'Dancing With the Stars': Vernon Davis out, Johnny Weir saved in nail-biting end to emotional night

Bill Keveney, USA TODAY

"Dancing with the Stars" hit the season's halfway point – or make that stride – with a series of emotional dedications, surprising steps forward and back, a superstar judge performance and a near-miss on what would have been a shocking elimination.

Eleven couples remained in the competition at the start of Monday's episode, with one celebrity-pro pair getting the sad news of its elimination in a whisker-close finish.

The episode didn't have the usual theme, such as Disney or the '80s, but we might as well think of it as Derek Hough Night, since the six-time champ and now judge took to the "DWTS" floor for the first time in three years with girlfriend Hayley Erbert.

The two dazzled in their paso doble to Taalbi Brothers' “Uccen,” underlining what the show's pro dancers are capable of together.

In the taped dance, embellished with mirrors and colorful effects, the couple glided effortlessly across the floor, holding form as they moved ever faster. Hough mixed in a solo performance, twirling a flag as if it were a bull ring cape and throwing in dramatic spins and tap-style footwork.

But back to the competition. Host Tyra Banks opened the festivities with a grand ballroom entrance, strutting down the stage stairs to Diana Ross' "I'm Coming Out." She reminded viewers that halfway through the season on the ABC dance competition, "It is anybody's mirror ball, baby."

And then the dancers came out to try to make that trophy their own. Here's a recap of the top performances (and a couple of others):

Johnny Weir's Cher-adjacent outfit fringe overshadowed his floor moves

After getting his best scores of the competition last week, Weir couldn't keep the momentum going as he led off the show dancing a salsa with Britt Stewart to "On the Floor" by Jennifer Lopez, featuring Pitbull.

At least Weir's outfit, a sheer black leotard with fringe that matched that of Stewart's dress, received raves. "I love me some fringe," Hough said. When judge Bruno Tonioli compared his attire to Bob Mackie's designs for Cher, Weir replied that it was "our version of Cher from Cheryl Burke's closet."

Host talk: 'I go toward risk': 'DWTS' host Tyra Banks on critics, Tom Bergeron's 'big shoes to fill'

The dance, on the other hand, eh.

Weir came back to Earth score-wise, partly because, as judge Carrie Ann Inaba put it, "I felt too little Earth" in terms of how he lifted too high and didn't ground himself in the salsa. "This wasn't your best dance for me." Compared to last week's 29 out of 30 points, including the season's first double 10s, Weir was grounded in a less flattering way, receiving a 22.

Skai Jackson is a juggler, too, attending college as she trains for 'DWTS'

As the Disney Channel star learned the cha cha with pro partner Alan Bersten, her studies extend beyond the ballroom as she works through three courses as a college freshman.

We hope she's doing better in school than she did on the dance floor Monday. Jackson had an early slip during the dance, performed to “Say So” by Doja Cat, featuring Nicki Minaj, and she never fully recovered. As she performed, her smile seemed more nervous and forced than joyful.

"There was a mess-up," Hough said, offering encouragement. "Things happen."

Inaba praised Jackson' resilience after the error, but it wasn't clear whether she'd get a chance to try again next week after receiving triple 6s for a total of 18 points.

Vernon Davis explains how his late grandfather inspired him in football – and in life

The Super Bowl champ explained to pro partner Peta Murgatroyd how his grandfather inspired him before they rehearsed their cha cha to Kool & the Gang's "Celebration."

Davis, clad in a pastel-print suit, took that pride and joy to the dance floor, earning praise from the judges for his attitude and style even as they dinged him for his footwork.

"I would give you a 10 for joy every single time," Hough said, before subtracting for how Davis moved his heels. He got three 7s for 21, as the judges noted his steady improvement.

Emotional family story powers Jeannie Mai through 'daring' rumba

People watch for the dancing, of course, but the intimate partner-pro rehearsal chats can be some of the most engaging moments of "DWTS," often bringing extra emotional punch to the performance that follows.

