Dancing with the Stars Finale 5th Judge: Did Charli, Gabby, Shangela or Wayne Win It All?

After a season of incredible emotion, powerful performances and a neck-and-neck race for the top of the leaderboard, “Dancing with the Stars” came to a close Monday night.

All 16 couples returned for special performances, including the contemporary Selma Blair was unable to perform when she medically withdrew from the competition, as well as Cheryl Burke’s final performance as a professional dancer.

There was originally a planned live performance with Derek Hough and Hayley Erbert, but after she injured herself preparing for the dance, it was scrapped. It’s a shame there wasn’t clean rehearsal footage so we could still see it. Instead, we got Tyra awkwardly explaining what happened before Shangela got her first scores of the night.

Shangela was battling it out across two rounds of competition (a redemption round and a freestyle) with the three people who’ve spent all season fighting for the top of the leaderboard: Charli D’Amelio, Gabby Windey, and Wayne Brady. Could she step it up and take home the trophy?

She certainly made a case for herself in her freestyle, not only bringing drag to the ballroom in a way it’s never been done before, but bringing partner Gleb Savchenko fully into drag as Natasha! It was one for the record books for sure, and that was before we even found out who won!

Who do I think I am? you ask. Well, I spent nearly a decade of my life sweating and bleeding to the music as a dancer. From a young boy learning a shuffle-ball-change to performing with the St. Louis Ballet Company, I experienced the ups and downs of one of the most difficult physically demanding sports on the planet. During this time, I was also a member of the St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra, as well as a gymnast, writer and cartoonist. I had a lot more energy in my younger years. And I’ve spent the last twenty years analyzing and critiquing reality competition shows for various media publications. I’ve got this.

Fair warning, since I’m safe at home, I’m probably going to be a little harsher than my colleagues Carrie Ann Inaba, Len Goodman, Derek Hough and Bruno Tonioli. But I might be nicer, too. Maybe.

This was a fun piece that saw the professional dancers all dolled up and taking over the entirety of the studio, including the skybox, for a high energy piece. The finalists themselves were also looking very classy in black and white for their introductions. This was non-stop ballroom technique on display and definitely brought the energy in the room up and set the stage for a truly unpredictable finale.

It was great seeing Jason Lewis & Peta Murgatroyd, Teresa Giudice & Pasha Pashkov, Cheryl Ladd & Louis Van Amstel, and Sam Champion & Cheryl Burke on the dancefloor again, but it also was quickly apparent that they are so far out performed by the four finalists it’s like these four celebrities won a contest to get to dance on TV with about 30 minutes training beforehand. Okay, it wasn’t all that bad (except for Jason), but they were slow and stilted and being talked through every step by their professional partners. Still, it’s always fun to see how far we’ve come.

After announcing this would be her final season as a professional dancer, Cheryl got a high-flying farewell with two of the best male dancers the show has ever seen. It was nonstop action and pivots and turns and beautiful lineworks as she created her 2006 “Copacabana” performance with Louis. Cheryl is a bonafide “DWTS” legend whose impact on the show will never be diminished. She’s made it clear her desire to replace Len as a judge after he announced his own retirement last season, and we hope she’s at least part of that conversation. She deserves a shot, at the very least. If Derek is good enough, so is Cheryl.

Joseph Baena & Daniella Karagach, Jessie James Decker & Alan Bersten, and Jordin Sparks & Brandon Armstrong had to represent this group, as Selma Blair (& Sasha Farber) did not return for this dance after she medically withdrew amid her ongoing MS journey (but keep reading and you’ll see why). This grouping was so much more polished than the first four, showing what just a few more weeks under the tutelage of these world-class dancers can accomplish. Jordin, in particular, was stunning as she moved across the floor. And props to Joseph for having to try and keep up with the other two male pros as the only non-pro male dancer.

(“No Air,” Jordin Sparks) When Selma had to step out in Week 5 it was while preparing to do a contemporary performance. We never got the chance to see it, until now. To make it even more special, Jordin agreed to perform a special arrangement of her hit live for the dance. What was so magical about it was the sheer joy on the faces of both Selma and Sasha as they got to perform one last time together. The routine itself had plenty of challenging content that they delivered with real heart and passion. It was yet another moving performance.

Evicted in back-to-back double eliminations, these were the crop just beneath the cream, with some truly talented dancers and celebs that really stepped into this challenge. Heidi D’Amelio & Artem Chigvintsev, Vinny Guadagnino & Koko Iwasaki, Trevor Donovan & Emma Slater, and Daniel Durant & Britt Stewart were filled with joy as they returned to the stage — and Vinny even got a fist-pump moment in the choreography. The piece had personality moments for each of them and was a fun reminder of why we enjoyed their journeys, while moments of falter solidified that we’ve got the right Final 4, too.

