Tonight on “Dancing With the Stars,” another new face appeared at the top of the judges’ leader board. “Bachelor” star Melissa Rycroft received a nearly perfect 29 from the judges, just edging out gymnast Shawn Johnson and leaving the season’s former shoo-in, actor Gilles Marini, in a three-way tie for third.

Now that most of the season’s completely hopeless contestants have been eliminated, football player Lawrence Taylor had no real rivals for last place. It will take an upset of Steve-O proportions to keep him in contention after tomorrow night’s elimination show. L.T. didn’t particularly shine in the couples’ group dance either, and he may have lost some of his support among male viewers when he designed an uncharacteristically modest costume for his partner, Edyta Sliwinska. (The stars supposedly helped create their partners’ outfits this week.)

The first of the seven remaining couples to dance were Melissa and Tony Dovolani, who were on a mission to fulfill judge Bruno Tonioli’s request last week to make her a “man-eater.” In the rehearsal-footage filler segment, they went to the set of “Desperate Housewives” (coincidentally, it’s on the same network as “Dancing With the Stars”) to get man-eater lessons from Teri Hatcher, whose “Housewives” character isn’t man-eaterish at all.

PHOTOS: Click here to see photos of the cast.

Each couple performed a dance in a style they hadn’t yet covered. Melissa and Tony danced the Argentine tango to a song with vocals that at first sounded as if they were being read over a police radio. Their lift-filled routine seemed designed to bait judge Carrie Ann Inaba, the show’s lift policewoman. The performance built to a strong, dramatic finish, although Melissa was a little tentative at first.

The judges, however, went along with the man-eater story line. “I loved the interaction,” said Len Goodman, who, as he often does when he’s excited, provided the dialogue he imagined the dancers were acting out: “Don’t touch me!...Don’t touch what you can’t afford!” Bruno praised them for reaching a “climax,” adding, “I need a drink.” “That was by far the best Argentine tango I’ve ever seen, said Carrie Ann, who named Melissa and Tony “the king and queen of legal lifts.” (It turns out it’s OK to lift in the Argentine tango. Maybe they should give us advance notice of peculiarities like this so we don’t worry all the way through the dance.)

Carrie Ann gave the performance a 10; Len, who said he had spotted a tiny blunder at one point, a 9; and Bruno a 10 (with the customary fist pump he uses when he’s topping Len’s 9’s).

We slid suddenly from the night’s best performance to the worst, although Lawrence Taylor did provide some comic relief. In the rehearsal segment, he “invited” Edyta to a charity golf tournament he was throwing in Miami, where he made her take a few practice swings. “I want her to see how it is to be judged on something you’ve never done before,” he told the camera. Switching into what was either a fine Bruno imitation or a poor Len imitation, he said to her, “You look so good, but hey, your technique sucks!”

The judges were far kinder to Lawrence after his awkward Viennese waltz, danced to Journey’s “Open Arms.” Lawrence had said he had to “get his smooth on,” but he didn’t. Worse, Edyta came out in a long overcoat with a fur collar that, as Bruno suggested, made you expect they would be waltzing to “Lara’s Theme.”

In the night’s biggest fooler, when Lawrence removed the coat, Edyta wasn’t wearing one of her usual trampy roller-disco outfits but a very conservative gown with a scarf tied to one of her wrists. At one point, she inadvertently wrapped the scarf around her face. (“I’m wearing so much clothes that I got tangled in it,” said Edyta.) Then the kneeling Lawrence nearly fell down. Edyta probably isn’t to blame for all their missed connections, but after eight seasons on “DWTS,” she should have known to choreograph some big moves at the “So now I come to you…” point in the song, which usually provokes Pavlovian ovations but just got polite applause this time.

The critiques were diplomatic: “Not terrible but not brilliant,” said Bruno. “I definitely saw more freedom in your movement,” said Carrie Ann. “I was shocked at how well you performed,” said Len. They gave the couple straight 7’s (a “seVEN!” from Len).

Last week’s top scorers, rapper Lil’ Kim and Derek Hough, were worried about performing the rumba (a.k.a. “the bedroom dance”), evidently because Len had chided Julianne Hough and country singer Chuck Wicks for their naughty version. “This week I have an interesting challenge,” said Derek. “I actually have to tone down Kim’s sexiness.” The challenge threw Derek into a creative crisis that was still unresolved as the live performance began.

His solution was to have Kim move really slowly, with frequent pauses to strike a pose. When the couple actually moved, however, they were excellent.

“It was understated, yes, but it was also a bit underwhelming,” said Carrie Ann. “Be still my beating heart,” said Len, sounding pleased. But then he added, “Don’t try to please one person. Don’t worry about the sexiness on my part.” Bruno said it was a “good rumba” but told Derek, “Taking the raunch [pronounced “runch”] out of Little Kim is like having a margarita without tequila. It doesn’t work! Bring back the raunch [pronounced “roanch”]!” In direct contrast to their comments, Bruno and Carrie Ann gave 9’s and Len an 8, leaving Kim shaking her head in bewilderment.

