Tonight’s So You Think You Can Dance finale names America’s favorite dancer of season 12, but the central figure of the episode isn’t the one that wins the competition. Travis Wall was the runner-up on this show nine years ago, and he’s become the main character of this entire series with a clearly defined narrative arc unlike any other person on the show. He’s evolved from reality TV personality to Emmy Award-winning choreographer, and just two days after finally snagging his first Emmy, his team comes out on top to win the 12th season’s largely arbitrary “stage vs. street” battle. Tonight’s episode is as much a celebration of Travis as it is the Top 4 dancers, and if this is a series finale, it’s fitting that it would end with a spotlight on a figure that has been part of the show for the majority of its existence.

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Looking at SYTYCD as one long serialized story, Travis emerges as the person whose life has been changed most heavily and publicly by the series. Cat Deeley and Nigel Lythgoe may appear in more episodes than Travis, but they play stationary roles: Cat is the unwavering support system and ever-welcoming host, Nigel is the mastermind and ultimate authority figure. Travis showed up in season 2, but he had strong ties to the series before that thanks to his childhood friendship with Nick Lazzarini, the winner of season 1. When Travis took the stage, he wowed the judges and made voters fall in love with him, but he didn’t win. In the narrative of Travis Wall, getting second place is a fundamental early event, a disappointment that inspires him to find a new way to SYTYCD victory via choreography.

Three seasons later, Travis made his first appearance as choreographer with an outstanding number for Jason Glover and Jeanine Mason, a breakout piece for Jeanine that set her on the path to winning season 5. He continued to regularly craft memorable routines, and has been nominated for an Emmy every year since season 7, including a 2012 nomination for his work on Dancing With The Stars. We’ve seen Travis grow as a dancer and a choreographer, and the show gives him a big salute for finally scoring that win he’s so desperately wanted. He’s brought on stage to say a few words about the Emmy experience, choreographs a beautifully intense new number for Jim and Alex Wong, has a group routine remounted, performs a scorching hot piece with Step Up’s Jenna Dewan-Tatum, and then gets to take another victory lap when Gaby is named America’s Favorite Dancer. It’s a great episode for Travis, and the cumulative experience of the past nine years is probably a lot more rewarding than 365 fleeting days of being America’s favorite.

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Gaby has been giving off Jeanine Mason vibes for most of the competition, with a strong technical foundation and stylistic versatility that make her an extremely malleable tool for the choreographers. The two Cuban women are both from Miami, and they share a grounded, girl-next-door personality off-stage that makes the raw emotional power of their dancing all the more impressive. Whereas Jeanine was a dark horse of her season, Gaby has been a front-runner from the very beginning of the competition, a surprising twist considering she didn’t get a ticket to Vegas after her first audition and flew to another city to audition again. The novelty of being the only tap dancer worked in her favor once the competition began, and I fully believe that Gaby’s tap routine with Zach last week cemented her win. She stood out from the crowd, and the voters responded very well to that, especially when she showed how well she could perform when she was forced into that crowd.

Hailee and Virgil both represent demographics that have won in the past, and the voting audience chooses to embrace something different this year. A female street dancer has never made it to the finale and a tapper has never won the competition, so no matter the result between Gaby and Jaja, it’s going to be new. This season has been all about the new by introducing the “stage vs. street” concept, and Gaby and Jaja benefited greatly from that division. By establishing themselves as early favorites, they ensured their safety as members of their respective teams were picked off one by one. All four final dancers had very strong momentum in the competition, and because only one person from each team went home every week, they had some extra protection. Asserting early dominance put them at the top, and the “stage vs. street” conceit kept them there.

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Hailee and Virgil achieved that early dominance with their Pharside and Phoenix robot routine, which they reprise tonight. Hailee gets to show off her range by also performing her Nick Florez and RJ Durell jazz number with Robert, and she brings a lot of energy to both performances. The finales’ remounted dances often have less passion than the original performances, but that isn’t the case this week. Most of the numbers are just as good, if not better, than they were, and in the case of Virgil and Joshua’s Pharside and Phoenix routine, revisiting the material makes a massive difference. When they performed this last week as one of Virgil’s five pieces, Joshua totally overshadowed Virgil, making him look like a little brother trying to keep up with his superior older sibling. Virgil goes much harder this week without all those other numbers to worry about, which creates a much more balanced dynamic on stage.

This season did away with the pre-Top 10 partnering that has been this show’s standard, and losing those relationships harmed the storytelling. Part of the fun of watching this show is seeing how partners gel over those first five weeks, an element that disappeared this season to give more focus to individuals. It made sense considering how the voting now worked, but also made the season feel less substantial. Personal chemistry is captivating, and Hailee and Virgil’s partnership in that one robot routine was so strong that it created a connection between the two of them that was mutually beneficial in the long-term. Hailee and Virgil weren’t regular partners, but they were the partnership that made the biggest impression, and having them leave as the runners-up for their respective teams keeps them connected through the end.

