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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

So You Think You Can Dance: “Top 20 Perform”

Illustration for article titled iSo You Think You Can Dance/i: “Top 20 Perform”
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Before diving into tonight’s events, let’s all take a moment to celebrate the fact that So You Think You Can Dance has lasted to 200 episodes, exposing the art of dance to millions of Americans and giving budding performers and established choreographers the opportunity to show their talent on a national stage. Despite a horrible name, the series has managed to survive and grow over 11 seasons, making changes in order to stay afloat as viewership diminishes.

One of those changes is eliminating the Top 20 showcase this season (most likely because of budget cuts), but the producers adjust the format to show the best of these dancers as they begin competing immediately. Tonight’s performance episode has everyone dancing in their own style, put in pairs that will be split up when the dancers are taken out of their comfort zones next week. It’s a smart move that eases the Top 20 into the competition, and the voting element adds a hunger to their performances; this isn’t just an opportunity to show off their skills, it’s what will determine their future on the series.


The episode gets off to a rocky start with a sluggish jazz group number that has Sonya Tayeh incorporating Fosse into her signature style, and the combination doesn’t quite gel in the routine. Despite those Fosse touches, it still plays like the typical Sonya routine, which translates to a less than memorable Top 20 opener. Sonya can still turn out a hot jazz piece, but in the past few seasons she’s done her most creative, challenging work in the contemporary style, and her later number for Ricky and Jessica—two dancers spotlighted last week—is the highlight of the episode.

After a series of exceptional routines, Ricky and Jessica steal the show with a number that hushes the audience with its fluidity and intensity. The piece reminds me of Sonya’s “Hallelujah” routine for Alex and Allison in season 7, which featured two similarly sharp performances that could easily be mistaken for professional guest dancers.

Nigel describes Ricky and Jessica’s performance as “otherworldly” and says they took the evening to “another level entirely,” while Mary says that the number “came from heaven.” It may sound like hyperbole, but Ricky and Jessica really are that good, and after their performances in the last two weeks, they’re shoe-ins for the Top 10. (Considering Jessica is a jazz dancer, her contemporary performance is even more impressive.)


There are four contemporary dances tonight, and they’re all performed with such high quality that it really comes down to the choreography to decide who stands out. Emily and Casey’s Travis Wall piece is the evening’s first big success, but it doesn’t have the wow factor of the later contemporary numbers. Bridget and Stanley’s unison in Bonnie Story’s routine is outstanding, and Stanley gets elevation from his legs that the other dancers can only dream of. Stacey Tookey’s piece for Carly and Rudy is the choreographer’s standard flowing fare, but it builds to a gorgeous climax when the music explodes, showing how much of an impact the right move at the right time can make. Rudy doesn’t have the most control or flexibility, but he has personality and passion that radiate off the stage, making him an early favorite of the judges.

The other stacked style this year is ballroom, and like the contemporary numbers tonight, the ballroom routines show the depth of the technique for these performers. Rudy’s best friend Nick closes out the night dancing a Louis Van Amstel cha cha with Tanisha, and while they have sharp footwork and strong chemistry, they’re stuck dancing to an Enrique Iglesias and Pitbull track that distracts the audience with how shitty it is. Amstel makes a much better music choice for his Brazilian Samba for Malene and Marquette, and the dancers make a connection with the choreography and each other that sets the stage on fire.


In a sequined green dress that makes it impossible to take your eyes off her, Malene delivers a powerhouse performance that has a maturity the other two female ballroom dancers lack. Her ballroom face is especially remarkable, making it look like she’s having the time of her life performing these intricate moves that pose no challenge. That effortless quality is missing from Brooklyn’s cha cha with Sweaty Serge at the top of the show, and the multiple critiques given to Brooklyn by the judges make me think that her future isn’t especially bright. 

One of the most common feelings I have when watching SYTYCD is amazement that what I’m seeing is on primetime broadcast television. Reality TV competitions are a dime a dozen, but not ones that require this level of physical stamina, strength, and grace from their competitors. Ballet tests all three of these qualities as the dancers strive to find emotion in precision; if they hit all the moves exactly right, the impact is visceral and breathtaking.


Jacque and Jourdan dance a pas de deux from Swan Lake choreographed by Marat Daukeyev, and they manage to get through 15 pirouettes in a row before Jourdan makes a mistake that affects the rest of her performance. Losing her footing during an attitude sequence, Jourdan gets flustered and struggles to regain her composure, giving Jacque the opportunity to pull ahead as this season’s prima ballerina by nailing the rest of the number. Considering how tough the competition is tonight, those errors may send Jourdan home, even if the judges avoid discussing them too deeply.

Tap is another style that requires immense precision, and while Valerie and Zach’s tap routine by Anthony Morigerato isn’t perfect, it puts a giant smile on my face. To make things even more challenging, Morigerato choreographs much of the dance on stairs, and watching the two performers go up and down those steps while keeping up with the music and each other is a bit nerve-wracking. Valerie and Zack are two of the most adorable contestants on this season, with strong chemistry that they started cultivating last week, so I expect them to make it through next week’s elimination. 


After leaving the competition just before the Top 20 last season, Emilio finally gets the chance to show his stuff on the SYTYCD stage, and it is wonderful stuff. Dancing a smooth Christopher Scott hip-hop routine with Teddy (brilliantly set to The Commodores’ “Nightshift”), Emilio establishes himself as Legacy 2.0 with high-flying tricks and a tight, compact body that lets him hit the moves harder than his tall, lanky partner. Teddy does very strong work, especially during the bits where he gets to bring his tap skills to the table, but his lines aren’t quite as clean as Emilio’s. They still look awesome together, nailing the attitude of the piece to make it one of the evening’s most fun dances.

The main thing keeping this episode from A-grade territory is the guest judge: Jason Derulo. As a dancer and choreographer, he has experience in the field, but his critiques offer little in the way of insight, showering compliments no matter who is dancing. That’s not the big issue with Derulo, though. The big issue is that he performs in the middle of this episode (with a drowsy Snoop Dogg), taking valuable time away from the Top 20 to ask, “What you gonna do with that big fat butt?”


If giving Derulo performance time was part of the agreement to have him on the judges’ panel, then the producers should have gotten someone else. Pop stars may bring in some extra viewers, but that shouldn’t come at the expense of the dancers. Tanisha and Nick barely get any critiques at the end of the episode because the judges are being told by the producers to hurry things along for time; I would have much preferred an extra four minutes of judges’ critiques rather than Derulo’s “Wiggle.” When the Top 20 dancers are this gifted, time should be solely dedicated to helping them refine their talent. 

Stray observations:

  • Hope you all enjoyed the last two weeks of SYTYCD coverage! I’ll be back to cover the Top 12 episode in a few weeks, when I will assess the contestants’ growth after being with their new partners for a while.
  • I really like that the new opening sequence highlights the mathematical precision of dance. It’s a cool way of combining science and art.
  • Sweaty Serge describing his premature baby self as looking like a dead bird is one of the more disturbing facts from tonight’s 8-second bits.
  • Teddy’s 8-second song really damages his character for me.
  • Love rolls, hot rolls, ham rolls, cheese rolls.

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