So the other day, we counted down the top 10 worst freestyles in DWTS history, and re-lived some of the biggest stinkers we’ve seen in 12 seasons. Today we’ve saved the best for last: the showstoppers, the jaw-droppers, and the dynamite freestyles that have set the bar for all the freestyles to follow.
Some patterns we’ve noticed: most of these routines are high-energy, use recognizable songs, and have either a theme or a general “feel” for the celebs to connect to. It’s a pattern that seems to work – let’s hope this season’s finalists stick to it!
Heidi’s Note: You’ll also note that you have a better shot of making this list if your name if Johnson, Hough, or Ballas. Possibly Schwimmer – she’s one for two, isn’t she??
10. Kyle Massey & Lacey Schwimmer, season 11
Courtney: This is a good example of a hip-hop freestyle actually working out well – basically the polar opposite of Lacey’s ill-fated hip-hop freestyle with Lance. This time around, the song & theme fit her partner to a T – Kyle LOVED “Tootsie Roll”, and it really showed. Now while the choreo wasn’t really all that complicated, it was the fact that Kyle just milked each step for all its worth that really made it fun – I swear, I think the only more charismatic contestant to ever do the show is Carson. Kyle had swaaaaaag, and was a true showman…and it didn’t hurt that he wasn’t too shabby a dancer, either.
Heidi: The thing that made this work was that it fit Kyle to a tee and he LOVED it. He was having the time of his life and he had the skills to pull off a hip hop routine. You combine that with some pretty clever choreography and you have a brilliant freestyle. He’d be much farther up on my list…but this is surprisingly hard to come up with and putting them in order? Impossible! Anyway, when I stand up off the couch and cheer, you know it’s good. And this one was also FUN in all caps.
9.) Donny Osmond & Kym Johnson, season 9
Courtney: For as much as Donny got on my nerves during his season (and he continues to irk me to this day), I have to admit – Kym did a great job of utilizing his strengths and crafting a freestyle for him that he could connect to. I don’t think they could have picked a more perfect theme for him – he’s the quintessential showman, and “jazz hands!” seem to be his forte. The choreography itself was not terribly difficult, but Donny executed the steps with so much energy & conviction that it didn’t really matter – it was still fun to watch. And this is another good example of how lifts aren’t necessary for a great freestyle – the few lifts that were in this one were pretty brief and simple. All in all, this was a good conclusion to Donny’s season on the show.
Heidi: Yeah, he still annoys me too, but this was a really excellent freestyle. Ya gotta love a big finish and this song had a big, broadway finish built into it. It really was perfect for Donny. Who needs lifts when you can do great side by side work??
8.) Apolo Ohno & Julianne Hough, season 4
Heidi: Heh, I complain about how badly hip hop is done on this show and how it’s so “over” in terms of freestyle and then I put one in the top ten. Go figure. But, Julianne has been doing hip hop since she was a child and she’s a similar choreographer to Derek – when you watch this dance, it’s hip hop, but it has a lot of clever moves in it, such as the blindfolded side by side work plus a couple cool tricks. But I think that Apolo was really into this as well and may have some sort of hip hop background – I don’t know if you can be taught that floor work that he did at the beginning of the dance in a week. I think where it worked was that there was so much side by side work and it showed that the two of them were perfectly matched. And I loved the ending – very cute.
Courtney: I think what worked well for them is the fact that they didn’t try to go 100% full-on hip-hop, whereas Lacey seems to go for pure hip-hop. This is what I’d call “hip-hop lite” or “cheerleader hip-hop” – it’s got a definitely hip-hop feel to it, but there are some jazzy, ballroom-y moves & lifts thrown in to make it interesting, and it seems much more well-received by both the judges and the audience. But I agree – Apolo at least looks like he’s had a bit of a hip-hop background (as evidenced by the b-boying he did in the middle), and Julianne managed to harnass that effectively. It’s funny, because Karina had the same strength in Mario in season 3 – he could do a little bit of breakdancing – but their freestyle fell kinda flat while Apolo & Julianne’s was a crowd-pleaser. Goes to show that just because you have a partner with a bit of dance background, does not mean choreographing a freestyle is a piece of cake (right, Dmitry? ;-)) You do have to actually figure out ways to utilize your partner’s strengths. I did notice a few synchronization issues here and there, but I think the fact that their energy was so high helped to mask it pretty well. Overall, a good example of working WITH your partner’s strengths, rather than against them.
