Dancing with the Stars aired its exciting season 18 premiere on March 17. The alluring reality show has endured ups and downs in the ratings over the course of 321 episodes. Heading into season 18, the popular series is putting a new spin on things with new co-host Erin Andrews joining Emmy winner Tom Bergeron to lead DWTS. Each week, they will announce a surprise for the competing couples. Overall, the celebrity and pro couples really entertained with a great level of skill for week one. However, the entire evening was punctuated by three inspiring performances that easily captivated the audience and captured our hearts.

Personality Plus

Real Housewives star and Glee recurring cast member NeNe Leakes kicked off the night with pro partner Tony Dovolani, giving an energetic cha-cha-cha to Robin Thicke’s “Give It 2 U.” The bubbly star was determined to “bring personality” and the effort paid off. She brought an incredible amount of heart to the floor and Len Goodman described the performance as “an all you can eat buffet of entertainment.” It was a fun way to kick off the show and the couple earned a respectable 21.

Big Time Rush lead singer James Maslow followed with pro partner Peta Murgatroyd in an impressive debut foxtrot to One Direction’s smash hit “Story of My Life.”

Carrie Ann Inaba couldn’t resist tongue-in-cheek flattery to the handsome singer, saying, “I’m having a big time crush on you. You have natural elegance.” Len Goodman echoed her remark adding, “You’re obviously here as eye candy for the ladies.” They tied NeNe and Tony’s score by also netting 21.

Child Star Challenge               

This season features two former child stars with Wonder Years actress Danica McKellar (Winnie Cooper) competing against Full House star Candace Cameron Bure (DJ Tanner). Both lovely ladies playfully acknowledged the rivalry and behind-the-scenes footage revealed that Cameron even lost a boyfriend in younger years who wanted to date Danica instead.

Both actresses have incredible grown-up grace and style and they are both taking the competition very seriously. Candace is paired with Mark Ballas and Danica is paired with Val Chermkovsky.

It was nice to hear Candace tell her partner that faith and family comes first to her. As such, she wants to look pretty, but will wear more conservative costuming.

Meanwhile, Danica was teased for giving a quick kiss to Val while caught up in the number. They danced a beautiful foxtrot to Kelly Clarkson’s “Walk Away.” A spirited Bruno noted, “At times, you got so involved you threw away your moves a little bit.” (She didn’t mean to kiss him?) Carrie Ann Inaba added, “You are so adorable. Your enthusiasm for the dance takes it to a whole new level.” They scored 8’s across the board for a total of 24.

Candace and Mark danced a breathtaking contemporary performance to “Burn” by Ellie Goulding. Candace was extremely expressive and the judges were duly impressed. Bruno said he was “torn between ecstasy and torment” and Carrie Ann said, “Where did that come from? You are such an incredible dancer!”

Candace edged out Danica by one point, with a 9 from Carrie Ann that gave her a score of 25 overall which placed her temporarily on top of the leader board.

Incomparable Inspiration

This season boasts several athletes whose drive and competitive spirit is truly amazing. U.S. Olympic Ice Dancing Gold Medalists Meryl Davis and Charlie White captured the world’s attention with their incredible Sochi win. Now, they’re competing against each other in the DWTS ballroom with Meryl being partnered with Maksim Chermkovsky and Charlie with new pro Sharna Burgess.

Also gracing the dance floor is swimmer Diana Nyad with pro Henry Byalikov. Diana is the first swimmer to ever successfully make the 35-mile swim from Cuba to the Florida Keys (without a shark cage)! Talk about grit, stamina and determination! At 64 years old, no less!

An admitted non-dancer, Diana’s first spin on the floor with a foxtrot didn’t fare too well, as she netted the lowest score of the night with an 18. That didn’t keep her smile or infectious enthusiasm down and she deserves many props.

Charlie ended up beating Meryl and the rest of the contenders by earning a total score of 27 from the judges for his nearly perfect and emotionally captivating contemporary dance that ended the night.

But, by far the most inspirational performance of the evening came from Paralympic Bronze Medalist snowboarder Amy Purdy, who lost both of her legs and kidneys after nearly losing her life to bacterial meningitis.

Even more impressive is that she was prepping for Sochi and dancing simultaneously and medaled three days before her debut performance. Amy has two prosthetic legs and her grace, precision and beautiful style rivaled celebrity contenders from every previous DWTS season and bested some of her current competitors. Clearly more evident was her contagious spirit, incomparable courage and radiant inner light.

She amazed the entire judging panel and the audience with her cha-cha-cha with pro partner Derek Hough to One Republic’s “Counting Stars.”

Len made it known they had to judge Amy with the same standard as her contenders then added, “You got a bronze medal at the Olympics, and you got a gold medal in the cha-cha-cha.” Bruno said, “Timing, shapes, performance level… How do you do it? I’m gobsmacked.” A visibly emotional Carrie Ann gave Amy a standing ovation and said, “You are more than a dancer, a contestant on this show — you are like a beacon of light.”

Carrie Ann is so right. For Amy to overcome that kind of adversity with such a positive “can-do” attitude and win a Paralympic medal and tackle the ballroom next, hostess Erin Andrews asked a question into the camera many of us can’t help but ask ourselves:  What have you done with your time today?

I’ve watched Dancing With The Stars on and off over the course of its 18 season run, with actor Gilles Marini being one of my favorite overall celebrity contenders. Season 18 is arguably shaping up to be the most inspirational of them all.

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