So You Think You Can Dance has never been a ratings juggernaut like its sister series American Idol, and like most reality TV competitions, its ratings have diminished over time. Once the novelty fades and the genre conventions become more evident, more people tune out.
But SYTYCD remains the only place to see aspiring dancers compete on national television; America’s Best Dance Crew is off the air, Dancing With The Stars focuses on celebrities who do routines with seasoned ballroom dancers, and America’s Got Talent only has a few dancers among its competitors. Only SYTYCD features professional-grade choreography in a variety of dance styles, making it a sort of ambassador for the art form to the viewing public.
After auditioning for the show every season since it started, Stephen “tWitch” Boss was eliminated from competition in SYTYCD’s third season. Seven seasons later, he’s one of the people picking the show’s top 20 dancers, joining a group that previously only included judges and choreographers. Unlike other reality TV competitions, SYTYCD finds new ways to keep past contestants involved after their time on the series ends. In the earlier seasons, that meant inviting dancers back as choreographers; season two’s Dmitry Chaplin and Travis Wall have become known as much for their dance compositions as their original performances.
Former contestants became a permanent fixture on the SYTYCD stage when the ill-conceived seventh season (which was marred by questionable formatting changes) introduced the all-stars, who would dance with the remaining top 10 competitors. Pairing contestants with professional all-stars elevated their performances, and the choreographers took advantage of the veterans’ maturity to create spectacular, immensely difficult routines. The following season expanded to a top-20 format (as it had in earlier seasons), but kept the all-stars: Contestants would dance with a partner for five weeks, but once they reached the top 10, they would be joined by competitors from seasons past. Boss has made regular appearances over the past four seasons, along with season two’s Allison Holker (his fiancée), season three’s ballroom dynamic duo Anya Garnis and Pasha Kovalev, season four’s female hip-hopper Comfort Fedoke, season five’s supermen Ade Obayomi and Brandon Bryant, and season six’s Kathryn McCormick, who played the female lead in last summer’s Step Up Revolution.
Shows like Survivor, Top Chef, RuPaul’s Drag Race, Project Runway, and Dancing With The Stars have had all-star seasons, but they featured previous contestants returning to win the competition again (or, in the case of Project Runway, sitting in as a guest judge for an episode). The closest any of them come to SYTYCD’s all-stars are the two seasons Survivor did pitting fans against favorites. But it’s not as if Survivor competitors have dedicated their lives to what they do on the show, and their ultimate goal is hardly artistic. For a few minutes each week, SYTYCD contestants are asked to make a fully realized piece of art after spending a scant five hours with choreographers. The addition of the all-stars has increased the quality of that art, and So You Think You Can Dance is thriving as a result.
It didn’t look that way when the season began. After the elimination episode was cut and incorporated into the performance show last year, the producers seemingly couldn’t figure out how to make the segue from performance to elimination less jarring. Attempting to remedy that this season, they moved the eliminations to the start of the episode—which only killed its momentum and put a damper on what followed. Luckily, that only lasted one episode, after fans spoke out on social media. Executive producer Nigel Lythgoe changed the setup by having dancers on the chopping block perform their solos at the start of the episode, but saving eliminations for the end. That gave the endangered dancers a chance to impress the judges with their partnered routines. The change gave episodes a stronger narrative, as the dancers in the bottom fought to stay, and the all-stars’ assistance resulted in some awe-inspiring performances.
The all-star pool changes depending dancers’ availability, and it expands with each season. Season seven and eight winners Lauren Froderman and Melanie Moore have joined the ranks, and season nine’s Witney Carson returned to SYTYCD two weeks ago, less than a year after she was eliminated and became a professional on Dancing With The Stars. The show went even further with the all-star conceit last week when the all-stars choreographed the contestants, a first for six of the returning dancers. The veterans were competing again, but for choreographer slots in the future rather than the title of “America’s Favorite Dancer.”
While it’s difficult to become an all-star on any reality series, few of them are as physically taxing on contestants as SYTYCD. Before dancers reach the live competition, they must undergo a grueling series of auditions, beginning with preliminaries in cities around the country and ending with a weeklong gauntlet in Las Vegas. Because the risk of physical injury is so high, the audition process has to be rigorous—if contestants can’t make it through Vegas, they definitely won’t survive what comes after it. To be an all-star, dancers have to make it through Vegas and at least five weeks of voting, meaning they need to have the personality to connect with the voting audience and the technique to impress the judges.
The all-stars help with the latter, pushing the contestants to professional levels. They either rise to the challenge and turn out captivating routines, or they fail and fade into the background while the all-stars pull focus. The format is a double-edged sword, but it cuts easily when dancers don’t step up their game. Before the top 10 stage, dancers can coast on personality and the relationships they create with their partners, but they’ll get stomped by the all-stars if the raw talent isn’t there.
With two hours of remarkable dance and a dramatic through-line rare to most reality competitions, this season’s top 10 episode of SYTYCD was a series highlight. The bottom four dancers brought more passion than ever to their performances with the all-stars, making strong cases for their continued presence. In a way, they had already won some measure of success: By making it to the point of dancing with all-stars, they have a strong chance of joining the elite group—which only helps their motivation.
Winning SYTYCD is great, but if the dancers don’t make it to the top, they can still translate their time on the show into lucrative careers. These dancers go on tour with pop stars like Lady Gaga and Taylor Swift, appear in movies and on Broadway, join dance companies, and become teachers and choreographers. If they’re popular enough, they have the opportunity to come back as an all-star. The physical demands of the profession ensure dancers can’t have long careers, but performers who excel on SYTYCD can make the most of that time. The relationship between this show and its past contestants is unlike any other in reality TV, and maintaining that strong connection is what keeps SYTYCD kicking.