7. Shawn Johnson and Mark Ballas, season 8
Courtney: If I haven’t driven the point home yet, IT’S IMPORTANT TO UTILIZE THE STRENGTHS OF YOU PARTNER!!! And Mark hit the jackpot with this one – he had a partner that was more than capable of keeping up with some of his wackier, more risky stunts and dance moves. I honestly don’t think has had a better match that Shawn as a partner – with her, I felt like he could comfortably indulge his more whimsical side, since she was so young & wholesome. And that’s why I think the Jabbawockeez opening seemed to work well for them – I don’t think it would have been as well-received with someone older, like Kristi. But I do think it was a good idea that they ditched the masks quickly – I think I was worried that they were going to try to do the whole routine with them on, which is incredibly risky since you usually sacrifice some performance value because the audience can’t see your facial expressions. I don’t particularly care for mid-routine costume changes (they almost always disrupt the flow of the dance), but I guess this one wasn’t too bad – and Mark managed to not only utilize some ballroom steps, but also some other moves from he & Shawn’s routines that season (anyone catch the hands in air, criss-cross foot move they did in their “PYT” cha-cha?), so it had a nice feeling of summary to it. And do I even need to comment on how awesome Shawn is at lifts & other acrobatics?
Heidi: Well, this was a dance that was tailor made for Shawn – that’s why it worked so well. Mark effectively used all of Shawn’s skills from her previous training – that is so important. The costume change almost did trip them up and I remember the first time I watched it, live, squealing at the TV in fear that she wouldn’t be able to get it all off quickly enough. But in the end it was a blip. Excellent dance – there’s not really much more to say about it.
6. Nicole Scherzinger and Derek Hough, season 10
Courtney: I gotta give Nicole credit for taking on the freestyle choreo with the highest level of difficulty I’ve ever seen on the show – seriously, kids, don’t try this at home. I know pros that are well-versed in lifts that wouldn’t wanna tackle some of this stuff! This one was high-octane from start to finish – can’t accuse these two of losing steam. However, I will say that it did feel kinda chaotic at times – as if they were trying to jam-pack as much content as possible into a 1:30 dance. But in addition to those crazy lifts & stunts, they actually had quite a bit of “real” ballroom content – there was some salsa, some quickstep, even a little samba. And we all know real ballroom content gets Len in a warm, fuzzy mood Despite the one bungled lift, I do think this routine really set the bar for impressive freestyle choreography – if we ever get another Nicole on the show, I will be expecting he or she to top this.
Heidi: This is the sort of choreo I expected from Mya and Dmitry. Mya had every bit the talent that Nicole had and they definitely could have pulled something like this off. Technically difficult, still flashy, still had a bit of goofy Derek in it, what with the camera pan while they remove clothing….all very clever. High energy, high speed – I was tired after watching it from my couch! I also appreciated the level of ballroom content – I think that’s what bothers me about some hip hop routines – they spend 9 weeks learning all this cool ballroom stuff and then throw it out the window on their freestyle for Hip Hop. And rarely does it actually work.
5. Joey Fatone and Kym Johnson, season 4
Courtney: For me, this freestyle is everything that Lance & Stacy’s wanted to be – it was both a great homage to Joey’s boyband days, and was disco done RIGHT. Kym effectively worked Joey’s background into this routine – loved the *NSYNC “Bye Bye Bye” bit, but also loved that they didn’t spend a whole lot of time on it; they did the brief, effective homage, and then they moved on to more exciting stuff. For a disco freestyle to really work, I feel like it has to be high-energy – and boy, was this high-energy. Stacy’s “Stayin’ Alive” looks like it’s in slo-mo compared to this one – Joey & Kym were dancing circles around Stacy & Tony, and the funny part is that quite a few of the “disco” moves are the same…Joey & Kym just did them with a lot more energy & conviction. The lifts in this one were also spot on – Joey handled Kym with ease, and they seemed to transition in & out of them without too much effort. Overall, it was a high-energy, well-executed, relevant effort.
Heidi: Effortless. The lifts were effortless. And not only was it a great homage to Joey’s boyband days and great disco, but it actually had a great deal of ballroom content. They didn’t just throw away the previous 9 weeks – just excellent!! I find I’m running out of things to say on some of these – it’s like chocolate – you don’t know why you love it, you just do.
