It's just like old times
Credit: Adam Rose/FOX

You can keep your first-impression roses — the real first sign of summer is Cat Deeley standing on a rooftop, announcing a new season of So You Think You Can Dance.

“The dance competition you know and love is back,” declares Our Lady of Making That Outfit Work. And she means back — back to a time before the series tried aging down its talent pool or pitting stage and street dancers against each other. This year, the contestants are adults and will once again be expected to pick up “all styles,” which is to say contemporary.

And is that… could it be… the Hot Tamale Train pulling into the station? Nigel’s ear plugs don’t lie: Mary Murphy is BACK, too, and I would risk temporary hearing loss for the chance to embrace her. What a long, strange, quiet trip it’s been without her sparkle. My one regret is that she doesn’t get to share the judges’ panel with MC Skat Kat Dance Partner Paula Abdul. They could’ve gotten matching hats.

Since Jason Derulo has also stepped away (boy, bye), we’ve got one more seat to fill. Enter singer/actress/dancer (?) Vanessa Hudgens. Who better to break up fights between series co-creator Nigel Lythgoe and beautiful veteran scream-crier Mary Murphy than one of the voices behind classic Disney Channel make-nice song “We’re All in This Together”?

My first reaction to the news of Vanessa’s casting was a shrug (there are worse things they could do!), but you know what? After this premiere, I’m fully on board. Her critiques aren’t that technical, but they are everything that’s in my head, pretty much word for word (especially when that word is just a really insistent “YES”). She’s game for a laugh. Her dress has shorts, I think? I like her.

Now that our team is set for season 14, let’s review the format. The best dancers will get a ticket straight to “the Academy,” which is Vegas Week in the parlance of last year’s school kids (maybe Vegas Week isn’t in Vegas this year, or maybe this is just the show’s attempt to pretend that anything about last season was a good idea). The next tier of dancers will have to fight for their tickets by learning some Mandy Moore choreo first. Rough life. And the dancers who can’t cut it will be sent home, but we probably won’t see them on TV because this show is too kind and gentle to exploit them like that.

Ready for auditions? We begin in “Los Angeleeez” (I love how Cat Deeley says Los Angeles! I love everything she does), where our hopefuls have come from so many countries, Nigel is worried Trump is going to ban the show. BRING IT ON.

Mark Villaver, 26 (Honolulu, HI)
The first note I took on Mark Villaver was, “Are you Jean-Ralphio?!” And he is! His hair is big, and he loves being on TV. He’s the Hawaiian Jean-Ralphio. But Mark has two thumbs and a much sweeter home life; his mother is a single mom and deaf street dancer who loves to break it down with her twin at parties. I demand this sitcom.

Mark debuts a combo of breaking and contemporary that he calls “thera” (for therapeutic), and he’s pretty good. Some of his floor work could be sharper, and his choice of music (James Bay’s “Let It Go”) kinda brings down the energy. But Mary wishes she grew up in his house, which is really all you can ask for. Mark gets a ticket on the Hot Tamale Train, nonstop to the Academy.

Kristina, 24 (Moscow, Russia) and Vasily, 30 (Siberia, Russia)
Kristina and Vasily can’t figure out how long they’ve been married (who can, am I right?), but they know how to dance. Their ballroom routine is probably the most elegant performance to ever involve a woman blindfolding her partner in front of a live audience. The part where Vasily doesn’t trip on himself is impressive. The part where Kristina takes off his blindfold and then they full-on kiss while he spins her off the ground is IM [clap emoji] PRESS [clap emoji] IVE [clap emoji]. DON’T GET MARRIED IF YOU CAN’T DO THIS.

Mary is so happy that she cries at the thought of more people falling in love with ballroom dancing, which is why I love her. Then she says, “That’s the first time I’ve ever cried over a ballroom routine in the history of this show,” which can’t possibly be true. Editors, where is my smash-cut to Mary crying at other ballroom routines? While Mary gets too choked up to even scream at a pair of Russians about a train named after a spicy food, Vanessa jumps in to say her heart exploded during the kiss. Girl, mine too. This married couple is going to the Academy.
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Robert Green, 24 (Raleigh, NC)
Robert is a violinist who abandoned scholarships and years of training to follow his heart after he fell in love with dance, and wouldn’t you know it, he turns out to be one of those exasperating people with more than one talent. I love this guy. He’s good and fun to watch! (“I love you! You’re so good and so much fun to watch!” Vanessa yells, making my job obsolete.) Robert’s hip-hop is as fierce as it is playful, he’s clearly trained in other styles, and he has that rare ability to perform with his face without just making faces. He’s taking the Hot Tamale Train to the Academy.

