Dancing With the Stars

Dancing with the Stars's Final Five Describe the Joy and Terror of the All-Star Season

11/20/2012 at 06:10 PM EST

Been there, done that? Actually, it's quite the opposite.

With the all-star season of Dancing with the Stars now in its home stretch, the five celebrities still standing tell PEOPLE they're older, wiser and more competitive than ever – and that returning to the ballroom has been more exciting and rewarding than their first time on the show.

"You can't even compare them," says Apolo Ohno. "Karina [Smirnoff] has shown me so much about dancing on a different level now, because I think can accept it now. I'm able to express that stuff."

"It surpasses season 8 so much," says Melissa Rycroft. "This time we going, 'Let's enjoy every second of this.' "

Kelly Monaco called the season "a completely different experience" and added that she "couldn't be more happy" that she signed up for it.

Added Emmitt Smith: "This season itself has taken me and maybe some of the other dancers to a whole other level, mentally, physically and through choreography and everything else."

But of course, with Tuesday's double elimination looming, it's a time for stress and anxiety as well.

"Oh my goodness, it's so much more nerve-wracking. I feel like it means more to everybody this time around," says Shawn Johnson. "Getting into the semifinal, I've never been that terrified to go dance. I was freaking out backstage! ... I just wanted to make Derek [Hough] proud."

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