Shirley Halperin
May 22, 2007 AT 06:46 PM EDT

Let’s get ready to rumba! Reporting to you live from Dancing With the Stars (well, a few hours later — call it a West Coast tape delay), PopWatch was there at the final showdown between celebrity contestants Laila Ali, Joey Fatone and Apolo Anton Ohno. Along with their respective dance partners — Maksim Chmerkovskiy, Kym Johnson and Julianne Hough — the three hoofers duked it out in two final dances: their best of the season and a freestyle routine of their choice. As we all know, eight Dancing hopefuls have already seen their trophy dreams shattered; now, who will take the coveted prize? That was the question on everyone’s minds and no one had a clear answer.

The sidelines of Dancing with the Stars are very different from American Idol, which tapes next door at CBS Television City. We journos are not seated in the audience for the show, but rather right outside the stage doors in a greenroom-like enclosure where, along with the contestants’ various publicists, stylists, managers, and other professional hand-holders, we watch along on multiple monitors connected to the live feed. No one really holds back their opinions here. If Len says something stodgy or mean, we all boo. If Joey flips over, we all cheer — it’s like a parallel universe to the very same thing happening some 20 feet away.

addCredit(“Samantha Harris: Carol Kealson “)

Not surprisingly, tonight the room was especially crowded and extrarowdy. Seated in the front row? Two-time winner and recently ousteddance partner of one Ian Ziering, Miss Cheryl Burke. She was on hand todo interviews for Extra, just as several former Dancingparticipants have also added to their onscreen résumés (KarinaSmirnoff, Mario Lopez). Foregoing Cheryl’s usual tanorexic bronzer andglitter overload for a pair of leopard-print stilettos and a littleblack dress, the look was working, a welcome change.

As everyone gets settled, the show kicks off with Maks and Laila.It looks to be a nailbiter as people lock eyes on the TV screendirectly in front of them as if they were watching Psycho.So much so that the first commercial becomes a colossal cigarette breakfor a good third of the room (Cheryl included). Meanwhile, Tom Bergeronand Samantha Harris tape a tour promo in between dances. This, myfriends, is how the networks save time and money — squeeze it into thecommercial break! So if you’re going to be attending the Dancing with the Stars tour this summer, look forward to this little bit of Bergeron telling you to “enjoy the show like never before!”

And since Samantha Harris (pictured) came up, let’s discuss her readingand hosting issues. I haven’t railed on the girl yet this seasonbecause it is live TV and, yes, sometimes judges press the wrongbuttons and sometimes hosts can’t add, but her many on-air snafus couldbe a drinking game at this point. Tonight’s slip (which did not gounnoticed in the press room, naturally): “no hold barred” [sic]. Shesays this while looking down at an index card, so perhaps it wassomeone else’s mistake, but somehow I doubt it. Still, the girl’s gotgreat hair.

Moving on to Joey Fatone, whom I followed around for an entire week twoissues ago. The guy’s been working his butt off, I can attest to that,and I know he was thrilled to have his wife Kelly, daughter Brianna andold pal Lance Bass in the crowd. The only ‘N Syncer who hasn’t caught ashow is Justin Timberlake, which is too bad for all of us. If nothingelse, Joey did pull out the ‘N Sync moves in both his dances, soperhaps they were all there in spirit.

And speaking of spirit, Laila had plenty of it during her freestyle,where she rocked a pair of silver shorts with matching bedazzledsneakers. If she were the captain of her high school cheerleadingsquad, it would be the perfect outfit. But her booty-shaking routine,which featured a shirtless (and recently waxed) Maks, didn’t wow thejudges or the backstage crowd. Even Karina Smirnoff, who came byshortly after her onscreen cameo, remarked “What the hell were theydoing?” Something different, insisted Laila later on, but we’ll get tothat in a bit.

Apolo and Julianne are up next in the freestyle. They channel The Karate Kidin their hip-hop flavored routine to the tune of Young MC’s “Bust AMove” (the real-life Young MC was in the audience for the show, butcouldn’t perform because it might be “an unfair advantage”). Who knewApolo could breakdance? Wait, what am I saying, who knew Apolo coulddance at all? The speed-skater impresses once again as he and his18-year-old partner turn the competition up a notch, and the audienceresponds in kind. We were starting to think that they had it in thebag until Joey came along and pulled out all the stops.

Joey and Kym’s final dance  (appropriately aligned withtheir song choice, Donna Summer’s “Last Dance”) was an abridged versionof the ballroom dancing textbook, incorporating several styles thatJoey had only recently learned, along with disco grooves that would makea young John Travolta proud. It was a smart, calculated move to win thefavor of the judges, but will the rest of America appreciate it?

We’ll find out Tuesday when the judges have their final say and, combined with the viewer vote, we’ll have our next Dancing with the Stars winner. But until then, some last words from our contestants and a couple of audience members.

Laila Ali: “The judges were saying, ‘We’dlike to see you be more elegant next time,’ and I was, like, ‘Well,this was the last time! I’ve been elegant and sophisticated the wholecompetition, that was the point of me doing that freestyle.’ I never inmy wildest dreams thought they’d say something like that. I wasn’tbummed at the time, but I got more irritated after the fact. I was,like, ‘Wait a minute, with the freestyle you’re supposed to be free andhave fun!'”

Joey Fatone: “I think it was a strategy. We wanted to impresseveryone with the lifts and showing everything I’ve incorporateddancing-wise. It was fun to do. We did a little breakbeat kind ofthing, added a little ‘N Sync-isms, a bit in the cha cha and thefreestyle. Apparently, the judges didn’t like it so much in the chacha, but what can you do? I have my razzle-dazzle and they canrazzle-dazzle their asses!”

Apolo Anton Ohno: “We both want to win it. No matter whathappens, I feel like we’ve won already. We’ve won with the fans, withthe audience who’ve supported us so much, the whole experience has beenlike winning for me. So I’m happy either way. I thought everybodydanced unbelievably tonight and I’m just happy to be in their company.”

Young MC: “Apolo called me and asked if I wanted to be a guest,and I was so flattered and honored. I’ve watched the show, and I thinkApolo and Julianne are incredible.”

Lisa Loeb: “I came here rooting for Joey because I think he hasso much charisma, but after seeing Apolo dance up close, I thought hedid a great job. He dances so well with his partner!”

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