Billy Ray Cyrus steps up his game on <EM>Dancing with the Stars</EM>. Billy Ray Cyrus steps up his game on Dancing with the Stars.

Now we've got ourselves a real horse race. In the beginning of the season, the Dancing with the Stars studio audience was strongly skewed toward former 'N Sync heartthrob Joey Fatone. But as we enter Week 6, not only have two new favorites emerged — Apolo Anton Ohno and Laila Ali — but there is one very dark horse by the name of Billy Ray Cyrus who will not be denied. Cyrus has been making a habit of coming into the audience after the show and shaking hands, giving hugs. The women simply melt. "He's got the biggest heart," says his pro partner, the fiery Karina Smirnoff. "Even if he doesn't do the proper steps, the audience just goes along with it." 

Smirnoff had a tough time, initially, getting used to teaching someone who has so much trouble learning the simplest of steps. And it was particularly painful because she was paired with Cyrus — who refers to himself as "a Kentucky hillbilly with two left feet" — after sailing into the finals last season with the gifted Mario Lopez. So it's a shock to her system that she can dance with Cyrus and the audience still eats it up, mistakes and all. "I'm not letting go of the competitive aspect of this," says Smirnoff. "But I'm letting go of the idea that we can't have fun. I don't want to finish this season like last season (she and Lopez finished second), when we were so much into the competition that when it was over, I was like, what happened?"    

"Billy Ray is so lighthearted," says pro dancer and audience favorite Cheryl Burke, who admires Cyrus' devil-may-care attitude. Her own earnest celebrity partner, Ian Ziering, was advised by judge Carrie Ann Inaba tonight to look to Cyrus as an example of how to let loose on the dance floor. "When Billy Ray goes out there," says Burke, "it's all or nothing. It's his passion that comes through. He just doesn't care."

"Maybe we need to go down south," says Ziering, trying to find the same kind of Southern-fried magic. "Go down to the bayou." Burke has a different idea. "Maybe we just need to go to a bar and drink."                 

Then there are the other two contenders, Ohno and Ali, both world-class athletes who weren't supposed to be gifted dancers. Sure, they have the muscle tone and stamina to pull off demanding dance routines. But no one could have predicted their moxie, elegance and astounding charisma. Ohno's proud father, Yuki Ohno, sat on the edge of the dance floor, dumbfounded by his son's rendition of the rumba. "He never danced like this when he was little," says Yuki. "He was a break-dancer." What goes through his mind as he's watching his son? "This," says Yuki, "is pure entertainment."        

For Apolo, the show is about putting the spotlight on his sport, short-track speed skating. Who could have guessed that the guy winning two gold medals as he was flying around the rink — so fast that you couldn't see his expressive face — could also bust a ballroom move? "I have a whole new outlook on dancing and dancers in general," says Ohno. "I had no idea how much it took to train for something like this. I like training hard and it gives me the opportunity to go out there and perform, which I've never done before. I've only performed on a big stage at the Olympics, and with a poker face."

Ali is also getting used to smiling. The woman is a terrible flirt. Still every inch the boxer, she knows how to have fun and talk trash as she's breaking hearts. "The other couples?" she says with a laugh. "They all have to go at some point." 

Her pro partner, the glamorous Maksim Chmerkovskiy, says he's finally gotten used to dancing with a woman who's almost his same height and build. "I was very concerned about dancing with her," says Chmerkovskiy. "I'm so used to totally dominating the couple and having a very fragile woman in my arms. And she's not. So it was a lot to adjust to." 

"What happens," says Ali, "is that he'll want my wrists a certain way and I'll be fighting him with my wrists. And I'm not as quick as a dancer should be. He'll say, 'Be sharper with your legs.' You'd think with these big strong legs I'd be faster, but my muscles aren't built to move that way."

Still, she's taking great pride in her dance achievements — she tied for first with Apolo tonight after doing the cha-cha — because it has nothing to do with her family background. "This is not genetic," she says. "Everything I've done as a fighter, where people have recognized me, they've always said, 'Your dad, your dad, your dad.' But this is one thing they can't compare. My dad cannot dance. So for all those naysayers out there, I'm not No. 1 right now because of my dad. I'm No. 1 because I have a great partner, because we're working very hard together and because that's just my work ethic."

Like we said, a real horse race.

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