After bad press and low scores, he sends a message at DWTS: "I'm not going to get sent packing doing my worst"

By Stephen M. Silverman and Michele Stueven
April 24, 2012 12:30 PM

Jaleel White got his mojo from Motown.

Battered by the tabloids and nearly bounced by bad scores, the actor sent a resounding message this week on Dancing with the Stars.

“The message I have is, I’m not a quitter,” he tells PEOPLE. “And I wasn’t going to let down my partner. Nobody wants to go home, but if I am going to get sent packing, I’m not going to get sent packing doing my worst.”

On Monday’s Motown-themed show, White and pro partner Kym Johnson went from last place to a tie for first with 29 points – including a pair of perfect 10s – for their snappy cha cha to “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg.” (Tuesday night will bring another couple’s elimination.)

So, how did he accomplish such a leap?

“We were a lot more carefree, I know that,” White says.

“We worked really hard with this cha cha, we had fun with it,” interjects Johnson. “But I think we went into with, ‘Let’s just go there and have fun.’ “

“Even though we went into it like that, we were still able to make some technical advances,” adds White. “People learn at different rates and I think this week, I definitely learned some different moves.”

White says Johnson may not be showing it, but she is beaming ear to ear with Monday’s accomplishment. “[Judge] Carrie Ann says we brought our A Game. That means a lot.”

He concludes, “I’m a dad now. [When] you’re a dad, you have no choice but to stand up.”