“All year long your television has been dominated by singers. Isn’t it about time for a little dance?”
The opening line of the ninth season of So You Think You Can Dance? is essentially how I feel from September through early May, as the networks battle it out for singing show domination. Also, I don’t consider Dancing With The Stars an actual dance show. DWTS is the equivalent of Miss Jackie’s Toe-Tapping Tots down at the local grade school, and SYTYCD is the American Ballet Theatre. This year, SYTYCD is a completely different animal with a couple of major changes. First, the results show has been cut, which means only one episode per week, but hopefully much less padding. As much as I love watching the contestants tell me about how Gatorade G-Force 12 changed their lives, cutting the results show should mean fewer of those filler segments.
The second, even more awesome change, is that this year there will be two winners: one male, one female. This makes things a lot fairer for the girls, who can’t do some of the crazy, crowd-pleasing stunts that their much bigger male counterparts can. I have the feeling that the chemistry between the couples is going to be much stronger, because the partners will never be in a position of competing directly against each other. Also, I just like the idea of having two winners. It makes the show feel more communal and celebrates the fact that this series, unlike most reality TV, requires the efforts of two people in order for a contestant to win. It’s a good thing that there’s going to be a winner from each sex, because this first episode is dominated by the men.
Before we get to the proper competition, we have to make our way through about six weeks of auditions, so everyone better be prepared for some intense awkwardness, the occasional jaw-dropping routine, and a whole lot of montages. This week takes us to New York and Dallas, where the talent is as mixed as ever. When I first started watching SYTYCD, I always skipped the auditions. I didn’t care to learn about the dancers’ stories (just dance!), and I despise those groan-inducing, borderline-exploitative bad dancer segments. My mind has changed on the former, as I’ve become more invested in the dancers’ personalities over time, but my opinion on the latter is unwavering, although this week’s episode found a way to address those critiques in a surprisingly effective way.
While in Dallas, the producers encounter Von, a b-boy who does not like the show because it forces dancers to sacrifice their artistic integrity in order to get screentime. The hypocrisy of him auditioning for the series is pointed out by an uncharacteristically pissed-off (but still gorgeous) Cat Deeley, who is not happy to see someone come on her show and dog it. “Do I need a gimmick?” Von says. “No, because I’m super dope without it.” The camera then cuts to him dressed as a gerbil crawling through grass, just to emphasize how much of a douchebag this guy is. When he says, “If I get cut, I’m not gonna care,” Cat replies, “Good, because I’m pretty sure you will be.” I don’t know if we’ve ever seen Cat not wish a person good luck, so she must really hate this guy.
When Von finally gets up in front of the judges, Nigel jumps on him before he even starts dancing. Nigel asks him why he doesn’t like the show, and Von uses Sam, a contestant from earlier who told the judges that he falls somewhere on the autism scale, as an example. Sam’s “ocean” dance moves aren’t technically impressive, and Von thinks that Sam took the place of a better dancer on the show because he’s entertaining to watch. Nigel makes the argument that if someone has good energy and a good spirit and wants to entertain, they should be given the opportunity to do so. That reasoning works in the case of Sam, who was very open with his situation and ultimately gained the sympathy of the judges. But for New Yorker Evan, who doesn’t come out and say he’s on the autism spectrum but interacts with the judges in essentially the same way as Sam, it’s a heaping helping of sadness he receives from the panel. Yes, Sam’s dancing is much better than Evan’s wiggling, but there’s no denying that at times, Von certainly does have a point.
Compared to previous seasons, it felt like there were fewer horrible routines this week, but maybe that’s because I’m still awwing at the cuteness of 29-year-old Texan mom Bree and her adorable brood. Other than the very first auditioner of the season, flapper-styled contemporary dancer Amelia, Bree is the only woman spotlighted this episode, and oh what a bright light she gets. Bree’s age already makes her stand out on this show, but throw two kids on top of that, and she’s SYTYCD gold. Nigel calls the kids up to watch mommy dance from his seat on the panel, and when she stuns the judges, Nigel has her son bring her the plane ticket to Vegas. It’s cute and all, but nothing compared to the sheer glee that follows when Bree’s 2-year-old daughter takes the stage to show off her dance moves.
