So You Think You Can Dance: The 12 Best Routines of Season 8

So You Think You Can Dance airs the first half of its Season 8 finale Wednesday night, and with Melanie, Sasha, Marko, and Tadd in the mix, you know we’ll be witnessing tears, standing ovations, and possibly even tickets for the not-referenced-as-frequently-as-it-used-to-be Hot Tamale Train. (WOO-HOO!) What better time to review the 12 best routines from the show’s previous eight weeks of performance episodes? Without further ado, let the countdown begin…

12. Iveta and Nick (Top 20, Quickstep: Jason Gilkison) Yeah, it’s a little cray-cray that in Week One of competition, our World Champion in Quickstep drew…the Quickstep! But a lot of other dancers managed to draw their own styles in Top 20 week, too. And if Iveta and Nick had drawn, say, hip-hop, we’d have been robbed of one of the season’s most riveting displays of footwork. Honestly, there wasn’t a moment of the dance — set to Sweet’s “Ballroom Blitz” — where Iveta and Nick’s feet seemed to touch the ground. Their posture was impeccable. Their joy was palpable. And they infused the whole number with a gleeful rock-and-roll attitude.

11. Melanie and Tadd (Top 6, Broadway: Spencer Liff) I’m always wary of a routine that requires a 30-second setup — he’s a choreographer! she’s the lead dancer! she’s falling for him! he’s just acting the part to draw the best performance out of her! — but this one packed enough genuine emotion to fill an entire miniseries. Melanie showcased her exquisite acting and dancing skills once again, and Tadd proved himself an able thespian in his own right. Plus, it never hurts to dance to a Shirley Bassey remix. Nigel’s critique of Tadd — “to say you didn’t suck is a compliment” — felt condescending in the extreme, but at least guest judge Christina Applegate countered by telling him that his port de bras was better than many ballet dancers.

10. Clarice and Jess (Top 14, Contemporary: Justin Giles) Jess and Clarice brought a newfound sense of maturity and depth to my favorite piece of Top 14 week, a stark, skittery contemporary routine about the end of an intense relationship. Every touch between the duo was infused with a disarming mix of attraction and revulsion, wistfulness and anger. I thought the costuming was a little strange — Clarice’s short white onesie, Jess’ short-sleeved dress shirt and V-neck vest — but guest judge Travis Wall was right that after weeks of coming thisclose to a moment, the couple finally hit their stride.

9. Sasha and Alexander (Top 20 Redux, Hip-Hop: NappyTabs) NappyTabs’ finest Season 8 moment told the tale of a soldier returning from Afghanistan to his emotionally spent wife, and if this was a film, let’s just say Sasha would be campaigning for a Best Actress Oscar, while Alexander would have to focus on the Supporting Actor category. Mary Murphy was spot-on when she said that Sasha’s soul was bursting through that gripping intro, in which she writhed in pain and anticipation and nervousness as Alexander marched slowly, methodically out of a war zone and back into civilian life. The slight moment of hesitation as the dancers connected — followed by their blissful, triumphant reunion — was undeniably gorgeous. Burning question: How in the heck did these kids pull off that beastly move with Alexander executing a handspring-into-headstand onto Sasha’s back while she held steady on all fours?

8. Sasha and Melanie (Top 8, Sonya Tayeh: Jazz
) Two beasts exploding in the night. Melanie’s sublime precision, paired with Sasha’s feral passion, brought out new and thrilling aspects of both dancers’ personalities, and made it easy to see why Nigel Lythgoe keeps predicting these will be the last two contestants standing. As Gaga threw one of her obscenely big platform boots to Melanie and Sasha, and the other to The Lady Tayeh, I wished somehow I could hurl something through the screen and into the SYTYCD studio to show my own appreciation for what had just gone down.

7. Sasha and All-Star Kent (Top 6, Tyce Diorio: Contemporary ) Tyce delivered his most successful piece of the season, sending Sasha and Kent through the harrowing steps of a soured relationship utilizing a sparse and ominous wall. Do I wish he hadn’t introduced it by telling us the number was about “two people who hit a wall”? Well, yeah. But damn the finished product was mesmerizing. Guest judge Christina Applegate was right that Sasha is such a riveting presence that you find yourself watching her just as carefully when she’s sitting static against a wall as you do when she’s performing an inverted split propped on Kent’s shoulders.