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As much as I adore Gaby’s dancing, Jaja became my favorite dancer by the end of the season because of her incredible commitment to characterization and immensely likable off-stage personality. Last week’s episode had a great moment where Jaja talked about how she told herself that she would love every single routine given to her on the series, and that affection for the material came through every time she took the stage. She has so much respect for the choreographers’ work, and knows that the best way for her to show that is by performing the hell out of it. She pushed herself in different styles and never looked out of place, and whether she was playing a Bollywood princess, a gangster’s wife, a woman suffering with early on-set Alzheimer’s, Alice down the rabbit hole, or The Fifth Element’s Leeloo, Jaja always brought a fully formed character that pulled the audience deeper into the choreography.

The routine Jaja picks for her favorite is her Christopher Scott duet with Jim, and even though the assigned character is much less specific than those mentioned in the above list, Jaja brings remarkable complexity to who she’s playing. Her rapidly shifting facial expressions during the tutting section depict a turbulent emotional journey, an internal struggle that is overcome with the support of her partner. There are so many layers in her performances, and she’s exceptionally talented at using her face to inform the story her body is telling.

Jaja is my favorite, but, like Virgil, she’s also an established professional, so she doesn’t necessarily need this win the way Hailee or Gaby do. I’m sure Jaja and her new fiancé could use the $250,000, but she had a prominent role in the last Step Up movie. Jaja already has her foot in the door to the professional dance world, as does Virgil, who has years as a Broadway dancer on his résumé. That shouldn’t bar them from winning, but the victory is a little sweeter when it’s going to someone that hasn’t already reached a fairly high level of success in the field.

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Gaby started the season by being denied a ticket to Vegas, but with perseverance and confidence and parents that could afford to buy her a plane ticket to another city, Gaby ends it with $250,000 and a professional gig as a dancer in Jennifer Lopez’s upcoming Vegas residency. Gaby is going to be a great fit for Lopez’s style, and hopefully the show’s choreographer will find a way to incorporate some of Gaby’s tap skills into the show. Of the final four dancers, she’s the one that feels like the most natural choice for Lopez’s show because her hometown of Miami has such a strong tie to Lopez’s music, and I’m sure she’s thrilled to be joining a singer who she’s probably been hearing for most of her life.

SYTYCD has not yet been renewed for a 13th season, and chances don’t look great with American Idol ending in the spring. This may have been the last season of the show, and while it ended up being less of a disaster than the initial episodes suggested it would be, the competition still fell short by losing the multi-week partnerships. The “stage vs. street” concept didn’t bring much to the series beyond more street dancers, and while it was great to see a large group of kick-ass women on Team Street, the presence of dead weight like Asaf dragged down those early episodes. A strong Top 10 delivered a big upswing in quality and excitement, but uninspired choreography in the next two episodes brought another dip before the outstanding performance finale finished the competition on a high note. It’s been a very uneven season, but in the end it still delivered what was most important: stunning, powerful choreography performed by some of the most passionate dancers in the country.

Stray observations:

  • The So You Think You Can Dance producers know that they made a bad decision in bringing Asaf on the show, but they try their best to turn a sexy lemon into sexy lemonade by having him at the center of a “hot moments” montage. It’s not a success. Yes, it gives us Asaf sitting in around in skimpy swimsuit, but it also forces us to spend more with Asaf, who isn’t suddenly tolerable because he’s replaced awkward dancing with awkward line delivery. It’s a low point of the episode, but it ends with an amazing quote that sums up Asaf’s role in the competition: “I may not be the best dancer of this season, but at least I’m the hottest.”
  • The downstage right cameraman has been so bad this season, constantly bumping the camera (it happens multiple times in this episode) and getting into frame when another camera is filming. The fact that I know exactly which camera has been screwing up this season shows just how bad the work was.
  • I wonder if tonight’s Top 4 would have been different if Jim performed that routine with Alex, because it’s the kind of dance that could have given Jim that extra push with voters. It’s a phenomenal piece that they perform exquisitely.
  • Nigel wants to do So You Think You Can Dance Kids. I bet he has a formal pitch for that somewhere.
  • Instead of giving us a new Top 20 routine, this finale reuses the very first Top 20 routine with the prerecorded rehearsal bit. I liked that number, but I would much rather see something new. It’s the last opportunity for the Top 20 to show their skills on the stage, and reusing an old dance takes that away from them.
  • Travis mentioning his boyfriend is one of this show’s few acknowledgments of homosexuality. Go Travis!
  • Megz and Edson are probably very grateful for this show’s Degree sponsorship when they dance Talia Favia’s t-shirt number.
  • Hailee soloing to “Cold-Hearted Snake” last week was a move of inspired brilliance. She’s a smart woman.
  • Some very cool guest dancers this week, including The Academy Of Villains, 10-year-old female krumper Lil’ Phoenix, American Ballet Theater principal dancer Herman Cornejo, and the aforementioned Jenna Dewan-Tatum, who absolutely kills it when she hits the floor with Travis. She has a blend of sultry charisma and graceful power that is very exciting to watch, and she legitimately looks like an All-Star up there.
  • The SYTYCD experience in a nutshell: “I got to be this crazy fairytale cat, as well as portraying a soldier with PTSD.”

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