Tie -3. Brooke Burke and Derek Hough, season 7
Heidi: Say what you want about Brooke, but the woman has GUTS. You had to have guts to do the moves that Derek put in this freestyle. That crazy ass lift at the beginning where he ends up twirling her around while she’s hanging upside down from his shoulder?? That roly poly move at the end (and Derek has back problems to this day)? He even put in a move that he normally puts in with Julianne – and this was at Brooke’s request!!! That’s the thing – she had the drive and the need to get the same sort of reaction from the audience as Derek and Julianne did with their DaD from that season. She wanted to hear the crowd roar, and she got her wish. Took some risks – serious risks – to get there too. On top of all that, Brooke says that Grease is her family’s favorite movie and they had just been watching it – at least, that’s what she said at the time. All that, plus Derek throws in a bit of quickstep, an homage to Grease and his own bit of goofiness. I almost put this one ahead of Kristi and Mark’s just based on Brooke’s lack of training of any kind versus Kristi’s skating training.
Courtney: Heidi, was it you that told me that Brooke & Derek had actually never done this routine together from start to finish prior to this performance? If so, that right there is impressive. And this, folks, is another example of an homage done RIGHT – they took the theme, did a few steps from the original, but the rest of it was original choreo. And like Nicole’s freestyle, there was a good smattering of real ballroom in this one, too – some jitterbug, jive, Lindy, and what I’m quickly noticing to be Derek’s fave: the quickstep promenade runs, jumps, and flicks. And as trivial as it may sound – the fact that they stayed on time and in synch and kept their energy level up is impressive to me. I’m of the opinion that if you’re going to tackle tough, high-energy choreography, you better be able to deliver – and many often don’t. I didn’t see any mistakes or stutters from these two – and both looked like they had FUN, above all else.
Heidi: Yes, it was me that told you that. Derek said they had never run it start to finish – he didn’t say why, but he was battling back problems and some of the moves were just too risky.
Tie -3. Kristi Yamaguchi and Mark Ballas, season 6
Heidi: After watching both dances again, I had to make this one a tie with Brooke and Derek. While Kristi’s was full on dancing, Brooke’s was very gutsy for someone who’s not as accustomed to aerials as Kristi is. Len called this one hip hop – I sure wouldn’t. It was just full on dancing – I guess I would label this one “Broadway”. Very crowd pleasing, fast, Kristi seemed to be loving it and was connecting to it – clever tricks – it pretty much had it all.
Courtney: I would call the style of this one “cheerleader hip-hop” – which sounds like an insult, but it’s really not, because I think “cheerleader hip-hop” is generally more well-received than 100% hardcore hip-hop on this show. It had a cute beginning that tied in well with the song – the story of waking up in the morning and “workin’, workin’, workin’ day & night” was fun & unexpected, and as always, Kristi rocked the lifts – no surprise there. High-energy, upbeat, and with enough tricks to keep it interesting. Winning
2. Hines Ward and Kym Johnson – season 12
Courtney: As a Colts fan, I really, really wanted to hate this one – but just like I ended up loving Hines, I ended up loving this one, too The big appeal of this one for me is that they managed to go out-of-the-box while still remaining relevant. A freaking marching band???! Genius – it tied in nicely with Hines’ football background without being completely expected or obvious – I mean, he could’ve just thrown on a bedazzled Steelers jersey & stomped around to “Eye of the Tiger” or something, but I think it was smart of he & Kym to take the road less-traveled…in this case, paying homage to the halftime show. Loved the costuming & the set – it just oozed energy. This freestyle had props that actually worked WITH the dance, rather than against it. And I think it’s damn near impossible to hate on She of the Awesome Boobage when she’s dolled up in a sparkly majorette outfit, complete with white go-go boots. Adorable!
Heidi: Kym is just totally underrated as a choreographer. She manages to take a theme that works for her partner, throw in some ballroom, make it high energy fun and then they just rock it out. Then she did what Derek did with Jennifer, below – she took something important to Hines’ life, football, and approached it from the side so it is unexpected, fresh but still relevant. She even used real marching band style music. Just totally cool and unique.
