The top 20 perform in their chosen genres before the competition begins in earnest, but one dancer is already out
So You Think You Can Dance
Credit: Joe Viles/Fox

Well, last night certainly was fun, wasn’t it? I started off watching this season of So You Think You Can Dance with a hint of worry. After all, we knew the new fall season would coincide with the baseball playoffs and World Series, which meant there would be plenty of pre-empting and far less attention paid to a show that usually dominates the schedule when it airs in the summer. So, to me, the decision to run a fall season of SYTYCD was akin to the decision to have a baby: Why do it if you can’t devote the proper time to making sure everything turns out well? (I take my reality TV very seriously, folks.)

I have to say that last night alleviated some of my worries. But not quite all of them. Though I love that we spent an hour watching our top 20 in their element, I still have to cope with the fact that tonight marks the beginning of the competition — and America will not be able to decide who stays and who goes home. Sure, the judges (oh Cat, how great to have you front and center again!) have always ultimately chosen who went home prior to the top ten, but to not even give us faithful viewers a say by vote tomorrow? What happened to the search for America’s favorite dancer? If this is the search for Nigel’s favorite dancer, then why don’t we just cut to the chase and crown Elizabeth Berkley the winner?

But, admittedly, it was almost worth delaying the competition until tonight to watch all the dancers in their element, something we’re usually unable to see until they either (a) end up in the bottom three, or (b) make it to the top four. So in the dramatic rollercoaster ride that is a typical season of SYTYCD, last night’s one-hour special was a bit like a welcome, relaxing spin on the kiddie coaster, cotton candy and all. In a word: fun. We had Cat in a sparkly dress! A total of seven dance routines! A plea from Nigel for Paula Abdul to join the judges’ panel! (Gaining one Paula might just make up for Paula Von Oppen’s absence in the top 20.) But since I’ve spent the past few months waffling back and forth about the success of this fall season, it’s only appropriate that I break down last night’s episode into list of things I loved — and didn’t love — about the performance special.

I love you, Wade and Amanda Robson, for starting the show out groovy and strong. Wade is the one reason I don’t fear the absence of Mia this season — the guy consistently choreographs fun, toe-tapping routines that don’t necessarily need any sort of convoluted backstory. The dancing should, as it always does in Wade’s case, say it all. So I have to give props to Wade and Amanda for bringing us this routine, which played like a smoky, jazzy prequel to West Side Story’s ”Mambo.” Even if I caught a hint of producer pimping, what with the way the camera lingered on our young, sweet Nathan. Not that he doesn’t deserve it, of course. But he’s already hooked the teenage girls before the competition. And that Mr. Creosote-sized advantage should mean some extra screen time for our oft-ignored boys.

NEXT: Nigel knocks the tappers

I love you not, Tyce Diorio. That’s no secret. But I have to say, the guy pulled out a halfway decent contemporary routine last night. Even if I gagged a little when the edited rehearsal footage showed Ariana, Jakob, Nathan and Channing saying things like, ”Tyce is genius,” and ”He’s almost like a director more than a choreographer,” and ”I heard the sweat that drips down his chinstrap is funneled into the fountain of youth.” Seriously, does Tyce moonlight as the show’s editor? But I will admit, the choreographer pulled out emotion from all of his four dancers. To me, however, the boys outshone the girls. Channing might have been more feminine than we’ve seen her, but we’ve really only seen her once, so how much can that transformation affect those watching at home? And poor Ariana, who has been forced to reckon with limited screen time, was dealt another blow last night when she was forced into granny panties. Now, I’m not suggesting that Sisqó take over the costuming department, but those were hella unflattering. Nathan and Jakob, on the other hand, were given moves that played to their strengths: pirouettes for the former, tour jetés for the latter. And when dancers like Nathan and Jakob can portray emotion with their bodies — and not just their faces — you know you’re dealing with something special.

I love you, Russell, Kevin, and Legacy, for giving us a NapTab-choreographed hip-hop routine so amazing, I just wanted to…I don’t know, challenge Honey Daniels to a dance-off or something. Let’s just get it over with: The only word I can think of to describe that number is buck. Kevin promised the routine would be ”very dangerous,” and dangerous it was. The trio was jumping all over each other like a pack of ’90s-era moms trying to nab K-Mart’s last Tickle Me Elmo. Kevin flipped Legacy! Russell flew off the stage! The sheer spectacle of it all more than made up for the fact that the three dancers were out of sync in some portions. But who cares, anyway. As Nigel said, ”Bring it on!” Too late, Nigel: It’s already been broughten!