As an aside, his outfit is working for him. What Nigel calls a “dancing sandwich,” I call that clear suit Mads Mikkelsen wore to kill people on Hannibal. I spent this whole routine imagining Hannibal Lecter dancing like this. I loved it. It was good and fun to watch.

Alexis Gilbert, 22 (Riverside, CA)
Alexis hits the stage looking like the dream girl in an ‘80s high school movie and performs a jazz routine that is good, in a mostly unremarkable way. She’s strong and has great control, but her facials seem too calculated, like her smile is disconnected from the rest of her body. It’s probably nerves. Anyway, Mary and Vanessa both say it was “beautiful,” and everyone leaves it at that. Alexis gets a ticket to the Academy.

Luke Dryjski, 29 (Tampa, FL)
Luke is a musician from Tampa (Luke, have I seen you at the mall?!) who describes his style as “really eclectic,” which is almost never a good thing on this show. It’s no great surprise when “the Austin Powers of hip-hop” turns out to be an uncomfortably bad dancer; the only surprise is that his audition made it to air at all. Couldn’t we just watch a snippet of his dance with Vanessa in a montage? Or was this all an excuse to show his interview with Cat? (“Oh, that’s really deep.” “’Tis deep.”)

Luke is not going to the Academy, but Mary lets him down with grace: “I don’t think what you do is going to translate over to this show, but keep doing what you’re doing.” Then he has the nerve to tell the camera that Vanessa “wasn’t, like, amazing or anything.” Go back to Tampa, Luke.

Darius Hickman, 18 (Greenacres, FL)
THIS IS WHY WE’RE HERE. I mean, I know everything’s in turmoil and the air is going to poison us in a few years, but at least we got to see Darius dance first. He’s beautiful! He shares his story with Cat: He never knew his father, and his mom, who “got into a situation with drugs” (I quote only because I don’t want to assume the details), was imprisoned when he was young, so his aunt took him in. She entered a relationship with a man who abused both her and Darius, following them from city to city. His aunt passed away three years ago; his godmother — who seems wonderful — has been caring for him since.

Whew. I both love and cringe at the way this show deals with tragic backstories — cringe because they’re polished into Tragic Backstories™; love because they celebrate dance and the arts as necessary, life-saving means of escape and self-expression, not just superfluous funds to be cut. And Darius is such a gifted dancer that he transcends his story entirely; what he does on that stage stands on its own. He doesn’t say how long he’s been dancing. I assume he’s been at it since he was crafted out of clay, a la Wonder Woman.

I watched this performance three times in a row, and each time I found something new to celebrate: the way he recoils at the thuds in the music. The height on his leaps. His bicycle-in-the-air. His développé. His extension coming out of his pirouettes. When Darius is done, the judges stand wordlessly and wave tickets at him, then offer him hugs. He’s going to the Academy, and Nigel swears he’s never complaining again.

Anastasiia and Viktoriia, 20 (Rostov-on-Don, Russia)
Ready to end this hour on TWIN HORROR?! Identical twins Anastasiia and Viktoriia show up after being in the States for all of two days and start fighting off imaginary ghosts with their coats. Their characters for this routine are PEOPLE IN TERROR and honestly, same.

I don’t know what this was, but I know they were good at it. Anastasiia and Viktoriia are not here to make us feel comfortable, and more power to them. After giving the sisters a turtle-faced standing ovation, Nigel thanks them in Russian (the man can’t tell his African dance from his Jamaican dance, but he knows the country that gives him his vodka!), and Mary dubs this “the best modern dance audition I’ve ever seen on this show.” At the risk of seeming uncultured, that feels excessive. I kind of favor Vanessa’s initial reaction: “Uhhhhh-hu-hu-hu-huh.” Anastasiia and Viktoriia are going to the Academy.

And on that nightmarish note, season 14 is up and running. Welcome back, Mary. Welcome back, Hot Tamale Train. Welcome back, my tears. Next week: more auditions in sunny Los Angeleeeeeez — assuming Trump hasn’t shut down the show by then.

We wrote a react for this episode, which means we’ll just be checking in occasionally, but if this is a show you’d like to read about each week, please let us know! You can email with your feedback and suggestions.

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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