Carrie Ann Inaba Carrie Ann Inaba

Heading into the season finale of Dancing with the Stars, the winner is typically at least somewhat a foregone conclusion. So it's unusual that, in Season 19, the Mirrorball trophy is truly anyone's to lose on the two-part season finale, which kicks off Monday at 8/7c and concludes on Tuesday at 9/8c on ABC.

"This to me is by far the closest competition we have had in a long time," veteran judge Carrie Ann Inaba tells TVGuide.com. "I'm really interested to see how it's all going to play out. ... At this stage, it could be any of them. It's going to be great."

The unpredictability of this season's finale may be due in part to the show's polarizing new casting philosophy — tapping contestants like Bethany Mota and Sadie Robertson, who are popular with the younger set, have a huge social media presence, and are influential enough to get fans to watch the show.

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"At first on paper, I'm not going to lie, I wasn't too thrilled [with the cast] because I didn't know a lot of the names," Inaba admits, echoing the sentiments of the show's primary fan base. "Obviously we all know Tommy Chong, we all know Alfonso [Ribeiro]. But other than that, there weren't that many names that I actually knew. So I was curious. But I was happily surprised. ... We've brought in a younger demo and I think it has changed up the voting a little. In the past, we had Sabrina Bryan and we had Cody Linley, and they had huge social media followers too, but [the fans] weren't watching the show. They didn't vote. This year, these kids have followings that are voting."

So, who will emerge victorious? The final pairs are Mota and Derek HoughJanel Parrish and Val Chmerkovskiy, Ribeiro and Witney Carson, and Robertson and Mark Ballas. One couple will be eliminated Monday night, and the winner will be crowned on Tuesday.

Of course, the big asterisk of the finale will be next to Ribeiro's name. The former Fresh Prince of Bel-Air alum has been battling a back injury that nearly rendered him incapable of performing last week.

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"Any dancer knows pain," says Inaba, who herself suffers from spinal stenosis and bulging discs as a result of her dancing career. "Watching him, I have a mixture of emotions. A, I feel really badly for him because he's so close and he's done so well, and he really has a good shot. He's been the quiet frontrunner, I'd say throughout this season, and he's set the bar for this season. So it's sad to see, so close to the finish, that he has to struggle so much."

"On another note," she continues, "I'm actually genuinely worried about him, because back injuries can be dangerous. You can pull something and it can affect you for the rest of his life. ... So, I really hope that he will make good choices and take care of himself as he heads to the finals. Because, is the Mirrorball trophy worth sustained back pain?"

We asked Inaba to size up the finalists and tell us what she thinks each couple needs to do to win. Here's what she had to say:

Alfonso Ribeiro: I didn't think my body would break down as early as it did

Janel and Val
Strengths: 
"Her strength is that she's very versatile and she's got incredible passion when she performs," Inaba says of the Pretty Little Liars star. "She and Val have this incredible sexual energy that has created great dancing, because often we say that a lot of dance is a vertical expression of a horizontal desire. ... She's definitely got that going for her. She's very sensual and she's very powerful when she dances, and she's able to bring the characters out. She's a seasoned actress and it adds polish to her performances."
Weaknesses: 
Janel's sexuality is both a strength and a weakness, according to Inaba. "What works against her is sometimes she will let the sexual energy lead the way, and it takes away from the other aspects of her performance, like the technique or bringing to life a character. Also, sometimes when she gets uncertain, she also loses her center and ... loses her balance sometimes on her turns."
Winning strategy: 
"I really want to see her grounded, but also light in her performance," Inaba says. "I don't want her to get so serious and so gritty that we lose the lightness and the fun factor of the dance. Because this season has an innocence to it. It's a very G-rated season otherwise, and people like that. I think it feels really fresh and happy, and I think that she needs to stay in that vibe. ... [Even though] she's beautiful and sexy when she dances, she's so much more than that. So I just urge her not to rely on that in her finale, because she is so much more than that."