That was certainly the case for "The Real" host Mai, who had tears in her eyes before her rumba with Brandon Armstrong after watching a moving taped piece that featured her talking about her family's escape from Vietnam.

The judges lauded her on all levels after the pair danced to Des'ree's "You Gotta Be": creative flair (Tonioli called her a "smoldering siren, irresistible and deadly"), technique ("Your legs were so straight and over your foot," Hough marveled) and daring ("You dance at your edge and for women, that is powerful," said Inaba).

Banks noted Mai was crying at the start and that the powerful family story made her cry, too. "I'm overwhelmed by what they did for me," Mai replied. She got 8s from Inaba and Hough and a 9 from Tonioli, for a total of 25.

A.J. McLean apologizes for saying he's sorry so many times

Pro Cheryl Burke, who has bonded closely enough with the Backstreet Boys singer to get into personal critiques, chastised him mildly for apologizing so often during rehearsal.

"I think you say 'I'm sorry' 40 or 50 times over a three-hour period. Why do you say you're sorry so many times?" she asked. McLean didn't have a good answer, but he did apologize.

There were no regrets, however, after their samba to "Mi Gente" by J. Balvin and Willy William. At first, McLean seemed more comfortable in the solo spins and hand movements, perhaps a tribute to his boy-band training, but he got smoother as the dance moved on. The judges loved the whole performance.

Inaba called it "a breakthrough for you" and Hough, perhaps channeling his inner Tonioli, followed with, "When in doubt, shake it out. And you shook it." The result: three 9s for a total of 27.

Chrishell Stause dedicates her contemporary dance to her late parents

Stause has had a difficult year-plus, losing her father in 2019 and her mother earlier this year, both to lung cancer, and going through a divorce. Before performing her contemporary dance with pro partner Gleb Savchenko, the "Selling Sunset" star thought of her mother, Renee: "It makes me a little sad, because I would have loved to have tried to teach my mom a little cha cha."

She dedicated Monday's dance, performed to “Stars” by Grace Potter & The Nocturnals, to her parents and her emotions, from smiles to tears, were apparent.

"You poured your heart and soul into your dancing," Inaba said. "I felt it. I think we all did." The judges were moved enough to give her unanimous 8s, totaling 24.

Kaitlyn Bristowe reveals her Justin Bieber tattoo plan

As "The Bachelor" and "The Bachelorette" star and partner Artem Chigvintsev plotted their samba to Bieber's "Sorry," Bristowe admitted to being a Bieber fan. "I always have dream that I'm friends with him," she said, admitting to having nine tattoos and wanting another one. "I want to get Bieber's face tattooed on me."

Bristowe acknowledged the samba was the toughest dance she has performed in the show, but she took to the floor with verve and style in a red fringe outfit, engaging in energetic spins and matching her pro partner in hip action.

The judges were impressed. "That was a first-class samba," Tonioli said. "You managed to make it look elegant." She received three 9s for 27, tying three other teams for the highest total of the night.

The results almost yielded a big upset

When the episode moved into the elimination phase, where the two couples with the lowest combination of judges' scores and viewer votes are subject to potential elimination, there was one big surprise: Weir, known for creative fashion and some top recent judges' scores, and pro partner Stewart were in the bottom two of the 11 pairings.

Jackson, the night's lowest scorer with the judges, avoided the elimination phase, perhaps testament to her fan base.

Weir and Stewart were joined by Davis and his partner, Murgatroyd, as the judges decided who would remain. It was a nail-biter. Hough voted to save Weir, noting his ups and downs but generally good performances, while Inaba chose Davis, lauding him for slow and steady progress. Tonioli, torn (and hurried a bit by Banks as the show ticked down), saved Weir.

"It was a great journey for me," a smiling Davis said. "I learned a lot about myself, so I'm good."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'DWTS': Vernon Davis eliminated; Jeannie Mai shares emotional story