What does So You Think You Can Dance have to gain from the new “stage versus street” conceit? Was the change made to highlight the growing number of dance styles emerging outside of classrooms and professional stages by showing off the range of street dancing? Was it made to give the show greater appeal in urban markets by giving street dancers equal attention in the competition? My best guess is the show needed to make a change after 11 seasons of a formula that was garnering diminishing ratings returns with each new year, and pitting stage dancers against street dancers is a solid enough hook. But as these first episodes of season 12 have proven, there’s more to lose than there is to gain from this new angle.

I wasn’t sure how “stage versus street” was going to work while watching auditions, and after the first half of Vegas Week, I still don’t understand how the actual competition is going down this season. There will be 10 stage dancers and 10 street dancers, and according to Cat Deeley’s voiceover, they’ll be dancing in all styles when the competition starts. Sounds simple enough. So why is Vegas Week geared toward the styles they are already comfortable with? It doesn’t prepare them for the weeks of dancing in new styles that they’ll have to do if they make the Top 20, and it doesn’t give the judges ample information to create the most well-rounded Top 20 possible.

The stage dancers are expected to be more versatile than the street dancers, but even then, the combination of contemporary, Broadway, and jazz doesn’t push limits the way Vegas Weeks have in the past. In addition to those three styles, contestants in prior seasons needed to show proficiency in hip-hop and ballroom in order to make it to the Top 20. They would be expected to dance in those styles when the competition started, and if they couldn’t get a basic understanding of each style during Vegas Week, there was no hope for them when voting began. That’s why so many street dancers ended up leaving the show during Vegas Week; it’s hard to pick up a new style of choreography when you have no formal training, and many street dancers have trouble with choreography of any kind because they primarily freestyle moves that they’ve taught themselves.

This season, the street dancers are tested solely on their hip-hop skills during Vegas Week, which doesn’t make any sense in the scope of the rest of the competition. If Cat’s voiceover is to be believed, the final 10 street dancers are going to be dancing in every style, so does this mean we’re going to have to watch 10 dancers fumble their way through styles that they have the most rudimentary grasp on? It’s very possible that there’s a street dancer in this group that has trained in all styles and will dominate every aspect of the competition, but there’s no way of knowing that when all the street dancers are sticking to one style for all of Vegas Week. In tonight’s episode, we find out which street dancers can dance hip-hop choreography, and it doesn’t have any of the tension and drama of seeing a street dancer trying to figure out the Cha-Cha-Cha or a jazz routine.

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Vegas Week is supposed to be exciting and unpredictable and dangerous, and this episode is none of those things. There are a few injuries on Team Stage (probably because they’re performing the more physically taxing material), but it’s nothing so grievous that it creates riveting reality TV. It’s an episode that feels very safe at a time when these dancers really need to be pushed and forced to struggle a bit, because their endurance is going to be severely tested when they’re in the competition. It’s going to be an uphill climb for most of these dancers in the Top 20, and Vegas Week is supposed to be when they get their first taste of the gauntlet in store. This neutered version of Vegas Week isn’t doing anyone any favors, but hopefully there are enough talented dancers in each camp that there’s nothing to worry about.

The best thing to come out of this season is the number of powerful female street dancers, who historically have difficulty making it through to the Top 20. (There’s only one female hip-hop All-Star that actually auditioned for the show with hip-hop as her style: the great Comfort Fedoke.) This season we have the return of Jaja Vaňková, whose skills were spotlighted in last year’s Step Up: All In, Kenya “Standing O” Sutton, the “Queen Of Detroit” who turns her chest into a hypnotic hip-hop asset, and Yorelis Apolinario, who made it to Vegas as a stage dancer last year but is finding more success this time around. The women prove to be much better than the men when it comes to picking up hip-hop choreography, and Yorelis’ story is probably similar to a lot of the other women dancing for Team Street.

While there are definitely some female street dancers that have little-to-no choreography experience, the majority of the women pick up the moves quickly and perform them with finesse and precision. Why is that? Perhaps it that has something to do with women being more comfortable with taking dance classes than men, so the female street dancers have more familiarity with choreography. (That may be an overgeneralization, but every dance class I’ve been to has had far more women than men in attendance.) I also think there are more women dancers like Yorelis who have a background in more formal dance styles, but are taking advantage of this season’s format shift to stand out in a category that will need star players.

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Knowing that the season will be split evenly between stage and street dancers, it makes sense that some female contestants would do the math and realize that there are approximately five female spots ready to be claimed from Team Street that wouldn’t normally be reserved in past seasons. That means there are less spots on Team Stage, and considering the huge number of women that dance contemporary, jazz, and ballroom, the likelihood of making it to the Top 20 on Team Street is much higher. This is true for both male and female contestants, though. Everyone on Team Stage is going to know how to dance to choreography, even if it’s out of their style. Not everyone on Team Street can dance to choreography, which immediately puts any dancer with more extensive training ahead of the pack.

So who can we expect to see in the Top 20? Judging by who gets extra attention in this episode, I’m going to guess that Marissa Milele, whose very sexualized solo starts Vegas Week, is in, along with ballet dancer Darion Flores, contemporary dancer Moises Parra (the only stage dancer to dance for his life this week), and maybe the Latin ballroom dancing couple of Antonina Skobina and Denys Drozdyuk. It’s a lot harder to gauge the front-runners of Team Street, but Yorelis and Jaja are definite contenders. Very little time is spent on the male street dancers, and the two that have to dance for their lives this week don’t give the most inspiring performances. Burim “B1” Jusufi gets to stick around for another day in the competition, but Steven Ban heads home. (Although hopefully his family will finally see him dance on TV.)

Next week’s episode finishes up Vegas Week and reveals the Top 20, and then it’s time to enter the mysterious terrain that is So You Think You Can Dance season 12’s competition stage. That’s when we’ll really see how “stage versus street” affects the quality of the dancing, because it all comes down to how well the routines are performed. The new format has been detrimental in these early episodes, but there’s still time for So You Think You Can Dance to surprise us when the Top 20 dancers hit the stage for America’s votes.

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Stray observations

  • After an entire video package detailing the hasty Las Vegas wedding of Tyrell Noll and Kelly MacCoy Noll, both dancers get sent home during the early stages of Vegas Week, with Tyrell not even making it past the introductory solo round. I would have much preferred to see more of the dancers dancing rather than wasting time on these people that aren’t going to stick around.
  • Sliced Bread is the greatest dancer of all time and Nigel will not have any of these disappointing street dancers comparing themselves to his glory.
  • It looks there isn’t a contractual stipulation that Jason Derulo perform in every episode, but I do think it’s in his contract that he always be introduced as an “international pop sensation.”
  • This show is prone to exaggeration, but calling a back-up generator in Memphis a “minor miracle” is really stretching it.
  • Jason Derulo’s major contribution to the judges’ panel is creepily leering at female dancers, and it makes me really uncomfortable. He’s worse than Nigel, and Nigel is bad.
  • I won’t be covering next week’s episode, but I’ll be back in two weeks to cover the first round of the competition.

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