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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

So You Think You Can Dance: “Top 20 Perform”

Illustration for article titled So You Think You Can Dance: “Top 20 Perform”

Tonight’s episode of So You Think You Can Dance begins with one of the cleverest numbers this show has ever attempted. Choreographed by Tabitha and Napoleon, the opening group number to “Puttin’ On The Ritz” is the most imaginative use of the space since the show lost its old stage after season five, taking a tour through the backstage area as the contestants prepare to go on stage. The dancers, choreographers, and judges all get a chance to strut their stuff in one astounding take, and the talent of this group really shines through as the individual contestants get up close and personal with the camera. Some get more spotlight than others, with Jasmine H., Mariah and Aaron serving as focal points throughout the dance and showing off personality that will get them far in this competition. It’s a hell of a lot of fun and a memorable way to start this show’s 10th season, especially with the choreographers and judges getting on their feet.

The actual performances are more of a mixed bag, but at this early point in the competition, it’s important to have some clunkers so that there are points of contrast in the episode. Starting with a lackluster Jason Gilkison jive for Mariah and Carlos sets the stakes for the rest of the dances, showing how standout performers from last week’s Top 20 exhibition can stumble when taken outside of their comfort zones. The routine is extremely fast, and the dancers don’t have the precision needed to keep it bouncing. Carlos’ lifts are labored and drag the pacing, and with one of the thicker females as his partner, he’ll need to work on his upper body strength to make up for his smaller frame. The partnering isn’t great, but they shine when they’re dancing side-by-side rather than face-to-face, giving me hope that this pairing is much stronger than this ballroom routine.

Gilkison’s second dance of the night is much more successful, and Makenzie and Paul establish themselves as a major force in this competition with their Viennese waltz. Avril Lavigne’s “I’m With You” is damn good waltz music, and the pair glides across the stage with ease, even once the prop umbrella is introduced. Makenzie and Paul have “perfectionist” written all over their enthusiastically smiling faces, and this is the kind of soft, smooth routine that will get them a lot of votes. Paul is small but strong, making the kinds of connections Carlos struggles with in the jive, and the extension that Makenzie has perfected as a contemporary dancer gives her gorgeous lines all through the routine. Gilkison also knows how to choreograph a dress; Makenzie’s costuming does wonders for her tonight, earning her multiple comparisons to Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday.

One of the big criticisms of the show from fans of the earlier seasons is that the average age of the contestants has lowered, but looking at the ages of the dancers from every season reveals that the show has stayed with a younger Top 20 since season two. And since season two, the contestants that have gotten the farthest have been on the younger end of the 18-30 range. Season four, which many would consider the show’s strongest, had five women under 20 in the Top 10, and the oldest male was tWitch at 25. Since then, the Top 10 skews late teens/early ’20s, although there have been notable exceptions like 29-year-old Melissa in season five and 28-year-olds Ryan and Legacy in season six.

Like all athletes, dancers are at their physical peak at a young age; while older dancers have the advantage of higher-level training, youth brings malleability that is important to a competition where adapting is key. I imagine that a few weeks on SYTYCD is equivalent to a semester of formal dance training, especially with each contestant being forced to perform different styles at a professional level for national exposure and a cash prize. There’s no denying that this season is the show’s youngest, with the Top 10 females all 20 and under and no male contestant over 25, but as this week’s episode shows, there’s an immense depth of talent in youth.

Having said that, two of this season’s strongest dancers are not only the oldest in their gender groups, but also the largest. After performing a Sonya Tayeh jazz routine with the perfect blend of intensity, sensuality, and fun, Jasmine H., 20, and Aaron, 25, are deemed one of this season’s “power couples” by Nigel. Aaron has to do a huge amount of lifting while Jasmine spends much of the dance kicking her legs above her head, and while they’re technique is on point, they also have the personality and chemistry down.


The judges give a standing ovation to Sonya’s closing contemporary number for Amy and Fik-Shun, but Jasmine H. and Aaron have a stronger connection and make their choreography appear less difficult when it’s just as challenging. Amy is a great dancer who is going to benefit from having Fik-Shun as a partner; the judges are working hard to build him a Cyrus-like narrative, and his mediocre performance in last week’s episode is part of that continuing story. As long as he does a passable job with each performance, he’ll receive praise from the judges, and the fact that he’s outside his style earns him an extra dose of positive reinforcement tonight.

