More than any other medium, dance allows me the chance to see the world from someone else’s shoes. It lends me a glimpse into another’s experience, and not just how they outwardly interact with the world. It speaks to me about what’s going on inside other people’s minds. It doesn’t just tell a story or communicate a concept – dance can transfer experience from the artist to the audience. It can do this two minutes at a time in a way that shocks me.
No show better exemplifies this than So You Think You Can Dance, currently airing on Fox. There are other dancing shows, but I don’t feel that watching retired politicians and B-grade celebrities dance a tango on a single week’s training really gets at why dance matters. It definitely doesn’t do so as much as watching performers who have danced their entire lives take new risks and collaborate on original choreography week after week.
I’ve got 11 shots to tell you why this is the best show on TV. If you stick around past the dances in some of these clips, you can also hear how the judges address dance in both performance and specifically technical terms. They only focus on personality insofar as it matters to what happens on-stage. They help viewers understand dance better. They don’t snipe at each other or competitors just to fill air time or create narrative; they just talk about dance.
Lyrical jazz choreo. By Wade Robson
Performed by Katee Shean and Joshua Allen
This entire list could just be a Katee Shean countdown. She’s possibly the best performer the show’s ever had. As dancers, she and Joshua Allen may have lacked little nuances like foot positioning and perfect angles, but they weren’t so much dancers as they were emotional vessels for whichever choreographer they got that week. No one used tension and looseness like Shean, who could trap all the energy on the stage in a single movement or explode across it when she let that energy free. That’s not to take away from Joshua Allen, who threw himself bodily into every emotion that was asked of him. There’s an argument this is the best pairing the show’s ever had. Also see Hometown Glory, another of their high points.
Hip hop choreo. by Christopher Scott
Performed by Amy Yakima and Fik-Shun Stegall
Of course, one of the draws of live TV is when something goes horribly, horribly wrong. Amy Yakima takes a bad spill halfway through this piece when a napkin ends up under her foot. Where some reality competitions might focus on that and interview everyone else about how much schadenfreude they felt, So You Think You Can Dance just gets on about its business. These are lifelong dancers on stage. They wouldn’t be this good if they hadn’t taken thousands of spills in their life. Amy gets right back up and her partner, Fik-Shun, ad libs a glowing point and smile to acknowledge her fall as part of the story being told on stage. Not only does Amy not miss a beat, but Fik-Shun’s enthusiasm and ease inside of his roles reminds me – despite their vastly different styles – of Gene Kelly at his most exuberant.
Contemporary choreo. by Mia Michaels
Performed by Eliana Girard and Cole Horibe
Every episode, there’s at least one. There’s at least one routine that burrows into your core and makes you feel in that exact way we spend our lives building ourselves up against. With apologies to Breaking Bad, The Americans and Garfunkel and Oates (yes, really, go watch it), this is why So You Think You Can Dance has been the best show on TV for several years running. Every week, there’s at least one dance that for two minutes at a time breaks you and puts you back together in a way most TV never even thinks to try.
Broadway choreo. by Spencer Liff
Performed by Makenzie Dustman and Jakob Karr
The two best pairs of legs on the show belonged to Makenzie Dustman and Jakob Karr, a previous contestant returning here as an All-Star. They could both point their feet through the ceiling. It’s the antithesis to the raw emotion and explosiveness of “Slow Dancing in a Burning Room” above. “Too Darn Hot” is all technique and grace, and that’s another incredible thing about this show. The entire scope of dance is represented every week, not just in choreography style but in the completely different ways each and every dancer approaches dance as an art and as a piece of their lives. Inexplicably, Dustman fell short of becoming a finalist her season, but was almost immediately brought back by the judges as an All-Star to help and perform with current contestants.
Contemporary/jazz choreo. by Sonya Tayeh
Performed by Season 11 Mini Group
My favorite choreographer on the show is Sonya Tayeh, a pioneer of what she calls combat jazz. She left midway through last season to work with the United States’ oldest dance company, the Martha Graham Dance Company. I don’t know if she’ll be back this season, but I hope so. In a nutshell, she’s the most unpredictable choreographer on the show. Her dances are high risk/high reward and she can absolutely terrify in a way other choreographers can’t – I’ll show you how later in the list.
Lyrical hip hop choreo. by Christopher Scott
Performed by Sasha Mallory and Stephen “Twitch” Boss
If you’ve never seen him before, welcome to Twitch. This is lyrical hip hop; which isn’t a single dance style. Hip hop counts the beat as “one-two-stop.” It wants you to hit each move with a staccato aggression to stress isolated parts of the body and a locked core. Lyrical hip hop, like “Misty Blue,” counts the beat as “one-two-ooo.” It wants you to flow through the beat and unwind into the dance in a relaxed and fluid style. These aren’t the only two kinds of hip hop, but people too often think hip hop is just one style when it houses as many unique styles as modern or any other form of dance.
Contemporary choreo. by Sonya Tayeh
Performed by Allison Holker and Cole Horibe
Sonya Tayeh doesn’t always choreograph to Bjork, but when she does, it brings something wholly other out of her. This is my favorite dance ever done on the show. When I watch it, I don’t think I blink. Beyond having styles, does dance have genres? Sure it does, and this is the horror genre. It also speaks to the nature and internal feeling of abusive relationships, to the inescapability of being turned around inside your own head by someone else, and I love that two minutes of a dance can communicate that more fully than most two hour movies do.
Lyrical tap choreography
Performed by Melinda Sullivan and Aaron Turner
Tap shoes can speak. They can crescendo in argument and two taps in the middle of a silence can communicate an “I’m sorry.” Unlike many other forms of dance, tap is such a specific skill that it’s not in the weekly rotation of dance styles. However, So You Think You Can Dance always has a non-competition week to highlight every competitor’s individual style and – when it gets down to the top 4 – everyone gets the chance to do so again. That allowed this incredible conversation on-stage, and one of my favorite routines the show’s ever featured.
Contemporary/Broadway choreo. by Mia Michaels
Performed by Katee Shean and Stephen “Twitch” Boss
This is arguably the most memorable So You Think You Can Dance routine ever done. As I said, Katee’s my favorite performer from any year. There’s also a reason Twitch is on this list so much. The two were early competitors in the show’s history, but each left a standard to live up to.
Contemporary choreo. by Travis Wall
Performed by Amy Yakima and Travis Wall
A Season 2 competitor turned choreographer, Travis Wall possesses a unique ability to freeze moments in time. He presents them almost like memory, free of so many of the details we forget and yet created from the impressions that make those memories so crucial in shaping who we are.
Contemporary/hip hop choreo. by Sonya Tayeh & Christopher Scott
Performed by Season 11 Top 10 & All-stars
If there’s ever been one dance that communicates not just the reason I love this show, but why I think it matters, why featuring dance and art and collaboration on TV matters so incredibly much…it’s this one:
If you could choose only one dance from the show to convince someone new to watch, what would you choose?