Chuck Wicks and Julianne Hough went to his fans for inspiration. Either that or he had to do a performance and the producers decided to spin the footage that way. The pair performed a samba to Angela Via’s “Baila Baila.” (Hard-core “So You Think You Can Dance” fans may remember that Joshua and Katee performed a samba to the same song last season.) For the first time, Chuck looked like he was leading Julianne and like he could move his hips naturally. Maybe his red pajamas, which he designed himself, set him free. (“Red brings out my eyes,” he later told co-host Samantha Harris, who, typically, didn’t get the joke.)

“It was by far your best dance to date,” said Len, getting it exactly right. Carrie Ann merely stood up and pumped her hands in the air. The judges gave them straight 9’s, for a total of four points over any of their previous scores.

There was good news and bad news for rodeo champ Ty Murray and his partner, Chelsie Hightower. The good news: They were going to dance the Viennese waltz. “I get to hold on again,” said Ty, “and I’m good at holdin’ on.” The bad news: The waltz is romantic, and, Ty said, “It feels awkward. Chelsie’s like my adopted daughter.” Trying to draw him out, Chelsie asked him how he asked out his prom date. “Wrote her a note,” Ty replied sheepishly, working that aw-shucks thing he does so well. As part of the learning process, they called in Ty’s wife, Jewel, who told them to portray their actual relationship.

Awkwardly, the song they danced to was Deana Carter’s “Strawberry Wine,” about a young girl’s sexual awakening with a farmhand. Maybe Ty started listening to the words and got nervous, because he seemed tentative throughout.

Bruno, however, was impressed by the couple’s improvement over last week. “This is a bigger comeback than Mickey Rourke,” he said, in one of those lines he’d probably been holding since dress rehearsal. Carrie and Len gave Ty faint technical praise, with Len saying, “You had good hold, you had good posture, great movement, had more rise and fall than a bride’s nightie.” During the applause, the camera cut to Jewel holding up a cap with the logo of the 11th Light Infantry Brigade, who probably won’t appreciate the association with a honeymoon joke. The judges gave the couple straight 8’s.

Gymnast Shawn Johnson, who’s only 17, sometimes seems downright creeped out at the prospect of dancing with her 23-year-old partner, Mark Ballas. So maybe her choice to dress him up like Michael Jackson was her cry for help. And maybe the producers’ choice of Jackson’s “PYT (Pretty Young Thing)” as the song for their number was just plain bizarre

Fortunately, Shawn and Mark were dancing a cha-cha (not a particularly sexy genre), and even though Mark was aping Jackson’s early ’80s style, he and Shawn moved so well together that any unpleasant associations were dissipated. Dancing with her usual precision, she held our attention despite the fact that Mark got most of the flashier moves.

Maybe Shawn is too precise. “You have such flawless and amazing technique,” said Carrie Ann, “that sometimes I don’t think the dance comes to life.” Len, however, praised her for blending sharp movements and rhythm. In a nod to the show’s older demographics, Bruno said, “It was like watching a young Debbie Reynolds or Mitzi Gaynor.” Carrie Ann and Len gave the performance 9’s, Bruno a fist-pump 10.

Since Gilles Marini was castigated by the judges for being too frenzied in his jive last week, he and Cheryl Burke decided he needed to get more fluid, so he went to a pool and got lessons in synchronized swimming. Although one move in the water was reminiscent of the classic “Saturday Night Live” sketch about male synchronized swimmers, Gilles generally took it seriously. Many viewers were doubtless happy to see that he changed from his “Viennese waltz era” one-piece swimsuit and bared his chest.

Dancing the waltz, Gilles and Cheryl turned down the heat substantially. For the first time in a long time, he seemed a little cautious; his arm extensions were more distracting than dramatic.

Since the judges love a comeback, they were generally effusive. “Overall, it was a lovely job,” said Len, who mentioned that Gilles needed to work a little on his footwork. Once again playing to the pre-boomers in the audience, Bruno said Gilles and Cheryl reminded him of Louis Jourdan and Leslie Caron in “Gigi,” which seemed to please Gilles as well. “You still managed to put some sex into it,” Bruno added, turning and grabbing Len (supposedly because he was closer than Carrie Ann). Carrie Ann told Gilles to work on his hold. The judges gave Gilles straight 9’s, which was still only one point up from last week.

The episode-ending group dance was set to Shirley Ellis’ 1965 hit “The Clapping Song” and performed in period clothes and wigs, which sometimes made it difficult to see who was who. Given the overall chaos, it’s unlikely that viewers’ votes will be changed much by the performance. The judges didn’t score the dance, so they made largely general comments. (Len said it reminded him of clubbing in London back in 1964.) Bruno, however, had a warning for Chuck, who was wearing a blond shag wig: “It starts with a wig; it ends with a frock. Be careful.”

Here’s how the dancers lined up in the judges’ leaderboard at the end of the show:

Melissa Rycroft and Tony Dovolani: 29
Shawn Johnson and Mark Ballas: 28
Lil’ Kim and Derek Hough: 27
Gilles Marini and Cheryl Burke: 27
Chuck Wicks and Julianne Hough: 27
Ty Murray and Chelsie Hightower: 24
Lawrence Taylor and Edyta Sliwinska: 21