The women of So You Think You Can Dance season 12 have had a rough couple of weeks. They considerably outnumbered the men for most of the competition, but last episode’s double elimination got rid of four female dancers, and a rib injury takes JJ out this week, making men the majority for the first time. The ladies have had their numbers severely cut, and yet they still dominate this episode, with all four remaining women delivering high-energy routines full of character and passion. Bringing in the All-Stars is a big change that forces the dancers to step up their game, and the female contestants do stronger work rising to the level of their professional partners. The women aren’t perfect, but all of them have that extra spark that fills the stage with their presence, which is something that is very hard to teach.

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Rising to the All-Stars’ level doesn’t necessarily mean matching the quality of their technique. Megz doesn’t have the technique of season 8’s Marko Germar, but she compensates with an effervescent personality and a commitment to the choreography that may not be super sharp, but still captures the choreographer’s intent. Ray Leeper doesn’t give Megz and Marko the most difficult material this week—it’s easily the most “talent show”-y number of the night, especially when paired with the music from Napoleon Dynamite’s talent show scene—but the dancers bring so much joy to the stage that it’s easy to overlook a lower difficulty level. Megz’ style and character call to mind the contestants from this show’s earliest seasons, which featured more dancers making themselves reality TV personalities in hopes of keeping themselves in the competition. Megz is cut from that cloth (she first auditioned for the show back in season 5), and she’s made it all the way to the Top 8 by playing to the audience at all times.

The partnered performances are bookended by two exceptional numbers starring female contestants, beginning with Hailee and season 5’s Brandon Bryant dancing a speedy Broadway routine by Warren Carlyle. There are a couple awkward moments where it looks like Hailee is losing her balance—small body shifts that become noticeable when put next to the precision of Brandon’s movement—but overall it’s a delightful routine that spotlights why Hailee has gotten this far. She’s a radiant dancer, and she makes the choreography look like a lot of fun even when it’s incredibly demanding.

The evening ends with Gaby hitting the stage with season 4’s champion Joshua for a Pharside and Phoenix hip-hop routine, and it’s a turning point for the tapper as she reveals a talent for hard-hitting hip-hop and the characteristic swag that comes with the genre. She’s the only person that dances with a former champion this week, and she more than holds her own, taking full advantage of Joshua’s strength to elevate her performance. It’s one of the best routines of the season, and considering Gaby’s steadily increasing momentum, it could be the big push she needs to solidify her position with voters and snag a spot in the finale.

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Judging by Jaja’s popularity thus far and the judges’ reaction to her Bollywood routine with season 7’s Alex Wong, she’s definitely one of the frontrunners for Team Street. There’s a small dip in Jaja’s energy in the second half of the dance, but she recovers in the thrilling final moments of the choreography, performing some blazing fast Bollywood moves in unison with her partner. Jaja takes to the Bollywood style extremely well, and her hip-hop training is very beneficial to her in a routine that requires a lot of quick, sharp movements. Her solo establishes that she’s the season’s best hip-hop dancer in terms of raw talent, but she’s also proven again and again that she can easily jump into other styles without losing her immense charm, a gift that will take her very far this season.

Jim and Derek are two of the dancers with the sturdiest technical foundations, but they struggle to make strong connections with their partners. Jim’s Dee Caspery contemporary routine with last season’s Jessica Richens is an extremely traditional number that needs loads of personal chemistry to rise above the uninspired choreography, and Jim and Jessica don’t have it. It’s very pretty, but it’s also very hollow, and it may land Jim in the bottom next week.

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Derek dances a R.J. Durrell and Nick Florez jazz number with season 5’s Kayla Radomski, and fades into the background while his fiery blonde partner pulls all the focus. He has the choreography down, but he can’t match the intense sensuality of Kayla, giving her complete control when there should be more push and pull in their sexual power struggle. Derek is in the bottom two this week with Edson, and his consistently underwhelming performances would make him the logical choice to go home. Voters decide to keep the boyish dancer and send home the more mature contestant, though, and the elimination reminds me of Casey beating Rudy for a spot in the Top 6 last season.

For the second week in a row, an outstanding contemporary routine ends up being a dancer’s swan song, with Edson getting eliminated after performing a gorgeous Travis Wall routine with season 3’s Jaimie Goodwin. It’s easily the high point of Edson’s time on this show, but even this routine could use more emotion from Edson, who doesn’t make the character as sinister as the nightmarish choreography suggests he is. Like Derek, Edson struggles to create believable characters in his routines, but the confidence of Edson’s movement makes me wish he was staying on the show for another week.

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One of the most disappointing things about the competition this season is the lack of ballroom dancers and routines, and the stage vs. street conceit has shifted the balance in favor of more hip-hop, jazz, and contemporary numbers. Ballroom is the thing that would really throw these dancers outside of their comfort zones, and its absence has made the competition less challenging. Virgil and Neptune impress this week, but they’re both dancing hip-hop routines with amazing hip-hop dancers, which isn’t a stretch at all.

Neptune could be even more monstrous in his Pharside and Phoenix number with season 10’s Jasmine Harper, and he’s doesn’t have Jasmine’s remarkable balance of power and precision. It’s still very entertaining, but Neptune’s movement could use some tightening. Virgil is more successful in his Christopher Scott routine with season 4’s Comfort Fedoke, bringing an affable smoothness to a soft hip-hop routine about a couple taking a dance break in the middle of moving homes. The chemistry between Virgil and Comfort is electric, and they bring the relationship and the story to life as they jump around on a mattress and make each other giggle.

When it comes to cross-promotion, having the dancers use songs from Empire for their solos is leagues better than checking in with Ryan Seacrest to see how his new (cancelled) show is doing, and it’s a lot of fun seeing the show’s music interpreted through dance. I was crossing my fingers for a solo set to the so-bad-it’s-good “Drip Drop,” and while that does indeed happen with Derek, it’s a lackluster performance and he uses a cut without any of the hilarious lyrics. (He deserves to go home for that injustice.)

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The strongest solos come from Gaby, Jaja, and Jim, who gives me the “You’re So Beautiful” ballet solo I never knew I needed, but for next week, I’d like to see what the dancers do when they perform solos with music they have a stronger emotional connection to. As entertaining as Empire is, its songs have a flavor that is more in line with Team Street’s style of dance, and considering how much focus this season has already taken from the stage dancers, the Empire requisite feels like another way the producers are pulling attention away from Team Stage.

Stray observations

  • Sonya Tayeh and Björk should be a perfect match, but this week’s opening group routine is underwhelming. There’s not much emotion in the performance, and the dancers need to fill out the smaller transitions between the more spectacular moments.
  • From the strange ruff-necklace to a top that rides lower and lower as the evening goes on, Paula Abdul makes some questionable fashion decisions this week.
  • The judges need to remember that the more often they give standing ovations, the less a standing ovation means.
  • How do viewers feel about this show’s cultural appropriation in some of the dance’s concepts and costuming? I can see some people having issues with Gaby as a geisha, specifically.
  • I let out a very loud groan when Nigel said Jasmine danced “Misty Blue” with tWitch, a number performed by season 8’s Sasha Mallory. Jasmine and tWitch did a superhero routine set to “The Power” by District 78 and Cheesa.
  • One camera follows Edson and Jaime for their entire routine, and the direction works really well to accentuate the claustrophobic intimacy of the dance.
  • Jim danced with the Houston Ballet, Virgil was in a Tony Award-winning Broadway show, and Jaja was a featured dancer in Step Up: All In. Has a Top 10 ever had a rĂ©sumĂ© like that?

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