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With the judges in charge of eliminations for the last time, the top 12 performance episode is when the competitors need to put their full charisma and technique on display. Next week their fate is in the hands of America, who may not necessarily save a dancer because of an excellent foxtrot like the judges would. There are two things that America does vote for, and they are two ideas that Sonya Tayeh pushed this week on the judge’s panel: conviction and truth. To dance with full conviction and truth, the dancers have to master the technique and put complete faith in their partners, and this episode showed that season eight’s competitors still have a long way to go (with a few notable exceptions).


Joining Nigel, Mary, and Sonya is Modern Family star Jesse Tyler Ferguson, who admits to some B’way (BroadWAY) experience and a stint as a generic theme park dancer. I didn’t realize he was the original Leaf Coneybear in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling, so here’s some JTF awesomeness from one of my favorite musical comedies:

Jesse is a delight on panel, and while it’s nice to finally see someone on this show be gay and proud, Jesse gets the most kudos for singling out Cat’s glorious hosting skills, specifically that she NEEDS AN EMMY NOW. On the verge of tears, an embarrassed Cat tries to divert the attention back to Jess and Clarice’s jive, but once Cat Deeley steals the show from you, it’s really hard to grab it back.


On the subject of Clarice and Jess, they’ve easily become the surprise couple for me, with Jess having undergone a huge transformation over the first half of the competition. Ever since their Jean-Marc Généreux foxtrot a few weeks ago, Jess and Clarice have been knocking it out of the park, and we get to see them break out of their comfort zone a little more this week. The jive isn’t that far out of Jess’ usual style, and I have the feeling Clarice has had more than a little ballroom experience, so I thought their routine was a great way to end the night. The lifts were a little uncomfortable, but Jess has clearly been working on upper body strength because the lifts aren’t anywhere near as painful as their Stacey Tookey contemporary routine earlier in the competition. Despite the idiotic watercolor painting of Clarice at the end of their Christopher Scott lyrical hip-hop, the two have strong chemistry throughout the routine and their unison is tight, especially compared to Caitlynn and Mitchell’s terrible Invisible Children routine.

There was a lot of talk about the merits of “story dances” in comments last week, and Christopher Scott is this week’s worst offender with his Invisible Children dance, a jumbled routine with an extremely forced connection to the organization that raises awareness about the abduction and forced enlistment of Ugandan children as soldiers. The couple’s unison is completely off, and Caitlynn’s movement in particular lacks the resistance that makes hip-hop so sharp. Their a huge disconnect between the story and the dance, and it gets in the way of the dancers forming a relationship with the steps and each other. Caitlynn and Mitchell's Travis Wall Jazz routine was a huge improvement, but again the story of a woman who finds out her lover is married feels tacked on. Travis taps into a lot of the elements that made their Mandy Moore routine a success last week, and there’s plenty of acrobatic lifts and turns that show off their jazz skills. The problem is that this competition is about seeing how well they can dance outside of their style, and jazz isn’t all that far from contemporary.

Tadd and Jordan have the same problem this week, and it’s very likely that Travis will see all his dancers in the bottom tomorrow because of their weaknesses in other routines. Their vulture routine is, in Mary’s words, “Beautiful! Dark! Magnificent! WOOOOOOOOO!” Tadd is on the full-on Legacy track, having evolved past his pretty-faced b-boy beginnings by showing a comfort in other styles. Travis incorporates some of Tadd’s b-boy moves in the choreography, and the couple is clearly at home with the dance. They have less luck with Spencer Liff’s Cyndi Lauper Sleeping Beauty routine to “Out Tonight” from Rent, and the two struggle to get into their quirky characters. The story feels tagged on again, and it doesn’t do anything to enhance the choreography, instead standing in the way of Jordan and Tadd’s quest for conviction and truth.


