Season 8's top 20 dancers: nine contemporary, four jazz, four hip-hop, one Broadway, one tap, and one ballroom

By Adam B. Vary
Updated June 10, 2011 at 10:19 AM EDT
Adam Rose/Fox

So You Think You Can Dance

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There was so much to adore about last night’s introducing-the-top-20 episode of So You Think You Can Dance — two doses of killer hip-hop and creepy cool Sonya Tayeh! 100 percent more kooky Cat Deeley! PASHA! — that I’m going to let my snark demon Smirkelstiltskin loose now, so we can just address as Smirkel puts it “the disturbingly smooth elephant in the room” and then move on to all the SYTYCD goodness.

And so: What is Robin Antin doing on So You Think You Can Dance? Sure, she created a powerhouse dancing brand with the Pussycat Dolls, but, really, what is her function as a judge on this show? Is it to randomly bleat “Sex! Sex! Sex!” so the fine folks at The Soup have a new go-to sound bite for the summer? Is it to make Mary Murphy seem like a silken-voiced model of articulate, reasoned insight by comparison? Or is it simply Nigel Lythgoe’s diabolical attempt to undermine American Idol quasi-rival The X Factor and its new judge Nicole Scherzinger by creating an instant Pavlovian aversion among American television viewers to the words “Pussycat Doll”? All I know for certain: Smirkel has already started sculpting a shrine to Ms. Antin out of birds nests, latex gloves, and petroleum jelly, and it’s scaring the crap out of me.

Anyhoodle, last night was otherwise likely the most satisfying, least obnoxious top-20-reveal episode in SYTYCD history. As if Nigel & Co. finally realized that the Green Mile episodes are deadly boring to watch no matter how many see-’em-from-a-mile-away fake-outs they attempt to juice up the tension, this year the top 20 reveal was interspersed with introductory, genre-specific group numbers that ranged from totally fine to outrageously great. By and large, dancers who had been spotlighted either in their initial audition, Las Vegas week, or both still received the lion’s share of screen time last night, in both the Green Mile package and the group choreography. But a couple heretofore unknowns still managed to make a strong first impression. So let’s get to it!

The first group of dancers were all contemporary, with two dancers we had never really seen before, and two that have already made an indelible impression on the season. All we know of Ricky Jaime is that he first began dancing at his devoted mother’s wedding, and he is great at jumping really high with impressively expansive kicks. Somehow, we know even less about Miranda Maleski, just that she was nervous to hear the news, has very curly hair, and was wearing a pretty heart pendant on the Green Mile. I would call her obvious cannon fodder, but I still remember the fact that season 3 champ Sabra Johnson was a complete unknown heading into the top 20. Of course, even though she’s been barely featured ever since her chill-inducing initial audition, gamine kewpie doll Melanie Mooreremains one of my top favorites to win — but Sasha Mallory may give Melanie a run for her money. Somehow, even though Sasha and her younger sister Natalia dominated the Vegas audition episode (or, rather, the producers chose to transform Natalia’s low blood sugar into THE TRAGEDY OF VEGAS WEEK), I still adore both of them. It takes a special kind of wit to quip, while Cat Deeley is shimmying between you and your sister, “Look, we made an Oreo!” As for this group’s Stacey Tookey number, Cat called it “like a little piece of heaven,” and I’d agree, if heaven was a melancholic commune where everyone reads Keats aloud to each other while aching with a slow, insatiable yearning for unknowable truths. Everyone’s technique sure was super, though.

NEXT: An unknown hip-hop boy stands out

The next quartet, the season 8 hip-hop boys, shifted the energy into high gear but good, even if the most memorable one out of them was also the top 20 contestant most trying my nerves. I’m speaking, of course, of Robert Taylor Jr.; at 31, he’s one of the oldest contestants ever on SYTYCD and nonetheless acts like a hyperactive cast member of a 1980s Nickelodeon kids variety show. In other words, enough with the mugging and the “woos” already — advice I doubt he’ll heed, since he was clearly cast as the season’s comic relief. (That said, I’ll take an annoying “woo” over the Professor’s insufferable “indubitably” any day.) Robert also had some trouble nailing the steps in Dave Scott’s fabulous group number, a problem that did not plague his fellow dancers. Of them, Chris Koehl was the least familiar, which is odd considering it was his second time on the SYTYCD Green Mile. The Texas native had to dance for his life after the ballroom round in Vegas, but if he brings the kind of fluid panache he had last night during the group number, I’d say Chris could easily go quite far on the show. The other two hip-hoppers, Wadi Jones and Tadd Gadduang, were smushed together for their top 20 thumbs up, and they similarly mix together in my head.

