The winner of this season of So You Think You Can Dance should come as no surprise to anyone that has watched any part of this competition. Contemporary dancer Ricky Ubeda dreamed of being on this show for his entire dance career, and he wowed the judges from the first moment he stepped on the stage. In Vegas he showed his immense skill in every style, and performed a solo that put him at the forefront of season 11’s top 20, beginning a string of exemplary performances that continued until his very last dance on the show.

Continuing in the tradition of SYTYCD finales, most of this episode is spent remounting favorite routines of the season chosen by the judges, Cat, and the final four dancers. Here’s a rundown of the dances performed again this evening, and there are quite a few recurring names (throughout this review, I’ll be posting clips of my personal favorite routines of the season.):

Travis Wall and Sonya Tayeh each have three dances represented, and the rest are hip-hop numbers except for Ray Leeper’s jazz and Anthony Morigerato’s tap routine. Surprisingly, in a season that had six ballroom dancers, not a single ballroom routine makes it into the finale, which is a shame because Tanisha’s Argentine tango with Ryan absolutely deserves to be up there. Rudy’s performance in his two pieces shows why it was such a shame to lose him to Casey, who has one dance tonight and doesn’t do particularly well with it, and Tanisha gets to hit the stage again while top 6 contestant Jacque gets no love. What I’m saying here is that Rudy and Tanisha absolutely rocked this season, and the show lost a lot when they were eliminated.

The dancer with the most exposure tonight is Ricky, who performs four routines with the same passion and precision he brought to their original performances, and he’s once again the focal point of a group number in Warren Carlyle’s lackluster Top 20 Broadway group routine. I love a good classic Broadway routine, but Carlyle’s piece feels a bit dusty, starting the evening with a whimper rather than a big burst of energy to get the audience excited. The second group routine, featuring the top 10 dancing with the All-Stars in a piece choreographed by Christopher Scott and Sonya Tayeh, delivers the kind of thrills I’ve been yearning for from this show’s group numbers, which have become less impressive over the last few seasons.

I assume part of that dip in quality is due to the group numbers now being part of the performance episodes rather than the separate elimination episodes, forcing the dancers to focus their attention in more directions over the course of a single evening. When the group number was the primary routine performed during the elimination episode, the dancers could devote more attention to their work in the ensemble. In the show’s current format, the dancers have to put their time and energy into the dances that will get them the most votes, and that’s going to be their paired routines. It’s easy to get lost in the background of a group routine even if you’re dancing the hell out of it, so you might as well conserve your strength until it’s your time to shine.

Christopher and Sonya’s routine set to The Temper Trap’s “Sweet Disposition” is one of the season’s best storytelling dances, delving into a slew of narratives as it shows the relationships between 20 people waiting at a train station. The top four is heavily spotlighted, along with Rudy, Tanisha, and Emilio, and as the last dance for a lot of these contestants, everyone is giving their all. Dancing with the All-Stars automatically forces the younger performers to up their game, and that extra effort makes the movement and emotion of the piece clearer.

The conclusion of this finale is satisfying, but the road to Ricky’s crowning is littered with filler that drags down the momentum of the episode. The events related to dance work—remounting the best numbers of the season, introducing new group routines, appearances from guest dancers—but then there are totally unnecessary additions like a performance from Enrique (Cat never says “Iglesias,” is he doing a Cher/Madonna thing now?) and Sean Paul and a Degree-sponsored visit from Ciara and Jasmine Harper. I understand that product placement is how this show is going to stay alive as its viewership diminishes, but Ciara and Jasmine meeting the Top 4 in a rehearsal room to quickly talk about determination and perspiration before their hasty exit is just awkward.

Also awkward: any moment when Cat concedes the mic to a visitor. Jesse Tyler Ferguson continues the comedy act he started last week by taking the stage to do a SYTYCD stand-up set, and Paula Abdul, a regular judge on the current incarnation of SYTYCD Australia, delivers an uncomfortable intro for Michael Dameski, the winner of SYTYCD Australia whose phenomenal solo went viral. (Why wasn’t Paula just on the judge’s panel?) The performance from Michael just reminds me of how great the Grand Final of SYTYCD Australia was this season, and I was really hoping that the American finale would do a similar music video-style routine for its last Top 20 group number. This show is filmed in L.A., so surely there’s a choreographer and director that could film a really great group routine that takes advantage of the magic of video to make something different from the usual SYTYCD fare.

