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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

So You Think You Can Dance: “Meet The Top 20”

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After auditions in five cities and a week in Vegas, So You Think You Can Dance finally hits the Hollywood studio to introduce its Top 20 contestants, and like last season, the competition starts with a jam-packed episode of spectacular choreography. Since switching to one show a week, the producers have combined the Green Mile episode with the Top 20 performance showcase, delivering a start to the season that spotlights the contestants’ technique while giving them extra time to build the personas they’ll cultivate over the course of the competition. As usual, contemporary dancers take the lead with seven contestants, but for the first time since season 5, there are two complete ballroom couples on the series.

This show has been distinctly lacking a ballroom presence the last few seasons, but with the popularity of Dancing With The Stars dwindling, the judges are picking up the slack and putting more ballroom dancers in the Top 20. There had also been an effort to move away from hip-hop dancers because of America’s Best Dance Crew, but with that show now off the air, there are more hip-hoppers moving into the Top 20. Four hip-hop dancers make it to the competition, a group that includes one female krumper and two animators. The rest of the Top 20 is filled out by three tappers and two jazz dancers, resulting in one of the most well-rounded groups of finalists in recent SYTYCD memory. Granted, Nigel’s comment at the start of the episode that the judges have invested in dancers they’re not sure can handle the pressures of the competition makes me nervous after last season, where Cyrus stuck around despite his struggles outside of his style. That could also just be Nigel’s way of creating some tension in this first episode, because some of these dancers need a good underdog story if they plan on sticking around.

One of those underdog stories is Fik-Shun, who was one of the judges’ Vegas favorites but is getting heavier criticism now that he’s in front of the camera so that he has some sort of opposing force to push against. Fik-Shun is an early favorite, so they’re making sure he’s humbled, telling him he needs to step up if he’s going to match his partner, krumper Mariah. Although she loses some steam toward the end, Mariah gives great face and makes her movements look effortless. There’s a lot of swag on display in the choreography by Luther Brown, a regular fixture on the first two seasons of SYTYCD Canada, but the routine isn’t quite impressive enough to justify it being the first dance of the competition.

The first four contemporary dancers (Makenzie, Jasmine, Nico, and Tucker) follow hip-hop with a Stacey Tookey number, and it’s one of those stereotypical contemporary routines where everyone is reaching a lot and rolling over each other. It’s well performed but bland, giving Adam Shankman the chance to show he can do more than jump out of his chair and scream compliments by giving the dancers some early criticism. Except for Makenzie, who he showers with praise. Stacey’s routine looks especially juvenile and simplistic compared to Mia Michaels’ outstanding contemporary trio for Malece, Hayley, and Carlos. Telling the story of a two-timing man in the ’50s and the women he’s victimizing, it’s a sensual, violent routine that benefits from a tight performing space. Staying within the confines of three chairs and a Twister-like rug, the dancers have a passion and dedication to the choreography that creates a space concentrated with sexual energy and emotional devastation. We don’t need a video package to explain what the story is here, and the journey of each character is clear by the end of the dance. Mia Michaels is one of this show’s best choreographers, and I hope she becomes more of a presence this season than she has been over the last few.

Tap has been hit-or-miss (largely miss) on this series, but the routine choreographed by Anthony Morigerato is a highlight of tonight’s show, giving its three dancers equal opportunity to shine while showing the thrill of perfectly unison tapping. While tap doesn’t work with a lot of music, Morigerato has discovered the gold mine that is Jason Mraz, an artist whose minimal use of percussion and tendency to scat gives the tapper the opportunity to act as a rhythm section while accenting the vocals. Witness this awe-inspiring Morigerato solo to Mraz’s “Butterfly”:

Morigerato choreographs a jaw-dropping routine for Curtis, Alexis, and Aaron (who was cut at the Green Mile but made it onto the show when hip-hop dancer Emilio was injured), having them dance to a live version of Mraz’s “You Really Did It” that allows them to provide the percussion with their feet. The technique on display here is phenomenal, especially with the dancers hopping on and off tap boards, and they’re so evenly matched it’s hard to pick a favorite. The real challenge for tappers is other styles, though, and it will be interesting to see if they’re able to adapt. Tappers don’t make it very far in this competition, but maybe this is the year Nigel’s dreams will come true.


Animators also have trouble moving into other styles, and hopefully this season’s two animators won’t mean twice the disappointment. Vegas suggested that this season would spotlight animating, and not only do both animators Jade and Blu-Print make it to the Top 20, but the Top 10 guys also perform a sandy, animation-heavy Christopher Scott group routine. Jade had to dance for his life twice in Vegas, and it’s clear that Blu-Print is the stronger animator after their mannequin routine. Blu-Print’s movement is smoother and more precise, but Jade gives more personality, which is actually against character when playing a mannequin. The fact that his Vegas performance was so weak keeps my expectations for Jade low, although we never did see much of Blu-Print in other styles.

The producers love tearing partners apart, and that happens twice to ballroom dancers on the Green Mile. Britney gets picked while her partner Serge is sent home, and in a repeat of season 5’s Evan/Ryan decision, Alan’s brother Gene doesn’t make the Top 20, despite being his younger brother’s dance mentor. Jenna and Paul join Britney and Alan for a Louis van Amstel samba routine, an electric number that establishes the strength and specificity of the ballroom contestants. Paul and Alan’s synchronized leap could use some work, and the four-person samba roll is only semi-successful, but the footwork is sharp and the guys are where they need to be to make their partners look good. Jenna is the scene-stealer, and considering her life goal is to be on SYTYCD (her two older sisters both made it to the Green Mile but were never finalists), she knows exactly how to work the camera. She’s one of the early frontrunners for the girls, spending a lot of time in the front during group routines and getting more camera time than most of her competition.


The first of two Sonya Tayeh numbers wonderfully spotlights Amy and Jasmine as they bring their own distinct styling to a jazz number set to Björk. Amy has the attitude and beautifully polished technique, but Jasmine has a raw energy in her movement that propels her to match her partner. It’s a much more powerful display of female dance prowess than Ray Leeper’s Top 10 girls jazz number set to a remix of “Let’s Have A Kiki.” Leeper’s choreography is better suited for the halftime show at a high school basketball game than primetime TV, it's completely generic and tediously repetitive. The Top 10 boys have much better luck with their Christopher Scott routine, which cleverly includes moments that spotlight the dancers’ individual styles when they’re not doing really cool shit with sand.

The episode concludes with the Top 20 dancing a Sonya jazz routine, a dark, militaristic piece that balances masculine force with feminine grace across both sexes. It’s a strong finish to a performance show that takes some time to find its groove, but is an incredible collection of professional-grade choreography when it does. Time will tell if the judges’ riskier investments will pay off, but it’s nice to know that after 10 years, SYTYCD remains the best place to find quality dance on television.


Stray observations:

  • Cat’s disco ball romper is a gorgeous, eye-popping look to start the competition with. The same cannot be said of Sonya’ dried plantain earrings.
  • At the end of Sonya’s first number, do the girls get off the choreography or are they supposed to get choppier and less synchronous?
  • Whoever came up with the idea to make the mannequins move at the end of the animation number is a person that is full of bad ideas.
  • Who’s excited for National Dance Day on July 27?!?
  • Perez Hilton + Joe Francis = Ray Leeper
  • Nigel asking the boys to dance with his ashes might be one of the most awkward things he’s ever said on this show. Who wants to make a list of Nigel’s most uncomfortable moments?
  • “It’s an original fiction.” Just stop doing that right now, Fik-Shun.
  • “Sonya’s on a rampage here, like a mad dinosaur.”