Sadie and Mark
Strengths: 
Sadie is "innocence personified," and has a magical quality that draws people in, according to Inaba. "Her secret weapon, her best part, is her grace and that innocence and that beautiful smile she has. Physically, what is working to her advantage is that she's got incredibly long limbs and she uses them well. She's one of the few performers we've seen with such long limbs. I could put her up there with Stacy Kiebler or Erin Andrews. But I think she's probably, out of all of them, the most graceful I've seen. ... She is a bright light. There's something, when she dances, that's so pure and so elegant, and so graceful. It's really, really easy to watch and it lights up the room. It brings great joy to everybody."
Weaknesses: 
"Sadie's biggest thing working against her is her confidence," Inaba says. Her inexperience may also be a factor. "Because she is the youngest and has the least experience performing in this way, the depth of her performances is not as deep as some of the other people like Bethany and Janel and even Alfonso," Inaba says. "Sometimes, she goes in and out of her characters. ... She and Bethany are very similar in this way. They're younger, and you can see the youth in their performances. They sometimes come in and out of the characters."
Winning strategy: 
"If she comes out and starts to overthink it or is not confident, it could really work against her. ... As long as she can stay focused [she can win]."

Dancing's Derek: I'm trying not to repeat myself

Bethany and Derek
Strengths: 
"The best thing about Bethany is you never know what she's going to be when she comes on the dance floor," Inaba says. "She's a very exciting and dynamic performer, and she's got that earthy energy that is really powerful. ... She does really well when she plays a character. She is able to bring those characters to life in a way that I haven't seen before, like when she did the Maleficent character. She was incredible and really dynamic and dramatic."
Weaknesses: 
"Her weakest point though is that her core is not that strong, and sometimes she doesn't finish her moves," Inaba says. "And every once in a while, you can see her thinking. It's weird because the moment you see it, the magic goes away. She comes out of it; we all come out of it as an audience as well."
Winning strategy: 
"If she can stay focused the whole way through, she is fierce," Inaba says. Bethany may want to review her hip-hop performance with Mark from Week 5 for pointers. That was when "she came out of her shell," according to Inaba. "She found that she actually has her own way of moving and she really found confidence in herself."

Alfonso and Witney
Strengths: 
Where to start? "He's just an incredible performer," Inaba says. "What he does better than anybody else is he knows how to please an audience. He's watching the audience, he's interacting with them, he's making eye contact with them the whole time. Every performance he does, it's for the audience. And you can feel it in the room. He just knows how to communicate. And the other younger performers don't quite have that skill set yet." First-time finalist Witney deserves credit too. "The fact that Witney is one of our newer pros is working towards their advantage," Inaba says. "Because we've never seen her this far, or her work at this stage, everything that she could do is going to feel fresh and new to us as judges. We're not going to see something we've seen before. With Derek, as great as he is, I'm starting to feel like I'm seeing repeats of certain things. ... With Mark, we've seen some of the more overdramatic things. Val, we've seen the violin before. And so with Witney, everything she does still feels fresh, and I think that works well for them as a team."
Weaknesses: 
His injury, of course, but that's not the only thing. "He's not flexible, so his movements don't seem very large," Inaba notes. "They're not huge in the room. And also now that he's got the injuries, maybe even less so. His movements will be even smaller and more contained, like we saw last week. You could see it in the dancing. It looked painful."
Winning strategy: 
Inaba says she feels guilty about the routine she selected for Alfonso's judges' pick. "If his back is hurting, it's going to be a painful dance to do," she confesses. "I wanted to call the producers and say, 'Can we change it? That's not fair.' But it's also one of the dances that he could do incredibly well, and if he did it well, it would be a show-stopper. It would just blow the roof off the ballroom. So, hopefully he'll be able to summon his strength from his core, protect his back, and give us that charisma that he always does."

The Dancing with the Stars finale airs Monday at 8/7c and Tuesday at 9/8c on ABC. Which pair are you rooting for?

 

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