I love you not, Nigel, for counting our group of tappers out before they even get a chance to prove themselves. I know I talk about this topic more than Drew Barrymore talks about magical things, but I can’t help it: I love tappers. And I couldn’t help but think our trio seriously got the raw deal last night. Not only were Phillip and Peter dressed in what I can only describe as a kindergartener’s valet uniform, but Nigel also critiqued the routine from Bianca and the two boys by telling the audience how tough the competition would be for the tappers: ”On top, you’re cool and you’re laid-back. And that’s not going to necessarily bring in the votes.” Hold the phone. Says who? Am I too much of a conspiracy theorist, or is Nigel trying to tell us we shouldn’t get too attached to these three? It’s a worrisome thought, considering we don’t get the chance to vote this week to keep our tappers in. And, boy, do I want to keep these guys in. The three found their sync rather early, and showed off some seriously fun moves (think: Peter tapping on his tip-toes). I do think, however, that the group would have fared much better if they were allowed to do their routine a cappella, rather than to an Ella Fitzgerald tune. But if Nigel cuts either Bianca or Peter tomorrow — I’ll take or leave Phillip — I’ll personally see to it that the ghost of Donald O’Connor rattles some chains in the Brit judge’s flat. Boo-urns!

NEXT: Sonya’s sexy time

I love you, Sonya, for being you: a fun, talented, and, yes, sexy choreographer. Did anyone else feel bad for Sonya when she claimed she didn’t feel she was sexy? And it didn’t help that the producers decided to couple her proclamation with ominous music that seemingly indicated she was a mix between Frankenstein and a rabid raccoon. Because, how could an unsexy choreographer pull out a jazz routine that was so undeniably sultry? Of course, I’m basing this all off the rehearsal footage, because I couldn’t concentrate on anything other than the giant cupcakes Pauline, Mollee and Ellenore were wearing during their performance. But what I did notice is that Pauline and Ellenore sure brought some welcome attitude to the stage. Mollee, on the other hand, didn’t do anything to sway my existing opinions about her. (Translation: she still annoys the heck out of me.) And that’s strange, considering Adam Shankman told her that ”she just graduated from High School Musical” with the routine. Is it me, or is it a bit too soon to claim the dancer has done a 180-degree turn? Especially since the producers have set up this ”You’re a woman now!” story arc with Mollee. I can’t believe I’m going to say this, but: Shouldn’t they milk the arc out for at least a few more weeks for pure drama’s sake?

I love you not, Ashleigh, for continuing to prove that you don’t belong in the Top 20. Yes, I’ve already awarded the Latin dancer my Jody Sawyer award, but, for me, her performance is just not cutting it anymore. The dancer seemed far too hesitant and not nearly quick-footed enough during her Jason Gilkinson-choreographed Latin routine with Karen and husband Ryan. And this is coming from me, someone who is admittedly ballroom ignorant. Ryan, however, showed that he’s got showmanship and skill. Honestly, you could barely tell there was anyone else on stage with the ballroom dancer during the number. And he didn’t even have to flaunt those abs! As unimpressive as our two ballroom girls were, they did bring us one major behind-the-scenes highlight: Karen — playing a character that fights Ashleigh for Ryan’s affections — managed to solicit some serious silent rage from Ashleigh. Honestly, how much hatred was brimming through the dancer when she told cameras through practically grated teeth that she and Karen ”are going to represent”? This is one rivalry I’d love to see played out in front of the cameras — Karen better hide her bunnies!

I kind of love you, I guess: In my humble opinion, the night’s second contemporary routine, choreographed by Mandy Moore, was lacking in backstory. I know it’s best to simply let these dancers show off their skills, but it would have been nice to have some semblance of a plot to follow. Let them be best friends, grease stains, willows (guess the movie reference and get an imaginary cookie!) — anything would have done fine. That being said, three out of the four dancers came into the routine as underdogs, and came out with some clout. Noelle, Victor and Kathryn really were not even close to topping my list of favorite dancers, but after last night, they’ve proven that they might be contenders. Unfortunately, it’s not all good news: As we now know, the group’s fourth dancer, Billy, is no longer in the competition. That’s too bad, considering his dancing was pretty solid for being sick. I was sick two weeks ago, and I couldn’t even reach for my remote control without doubling over like I had been drop-kicked by Richard Kiel. So, farewell, Billy, and here’s hoping you return to us next year stronger and healthier.

And farewell to you all until tomorrow, fellow SYTYCD fans. Did you have as much fun as I did watching last night’s show? Have you changed your minds about any of the dancers? Do you think there’s a rivalry between the two female Latin dancers? Will you, like me, rally behind the tappers? (Incentive: Peter’s muscles, hello?) And are you heart-broken over the loss of Billy?

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Episode Recaps

So You Think You Can Dance

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

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