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'Dancing with the Stars' shakes things up in season 18

When Dancing with the Stars premiered in 2005, Facebook was barely a year old, and Twitter didn't exist. Gas prices were under $2. The Office started its first season on NBC. Jimmy Fallon had just left SNL to begin a movie career; Justin Timberlake hadn't even brought SexyBack yet.

Now, almost a decade later, ABC's dancing competition has more than 300 episodes — almost 100 more than Friends, a couple dozen more than Cheers.

How does this show plan to stay relevant going into its 18th season?

Well, there are the usual ways — lots of glitter, skimpy outfits, faux drama. But DWTS seems intent on shaking things up, with a brand new co-host and a never-before-seen celeb-partner swap. Here's what to keep an eye out for as Dancing with the Stars' new season starts tonight:

Erin Andrews: Just a few weeks ago, DWTS co-host Brooke Burke-Charvet (the season 7 champ) was unceremoniously let go, and taking her place as host Tom Bergeron's right-hand lady is sportscaster Andrews. The reporter (and former Tampa resident) competed on the show in 2010 with pro Maksim Chmerkovskiy. DWTS fans will remember the two had quite good chemistry. Funny thing: Maks is back this year after a two-season hiatus and reports that he was done with the show for good. Coincidence? No.

Bye, bye band: Also on the chopping block this season: longtime bandleader Harold Wheeler and the 28 musicians and singers of the DWTS band, who had been with the show for 17 seasons. A new music director, Ray Chew, has been hired, along with a new lineup of musicians, though there's been speculation that this season is going to rely more on recordings and a smaller electric band. Listen, no offense to Mr. Wheeler, but this is probably for the better. Let's just say forcing those singers to recreate Moves Like Jagger didn't always sound great.

Cheating, maybe? The names "Meryl Davis" and "Charlie White" might not be widely recognized by people who didn't watch every second of Olympic ice dance coverage last month. Lucky for you, I saw every twizzle and lift of the pair's gold medal-winning routines, so trust me when I say that enlisting these two Olympians for the show's cast is a great get. They're really good performers who bring built-in drama because, for the first time in practically their whole lives, they're competing against and not with each other. But ... they're almost too good. I mean, they were declared the best ice dancers in the WORLD. Doesn't that kinda mean they're already pros? Sure, dancing on solid ground is different from dancing on the ice, but it's not a long shot to say the two skills are ... similar. Bottom line: One of these will likely make it to the finale, because they can already perform and have charming personalities and know the various pitfalls of skintight dance costumes.

Partner swap: Ah, the dreaded partner swap. This year, the competition will feature a new twist called the Switch Up, where America will be given the power to vote and change celebrity-pro pairings at some point in the season. This seems cruel. And also maybe not that fun to watch? The pro-celeb relationship is one of the most compelling things about the show. Then again, some celebs just get better partners, and end up going further in the competition even if they're not the best — like whoever gets partnered with Derek Hough. So maybe this is more fair. At the very least, it adds drama, which DWTS craves.

Dancing with the Stars returns at 8 tonight with a two-hour season premiere. Come for the massive opening number featuring pro dancers shimmying to live musical guest Jason Derulo's hit Talk Dirty, stay for all of the new twisty shenanigans.

.The pairings

This year's lineup is one of the better ones recently:

Hockey player Sean Avery, with pro Karina Smirnoff

Actor Candace Cameron Bure (Full House's DJ Tanner), with Mark Ballas

Actor/The Price is Right host Drew Carey, with Cheryl Burke

Olympian Meryl Davis, with Maksim Chmerkovskiy

Reality star NeNe Leakes, with Tony Dovolani

Nickelodeon actor/singer James Maslow, with Peta Murgatroyd

Actor Danica McKellar (Winnie Cooper from The Wonder Years), with Valentin Chmerkovskiy

Swimmer Diana Nyad, with Henry Byalikov

Paralympic athlete Amy Purdy, with Derek Hough

Teen pop star Cody Simpson, with Witney Carson

Olympian Charlie White, with Sharna Burgess

Actor Billy Dee Williams (Star Wars), with Emma Slater

'Dancing with the Stars' shakes things up in season 18 03/14/14 [Last modified: Sunday, March 16, 2014 5:54pm]
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