America’s Best Dance Crew has barely tinkered with its formula since premièring four years ago on MTV, and thank goodness for that. The show balances so many conflicting qualities that other reality competitions fail to—it’s dumb (Lil Mama’s critiques) and smart (sneakily innovative challenges), unapologetically mainstream (Katy Perry Night!) while still hanging on to a good deal of street cred. (Season six’s Street Kingdom originated the style known as krumping, and were featured heavily in the excellent 2005 documentary Rize.)I’m not particularly drawn to the bigger network dance shows, but over the past six seasons the dancing on ABDC has genuinely excited and moved me more than all the power ballads on any number of singing shows ever could. Part of me thinks that an uncoordinated only child such as myself would naturally be drawn to such seamless displays of teamwork and superhuman stunts, but I also think there’s something universally appealing about watching young, talented people work together as one backflipping, b-boying, popping, locking unit.
On top of all that, America’s Best Dance Crew might just be the only show left on MTV that really has anything to say about how pop music is interpreted by its target demo—albeit a very limber subsection of that demo. Season seven reprises the previous cycle’s “superstars” theme, in which each week is dedicated to a different chart-topping musical act. At first I found it comparatively boring to see a whole night of routines to the music of, say, Justin Bieber, but then I started to appreciate how these different groups of relatively normal kids from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds chose to reflect the music they were tasked with. You can read all the Nicki Minaj thinkpieces in the world, but you get an entirely different perspective watching a Czech teenager knock out some insanely theatrical isolations to “Moment 4 Life.” And I know that dubstep is musica non grata’round these parts, but just watch some of these groups sync up their choreography to those wobbles and see if it doesn’t make you grin in spite of yourself.
Tonight’s season première is a tribute to potential-but-almost-definitely X Factor judge Britney Spears, and the first five crews start off the show with a huge, punchy routine to “I Wanna Go.” (The season starts with ten acts—five tonight and five next week.) These show-openers are always such a treat; as each crew gets their moment in the spotlight, it becomes a continuous crescendo, a big, joyful expression of how much these people love what they do. The whole show is always such a big dose of unironic happiness, but it’s distilled in that opening number, right down to all 40some dancers freezing for a beat as one tiny girl from 8 Flavahz does a pirouette.
For dance laypeople such as myself, it is completely possible to watch this show and be impressed by most every group that takes the stage, but there was also plenty of nitpicking to be done. While it was cool to have two all-girl crews on the stage tonight, both were in danger of straying into well-established ABDC danger zones. Montreal natives Irratik leaned a little too hard on the sexy, integrating a not-so-timely Madonna/Britney kiss reference that made judge D-Trix Sandoval, himself a Dance Crew champ and So You Think You Can Dance vet, “sad in his pants.” (Gross.) Meanwhile, dance-mom victims 8 Flavahz might have been a little too cutesy for the ABDC stage, even though, as Lil Mama put it “they lookin’ at you like, y’all cute, but I’m gonna hit you with a gut punch, nawmsayin’?” (Yes, Lil Mama, I think I do!) But seriously. 8 Flavahz were very cute. Sometimes their web camera doesn’t work when they try to do long-distance group rehearsal, and it makes them sad!
Season-two runners-up Fanny Pak returned to the competition somewhat inexplicably—as far as I know they’re the only group this season to have previously competed. They cite “unfinished business” as their reason for coming back, but since 2008 they have been in a Lil Wayne music video, launched a sneaker line, and made appearances in a Bop It commercial and Honey 2, most of which sound like punchlines but are pretty much standard for the kind of work a successful dance crew gets. They have some of the cleanest choreography of the night, but are definitely going to have to get more inventive with their formations and floor work if they want to look good next to the young’uns.
Stepboys were probably my least favorite group of the night—never trust a crew who choose a hipster mustache as their sigil. (Yes, I am using Game Of Thrones terminology for an America’s Best Dance Crew review, deal with it.) It’s not that jokiness is verboten in the routines—on the contrary, some of the best crews have used healthy doses of comedy to their advantage. But the over-reliance on third-grade sex jokes and scatological references were neither fun nor funny. And while Mix’d Elements had potential, their transitions were a bit lengthy on a show where we’ve come to expect something outrageous every five seconds—and in the end, that earned them a spot in the bottom.
Everything else is pretty much the same as it ever was: Lil Mama still sounds hilariously angry even as she showers the crews with intense praise; Mario Lopez’s copywriter is still as punny as ever (“If you want to zip up Fanny Pak for next week, call 1-888… ”) Though the continued refrain every new season is that nobody will ever be as good as season one champs Jabbawockeez (a refrain that may very well be true), there should still be plenty of fun to be had watching the groups improve and evolve week-to-week. America’s Best Dance Crew may not have as many shocks and controversies as other reality competitions, but as far as feel-good, thoroughly rewindable TV goes, it’s hard to beat.