November 20, 2006 12:00 PM

During a photo shoot on the roof of a Los Angeles studio near the one where Dancing With the Stars is shot, Mario Lopez is pressed up close—tango-style—to his dance partner Karina Smirnoff. But this isn’t a tango, or a samba, or even a paso doble they’re doing—this one looks suspiciously like the dance of love. The two hold hands, kiss each other on the cheek, then the ear, then the neck. Between takes, they take turns calling each other “honey” and “baby” while continuing to cuddle and coo, even going so far as to exchange quiet “I love yous.”

So have these two fallen head over well-worn heels for each other? “I’m amused that so many people are so interested,” says Lopez, 33, who only adds, “We get along great. I think the world of her. She’s a super cool lady and I couldn’t ask for a better partner.” (Lopez says he and Eva Longoria, who has shown up to cheer him on, are just pals.) As for Smirnoff, 28, when asked if anything romantic is going on with her and “Super Mario” (as Lopez has been dubbed by Dancing judge Bruno Tonioli), she nervously twirls her ponytail and replies “uh … no,” before cryptically saying, “He’s definitely the crème de la crème of the male population—he’s my castle.”

Castle? Whatever. There’s definitely something in the moat water over there on Dancing, because romantic sparks have been flying all season long. Sources at the show now confirm to PEOPLE that former Dancing contender Willa Ford and her partner Maksim Chmerkovskiy are, in fact, a couple, although Ford is still being coy about the relationship. “There was a lot of passion in our dancing,” says the singer, voted off on Oct. 11. “When you work with somebody that closely … Maks and I were like fire.” There have also been rumors that ex-contestant Shanna Moakler and her partner Jesse DeSoto are generating heat outside the ballroom (see box).

All this passion comes as no surprise to either fourth runner-up Jerry Springer (“They are young, talented, attractive people,” he points out) or Emmitt Smith’s purely platonic partner Cheryl Burke, who says dancer hookups are all but inevitable. “You spend so much time with your partner that you end up together,” she says. “It doesn’t last very long because there’s no room to breathe. In the moment it’s great. But I don’t know one ballroom relationship that’s lasted longer than a year.”

While finding love on Dancing may be a distraction, at least the show keeps its leading men in tip-top shape. “We’re withering away over here,” jokes Lopez, while showing off his whittled waistline to Smith, who does him one better. “I’m down 16 lbs.,” says the former Dallas Cowboys star. “I weigh 208—I don’t think I’ve weighed that since I was a rookie!” Even Joey Lawrence is feeling the burn. “I’m sore—more now than ever,” says Lawrence (who has shed 10 lbs.). “And I get so mad at myself when I can’t get something right—I beat myself up.”

Indeed, as season three of Dancing waltzes towards the Nov. 15 finale, the show’s feverish pace and arduous rehearsal schedule may be taking its toll on the bodies and minds of its cast. But they’re all still focused on the task at hand: taking home the big gaudy disco ball that last year’s winner Drew Lachey called “the ugliest trophy in the world.” “I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to win,” says Lawrence. Lopez, meanwhile, is motivated by—what else?—a woman. “Hopefully,” he says, “I can go all the way for my mom.”


Bounces Back

Decked out in a short, formfitting black dress, Shanna Moakler—who had a rancorous split from husband-rocker Travis Barker just five weeks before her Dancing debut—threw herself a self-described “Divorce Party” at Light Nightclub in Las Vegas Nov. 3. “This is how I’m showing the world that divorce is okay,” Moakler, 31, told PEOPLE. “It doesn’t have to be the end of your life.” The fete, complete with a revenge-themed divorce cake (left), was for “closure,” she said, “and to celebrate a new chapter in my life.” Might that chapter include romance with her Dancing partner and rumored flame Jesse DeSoto, 27? Moakler wouldn’t name names, but said that she and her new beau “could have something very serious. It’s a special bond … not a rebound.”

Sara Evans

Moves On

After filing for divorce and accusing her husband, Craig Schelske, of cheating on her (a charge he also levels against her), Sara Evans, 35, dropped out of the show, she said, to be with her three children. But on Nov. 6, she performed, looking radiant, in Nashville at the Country Music Awards. She is expected to appear on the Dancing finale Nov. 15. Assuming she and Schelske, 43, reach an agreement, the earliest that her divorce could be granted is Jan. 10. (The couple have already agreed to split a $274,000 joint account so he can find housing.) In the end the divorce could have a positive effect on her career. Says Nashville Star judge Anastasia Brown: “A divorce [can make an artist] more of a household name if the music is good enough to back it up—and she’s one of Nashville’s more revered artists.”


Big Secret

Ending her rumba in week five with a dramatic, upside-down split, Monique Coleman, 26, was the picture of flexibility and grace. But what viewers didn’t see were the scars that crisscross her left leg, the result of an accident 21 years ago that nearly left her unable to walk—let alone dance. When she was leaving school in N.Y.C. with her cousin, “this car lost control, came up on the sidewalk and hit us,” Coleman tells PEOPLE. “I was in a body cast with a pin in my leg for several months.” Though the story had all the makings of a guaranteed sympathy vote, “I didn’t want it,” says the third runner-up. “Louis [Van Amstel, Coleman’s dance partner] saw my scars and he said, ‘Oh my God, people need to know about this.’ But I was adamant about not exploiting it.”

For more behind-the-scenes dish on Stars, go to PEOPLE.COM/DANCING

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