So You Think You Can Dance Recap: Roaring 20

will amelia sytycd catsThere’s a “Closed” sign hanging at the ticket booth for the So You Think You Can Dance Hot Tamale Express, but not because the Season 9 Top 20 isn’t packed with talent. Quite the contrary, I’d say that based on Top 20 Performance Night, there are already a good dozen dancers who’ve scored reservations on the exclusive locomotive (with its crazed conductor Mary Murphy).

The depth of the field — and the lack of unbeatable early front-runners so early in the competition — is good news for fans of the show. The resulting sense of suspense — and the reality that no single dancer can skate by with a weak week — islikely to spur the finalists to dance like there’s no tomorrow. (Yes, that was an obscure Paula Abdul reference. Thanks for asking.)

What’s more, with no results show in the mix, the Season 9 Top 20 will head into next Wednesday’s performance show not knowing which of ’em are among the Bottom 3 Guys and Bottom 3 Girls — with the judges at least partially relying on Week 2 routines to determine which four dancers will get booted at the end of the telecast. Again, more uncertainty, more suspense, and more reason to “WOO-HOO!”

Let’s break down the Week 1 performances with an eye on separating the pretenders from the contenders, the pimped from those who’ve already been tied to the railroad tracks.

DANCE OF THE NIGHT | Janelle Issis & Dareian Kujawa I know this African Jazz routine didn’t score a pimp slot or a standing ovation, but the speed and complexity of the moves had me seal-clapping from my living room couch when it came to an end. I audibly gasped when pint-sized Dareian cranked Janelle’s leg like the handle of a garlic press, and got another special thrill during the “vogueing” portion of the proceedings. I also loved that move where their bodies momentarily collided and then somehow morphed into one swirling funnel of limbs. As guest judge Kenny Ortega so crazily/accurately put it, the dancers took us on a trip from Africa to Cuba to Paris, Brazil and Polynesia. And all in under two minutes, I might add!

RUNNER-UP | Lindsay Arnold & Cole Horibe Was Cole’s the best male paso doble in SYTYCD history, as Nigel argued? I’d have to give the edge to Brandon back in Season 5, but no doubt Cole was stunning, the way he kicked his leg over Lindsay’s head with almost terrifying power and propulsion, and brought an almost brutal strength to the Jason Gilkison number about a man fighting off a particular brand of ladypoison. To me, Lindsay was equally strong: Her fleeing backwards crawl and that final move where she might have actually been levitating a few inches off the stage floor really moved her up in my Season 9 rankings. Nigel had a great point when he said this performance would’ve fit perfectly in a professional production of Burn the Floor — and have the audience on its feet by the finish.

MOST SURPRISING | Amelia Lowe & Will Thomas When Cat cut to commercial break and Amelia and Will delivered some exaggerated hip-hop foolery to camera, I was convinced we were about to witness something better left inside that giant dumpster at stage right. But much to my shock and delight, She of the Pale Skin and Gently Blinking Eyes and He of the Giant Frame and Fear of Shirtlessness delivered more good vibe with a NapyTabs routine set to The Cure than I’d ever have predicted. I loved their perfect synchronization, and particularly Will’s commitment to the character. When you’re playing an alley cat courting a sohpisticated house cat, all self-consciousness must be abandoned, and methinks self-consciousness is not a phrase in this cat’s vocabulary. (That said, I’m going to humbly ask Uncle Nigel to not set Will and Amelia up with Paula Abdul’s “Opposites Attract” later in the season. You all with me?)

MOST OVERPRAISED (THOUGH STILL QUITE GOOD) | Matthew Kazmierczak & Audrey Case Don’t get me wrong: I generally love Travis Wall, and I enjoyed what Matthew and Audrey did with his routine about a painter and his subject on the Titanic. But was I the only one who felt that the choreography was a little too cluttered and frantic, and maybe wished that Audrey had dialed back just a bit on her perma-smile? The pair has definite chemistry, and they didn’t struggle in the least with some very challenging steps, but the standing ovation and subsequent lavishing of praise felt a little too much like a promo for Travis’ upcoming Oxygen series than a realistic assessment of what had just happened on stage.

