So You Think You Can Dance turns into a completely different series once Vegas Week ends and the competition for votes begins. Now it becomes a spotlight for some of the country’s best dancers and choreographers, and because the audition process this season didn’t feel like much of a test compared to years past, I’ve been eagerly anticipating seeing these dancers enter the gauntlet that is the Top 20 and beyond. I still have to wait another week to see the real challenge begin when the dancers are paired up and taken out of their respective styles, but tonight’s episode gives me a lot of faith that I didn’t have before, particularly regarding the proficiency of Team Street with choreography.

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The women of Team Street definitely have a leg up on the men, showing a stronger technical foundation across the board that justifies why there are six of them and only four guys. That lack of technique may be the reason why male street dancer Hurricane injured himself before the competition even began, opening a spot for Asaf, the Israeli Ken doll b-boy. (In his case, the “b” stands for “bad,” because his impulsive, arrogant behavior at Vegas Week has given him a rebel storyline and he’s not that great a dancer, especially during the two larger group routines.) Virgil immediately stands out as the most charismatic of the male street dancers, but when it comes to raw talent, the women are bringing a lot more to the table.

While I’m still not sold on the whole “stage vs. street” conceit, this episode’s opening montage has an liveliness and style that gets me more pumped than I have been all season. It’s very nicely filmed, and I don’t mind seeing the show incorporate pre-taped routines like this one that take advantage of different settings, multiple cuts, and video editing to give the viewer something with more flavor and polish. I like the live group routines, but a lot of the times those are the ones that suffer the most because the dancers are so overworked, so maybe it wouldn’t be a bad idea to do a more conceptual pre-recorded number away from the stage every once in a while.

That pre-recorded package leads to Teams Street and Stage making their way in front of the audience for their first time dancing together in a routine by Christopher Scott and Jessica Lee Keller, and the precision takes a considerable dip when everyone is dancing live. The choreography is a bit muddled and the hectic direction doesn’t make things any clearer; the action jumps to a lot of zoomed out camera shots during the synchronized bits, perhaps as a way to detract from the lack of synchronicity on stage.

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I’ve been pretty hard on Jason Derulo this season, and while I still hope that he doesn’t perform in every episode, he’s far more tolerable as a judge in this episode. (It also helps that his performance tonight was accompanied by the All-Stars dancing, which is always a welcome sight.) Surprisingly, Derulo offers the very first negative critique of the night after the first small group number featuring street dancers JJ, Megz, and Neptune dancing a Dave Scott hip-hop routine, deflating the balloon of praise inflated by Nigel and Paula. The dancers are sloppy and Derulo lets them know, telling them that they need to stop letting moments bleed together and focus on creating a strong, specific illusion before moving on to the next piece of choreography.

There’s a tendency to overpraise the dancers during the first episode of the competition to get the voting audience excited, but the judges offer up some very insightful critiques this week, especially when it comes to the importance of internalizing certain elements of the choreography. Stage dancers Marissa, Alexia, and Hailee play the sexuality of their Brian Friedman jazz routine too heavily, so Nigel and Paula tell them to dial it down and leave something to the imagination. They don’t have to project sex because that’s already being done with the choreography and costumes, and the judges want to see flirtier, cheekier personalities rather than non-stop sexual intensity.

With stage dancers Edson and Kate, the judges don’t believe the emotion of their Travis Wall number, leading Nigel to express concerns about what SYTYCD has done to the contemporary dance style. The constant reaching of this show’s contemporary numbers has become a running joke, and Nigel says that he doesn’t want people to think that this style is just a bunch of reaching without emotion. He could have easily given this critique to Moises, Derek, and Gaby after their very reach-y Stacey Tookey contemporary routine, but Edson and Kate have a more specific story that they aren’t telling so they get the negative response.

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You’ll notice that all these groups that receive negative critiques are from Team Stage, and there’s an irritating double standard in the way the judges treat the stage dancers compared to the street dancers. Jaja, Lily, Burim, and Asaf’s Christopher Scott routine gets a standing ovation from the judges, and while it’s impressive that the b-boys get their shit together and learn choreography, they don’t perform it at such an advanced level that they deserve the wild praise. After Yorelis, Ariana, and Virgil dance a Pharside and Phoenix number, Paula tells that they need to work on maintaining a strong stage presence even if they’re just walking across the stage, but the critique doesn’t get much harsher than that.

Because they don’t have that technical foundation, the street dancers need criticism and tips on how they improve their performance, but the judges aren’t giving it to them at this point. That could be a move intended to keep the confidence of the street dancers up as they face more grueling challenges ahead, but that’s not going to help them in the long run. The majority of the stage dancers are going into next week with specific things to work on from the judges, but Team Street is given little guidance as they prepare to dive into the deep end. I was pleasantly surprised by the street performances tonight, but they aren’t indicative of what these dancers can do outside of their styles, which is what the rest of the competition is going to be.

This is the first season of SYTYCD with two male ballet dancers, and Jim and Darion exhibit some incredible strength in their routine by Benoit Swan Pouffer. They could be more in unison and need to work harder to keep their energy up throughout the piece, but they’re also doing choreography that is considerably more difficult than anything the other dancers are tackling. This is the kind of professional-level dance I want to see from this series, and I think this season’s group of contestants has the potential to deliver that every week, even with the less experienced street dancers.

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The evening ends with Team Stage performing a Warren Carlyle Broadway routine and Team Street performing a NappyTabs hip-hop routine, and these are easily the most thrilling numbers of the night. There are some mishaps (Alexia drops her cane in the Broadway number, Asaf falls apart at the end of the hip-hop piece), but these dances have the energy and excitement that characterize this show at its best. The producers can make all the changes they want to the format, but as long as the show continues to deliver those exhilarating dance moments, there will still be reasons to keep watching.

Stray observations

  • Can the producers of this show hurry up and get Michelle Obama on as a guest judge? They clearly want that to happen so bad.
  • Brian Friedman dancing in stilettos is giving me life! I’m glad to see the show becoming more relaxed with gender roles.
  • SYTYCD gets a new stage, which is still huge and doesn’t have stairs so it’s still not as good as the original stage.
  • Anyone else get “Ramalama (Bang Bang)” flashbacks with the Jason Derulo performance? Who wants to watch “Ramalama (Bang Bang)” again?
  • https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bj5qoo9kQRM
  • Can anyone tell me who the brunette female All-Star in white was? Her name wasn’t announced and she’s the only one I don’t recognize. Maybe Tiffany from season 10?
  • “I’m not Team Street. I don’t twitch.”

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