The other “power couple” of the competition at this point is Jenna and Tucker, who give an effortless performance of a tough Tyce Diorio Broadway routine. Tucker is begging for a part in Newsies as he brings his dorky character to life, and ballroom dancer Jenna is a spitfire that not only connects wonderfully with her partner, but with the camera. It’s like the two of them have had this dance in their repertoire for months, giving a technically immaculate performance that is brimming with personality. I expect them to easily make it to the Top 10.


Tyce and Sean Cheeseman are the choreographers with only one paired dance this week, and Cheeseman’s Afro-jazz number for Brittany and BluPrint continues to show new sides of this season’s superior animator. The partnering isn’t perfect, but BluPrint completely breaks from the stiffness of his native style to give an exhilarating, carefree performance. He’s a slightly awkward person who becomes exceptionally charismatic when he dances, and there’s a sense of comfort in his performance that shows just how strong he is as a competitor.

BluPrint’s fellow animator Jade performs admirably in a Travis Wall jazz routine with Malece, but there’s a lack of chemistry between the two that prevents the choreography from being fully realized. Commenters last week pointed out that Malece has “dance robot” syndrome, and while she nails all the steps, she could use more passion. Their dance is about Malece’s movie star character reacting to a negative review while her boyfriend gets raves, and she could have sold more of the rage. Jade is always trying to make sure that his character comes through, but he has a tendency to overact. He wants to make sure that he stands out, but his partnership suffers as a result.


Alan is in a completely different situation during his Travis contemporary routine with Jasmine M., being such a good partner that he occasionally fades into the background. The rehearsal video makes a big deal out of their clearly see-through blindfolds, but the two dancers have no problem leaping over that hurdle. Alan’s support helps Jasmine M. shine, and her expressive movement is an ideal fit for Travis’ choreography.

Christopher Scott is one of the show’s strongest choreographers, but he must have burnt out after last week’s awesome sand routine because his hip-hop numbers tonight aren’t up to his usual level of quality. Alexis (Team Bieber) and Nico (Team Gomez) are 18, and their immaturity holds them back even though their routine tries to play with that exact quality. Nigel immediately calls them out for their complete lack of swag, and Mary says that the dance was “pleasant hop.” They need to bring much more weight to their movement, and really getting down in the pockets of the choreography is what will help them create the swag they’re naturally missing.


The other Scott routine goes to another tap/contemporary duo, but Curtis and Brittany do much stronger work than their hip-hop competitors. The prop-heavy first half of the routine is a bit sluggish, but once Curtis and Brittany stop using the chair and lamps, they show off some sharp movement that has a nice bounce. Curtis is clearly a tap dancer that keeps his weight up high, so he’ll have to work if he’s going to be able to get as low as his partner, who shows she can get buck with the best of them.

Judging by last season, four dancers will be going home next week, so votes are especially important at this point in the competition. Will Alexis and Nico’s teeny bopper-friendly images earn them enough votes to keep them out of the bottom? Will Curtis and Aaron breaks the tappers’ curse and become fan-favorites? We’ll have a much better idea of how this season’s voting public leans next week, but new voting options may change the landscape quite a bit. If you vote with the Fox Now app, you are given 20 votes to disperse however you like across the dancers, adding a new level of strategy to the voting process. SYTYCD is a show that constantly adapts in order to stay afloat, yet even as it changes, it remains the best place to watch dance on television.


Stray observations:

  • Just because:
  • Wayne Brady is this week’s guest judge, and as in auditions, he’s good for quips but not so much for criticism. He does tell Jade to sharpen his lines, though.
  • I need a .gif of Cat Deeley doing that running Afro-jazz move that all the judges laugh about.
  • This show should submit that Sonya jazz number to the Emmys with the title “Jasmine Dang Got Some Legs Up There.”
  • “Garland…like Judy.” Can’t wait to see the forced romance between Carlos and Mariah.
  • “I didn’t expect you to have the Motherland in you. You’re like your name is Wakimbo.” Wayne Brady, makin’ things awkward.
  • “You didn’t grow up in a jungle.” Nigel Lythgoe, makin’ things awkward.
  • “Whenever I want people to see my serious side, I take my clothes off and dance with a white woman, too.”