6. Caitlynn Lawson and Mitchell Kelly (Top 20 Redux, Contemporary: Stacey Tookey) The peak performance for this underrated pair started with Caitlynn and Mitchell in armchairs — the former in the foreground and filled with angst, the latter in the background and exuding confidence. As Nigel put it, the choreography was “remarkable” and packed with an inherent sense of drama, but just as impressive to me was the way Caitlynn and Mitchell lost themselves in their characters. I gasped when she springboarded off that chair into his arms with utter fearlessness. A chill swept through me when he ended the dance by crossing his leg and turning off the light with a quiet menace. You didn’t need Stacey to explain the backstory of the dance to understand the little telenovela playing out on the screen because Caitlynn and Mitchell’s faces and bodies told the entire tale — even after Mitchell accidentally punched Caitlynn in the face and caused her nose to bleed. How’s that for a high degree of difficulty?

5. Melanie and All-Star Neil: (Top 8, Mandy Moore: Contemporary
) No disrespect to Bonnie Tyler, but you know that you’re witnessing some world-class dancing when a routine set to “Total Eclipse of the Heart” cracks the season’s Top 5. Every single one of Melanie and Neil’s movements was absolute perfection, but the true jaw-dropper came when Melanie sprinted the length of the stage and took a death-defying leap into Neil’s arms. Un-freaking-believable. Bonus awesomeness in the form of Gaga’s comment to Melanie: “I would hire you tomorrow to dance on my tour.”

4. Marko and All-Star Allison (Top 8, Sonya Tayeh: Contemporary
) Of all the All-Stars in all the world to walk into this piece, thank heavens it was the sensational, deeply emotional Allison. And thank heavens we got to see that Marko could soar in a piece partnered with someone other than Melanie. Sonya Tayeh said that this piece was about “causing that damage to someone and you’re basking in the guilt of it, but it moves you to want to change.” And while that’s rather a mouthful to describe the movement of two people in a two-minute routine, Marko and Allison brought every emotion and every nuance of Sonya’s vision to achingly beautiful life.

3. Jordan Casanova and Tadd Gadduang (Top 12, Contemporary: Travis Wall) A stunning piece of work, which featured the former dancer as a vulture lady, and the latter as a very dehydrated and very shirtless (thanks, Travis) traveler. The vibration that traveled through Jordan’s body, all the way to her toes the first time Tadd “choked” her was mesmerizing, and dude’s flip-jump combo and general flexibility were a sight to behold.

2. Sasha Mallory and All-Star Twitch (Top 10, Christopher Scott: Hip-Hop) I could really sum this routine up in two words: Damn, Sasha! Or perhaps just quote Cat Deeley’s quip about breakfast being “the most important meal of the day.” But I can’t help but want to say a little more about the way Season 8′s warrior princess threw her body and soul into a number about a couple whose passion gets unexpectedly reawakened over tea and toast. It didn’t hurt that the explosive steps juxtaposed so interestingly with the soft sounds of Dorothy Moore’s “Misty Blue,” or that Sasha and Twitch possessed the acting chops (and the chemistry) to bring this little set piece to life. Bust Sasha brought such raw power and strength to the choreography — that move where she strode toward Twitch as he backed away, the crazy way she bounced off the floor into an incredible, unsupported arch — that I couldn’t hold it against Nigel when he added insult to the injury of Alexander’s elimination last week by noting that this was the first time all season that Sasha had believable chemistry with a partner.

1. Melanie Moore and Marko Germar (Top 20, Contemporary: Travis Wall) Was Mary’s “Oh em gee a moment like this only comes once or twice a season” critique a little 1-800-Sister-Please? It seemed so at the time, considering Melanie and Marko’s number about a love affair between a couple of statues arrived during the first performance episode of the season. But as it turns out, Mary was right on the money. There was something quietly, achingly beautiful about the way Melanie and Marko brought their characters to life — the way they used every single bar of music to convey their longing, their love, and their joy at coming together — that made it perfectly understandable why Mary and guest judge Megan Mullally were moved to tears. When the music (Ingrid Michaelson’s “Turn to Stone”) shifted and the duo launched into a series of ecstatic leaps and spins, I was clutching the couch cushions in a state of suspense and anticipation. That’s some good dancing, people!

OK, folks! You’ve got my Top 10 dances of Season 8. Now it’s time to share yours. Were there any moments of greatness I missed? Anything in my Top 10 that made you wince? Sound off below, and for all my reality recaps and commentary — including my season-finale review and interviews with the Season 8 top 2 — follow me on Twitter @MichaelSlezakTV!