In a touching video that looked back at 17 years of “Dancing with the Stars,” Len was able to relive some of the highlights of his experience being on the show, as well as share touching messages of love for his fellow judges, some of the heroes he met along the way and how much this experience meant to him. He was also glad to say he left before he was caught dribbling on himself or falling asleep on the job. He was touched to receive an honorary Mirrorball Trophy of his own.

Troupe dancer Alexis Warr was part of this piece, alongside seven other pro dancers. She did step up as a fill-in pro, so could this be a tease of a permanent promotion next season? It’s always nice to see the pros in partnership with one another because it emphasizes the high level of dancing that they bring to the show. Each week, they do the best they can with a partner who’s not a professional, but together, they really cut loose and show how good they are and what these styles look like in the hands of true masters.

(Bruno Tonioli [Quickstep] – “Queen Bee,” Rochelle Diamante) Bruno brought them the challenge of rediscovering their Week 2 quickstep with a better frame. He certainly gave her a huge challenge for the biggest night of the competition. There was a bit of a mix-up with the footwork right in the middle when they were face-to-face, but otherwise this was a very clean performance with a ton of character. They were definitely feeling good after that one and it was vastly improved over their first time.

“This moment right here is about sharing more love and less hate,” Shangela said before getting her scores in an impassioned speech referencing the tragic shooting at a gay club in Colorado Springs.

Judges Scores: 9, 9, 9, 9

My Score: 9

(Len Goodman [Quickstep] – “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher,” Jackie Wilson) Wayne was sick when they first took on the quickstep and it was the moment he fell out of that tight three-way battle at the top of the leaderboard. He never fully recovered, dipping in and out of that battle the rest of the season. Wayne struggled at the start of the Charleston breakdown out of hold with his feet, but he was night-and-day improved in hold. It wasn’t a flawless execution, but his footwork was cleaner, the energy was consistent throughout and they really looked like they were having fun. The choice to go disco with the music definitely set the perfect mood, too.

Judges Scores: 9, 9, 9, 9

My Score: 9

(Carrie Ann Inaba [Jive] – “Grown,” Little Mix) Charli’s biggest struggle this season is setting aside the technicalities of a dance and immersing herself in it emotionally. She’s withdrawn in real life (you can see it in her interviews even still), so it was definitely a challenge for her to emote and be vulnerable enough to express. That was the weakest part of her jive, the performance aspect, in Week 5. In a finale filled with larger-than-life personalities, Charli really needed to up her game in this area.

What a transformation. It was as if a light switch was flipped when the music started and we were getting face right from the first measure. There was so much personality and character throughout, we found ourselves smiling along with her. Charli never really had a problem mastering the technique (we’d have liked a little more pickup with the feet, but that’s our only quibble here), but here she finally looked like a fully formed dancer complete with technique and joyous presentation. And yes, Derek, that “pop” moment was everything!

Judges Scores: 10, 10, 10, 10

My Score: 10

(Derek Hough [Cha-cha-cha] – “I Like It (Like That),” Pete Rodriguez) For Gabby and Val, Derek took a look back at the technique of their Week 3 cha-cha-cha, which was before Gabby really stepped up into that leadership position for this whole competition. This was a little low energy for us, though the judges appreciated Gabby’s chill demeanor. We saw a bit of a disconnect between where she was and where Val was with energy, which stood out when they were dancing next to each other more than together. It was a smoothly confident performance with all the right steps, but we would have liked a bit more flair on top.

Judges Scores: 10, 10, 10, 10

My Score: 9

(Freestyle – “Get Up”, Ciara f. Chamillionaire / “24K Magic,” Bruno Mars) The ending jumps over one another could have been a little smoother, but overall this was what they wanted to accomplish. We appreciated that this was a double spotlight and showcase of Wayne and Witney, as this is a true partnership from beginning to end. They definitely gave it everything they had — Wayne was clearly loving the non-ballroom styles and really popped in them — showing off a lot of different styles and plenty of charm and personality. It was a fun piece from start to stop that had us grooving right along with them.

Judges Scores: 10, 10, 10, 10

My Score: 10

(Freestyle – “Us Again,” Pinar Toprak) Charli opened up about stepping away from dance due to criticism as she blew up on TikTok. She said she felt like she lost everything she thought she was and almost turned down the offer to do this show, but is so grateful she didn’t. This journey helped her fall back in love with dance, and she said it’s the happiest and most herself she’s felt. Mark, who’d been away for five years before coming back, said he was in a similar place, not sure if he still loved this. Together, they rediscovered that love and passion. This partnership has given them so much more than what the final result will be.