1. Jennifer Grey and Derek Hough – season 11
Heidi: This is my absolute favorite because it has all the elements that make a great freestyle. It relates directly to the celebrity, the choreo works great with the song and the celeb, it’s high energy and exciting. Add in that Jennifer was 50 years old with serious neck issues and it’s also gutsy as hell to boot. Not only did it relate directly to one of the most iconic movies of all time, but Derek took a new route to making the connection for Jennifer; he didn’t go for the cliched “Time of Your Life” dance that nearly EVERYONE was begging for, but with a song a bit less associated with the movie yet still part of Jennifer. To top it off, that’s what SHE wanted – she didn’t want the cliched route. The part that sealed the deal for me?? The watermelon. Sure, anyone can do “No one puts Baby in a corner” – the “I carried a watermelon” reference was genius. That little homage that is not just the movie, but also Jennifer, was brilliant – it also showcased Jennifer’s journey. She’s not Baby any more, she’s the sexy momma dancing with Johnny Castle.
Courtney: RELEVANCE IS EVERYTHING! That’s the difference between this routine & other movie-based freestyles that weren’t so well-received – this felt personal to Jennifer. Hell, people kept bringing up the fact that she was in Dirty Dancing all season long – did you really think she wasn’t going to end her journey on the show by paying homage to the thing that probably got her there in the first place? But echoing Heidi, it was a wise decision for them NOT to pander to fans who were clamoring for the famous Johnny & Baby dance sequence at the end of the movie. I would have definitely yawned at that, as it’s been done to death. I’m glad they actually opted for something a bit less expected & humorous by going with “Do You Love Me” and throwing in the watermelon gag. And the cool thing about this one: it wasn’t really laden with a ton of tricks & lifts, but was still every bit as entertaining to watch. If nothing else, a celeb that isn’t able to do whatever the pro conceives in their head (for whatever reason) can be a good tool for challenging a pro to think outside the box.
Some honorable mentions who didn’t make the list:
Warren Sapp and Kym Johnson, season 7 – Definitely a cute, highly entertaining effort from the “paso doble killah” – just maybe not as impressive as Kym’s other freestyles. -Courtney-
Well, who doesn’t smile when Warren Sapp gets his groove on? -Heidi-
Emmett Smith and Cheryl Burke, season 3 – Hokey, hilarious, funny and FUN. It just made me smile. -Heidi-
Helio Castoneves and Julianne Hough, season 5 – Personality, it’s all about personality. Everytime I see Helio to this day, I smile. -Heidi-
Kirstie Alley & Maks Chmerkovskiy, season 12 – I think I liked this one because it was a bit different – a bit more on the poignant side. And Kirstie got her aerial!!! -Courtney-
And a word on the great “Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy” debate…
Courtney: This is one Heidi & I seemed to go back & forth on – should we include it? Should we leave it off? And here’s why: for as much hype as Drew & Cheryl’s freestyle has gotten, we don’t really think it stands the test of time when you put it up against truly high-octane, challenging routines like we’ve seen in the past few seasons. Many of you seemed to say the same thing – “I wasn’t really all that wild about it”, “I don’t understand why people rave about how great it is”, etc. Now I’m not by any means trying to say that it’s a bad routine, or diminsh Cheryl’s choreography or Drew’s performance, but I think the strange dichotomy of this routine is best explained by looking at the context. This was a season 2 routine – so prior to this, the show had only seen 2 freestyles, and the pros still seemed to be testing the waters and fleshing out what exactly a freestyle should & shouldn’t be. There were literally no expectations, and since both of season 1’s freestyles were rather “meh” and the other two freestyles in season 2 were bad to okay-ish, the fact that Drew’s freestyle was the first one that was “pretty good” kinda got amplified in comparison – he was a bigger fish in a smaller pond. And if you’ve seen crummy freestyle after crummy freestyle and suddenly a decent one comes along – odds are you’re going to get excited and the bar will be set…but like all bars, they start out low and there’s almost always someone who will eventually beat your record. This was the case with “Save a Horse” – great for season 2, but it pales in comparison to the showstoppers we started to see with Julianne, Mark, Derek, and Kym. So I think it fits in nicely as an “honorable mention” – great at the time, but probably not so great compared to recent years.
Now who are YOUR favorites? And do you think any of the freestyles that we’re going to see this week could possibly make this list?