Boldly going where no kids have gone before
Credit: Adam Rose/FOX

So, you think these kids can dance?

The little dance competition that could is littler than ever this summer. This is So You Think You Can Dance: The Next Generation, or, So You Think You’re Old. Nothing turns me into a grandma faster than a montage that pretends Twitter is the new playground gossip. (We all know that’s Snapchat.) The jury’s still out why a show that won awards by telling mature stories onstage would decide to go younger. No one’s doubting that these kids can dance, but they’re not going to give us an emotional hip-hop routine about a soldier going to war, either.

Unless they do. The most surprising thing about the first hour of SYTYCD: TNG (aside from the criminal lack of a LeVar Burton cameo) might be that for all of the social media-friendly rebranding, the way the show treats its contestants hasn’t changed at all. In a lot of ways, that’s good: I’ve worked with kids, and I also was a kid, and I have it on good authority that they’re people. No one needs to talk down to them. But some of the etiquette has to change, right? Or are we really going to pry into all of these kids’ saddest moments and then cut to footage of them staring sadly through a window? I don’t think that works anymore.

Here’s what we know so far about this season:

  • The dancers range between the ages of 8 and 13.
  • Our regular panel of “jidges,” Jason, Paula, and Nigel, will be joined by Dance Moms’ Maddie Ziegler.
  • New mom Cat Deeley is adorable with kids and still capable of pulling off that blazer you discarded after you and three of your best friends dressed up as Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band for Halloween.
  • The Academy is the new Vegas.
  • At the end of the Academy round, a panel of 10 All-Stars will choose one dancer each to mentor and dance with throughout the competition.

And here are some questions I already have:

  • Is Paula wearing flower pants? (Follow-up question: Why do I love them?)
  • How many times can Nigel compliment a kid’s ankles before we all just revert back to Victorian ankle-covering propriety?
  • Are the All-Stars ever going to dance with different kids, or will they partner with the same kid every week?

Answers to come. For now, give a big snowman fist bump to the next generation of dancers:

Merrick, 10, Hip-Hop: Merrick was inspired to take up animation after seeing Cyrus on the show — which does make me feel old, but this isn’t even the first year we’ve had contestants who grew up watching SYTYCD. Anyway, our veteran judge already has that line of astute commentary covered: When Merrick looks back on being “really little,” Nigel echoes, “Really little?” Nigel, we get it. He’s still little. He’s also articulate and adorable, and he loves robots, especially Wall-E. And he might secretly be playing all of us, because after an eight-count of not-great enthusiastic dancing, he launches into really great actual dancing. He lowered all of the judges’ expectations and then exceeded them. What a hustler. Merrick gets a ticket to the Academy.

Avery, 11, Ballet: Avery’s been dancing since she was 3, and it shows. Her pointe routine is gorgeous (that développé!) and loaded with pre-teen angst. I’m just worried that her mom, who offers up an embarrassing childhood video of Avery way too early in the game, is going to be the Mrs. George of this “Jingle Bell Rock.” Avery gets a ticket to the Academy.

Kida, 13, Hip-Hop: Merrick can go home now; we’ve found our animator. Kida is REALLY GOOD. None of the judges were expecting him to be so good. (If they didn’t think they’d see this level of talent, why did they even switch up the show?) Nigel compares Kida to Fik-Shun, who gave one of this show’s best auditions, and then makes it weird by asking Kida’s mom if he “came out of the womb” doing the robot. Shut that down.

Speaking of family, Kida has a big one: two brothers and four sisters. Their dad died of the flu in 2014, and Kida’s audition falls on his dad’s birthday. He says that he’s following a message they found in his father’s coat pocket: “Keep praying, keep planning, keep pushing.” Keep CRYING. Is this the new “Clear eyes, full hearts”? I can’t get over the fact that a 13-year-old kid is being asked to relive this on camera. It feels wrong. His family is beautiful, though. Kida gets a ticket to the Academy.

NEXT: They found love in a hopeless ballroom

Lev, 10, Ballroom: Lev speaks more languages than you do. This week’s international superstar is a Russian, born in France, who moved to the Czech Republic before moving to America. “I had nothing, and then I started doing ballroom,” he says, like an old soul telling his grandkids how he met the love of his life. He’s joined by his dance partner, Sophia, who’s too young to audition. (Do those words even have meaning here?!?!) Someday they’ll fall in love slowly on a procedural about spies who solve crime using dance. I’m not as jazzed by the slow-mo portion of the dance as the judges are, but Lev’s facial expressions are on point. He’s definitely having fun. The judges give him a ticket to the Academy to rub in the faces of all of his terrible classmates.

ASIDE: My least favorite person in the ballroom montage is Ivan, age 11, who gets a ticket to the Academy but says that he likes “having a pretty partner, because she can gets the judges’ attention.” Aim higher, Ivan. My favorite person in the ballroom montage is Camilla, age 12, who isn’t worried that her partner couldn’t join her today. “I’m a confident woman,” she shrugs. “I can do it by myself.” She also gets a ticket.

Ava Cota, 13, Contemporary: The first of two Avas we meet in Los Angeles, Ava is 5’10” at age 13. She’s taller than Cat, and she’s out to prove that even if people tell you to take up basketball five times a day, you can dance if you want to. Her audition is good — she’s graceful, but she still manages to work in some controlled flailing without looking gangly. The highlight of Ava’s audition is her rapport with Paula. “Anyone’s tall compared to me,” Paula quips. The judge, who never liked being told that she was too small, gets Ava to open up about being kicked off a dance team because of her height. Ava also reveals that she’s been attacked on social media; she keeps apologizing for crying, but Paula refuses to let her be sorry. This is the upside of a younger SYTYCD — it’s a look at people who aren’t used to having their problems taken seriously. Jason calls her “limitless,” which is the best thing he says all night. Ava C. gets a ticket to the Academy.

ASIDE: Other contemporary dancers who show up in the highlight reel include Jordan, Sophia, and Sage, all age 13. Jordan wants to be a superstar. Sophia has 1.4 million followers on Instagram. (What, like it’s hard?) Sage is a “mini Travis Wall in the making.”

Ava Brooks, 11, Tap: It took 12 seasons for So You Think to find its first tap winner. Could Ava make it two in a row? Hers is my favorite audition of the night. It’s jazzy and fun and sophisticated, and her dad is the good kind of embarrassing stage dad. I just need to know where to go to erase Nigel’s “great ankles” compliment from my memory. Ava B. gets a ticket to the Academy.

Stella, 12, and Geramy, 12, Ballroom: Just when you think we’re about to go a whole episode without having to watch an audition fall short, Stella and Geramy’s ballroom number doesn’t click. Nigel actually winces when it’s done. At the news that they weren’t strong enough, Stella cries, telling the judges that she’s been practicing really hard (so has everyone) and Geramy lost 25 pounds in five months to be here (everyone has not done that). Impressed by Geramy’s effort and Stella’s bravery, the judges grant her wish for one more try.

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Their second routine has more of a paso flair, and it’s a little better. It still isn’t great. Paula and Jason compromise by offering Stella a ticket, but Geramy’s still a no for them, although Paula does tell him that he’s her hero. But this is not a democracy — it’s a danceocracy. Nigel pushes the other two judges to let Geramy through, if only for the experience of it all. Stella and Geramy get tickets to the Academy.

And that does it for our first round of The Next Generation. How are you feeling about the change? Which dance parent spoke to you? Who is your favorite robot? Until next week, America.

DERULO-ISM OF THE NIGHT: “I don’t even know if you know what I’m talking about right now.”

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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