What followed was two people sharing their love of dance by showing as many different styles and approaches as they could. We had some slow, moving parts, lyrical elements, rapid fire partnering, side-by-side, it was a showcase of almost everything that dance can be and it was beautifully performed. The love for what they were doing, for this partnership and the celebration of this journey was all over that incredible piece.

Judges Scores: 10, 10, 10, 10

My Score: 10

(Freestyle – “Cell Block Tango,” from “Chicago”) It looked like something happened in that last move that broke her shoe or something because she couldn’t quite get back up and hopped her way through the end (luckily just a few seconds later). This was a very fun piece, though we’d have liked something a little lighter and more fun for Gabby considering her personality. Instead, this was like a pure, tense Broadway piece from “Chicago.” Don’t get us wrong, it was masterfully performed for what it was, but it was an unexpected choice for this particular pairing.

Judges Scores: 10, 10, 10, 10

My Score: 10

(Freestyle – “”Survivor,” Destiny’s Child / “Call Me Mother,” RuPaul) As we expected, Shangela stepped into the creative process for this one, bringing drag into the ballroom in a way she’s not been able to before this no-rules round. We couldn’t help but wonder if that’s why she was bumped to last — because this was going to be a massive, show-stopping number. This one came with drag, plus-sized dancers, crispy chicken legs and Gleb debuting his own drag persona, Natasha. It was everything we expected when Shangela was given free rein to cut loose, and boy did she! Carrie Ann was so excited to judge this, she snapped her paddle.

Judges Scores: 10, 10, 10, 10

My Score: 10

Nothing really changed throughout the night. The Freestyles were almost guaranteed to be perfect scores across the board, so it was going to come down to what happened in the Redemption Round. And what happened there is what’s been happening these past few weeks.

Charli and Gabby continued their neck-and-neck race to the finish with another perfect night, while Wayne and Shangela were just behind them. We had a feeling that combined judges scores and votes from home would line up in the same way. But how would they actually place?

Shangela brought out all the stops in bringing drag to the ballroom, while Wayne proved what a showman he is. We suspected that drag just has a smaller overall audience than what Wayne does, and he’s been just enough stronger than her all season, he’d probably eke out a third-place finish.

At the top, we had a feeling that Charli — who has transcended the “Stars” portion to dance at pro level from time to time — would come out on top this season. Gabby is an incredible performer and would also make a great champion, but there has been something magical about Charli all season long when she hits the dance floor that’s been undeniable.

Before revealing the final scores, we got some sweet messages of support from the finalists’ friends, co-workers and family. Landon Barker was part of Charli’s messages of love, while Wayne got emotional when his daughter showed up, Shangela felt the support of her whole community, and Kaitlyn Bristowe showed off her own Mirrorball trophy in hopes her fellow “Bachelorette” might follow her lead (fellow winner Hannah Brown shared her love, too, but not her trophy).

This was an incredible finish for Shangela & Gleb Savchenko. She got to represent drag on one of the biggest stages, continuing the important work of sharing LGBTQ representation to the masses. It remains one of the best tools in combating hate crimes against the community like what just happened in Colorado Springs. She showed what she could do in the ballroom and probably introduced a bit of what drag is to millions of people who really had no understanding. She has so much to be proud of.

An early front-runner, Wayne Brady & Witney Carson faltered these past few weeks — really ever since he got sick. Maybe it was his busy schedule, but whatever it was, he wasn’t able to grow at the same pace as the obvious front-running women. That said, he remains a consummate performer who lights up a stage and clearly is so passionate about performance. He definitely looked disappointed in this finish, walking off with a tear in his eye, but it’s a huge statement to finish in third. In a season without these two powerhouse women, he could have won it all.

And then there were two. In a way, it was always these two. They have battled back and forth for the top of the leaderboard basically since the first week, never relinquishing control and seemingly pushing one another to even greater heights just through their competitive drive. There was never a chance for either to slow down with the other always right there. And they’ve both been such a joy to watch.

After being told it was one of the tightest finale races in the history of the show — just as it had been all season long — the inevitable happened. Gabby Windey & Val Chmerkovskiy smiled and offered their love from the side as Charli D’Amelio & Mark Ballas took their reignited love for dance all the way to the Mirrorball, winning the season.

“Dancing with the Stars” will return sometime next year on Disney+.

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