By Lanford Beard
Updated August 16, 2012 at 10:04 PM EDT
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Cole Horibe
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When Nick Lazzarini signed up for season 1 of So You Think You Can Dance he didn’t even known he’d have to perform ballroom. Everyone was “kind of flying by the seat of our pants” in those days, he laughs. Seven seasons later, Lazzarini’s experience seems a world away from today’s “brutal” four-person cuts and Jack-of-all-trade performers. Of course, a more streamlined system hasn’t diluted the show’s drama. Witness last night’s second four-person elimination of the season. “I’m a little shocked,” Lazzarini admits. Below, he singles out which contenders he wish had stayed, which ones he thinks could go all the way, and why he’s glad Zooey Deschanel wasn’t around in 2005 to decide his fate.

“I’m wondering exactly what they’re looking for this season,” says Lazzarini of resident judges Nigel Lythgoe and Mary Murphy. “They’ve kicked off some of the best dancers.” He pointed to Alexa Anderson (full disclosure: Anderson is Lazzarini’s roommate), one of the first to go, and Matthew Kazmierczak, a friend of his who was eliminated last night. “Any one of those dancers [they’ve kicked off] could have been the lead in a show,” he says, guessing judges are “looking for star quality” more than impeccable technique.

Which brings us to Cyrus “Glitch” Spencer, the animator who has blown judges and fans away since his audition in Atlanta. Lazzarini actually thinks Glitch’s weakness when it comes to choreography might actually be an asset… at least for a little. “People love the underdog story,” he notes, adding, “The judges love that, and they always push that.” Glitch’s continued safety in the competition means that he has a real shot at joining Lazzarini as one of the show’s victors. “If he really exerts himself to understand the choreography…it’s his competition to lose just because people love him so much, but he’s got to get better at learning the choreography and getting the styles down.” Which is not to say Lazzarini would appreciate it if he were competing today. “As a dancer being on the show, I would be frustrated getting voted off [after] being great at the choreography and then getting voted off because maybe they like him better. That’s not fair.”

Another competitor he’s eying to become “America’s Favorite Dancer” is Cole Horibe, who incorporates martial arts into his dance style. “I think Cole’s going to win,” says Lazzarini. “I think he’s really cool and his dancing is really unique — something we really haven’t seen before.” He also noted that Cole hails from the same Hawaiian studio as season 4 favorite Mark Kanemura (who now dances for Lady Gaga) and season 5’s Kupono Aweau, whose “Addiction” dance Cole performed last night with partner Lindsay Arnold.

So what did Lazzarini think of last night’s Mia Michaels tribute? “I think it’s great that they dedicated a night to Mia. She’s such a staple [of the show],” he says, “but seeing somebody else do the bench dance other than Travis? It was kind of lackluster. … To be honest, I don’t think any of them were better than the originals. I think the kids were put in a really hard situation… to do these iconic dances. It put a lot of pressure on the kids.”

NEXT: Lazzarini talks divas, Deschanel, and the chance of a SYTYCD all-star season

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Another level of pressure Lazzarini didn’t have to face when he was on the show’s first season: The show’s new one-night-a-week format, which means dancers are forced to learn and perform a new routine knowing they could be eliminated regardless of how well they perform after the votes are tabulated. “If I had to go and learn a whole dance and not even know if I’m safe of not, I maybe would have a little bit of a chip on my shoulder,” Lazzarini admits. “That would really suck… and be kind of heartbreaking.”

He’s not underwhelmed by all the changes in season 9, though. He calls the decision to give choreographers’ opinions more weight in the elimination process “one of the best things Nigel has done this year. … I know for a fact this season that one of the dancers was a little hard to work with, and [the judges] know that now, and so they’re watching to see if that dancer is going to pull attitude.” On the other hand, the rotating guest judge — everyone from the surprisingly insightful Christina Applegate to Katie Holmes — doesn’t always have the technical know-how to make a call on who stays and who goes. Says Lazzarini, “When you have someone like Zooey Deschanel on the [judging panel], who knows nothing about dance… as a dancer, I would be really offended with Zooey Deschanel sending me home.”

As dancers from former seasons continue to return as all-star partners, they’ve had the chance to redeem those kind of inglorious show dismissals. But was does Lazzarini think of the prospect of a competitive, all all-star season? In a word: Yes! “I’m a really big competitor,” he says, “so I’m sure if they did it I would do it.” That said… “I would be out for blood, though, so that wouldn’t be so good!”

NEXT: Lazzarini picks his three favorite routines from seasons past

Nick’s picks…

“Turn to Stone”

Season 8 contemporary

Danced by: Melanie Moore (winner) and Marko Germar

Choreographed by: season 2 runner-up Travis Wall

“To have a number like that the first week, I think just set Melanie and Marko up to ultimately succeed. … The overall look of the piece — the fact that they were [painted] white. You were just completely enamored by how they looked. And then they started dancing and you were, like, ‘Holy smokes!’ It was just incredible.

“Sweet Dreams”

Season 3 jazz

Danced by Sabra Johson (winner) and Neil Haskell

Choreographed by Mandy Moore

“The storyline behind it [was really strong] — because every competition kid’s done a dance to ‘Sweet Dreams.’ For Mandy to take an old, iconic song like that and really give it a new twist was so so unexpected, and I thought they danced the heck out of it.”

“España Cañí”

Season 1 paso doble

Danced by Nick Lazzarini and Melody Lacayanga

Choreographed by Mary Murphy

“It was really fun getting to dance a completely different style than what I’d been trained in. To get to hear the judges say that we were flawless was pretty cool considering we had never done that style of dance before. And getting to be strong and dance like a sexy, hot Latin man was really fun.” [Laughs]

Lazzarini can currently be seen on Oxygen’s All the Right Moves Tuesday nights at 10 p.m. ET. The show documents his move to launch Shaping Sound, a dance company with Wall and two non-SYTYCD alums Teddy Forance and Kyle Robinson.

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So You Think You Can Dance

Nigel Lythgoe, Mary Murphy, and the viewers at home crown America’s Favorite Dancer.
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