It's a Hot Tamale Hijack

By Kelly Connolly
September 05, 2017 at 01:21 AM EDT
Adam Rose/FOX
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It’s Beyoncé’s birthday, and the All-Stars are here with a routine that looks for all the world like it’s going to be a “Formation” tribute — and then it isn’t. It’s the last day to wear white, so our dancers start out the night wearing all white. It’s Labor Day, so we’ve eliminated…one of the hardest-working dancers in this competition?

What a big day for defying expectations.

Lex and All-Star Gaby
Choreographer: Luther Brown, Hip-Hop
“Humble” by Kendrick Lamar

FINALLY. Justice for Luther Brown. Justice for hip-hop. Justice for Lex’s personality, which exists and is fun, thanks very much. After weeks of non-hip-hop dancers being told they got buck, or whatever, when they did not, Lex shows up and gets down. And sure, every style that isn’t Riverdance is basically Lex’s style — his first performance was hip-hop! — but it’s still a treat to see a dancer this poised have this much fun. He’s sharp, he gets low, and I clapped when he landed that backflip at the end. Lex looks like a boy who got into dance because of You Got Served. Typing that sentence made me feel like the actual Crypt-Keeper.

The only thing better than this routine may be the quotes it inspires from our experts. “I’m the happiest Smurf in the village; I can tell you that,” Luther says. Mary opens her critique with, “Okey damn dokey, Luther.” And Cat raves, “I love it when Mary gets street.” (Presumably she’s referring to Mary’s use of “dope” and not “okey-dokey.”)

Logan and All-Star Allison
Choreographer: Sean Cheesman, African Jazz
“Kabila” by Lord KraVen

Our first entry from this evening’s Most Valuable Choreographer is a very fast African Jazz number about warriors in a tribe who only come out a night. Logan’s lanky frame is a drawback when the moves are this quick, but he keeps it sharp and even manages to get a few graceful turns in there. Nigel loves a good double pirouette in second that ends in a leg grab (honestly, same). I, a couch person, was tired just watching this one. Logan, an alien, is so energized that he screams when they’re through. Then he speaks in what I can only assume is not a real language when Cat steps on his foot, which is too far. Take it down, Daniel Day-Lewis.

Keeping things culturally insensitive (on Beyoncé’s birthday, of all days!), Nigel tries to Nige-splain Zulu dancers, but he does also pay Sean a nice compliment, calling this “one of the most difficult and yet impressive pieces of choreography that I’ve seen Sean Cheesman do.” Just wait until the end of the show, buddy.

Kaylee and All-Star Cyrus
Choreographer: Tyce Diorio, Contemporary
“DKLA” by Troye Sivan feat. Tkay Maidza

As soon as Tyce said this routine was about “people who had everything but now have nothing,” I thought of Houston — and of my hometown in Florida, which is bracing for Irma just a week after flooding because of Harvey. If Tyce even had Harvey in mind here (and he’s Tyce, so he could have just as easily been inspired by the tornado in The Wizard of Oz or the tornado in Twister or, like, a Jamba Juice that was out of his flavor), I’m glad he didn’t make it explicit, but I went into this with raw hurricane feelings anyway. I might be easy pickings, but I was moved.

The hard-hitting choreography didn’t push Kaylee’s comfort zone as much as it could have — it still feels like we’re catering to her uniqueness instead of challenging her to adapt — but she moves with a power that’s appealing nonetheless. To quote Mary, “it was like a reverberation I could feel all the way back here.” To quote Vanessa: “strongness.”

ASIDE: I’m very into Vanessa’s Mila-Kunis-in-Forgetting-Sarah-Marshall look tonight.

Kiki and All-Star Jenna
Choreographer: Warren Carlyle, Broadway
“Dancin’ Fool” by Barry Manilow

However we all feel about Kiki, I hope we can agree in these trying times that he is a soundbite machine. He says of his first childhood performance, “It was lit.” He pulls a Bey and responds to, “You have made it so far,” with, “Thanks.” He shrugs when Nigel asks if he’s glad he auditioned: “Um. Yeah.” And yet Mary Murphy, in three words, blows him out of the water when she screams, “LORD HAVE MURPHY!”

I rewound it to be sure I wasn’t dreaming.

Mary’s put-that-on-a-t-shirt exclamation is prompted by — you guessed it — a prop routine. And this one is props on props on props: Every time Kiki and Jenna toss one set of canes off stage, likely whacking some poor PA in the head, they’re thrown another pair. And they catch them all! And that’s all that matters! The issue I have with prop routines in general is that as soon as a prop enters the picture, nobody cares about anything other than how well the dancers keep track of that prop, which means the judges aren’t actually judging them on their dancing; they’re judging them on how well they can catch things, and this isn’t baseball.

So while the judges rave about Kiki and Jenna’s hand-eye coordination, let’s talk about their performance, shall we? I thought Kiki was a little bit stiff here at times. But I also thought he was suave as heck and did a great job playing to the crowd, and he was better than Jenna at not breaking character when he caught those canes. Did you know there were canes in this routine?