I tend to dislike when the show goes on these kinds of tangents, but it’s impossible not to love that little girl in a tutu, doing her best to copy mom’s moves. It’s pretty amazing to see just how dedicated she is to her improvised choreography, and she throws down a lot of moves that we’ve consistently seen on this show. My favorite moment? When she sits down on the floor and throws her neck back like she’s Jennifer Beals in Flashdance. I hope Bree makes it to the top 20, just so we get more of her family; luckily, she’s a damn fine dancer too.
Moms are the big inspiration this episode, and two featured contestants are dancing for their mothers. Leo’s mom tried to kill herself, as he recounts to Cat in depressing detail, and he wants to dance on a big stage so that his mom understands that she has a reason to live. No pressure, right? She’s noticeably absent from the audition, and I wonder if she didn’t show because she knew that her son was going to be talking about her attempted suicide. Leo dances to Drake’s “Look What You’ve Done,” an ode to the rapper’s mother that is the most literal song Leo could have possibly chosen. The song doesn’t have a very strong beat, and the choreography isn’t as exciting as some of the other contemporary dancers, but Leo does a lot of acting during the piece, and he shows that he’d be a perfect fit for the type of routines SYTYCD will throw his way if he moves further.
Jarell Rochelle (it rhymes) is the other mama’s boy, and he wants to dance on this show before his mom goes blind and won’t be able to see him. Mom’s at the audition, and Nigel invites her to take his seat on the panel to get a better view of her son. It’s another literal routine as Jarell dances to a song with a chorus containing the lyric “It’s good to see you again.” The piece is solid if unspectacular, and his mother brings him his ticket to Vegas. There’s lots of parading the family around this week, but it’s a tactic that is clearly effective at getting the judges’ attention.
The other men to get the spotlight come from two dramatically different styles: street and ballet. Stepheon, the “Zombie steward,” and Hampton, the Exorcist, are two Texans trying to bring an element of the supernatural to their street dancing. Stepheon is a contortionist/b-boy hybrid, performing chilling feats of flexibility that freak out the judges in all the best ways. Hampton goes even weirder, claiming that he takes other people’s souls and cleans them when he dances. I don’t know how well his bizarre type of introspective krump plays on a TV screen, but the judges and audience are completely enamored with his routine, with the camera cutting to multiple crying faces (including Mary of course) after he’s finished. I wasn’t all that moved by the routine, but it’s enough to get Hampton a ticket to Vegas. It’s going to be interesting to see how these two men fare with Vegas choreography, because neither of their routines give the impression that the dancers would be any good at partnering.
One of the most exciting things about any season of SYTYCD is the eye candy, and while the straight males in the audience (I know you’re out there somewhere) don’t get much to ogle at, everyone else gets the male ballet dancers. Chehon, a New Yorker from Switzerland, and David, a dancer with the San Francisco Ballet from Australia, are gorgeous just standing there, but once they start dancing they’re downright glorious. They both have outstanding technique, so good that the judges have to joke about it because they’re probably jealous they can’t dance like that anymore. They also have the sturdy physiques that we were lacking last season, which means we’re going to see a whole lot of lifting if these boys make it to the top 20. The boys have a head start at the beginning of the season; now it’s time for the girls step up and this show can really get going. That is, after five more weeks of auditions and Vegas.
- Tasty Oreo reaches new levels of obnoxiousness in the first 10 minutes of this episode. He’s annoying enough as a choreographer, but he’s downright insufferable on the judging panel. Conversely, Lil’ C was surprisingly restrained this week.
- Three of the female contestants fell while exiting after getting their tickets to Vegas. Aren’t these girls supposed to be graceful?
- Hip-hop dancer Shafeek is the perfect example of dancing that’s strong enough that it doesn’t need a story layered on top to make it effective, so the last-minute mention of his Sept. 11 inspiration for the dance ends up coming across as trying way too hard.
- Whoever composed the America’s Next Top Model crowning music must make so much money, because that song is played on every reality show, including this one.
- No ballroom this week. Saving it all for Miami, I guess.
- Who else hopes this will be the season of SYTYCD where we finally have an openly gay contestant?
- “Don’t touch my water; it’s vodka.” I have the feeling Nigel’s not lying.