No one has had a rougher ride on Dancing With the Stars this season than Jaleel White. The 35-year-old actor, who has loads of natural ability, nevertheless seems to have been dancing under a dark cloud since Week 2. Early on, there was a verbal dust-up in rehearsals with his professional partner, Kym Johnson. And then, after landing in the bottom two last Tuesday night, a dance-for-your-life moment when he had to go up against singer Gavin DeGraw in the show's first Dance Duel to stay in the competition.
White survived, barely. But it did a number on his self-confidence and battered his pride. So on Monday night, when he and Johnson cha cha'd to the music of the Temptations, it became the biggest surprise of the evening: White had apparently shaken off the bad vibes, danced his butt off and got his highest score to date: 29 out of 30.
"I think we might have made some technical breakthroughs," White said immediately after the show. "I mean, people learn at different rates. And I'm glad I had that extra week to have that breakthrough. But it took a very carefree environment to make it happen."
By "carefree," White means that he decided to risk looking foolish because he had nothing to lose. "He trusted a bit more, you know?' says Johnson. "Because during the week, he felt silly. And I had to tell him, 'You can't just groove like you do. It has to be sharp, quick. You have to think like a ballroom dancer. You may feel silly, but you have to do that.' And that was the breakthrough."
That, along with a major assist from the Temptations. "I think we needed a lot of stars to line up," says White. "One, I love the song. Two, the day has been very light. Even the Temptations and Smokey Robinson came up to us, giving us hugs, telling us how great we were. One of the Temptations even shot me a thumbs up right before we went out there to dance."
Says Johnson, "It brought us much closer together, having to go through that last week, because it's a really horrible place to be. I know it sounds dramatic, but it really feels horrible."
White nods in agreement. "It's a really sucky feeling," he says, laughing. And now? "I'll be practicing my jive tonight for the dance-off," he says. "But I'm grateful, astonished. Tonight was a huge surprise. I was dancing out of pride. If they're going to send me home, they're going to send me home watching me do my best."