Koine and All-Star Marko
Choreographer: Dmitry Chaplin, Jive
“Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley and His Comets

A note on Koine’s solo: I love Koine.

Koine (who magnanimously accepts Nigel’s apology for mispronouncing her name by revealing, “In rehearsals, they call me Quinoa”) is cast as the hottie opposite Marko’s nerd in this upbeat, nostalgic jive. They’ve both got style for miles, and they sell this number like it’s nothing. To quote Mary, these two are “slick.” Mary loved how Koine filled out all of the moves, especially when she and Marko were dancing side by side. Nigel loved the tricks. Vanessa loved it so much she HIJACKS THE HOT TAMALE TRAIN, which is BLASPHEMY. That train is off limits. It’s just, like, the rules of feminism. (Recap continues on page 2)

Taylor and All-Star Robert
Choreographer: Mandy Moore, Contemporary
“To Make You Feel My Love” by Mick McAuley and Winifred Horan

Goodbye, Bob. Hello, Robert. One week out from that hair-flipping hip-hop routine, Mandy is here to soften things up — and just in time. I was starting to forget what I loved about Taylor. Our gal is light as a breeze here; she and Robert make their lifts look effortless, and with an assist from that stripped-down song, they keep this dance from feeling too sweet. Mary cries anyway. I love it when Mary cries; she’s just so ready to be moved by these dancers. I’m with Nigel when he asks Taylor to dig just a little bit deeper next time (compare this, for example, to Amy’s work in Travis’ “Wicked Game,” and it still feels like Taylor has one last layer to shed), but I wasn’t mad at this piece one bit.

Mark and All-Star Comfort
Choreographer: Misha Gabriel, Hip-Hop
“No Twerk” by Apashe & Panther x Odalisk

Cat’s been waiting for this one: Mark gets to stay in his “Comfort zone” this week. (Cat, from the balcony: “Shall I jump?” NEVER.)

And Mark and Comfort have both been waiting for this: They’re not in a love story. Tonight, they fight as ninjas — or, as Misha puts it, they “tap into that inner ninja” that everyone’s got. Mark and Comfort do well at, uh, accessing their inner ninja, but as sharp as they are, this routine feels like it loses steam as it goes. Their partner work is messy, which is a shame because as much as Nigel claims the judges are just following the whims of the voters at the end of the show, he’s clearly underwhelmed here: He points out that the theme stripped Mark of his personality like he’s a dog sitting by the window waiting for Mark’s personality to come home from war.

Vanessa is more enthusiastic. “I don’t know if there’s anything I love more than a ninja,” she says — a beautiful, absurd sentence that almost makes up for her Hot Tamale Treachery.

Lex, Kaylee, and Logan
Choreographers: Dwight Rhoden and Desmond Richardson
“Strange” by LP

To round out the evening, the dancers break into small groups and give a boost to the Kleenex industry. First up, Lex, Kaylee, and Logan are handed the work of a couple of legends, Dwight Rhoden and Desmond Richardson, who’ve choreographed a piece with a timely message: “Within our difference, we find our commonality.” Visually, it’s kind of like “Seasons of Love,” but in a great way. The piece makes good use of Kaylee as the only woman — and only person with blue hair — in the group, setting her apart in a blue dress; as always, Nigel is thrilled that she gets to be “unique.” But it also exposes how much more work she has to do to get on Lex and Logan’s level. Those boys are something else.

Taylor, Mark, Kiki, and Koine
Choreographer: Sean Cheesman
“Still I Rise (Maya Angelou)” by Alexis Henry

I CANNOT WAIT to drift off to sleep by watching this 20 times while I scribble out a list of concrete actions I can take to make a difference in my community. Lord have Murphy. This was powerful. Sean describes this piece as his hope for the world: “It’s our diversity that makes us stronger.” It’s about standing together against hate, and as our esteemed choreographer points out, that’s not a message this diverse group of dancers has to fake. “They are really diverse.”

By virtue of the fact that it’s set to a reading of Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise,” this piece carries a secondary message about the weight of words — the rhythm and music in them. I’ve never minded crowd noise during routines, even emotional ones, but I wanted everyone to stop cheering tonight and just listen. LISTEN TO MAYA. As Vanessa points out, America needs this right now. Can you fax a dance routine to an elected official?

Anyway, art comes at a cost. To the elimination…

BOTTOM THREE: Kaylee, Mark, Kiki

ELIMINATED: Mark

I don’t really know who is SCREAMING because Kiki is in the bottom three, but I’m right there with the people who scream when Mark is knocked out. Out of these three, he’d have been my last pick to leave. Nigel claims that the judges are following America’s vote on this, but aren’t the judges here to protect America from itself? It just feels like a cop-out.

Still, I’m not surprised at all to report that Mark continues to have the best attitude even after his elimination. Farewell, Mark. Keep it in the Comfort zone.

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