prohibition on the more sensual routines like the Samba, but she and Val stick the landing here, dancing a routine that’s fun and technical without betraying the dance’s romantic core. Val’s injury thankfully proves to be a non-issue on the floor, though he does strike me as just a little bit “elevated” in the interview.

Judges’ Comments:

Carrie Ann: “Woooooooooo — that was a perfect combination.”

Len: “Eye popping, show-stopping, jaw-dropping!”

Bruno: “You have a natural flamboyancy that just comes out, no effort!”

Scores: 10+10+10=30

The Cha Cha Relay

For this segment, all four couples perform back to back in a mini dance off, with points awarded according to their finishing position. Kellie and Derek set a high early standard with a high-content start. Jacoby is a step down by comparison, and his less precise movements are immediately upstaged by Aly and Mark, who manage to capture the fun spirit of the dance while staying technically elevated. Zendaya bookends the routine with another perfect, precision-based performance.

Judges’ Comments:

Len: “These are the four who deserved to make it to the final!”

Bruno: “I’m gonna have to think about it.”

Carrie Ann: “You’re so fantastic, but you’re so diverse.”

4th Place: Jacoby and Karina — 2 points

3rd Place: Aly and Mark — 3 points

2nd Place: Kellie and Derek — 4 points

1st Place: Zendaya and Val — 5 points

Jacoby Jones and Karina Smirnoff

Dance: Freestyle

Jacoby’s freestyle routine is a tribute to New Orleans: he enters with a marching band, effortlessly performs a marathon series of lifts and ends with a pair of dancing children, including results show guest Sophia Lucia. Though the routine borders on chaotic as it is, I sort of wish there’s even more spectacle, albeit with Jacoby more in the spotlight. As it stands, he’s upstaged a bit by the marching band, then leaves a bit naked when they leave. Love the concept, but I’m just not sure that it comes together at its maximum potential.

Judges’ Comments:

Len: “It was like that 108-yard touchdown, you were bobbing and weaving.”

Bruno: “I love the sense of celebration.”

Carrie Ann: “Unique! It was unique.”

Scores: 9+9+9=27

Alexandra Raisman and Mark Ballas

Dance: Freestyle

Mark calls it a “vertical bar”; I call it a stripper pole — no judgement, I think it’s cool, just saying. Mark’s unorthodox staging certainly does give Aly a chance to show off her gymnastics strength, though, and the routine recalls the best elements of both their Afro jazz and groundbreaking contemporary dances. It’s thoroughly impressive, and proves that you can’t count Aly out yet: having conquered every variety of routine on the show so far, she and Mark are making up their own.

Judges’ Comments

Bruno: “That was futuristic yet exotic … like nothing I’ve ever seen”

Carrie Ann: “I’ve worked a poll … and that is not easy to do!”

Len: “I’m dubbing you Alexandra the Great!”

Scores: 10+10+10=30

Kellie Pickler and Derek Hough

Dance: Freestyle

While the others routines are all about summer spectacle, Kellie and Derek strip this whole show down to its core. I’ve never seen the pair as nervous as when they start this routine, but those nerves quickly become a part of their art, as their routine explores vulnerability and trust as expressed in balance and formal beauty. When I said in the introduction that Derek is pushing the medium, this is what I was talking about. Perfect.

Judges’s Comments:

Carrie Ann: “It was one of the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.”

Len: “Here it comes.” (Standing ovation)

Bruno: “That really was a contemporary work of art.”

Scores: 10+10+10=30

(With the proviso from Len and Bruno that they should have 11s)

Zendaya and Val Chmerkovskiy

Dance: Freestyle

Not to be outdone, Zendaya closes the night on a high, and entirely on her own terms — the best adjective I can think of to describe this routine is that it’s very, very Zendaya. The routine draws on elements of cha cha and contemporary, then ends squarely in hip-hop territory, with an army of adorable youngsters behind her.

Judges’ Comments:

Len: “There were so many parts to that number, but it all came together!”

Bruno: “Kids in America, rejoice! Teen idol Zendaya is here.”

Carrie Ann: “You’re just divine, my dear.”

Scores: 10+10+10=30

This was a great night for Dancing with the Stars. I’m a big fan of the cha cha relay, as it forces the judges to actually pick winners rather than just calling everything perfect. That segment is responsible for the sole point difference between Zendaya and Kellie; Zendaya is on top with 65, while Kelly has 64.

I stand by everything I said in the intro, by the way: anyone could win this, but Kellie and Derek are on another level, as evidence by their freestyle. We’ll see if America agrees with me tomorrow night, as Dancing with the Stars season 16 draws to a close.

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(Image courtesy of ABC)

Ted Kindig

Contributing Writer, BuddyTV