In the Windy City, it's the kids who blow the judges away
Credit: Chuck Hodes/FOX

Welcome back to So You Think You Can Dance: The Next Generation, or, So You Want to Feel Inadequate. The audition rounds are headed to Chicago this week. Will anyone dance to “All That Jazz”? No one should; it’s not age appropriate. But … will anyone dance to “All That Jazz”?

Most of these kids look older than me.

J.T., 10, Jazz: Take it to the bridge, J.T. This small one shows up looking classy as can be in an orange bow tie and matching suspenders, and then he busts out an aerial. To quote Paula, J.T. “packs a punch” with his flips and turns, but for my money, the best thing about him is that he is completely without guile. He’s one of those people who use a word to define that word. J.T.’s favorite pose is his favorite “because it just is.” Of his polka-dot attire, he says, “I love it so much. It’s just like, the polka dots.” Asked what he has to say to America, he shrugs, “Nothing.” J.T. is bringing honesty back. He gets a ticket to the Academy.

Tahani, 12, Hip Hop: Nigel scolds a few kids tonight for “pulling too many faces,” but Tahani is not one of them, because when Tahani talks about the importance of facials, she knows exactly what she’s saying. Girl’s got personality. Her dance is refreshingly not gritty — she hits hard, but she’s having fun, and she wants everyone else to have fun watching her. Good news, Tahani: I had fun. She even has a positive attitude about throwing up on Paula: “All of the happiness came out on her jacket.” That’s one way to spin it. Tahani’s going to the Academy.

ASIDE: Great moments in interviews and even better moments in naming: “My b-boy name is Distraction.” “Why?” “Um, because I get distracted a lot.”

Emma, 10, Tap: We have our Paula strategist! Like Hailee before her, Emma is out to win over the middle judge on the panel by dancing to one of her songs, and, also like Hailee, Emma goes with “Cold Hearted.” It’s the dancer’s choice. But since Emma is a tapper, she goes a step (ha) further. Her routine works in a couple of spins that might as well be straight out of the first 18 seconds of the “Straight Up” music video, which were life-changing seconds for me personally, so more power to her. Don’t hold it against her that she wasn’t born when these songs were written; the important thing is that Emma is GOOD. Paula calls her “electrifying.” Then she and Nigel trade insults for a while. Don’t think about Nigel’s age, either. Emma is going to the Academy.

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Tia, 12, Ballet: Her mom’s big pep talk is, “You’re Spanish for one minute,” which — no — but as soon as Tia starts dancing, I forget all about how much that’s not the way it works. Tia is poised and controlled beyond her years. A few counts into her audition, Nigel gives his seat to Fabrice Calmels, principal dancer with the Joffrey Ballet Company, and joins Tia’s mom on the bench, leaving Fabrice to offer the best, most specific critique of the evening: She needs to pay attention to her right foot, because sometimes when she does the battement, she flexes back down. Listen to that sentence! It sounds good because he’s French, but it also sounds good because it’s real. The judges need to be critiquing these kids — it’s a sign of respect. I feel like I just hit dry land after months at sea. Maybe it’s a Spanish beach. Tia is going to the Academy.

NEXT: Ladies, leave your man at home

Leana, 10, Ballroom: Look at her go! Leana is my favorite audition of the night; she’s clean and dynamic, and she makes you forget that she’s dancing with a man four times her age. Jason says that her routine made him want to get up and dance. Same, Jason. Their routines couldn’t be more different, but in the way she accepts the judges’ praise, Leana reminds me of season 9’s Eliana. She’s genuine — which shouldn’t be an accomplishment for a 10 year old, but in the world of competitive dance, it is. While everyone else is over here being “sassy,” Leana is misspelling Mississippi and then deadpanning, “Wait, I was so close.” She might not know if Cat’s a dinosaur, but she’s going to the Academy.

ASIDE: I want only the best for the kid who says that he’d use his prize money to “add to [his] Louis Vuitton collection.”

Alex, 13, Broadway Hip Hop: Am I the only one who’s not feeling this? Alex gets a standing ovation from the judges and the audience, but aside from his interest in farming, he doesn’t stand out from the crowd. He’s a showman — you can tell from the hat — but his Broadway/ hip hop mashup feels almost too calculated, and he doesn’t have the technique or the personality to back it up. But everyone loves him, I guess? Okay. Alex is going to the Academy.

Ainslee, 8, Jazz: I got the impression last week that we wouldn’t be giving much time to the kids whose auditions don’t cut it, because that’s just crueler than average. But I see why this nugget is the exception. Ainslee is too adorable not to watch. In terms of her dancing, she hasn’t quite leveled up from Cute to Amazing, but are we here for how well she dances? NO. We’re here for how well she lives her life. First of all, nug is dancing to 2NE1’s “I Am the Best,” otherwise known as that song Jenna and Mark danced to with the lip couch. Second, and more importantly, she makes this face when Nigel asks if she has a boyfriend.

Credit: Fox/ screengrab

This is the face I make when people ask me if I have a boyfriend AND the face I make when grown men ask 8-YEAR-OLD CHILDREN if they have boyfriends. Ainslee is not going to the Academy, but I’ll never forget her. Her mom and her stage mom are doing something right.

Diana, 10, Contemporary: In terms of emotional maturity, Diana is about 50 years older than Ainslee. She’s feeling this dance. Her choreography is a little bit repetitive (I get that you can touch your knee to your ear, Diana. I saw you do it the first time), but she’s so good that it doesn’t matter. Diana is an artist. I feel like she’s seen things. She’ll see the Academy next.

ASIDE: Does Paula have some unresolved height-related insecurities to work through?

Daniela, 11, Latin Ballroom: Daniela’s mom was the first Cuban ever to win the World Ballroom Championship, but she should also win a Reality TV Acting Award for pretending that she didn’t tell her daughter to say that. Daniela is another older-than-her-years performer who puts on a sharp, fiery show; Paula says that her “presence is larger than life.” The same could be said of Daniela’s mom, who gives Nigel and Jason an impromptu lesson. Nigel keeps up better than Jason does, although — unlike Alex — I’m not sure Nigel has ever seen a chicken. Daniela’s going to the Academy.

That does it for Chicago! Highlights? Lowlights? Warming up to the new format? Let’s talk about it.

DERULO-ISM OF THE NIGHT: “Mom must have cleaned those taps with Pine-Sol, that dance was so clean.”

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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