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The appearance of Michael proves that this is the year for contemporary male dancers on SYTYCD, and Ricky is the first to win the American version since Nick Lazzarinni took the title of “America’s Favorite Dancer” way back in the very first season. And Ricky deserves it. No matter what the challenge was, he stepped up and conquered it, always giving an outstanding performance brimming with character and physical prowess. He’s the clear choice to win from this season’s final four, and it makes me very happy to see America making the right decision.

Zack and Jessica never stood a chance against power couple Ricky and Valerie, who made it to the finale without ever once appearing in the bottom. Zack is the first of the final four to go home, but he grew so much over the course of the season, not just in terms of skill, but in his body, bulking up dramatically between his audition appearance and his final performance on the show. (Learning 27 dance routines in ten weeks while under immense pressure to succeed will do that to a person.) Jessica is a beautiful dancer, but her personality doesn’t radiate like Ricky and Valerie, which ultimately prevents her from pulling ahead of her less skilled female rival.

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Valerie has an adorable personality that really shines when she’s tap dancing, but her movement and character work became less precise the further she moves out of her comfort zone. She’s definitely more versatile than a lot of the other dancers that have made it all the way to the finale based on their charisma, but that lack of sharpness hurt her last week when she had to learn and perform five different routines. Jessica is more comfortable in a wider range of styles and characters, but she lacks the “girl next door” charm that makes Valerie especially personable; you want to like Valerie, and part of that allure comes from wanting her to improve and rise past to the obstacles that fall before her.

In the end it comes down to the only couple to survive the entire competition together, and Valerie knows what’s coming. She’s totally content when Cat announces that Ricky is America’s new favorite dancer, and you can really sense the camaraderie between the two in the moments leading up to the reveal. I think Valerie knows how much Ricky wants this and how much he deserves this, and getting this far as a tapper is a huge victory for Valerie in and of itself. Ricky breaks down after hearing that his dream is now a reality, and watching his overwhelming emotional reaction makes me love him even more. He wanted this so bad and he delivered incredible performances because of that desire. Now the moment he’s been aching for is finally here, and all of his feelings come rushing out in a wave of sweet release.

The future of this series is uncertain, but if season 11 is the show’s last, it achieves wonderful symmetry in its finale. Everything comes back around full circle with a male contemporary dancer winning the competition for the first time since season 1, and being a loyal fan of the series is what gave Ricky the inspiration to become the amazing dancer he is today. Through Ricky, we see what this show has really done for the dance world: it has pushed young dancers to explore the full range of their craft in hopes of making their way to the SYTYCD stage, creating more versatile dancers in the process. Even if dancers don’t make it to the Vegas or the Top 20, the work they put into reaching that goal is going to greatly benefit their dance careers. If keeping this show alive means more performers of Ricky’s caliber, I hope Fox never stops wondering if people think they can dance.

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Stray observations:

  • It appears as if this show has finally started to accept same-sex relationships depicted through dance, first with Travis Wall’s group routine last week and Adam Shankman’s comments about Ricky and Zack’s “filthy” (in a good way) hip-hop number: “I just want to say to these two kings that this queen is a huge fan.” This queen (me) is also a huge fan.
  • I’ve grown to love the recurring joke that Nigel and Mary are secret lovers. At this point I just think it’s true.
  • This episode has too many montages, but a montage of goofy Cat Deeley moments is always appreciated.
  • I love the performance from Les Twins tonight (who were also featured in Beyoncé’s incredible VMAs medley), but the Bollywood crew leaves me wanting something more substantial. The men have a lot of energy, but the choreography is fairly repetitive.
  • Replaying moments from auditions during the finale is like reaching Disney World after a cross-country drive and spending time watching videos of the road trip rather than going on attractions.
  • As a thank you to the Dancing With The Stars producers that allowed Nigel to employ Allison Holker tonight despite her DWTS contract, Nigel threw some shade at the shade by saying ABC should rename the series Dancing With The Stars From So You Think You Can Dance. (Granted, he’s not wrong.)
  • The paso doble set to Rob Zombie’s “Dragula” wasn’t one of my favorite routines this season, but I’m linking to it because it was just that ridiculous.

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