Helio Castroneves and Julianne Hough, <EM>Dancing with the Stars</EM> Helio Castroneves and Julianne Hough, Dancing with the Stars

It was the Dancing with the Stars night we've all been waiting for, but everything was just a little off kilter. The hallways were packed with VIPs: friends, family and stars like All My Children's Cameron Mathison, exiled weeks before he was ready to go home. "I think it's going to be Helio," says Mathison. "I've been a fan of his forever."

But like any great marathon, you could feel the strain, see the warning flags. "Julianne [Hough] has strep throat," says her mom, Marriann Nelson, outside the soundstage. "She's been feeling awful all week, but she's still dancing." Is she feeling well enough to perform tumbles and lifts for the freestyle? Her mom nods her head yes. "She just keeps going. One time, for a [ballroom] championship, she danced with shingles."

Inside, Mathison was tucked away in the audience with Jane Seymour, her husband, director James Keach, and Seymour's pro partner, Tony Dovolani. Seymour and Keach had just been through a second round of California wildfires that threatened their Malibu home on Friday and Saturday. "Only this time, I was out there with the hoses, too," says Seymour, who says they could clearly see the flames from where they were standing.

Mathison and Seymour have been practicing for Tuesday night's finale, where all the stars (except Wayne Newton, who is recovering from cardiomyopathy, a viral heart infection) will dance again. They were curious to see what Mel B., Helio Castroneves and Marie Osmond could deliver on the night they were all gunning for. "I should have become a Mormon," jokes Seymour, referring to Osmond's fan base. "It's a very big religion."

But the bad news started almost immediately. The judges weren't overly impressed with Mel B. "I was expecting a hair more excitement," says Carrie Ann Inaba about her cha-cha. And her freestyle, says Len Goodman, "didn't flow." The comments didn't get any better for Osmond. "Technically, not your best dance," says Bruno Tonioli about her samba. The explosive, joyous dancing everyone was waiting for wasn't happening. Backstage, Helio and Julianne picked up on the strange vibe and for the first time, says Hough, got really nervous. "I was so upset, because the audience was so awesome in the beginning of the show, and then the judges had such harsh criticism that it made the whole room just die. It sucked the energy out of it. And that's what screwed both of us up in the jive. Because we heard so much negative criticism that the whole energy went down and we got nervous."

But surely they've been nervous before? "I'm a professional and I got nervous," says Hough. "So I can only imagine how Helio was feeling. This is supposed to be fun, but there was so much pressure to be perfect, perfect, perfect that it was just a downer."

Donny Osmond was struck by the strange atmospherics, too. "Mel B. blew me away tonight," he says, in a surprising admission that did not single out his sister. "But she blew me away more last week. The judges put a dark cloud over this whole show. The dancers and the celebrities were all nervous. Come on, this is the finale. Give them some encouragement."

But Donny admits that the dancing didn't match the breathtaking semifinals. "Last week was better, as far as the dancing was concerned," he says. "Tonight, everybody was nervous. Everybody was tired. Just talking to Marie before the show, she said, 'I am worn out.' When Jennie [Garth] left last week, she turned to me and said, 'I want to go home. The fun has been taken out because I hurt.'"

His overall assessment? "This reality show has gone a little too far," says Osmond. "It's beyond reality and the judges are beating them up."

Which becomes clear when you see pro Maksim Chmerkovskiy struggle to get up off the floor after his freestyle with partner Mel B. "He hurt his back," says his friend Dovolani. "He's jacked up on about 50 Advil."

"I don't believe in pills," says Maks after the show. But you can see the worry in his face. "I hurt my back on Friday night when we were doing the lifts, pulling out all the stops, trying to do as much as we could do. This week, we didn't have Wednesday or Thursday night to practice because of the Spice Girls' rehearsals, so we did freestyle on Friday night and the cha-cha-cha on Saturday at, like, 11 at night. There was no warm-up. And I didn't have time to teach her how to be lifted properly, so she was kind of like a dead weight."

And the result? "On Sunday," says Maks, "I couldn't get out of bed. We had camera blocking in the morning, so I crawled over here. But we didn't do the lifts. Today, in dress rehearsals, we didn't do the lifts." They didn't practice the death-defying lift that had him swinging her around his head and then upside down, with her head nearly smashing the floor? "No," says Chmerkovskiy. "I've got to give it to Mel, this is a very risky and very difficult thing to do. And for her to trust me without going over it was great. But then on the floor, I went like this [tries to arch his back] and I got stuck. I couldn't get up. I felt really bad about that because I couldn't get up and I didn't want to take away from what Mel had done."

In fact, Chmerkovskiy has been so distracted by his injury that he didn't even realize that he and Mel got the highest score of the night. "They just told me," he says. "I wasn't paying attention." Then the emotional side of this grueling journey comes into play. "We enjoy each other's company so much," he says. "And I'm sad because it's our last Monday night together. I told her, with no cameras around, that this has been the most amazing three months of my life. And then she cried."

There was no crying for Castroneves. He was swearing a blue streak — in Portuguese. "I was so upset after the jive," he says. "I know I made some mistakes right at the beginning. But the jive is a dance that has always been very hard for us and is still very hard for us. So I'm never going to dance jive again." Backstage, says Castroneves, Hough encouraged him to let out his frustration — so he did. "I started cursing in Portuguese in the changing room, where I was just by myself," he says. "And I was worried. My biggest fear was [coming up] in the freestyle, the flip. Not to drop her. So I said, 'I'm going to do everything I know from my racing career, mentally, to make it happen.'" Castroneves dug deep to find his way back to confidence. "And then I came out and I said, 'I know what I need to do.'"

That last dance finally lit up the room. Helio and Julianne's freestyle busted through the strain of the evening. It was as if everyone was waiting to go crazy and finally could. "For us," says Castroneves, "it was everything or nothing. A lot of things can go wrong with those lifts. And I'm the only guy [celebrity] here doing them. I still really want that mirror ball trophy."

But it's anyone's game. Says Dovolani, "I was pretty disappointed in Marie's performance tonight. I thought she had the opportunity to really entertain the audience and she failed. It was a good idea gone bad. She never really snapped out of the doll thing [to dance normally], and you needed her to. I thought Mel had a great night. Technically, she's the best dancer of the group. Helio is very entertaining, fun to watch, but in his freestyle, I think he could've done more. But for them to do two dances in a week — three, if you count tomorrow? I give the teachers [the pros] a lot of credit."

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