Only five contestants remain on Season 17 of Dancing with the Stars, and it's anybody's guess who will go home with the Mirrorball trophy. Only two of the semifinalists — Amber Riley and Corbin Bleu — have professional dance experience, but at this point in the competition, is that more of a hindrance or a help?
"[The judges] leave no room for error for us," Karina Smirnoff, who's partnered with Bleu, tells TVGuide.com.
With Leah Remini, Jack Osbourne and especially Bill Engvall emerging as fan favorites, what do Bleu and Riley have to do to keep themselves in the contest? Smirnoff spoke to TVGuide.com about the dramatic routines she and Bleu have planned for this week, as well as the return of Maksim Chmerkovskiy as a guest judge, and her newfound addiction to Game of Thrones.
Let's talk about your waltz from last week, which was very straightforward. Did you feel that the Game of Thrones theme for your Viennese waltz was a misfire?
Karina Smirnoff: With the Game of Thrones [dance], we learned that the judges don't particularly like thinking outside the box, and they would much rather prefer sticking to the traditional ideas. And coming to the quarterfinal week ... we decided that maybe we shouldn't risk it and do a traditional waltz the way waltz is expected to be done. With that said, we still went after the story, because for us, dancing is a physical expression. Like, you tell a story with your body language. We still did that with our waltz, but we definitely kept in mind that the judges would much rather prefer to see the traditional waltz over the Corbin and Karina version of the waltz.
Even though the judges didn't care for it, how did you guys feel about your Game of Thrones routine?
Smirnoff: It's still one of our favorite dances. . ... We love our Game of Thrones. I mean, he's still Khal Drogo and I'm still Khaleesi, and that's not going to change. But it is a competition and we want the good scores. ... So, once we're done with Dancing with the Stars, we can do another one of theGame of Thrones. But for now, we have our eye on that final and we are ready to work our butts off for it.
When you did the routine, you had said that Corbin was a big fan of the show but you were less familiar with it. Have you started watching?
Smirnoff: I have! It's scandalously brutal. When you watch some of the episodes, your jaw drops to the floor, because you're like, 'No way. they didn't just kill him.' The show is brilliant. I had seen little bits and pieces here and there before we did Game of Thrones, but after watching how excited Corbin was, I was like, you know what, it's definitely worth checking it out, because now I know the whole love story between Khal Drogo and Khaleesi. So I started. I'm into it. I just got to the [Red Wedding episode]. I think I had a nightmare afterwards. ... I can't wait for the next season to start. Thanks to Corbin.
For the trio dance last week, things seemed to get a little tense in rehearsals with you, Corbin and Witney. What was going on?
Smirnoff: The way the package was cut was definitely interesting to watch live on the big screen before you start dancing. But, you know, we can't control [that]. ... I knew what I wanted to do with idea, with staging and choreography, the concept and the way I wanted to go. So, we did all of that on Tuesday and then Witney came in on Wednesday and then all three of us finalized certain sections. ... That was something that we did together to create choreography that would really play up everyone's strengths.
Carrie Ann said your trio routine was the best she's seen in 17 seasons. You're a veteran of the show. Do you feel that that's accurate?
Smirnoff: We were so excited about the jazz number and we were so proud of it. ... We wanted to do a jazz number that really showcased Corbin's ability and growth as a dancer — not rely on different tricks and bells and whistles that would decorate the dance. ... That was not our agenda. Our agenda was to show that it's Week 9 in the competition and he has only gotten better, stronger with every week. ... So we showcased that it's not just tricks and lifts, that he can move and he can hold his own, and he did a superb job. So yeah, we were very excited. I do think the number turned out to be like a mini music video, with costumes and lighting and podiums. I said to him, if Usher's not going to call after this number and say, 'Hey, want to be in my video?,' we need to call him and show it to him.
How is it working with Corbin?
Smirnoff: He's incredible. He's been my dream partner for close to five years and I've been nagging him to do the show for almost five years and he's finally agreed. There was a reason why I wanted him to do the show, because I knew he comes from this industry. He will understand what the show's about and what you need to put in to be able to do a great job on it. And he's absolutely brilliant. He's crazy too, so when you put two crazy people together, we just start throwing ideas out there and half the time production goes, 'OK, you need to calm down. That's not going to happen.' And we're like, 'But we can do it. Look.' It's been such a fun season and he is so talented. ... He's also a really cool guy. He's just awesome to hang around with. He's just mad positive. I couldn't have asked for anything else from him. He has given me anything I would possibly want in a partner.
Do you feel that, because of Corbin's dance background, the judges hold him to a higher standard in their critiques than some of the other contestants?
Smirnoff: Yeah, absolutely. I think when Carrie Ann mentioned something in the waltz that he wasn't on his center ... I went back and watched that over and over again, and I was like, gosh darnit. That's what cost us a 10? They leave no room for error for us. I remember, for the last several weeks, it was us and Elizabeth and Val at the studio, always leaving last. And I'm thinking, how the heck does everybody get ready so fast? Are we that slow? But you know, I just don't want to leave anything to chance because the judges do give him a lot of tough love.
What can you tell us about this week's theme?
Smirnoff: This week, they're doing something really cool on the show. They have never done this before, and I really like this idea. Everybody does two individual dances, and the dances are to the same song. One is the original and the other one is a one is a stripped-down cover of the original.
Sounds cool! What do you and Corbin have planned?
Smirnoff: [The] first dance is the main story, and it's quite passionate and dark and mysterious. And the second dance becomes the prequel to the first dance. The first dance is a traditional international tango, and the second one is a rumba. In the tango, we both have become creatures of darkness in a way, but he is like the mastermind of darkness and he obviously has dangerous agendas in his game plan. And I decide in the tango that I don't want to be a part of that, but I can't stop him anymore. So then in the rumba, it's him finding me and seducing me to be part of his darkness, part of his world. It's pretty awesome. I was telling Corbin, our dances remind me of little movies. It's so exciting and entertaining and creative. I love it. I love every second of it.
How do you feel you're positioned going into the semifinals?
Smirnoff: We were talking about it yesterday, and the last four eliminations were relatively shocking to me. They were the strongest dancers [who] went out, so that's not the best sign for us, because we do tend to be closer to the top of the leader board. ... So, we are nervous about Monday, but at the end of the day this is something that we can't control. And our main goal is to make sure that we come up with routines that are exciting and entertaining, and hopefully the audience will love it and vote us into the final. That's the only thing that we can control, and we're going to work hard on that. Everything else, whether we worry or not about it, there's nothing we can do.
What do you think about Maks coming back to guest-judge?
Smirnoff: I think it's actually going to be a lot of fun. Maks is known to not be friends with a filter. ... I think he will say it as it is. It won't be the typical response that we might be accustomed to hearing ... so I'm kind of looking forward to that. And he's an active dancer, so he literally went off the dance floor in Dancing with the Stars and now is going to judge, so he has a fresh perspective of being on both sides of the coin. I think it'll be interesting. I'm kind of excited to see him go at it with Len or Carrie Ann or any one of them.
Dancing with the Stars airs Mondays at 8/7c on ABC.