As for season 8’s sole ballroom expert, Iveta Lukosiute, I can think of no higher compliment to give her than she made me forget she was dancing with Pasha, the human sex bomb known to ignite many a passionate message board flame war over who can rightly call herself “Pasha’s girlfriend.” Seriously, I was so transfixed by Iveta during her Jason Gilkison paso doble, I had to watch it again just so I could focus on Pasha — because you just do not allow a performance by Pasha to go unappreciated. I also hadn’t realized just how exemplary Iveta’s dancing CV was until Mary spelled out what being a World 10 Dance Champion in fact means — and it turns out Iveta has won the honor twice. Nigel was right to praise the woman’s humility; I just hope she’s able to grasp the other genres dance enough to stick around for at least few more world-class ballroom performances.

The female member of the jazz group most familiar to viewers, Jordan Casanova, also happens to be among my least favorite among the top 20. I just don’t get her, I guess, but someone on the show clearly does, since the woman set up to be her sexpot competitionwasn’t even initially named during her Green Mile package — she was just the other girl who likes to be sexy. Eventually, Cat Deeley called her Missy, but did I just miss when Cat said her last name, or am I correct in noting that we only ever knew this girl as “Missy”? Regardless, Missy Morelli has her work cut out for her. Similarly, we were told Clarice Ordaz had a “standout” solo in Las Vegas, and Mary Murphy sure thought she was stunningly beautiful, but I cannot conjure a single moment of her dancing on the show. I guess I was paying too much attention to Marko Germar during Sonya Tayeh’s highly abstracted group number; heaven help me, but I thought Tyce was dead-on to commend him on his energy and enthusiasm — things I imagine may come a bit easier when you’ve got a bullet lodged in your arm.

NEXT: The tapper who could just go all the way

Then we shifted to what I’m calling the Showbiz group: Broadway babe Jess LeProtto and tap dancer Nick Young. The contrast between these two could not have been more stark. Jess is compact; Nick’s a beanpole. Jess’s big talk won him a lot of screen time during the New York auditions; Nick’s seeming self-effacement meant we’d seen roughly five seconds of him before last night. Choreographer Christopher Scott seemed to pick up on these differences, casting Jess as a blowhard theatrical dancer (with a mauve tux with tails that did his stature no favors), and Nick as the easygoing street dancer. I was so taken with Nick’s showmanship and spark, that with Nigel excitedly noting that four girls could also tap dance — meaning a tap routine or two is almost certainly in the offing this season — I’m going to throw caution to the wind and peg Nick as a serious contender to win.

The final group was a quintet of contemporary dancers, and this is when the producers really began to tip their hat to which girl they expect to do well on the show. You’d think being Nigel’s expressed “favorite” would have provided Caitlynn Lawson more screen time, but alas she’s among the dancers we know the least about. Ashley Rich got a great deal of attention for her elegant Oakland audition, but since then she faded fast from view and memory. The two guys in this group — Mitchell Kelly and Alexander Fost — remain utter unknowns; all I know is the first smiles a lot, and the second, um, really wants it? No, the one true star for the final small group number was Ryan Ramirez. In case you didn’t catch it during her Oakland audition, or on Vegas Week, we were reminded once more that Ryan came thisclose to making the top 10 of Season 7. To drag that story line out as long as possible, Nigel & Co. made Ryan go last, up against a girl who as Cat pointed out could be Ryan’s sister. Once she finally got on stage for Travis Wall’s number, Ryan was wearing a dark dress, while the other two women were in cream whites. Ryan remained front and center for virtually the entire routine, she was also prominently featured in both the top 10 girls and top 20 numbers (more on them in a sec). I’m harping on this, I know. I actually really like Ryan; I just get a strong whiff of Lauren Alaina-itis from her treatment on the show thus far. The girl killed performing in the Glee season finale — she does not need producers pimping for her.

With the top 20 all chosen, we spent the final half hour on three larger group numbers, one with the guys, one with the girls, and one with all 20 dancers. The guys’ number — a Christopher Scott hip-hop-meets-contempoary routine that also seemed to serve as a promo for the web dance series The LXD — was like Inception meets The Adjustment Bureau with a dash of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. But the real headline for this performance was Nigel, in an attempt to scare the guys into raising their game, claimed that SYTYCD voters “don’t just favor boys here, like other shows. The girls are included here.” Ummmm, sorry to burst your bubble, Nigel, but the one time you did away with gender parity in the eliminations — last year for season 7 — by the top 6, you had five guys left and just one girl (who did end up winning, but still). Speaking of the top 10 girls, they certainly did destroy the guys with their Sonya Tayeh “twisted” geisha dance — even if their costumes and makeup made it difficult to differentiate between them, and the choreography teetered dangerously close to being ethnically insensitive. As for Tyce Diorio’s top 20 number, well, it’s late, I’m tired, and it’s not like I’d be able to come up with a number that could somehow show off the strengths of 20 disparate dancers without overly favoring some over the others and not look like a kinda formless mess. So I’ll give him a pass. For now.

How do you feel about the season 8’s top 20, fellow Dance fiends? Of the 11 dancers cut in the final round, who do you miss the most (Lil O)? Who are you secretly glad didn’t make it (Jeremiah Hughes)? And who of the 20 dancers left are you most excited to see more from?

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So You Think You Can Dance

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