“LOOK OUT FOR THE BUS!” AWARD | Amber Jackson & Nick Bloxsom-Carter Let’s see now: It’s Week 1, and you’re the couple with perhaps the least amount of combined prior screen time in the competition. You draw the dreaded waltz, and then your pre-performance package is centered on Jason Gilkison railing against the male half for not excelling in his own genre. Stir together with muted praise from the judges, a scary shot of Disney Villainess Abby Lee Miller in the audience — next time, that should come with a warning! — and you’ve got a cocktail called the Early Elimination.

ODDEST PAIRING THAT WORKED | Eliana Girard & Cyrus Spencer I’m not sure what Tyce was thinking with his painfully literal blackboard scrawlings, but thankfully, Eliana and Cyrus threw so much buoyant energy into the proceedings that I didn’t have much time to focus on the negative. Side-by-side, it was clear Eliana is the vastly superior hoofer — as Kenny pointed out, the woman can kick all the way to the back wall — but what Cyrus lacked in polish and technique, he made up for with performance and joyous energy. I’d be surprised if these two don’t sail all the way to the Top 10 at least.

ODDEST PAIRING THAT DIDN’T WORK | Witney Carson & Chehon Wespi-Tschopp I’m still grappling with the missing ‘h’ in Witney’s name, but aside from that, she appears to be the complete package: The spunky blonde has incredible speed and fluidity that I suspect will translate outside her genre, and a “vote-grabbing” personality to boot. Chehon, meanwhile, proved more perfunctory than dazzling on this samba, and the judges’ “we’re not criticizing, just giving 11 minutes of ‘advice'” feedback won’t help him with voters, either. [Side note: Was Chehon’s exposed right pec while getting judged a carefully constructed reminder that he has the best torso of Season 9, or merely an accidental nip slip?)

MOST FORGETTABLE | Janaya French & Brandon Mitchell To be fair, I’m not a huge fan of choreography that’s heavily reliant on a single, obvious prop, and in this case, Brandon’s literal struggle with the bottle made me wince a little. Just as unfortunate, though, I felt like the couple didn’t really follow through with their movements, didn’t bring the routine to vivid life from start to finish. Their walk toward one another at the end of the number was just that — ambling from Point A to Point B — where it should have been an extension of all the steps that came before it. Plus, Janaya didn’t really punctuate her moves with the edge and oomph needed to convincingly pull off hip-hop.

MOST DISAPPOINTING | Alexa Anderson & Daniel Baker I loved the opening and closing moments inside the scaffold — especially Alexa’s backward somersault with her feet paddling against the ceiling — but the minute Daniel and Alexa climbed down and hit the floor, I felt like they lost just a fraction of their energy, failed to execute their moves with the finesse and fire they’d previously proven capable. And for a pair who’d generated plenty of early hype, this wasn’t a great way to further their momentum with voters.

SEASON 9 DARK HORSES? | Tiffany Maher & George Lawrence II I loved seeing a softer, more supple side of Sonya Tayeh’s meaty choreography, and the way she gave both dancers moments to shine. Nigel was right: This duo dances all the way to their extremeties, making their contractions all the more stunning. George’s slide-crawl across the floor bordered on alien (and I mean that as high praise) while Tiffany’s handstand over her partner proved she’s as athletic as any woman in the competition. I just hope her huge defecit of screen time during auditions/Vegas doesn’t lead to an unfair/premature ouster.

SHOULD BE THE BOTTOM 6
Janaya French
Amber Jackson
Alexa Anderson
Nick Bloxsom-Carter
Chehon Wespi-Tschopp
Brandon Mitchell

WILL BE THE BOTTOM 6
Janaya French
Amber Jackson
Tiffany Maher
Nick Bloxsom-Carter
Chehon Wespi-Tschopp
Daniel Baker

What did you think of this week’s SYTYCD? Who was best in show? Who will and should be in the Bottom 3? Sound off in the comments!