Ryan and Ricky’s Broadway routine is criticized heavily by the judges, but I actually liked it. Spencer Liff is hot on Christopher Scott’s heels for choreostory offenses, and the movie-poster-come-to-life premise of the number isn’t all that bad, giving Ryan the opportunity to whip out her trademark grin. I think Ricky is absolutely adorable, and I hope he’s around next week because I want to see him with a more capable partner than Ryan, because after the negative critiques of their Broadway dance, Ryan cracks under pressure during their Louis van Amstel cha-cha. During the number, Ryan falls into bad habits, forcing the energy with her face instead of letting the dancing do the work. There’s no story, just dance, and a choreographer like Louis Van Amstel knows how to make a routine sexy with the steps. Once a dancer starts to force emotion, they lose trust in the choreography, and Ryan’s dancing becomes sloppier as the routine continues. That death drop was terrifying because I wasn’t sure if Ryan was going to split in half once she landed; if the rest of the dance was sharper, I wouldn’t have had a mini panic attack. In what I believe is a first, only half the couple boards the Hot Tamale train, and Ricky rides off with Jesse Tyler Ferguson into the sunset.

The ongoing dilemma of the Sasha/Alexander partnership continues this week, as the judges point out that Sasha has been carrying Alexander through the competition, but finally praise him for his specific work in their Tasty Oreo Jazz routine. Tyce wins the award for vaguest story with his dance “about life,” instructing his dancers to “be a person!” It’s a fun number with an unsturdy prop that ends with Sasha’s leg apparently giving out at the end; at least that’s what it looked like, but the camera wasn’t showing her feet. Alexander has a similarly dead smile as Ryan, and Tyce just gave Alexander a routine that would have him spinning so fast we wouldn’t be able to see if his smile is fake or not. And honestly, it’s hard not to smile when you’re spinning really fast. Try it. I bet you’ll be smiling when you stop. Sasha and Alexander’s tepid paso doble was a rough start to the episode, and the judges praise Sasha’s strength but Sonya warns Alexander that she doesn’t always trust him as a partner. Remember last season when we didn’t get a top 20? The chemistry these dancers build with each other becomes such a huge part of why we vote for them, and it looks like Alexander and Sasha may have finally clicked at the last minute. Now we’ll see if Alexander can establish that chemistry with a new partner every week. Odds aren’t looking too good.

The real reason why I’m so thankful for the top 20 is for couples like Melanie and Marko. They have been the brightest stars of this competition from the very start (Melanie has been my fave since auditions), and they’ve shown complete commitment to their choreography and each other with each new routine. Their Louis Van Amstel Tango is sharp, sexy, and easily the biggest challenge they’ve faced, and apparently it was a goddamn mess in dress rehearsal because the judges are shocked by what they see. I’m not sure how many times the judges see these dances or if the judges offer critique during the rehearsal process, but it’s always fascinating to hear the judges’ comments on how much the dancers have improved in the short window from dress to performance. Their second routine, a Dean Caspery contemporary, had absolutely no chance of being less than amazing after this couple’s run thus far, and the combination of the choreography with the dancers and a simple prop make the number the night’s best. Their chemistry is beautiful, their lines congruous and their movement intentional and precise. Conviction and truth all the way. These are two dancers fighting for glory, but they fight together. Their complete trust in one another makes them a joy to watch, and the end of their partnership is the biggest casualty in the switch to All-Stars next week.


Tomorrow night we find out the All-Stars and say good-bye to one more boy and girl. Bottom six predictions: Ricky & Ryan, Caitlynn & Mitchell, Tadd & Jordan, Caitlynn and Mitchell go home.

Stray Observations:

  • Cat’s a naughty white swan with a short silver dress lined with feathers across the bottom. The eye make-up’s a little much, though.
  • Loved Mary’s breakdown of the different kinds of tango. Very educational.
  • Thank you, 30 Rock. Now I can never listen to “Piece Of My Heart” without hearing “Chunk Of My Lung.”
  • “Only you can prevent forest fires.”
  • “I know your abilities and I didn’t see them. I know your craft and I didn’t see it.”
  • “I didn’t care for it. HAPPY OPPOSITE DAY.”
  • Cameras showing up in the shot has happened a few times this season. Get your shit together, Nikki Parsons.
  • “Clarice, do you have a boyfriend? I do too, but let’s get married.”
  • Melanie = Felicity Season Two Keri Russell