Watching So You Think You Can Dance‘s Season 9 Top 20 announcement episode — its first this year with live, choreographed dances — I was struck by the fact that the show really is like an old friend. No matter how long it’s been away, it only takes a minute or two for me to fall back in step with its warm and familiar cadences.
There was Cat Deeley, playfully announcing that just minutes into the telecast, she was already covered in the sweat of nearby dancers. (Not nearly as gross as it sounds.) There was Mary Murphy, hooting like a tipsy aunt in the middle of the dancefloor at your cousin’s wedding. There was Nigel Lytgoe in a baseball cap, shtickily schilling for the MLB All-Star Game in the hopes Fox would do the right thing and greenlight a Season 10 for SYTYCD. And there were some magnificent routines — in ballet, contemporary, and even ballroom — that helped me identify seven or eight early favorites from this year’s crop of dancers.
Of course, sometimes even our dearest friends show up with jarring new hairstyles or unfortunate pairs of glasses, and in the case of SYTYCD, it was guest judge Zooey Deschanel, the lovely star of New Girl, who brought the “Why the Face?” factor. Wide-eyed and enthusiastic but with little to offer except vague compliments, it was almost as if Deschanel was channeling Abby Elliott’s SNL skit — Bein’ Quirky With Zooey Deschanel — to the point where I started fantisizing about her offering her critiques via ukelele. One strum if she really liked it. Two strums if she really, really liked it. And three strums (with harmonies courtesy of Siri) if she really, really, really liked it! Then again, there are worse things you can say about an actress than “she wouldn’t make a good reality-show judge,” no?
Anyhow, for the Season 8 Top 20 announcement, I did something crazy and tried to rank the entire field based solely on auditions, Vegas footage, the initial group dances, gut feeling, and (of course) inequitable distribution of early-season screentime: And while I foolishly put Wadi and Clarice at No. 1 and 2, I managed to rank five of the season’s eventual final six in my very premature Top 10, as follows: Melanie (3rd), Sasha (5th), Marko (14th), Tadd (4th), Ricky (6th), Caitlynn (10th).
This year, I’m going to try something similar, but since we’ll have two Season 9 champs — one female, one male — I’m going to split the field and rank the Top 10 girls separately from the Top 10 guys — summing each one up in a single sentence. Here goes:
10. Janaya French: No screentime prior to Top 20 reveal, and got Zooey’s sole bit of criticism following the Stacey Tookey routine. Ouch.
9. Audrey Case: Stumbled slightly in the Sonya Tayeh piece, and her personality — and penchant for vacant grinning — might be a tiny bit grating.
8. Amber Jackson: Everybody likes persistence, and this three-time auditioner has that quality in abundance, but she’s been very under-the-radar to this point.
7. Lindsay Arnold: Got overshadowed a tiny bit by buddy Whitney in the ballroom number, and while the judges couldn’t choose between them, America won’t have any such problems.
6. Alexa Anderson: Producers have built a huge “redemption” story arc around her — much like the less-compelling Ryan in Season 8 — but while she was great in Travis Wall’s all-ladies piece, she’s got a lot of baggage to carry.
5. Amelia Lowe: Depending on your point of view, this “silent film” chick is either an ethereal treat or too precious to be tolerated. But early on, it’s better to be polarizing than forgettable.
4. Tiffany Maher: Suffering from a severe screentime defecit, but she was a total beast inthe Sonya Tayeh number, and voters do like a solid underdog.
3. Janelle Issis: Stunning belly dancer forced to sit out the Top 20 episode due to sickness, but I’m such a fan already that I’m holding out hope she’ll roar back into contention on the next episode.
2. Witney Carson: Nigel’s pervy interest in her notwithstanding, it’s really hard to focus on anyone else when the Utah teenager takes the stage with her technical mastery and all-purpose sensuality.
1. Eliana Girard: Went missing after one of the best auditions of Season 9, then managed to steal the show from two amazing men in last night’s incredible ballet routine. So so so so stunning, plus she gives good sound bites.
10. Nick Bloxsom-Carter: Totally upstaged by Whitney and Lindsay in the ballroom number; appeared to be flailing against their relative crispness.
9. Will Thomas: Tall drink of water got called out for not keeping up in the Tyce routine, and later pointed out his own less-than-firm physique. Might not be taken as seriously as a result.
8. Cyrus “Glitch” Spencer: Dragon House protege does amazing solos — and tons of Vegas screen time should carry him a couple weeks — but he was the definite weak link in the Top 20 routine.
7. Brandon Mitchell: Stepper doesn’t have the same screentime edge as Cyrus, but seems like he’ll potentially fare better outside his genre.
6. Matthew Kazmierczak: Resemblance to Ryan Gosling won’t hurt with voters, but was outshone by
Daniel Dareian in the Stacey Tookey numner.
5. Cole Horibe: His martial-arts background sets him apart from anyone else in the Top 20, and he’s got tremendous power in his leaps and spins. Possible dark horse?
4. Chehon Wespi-Tschopp: That torso!
3. Dareian Kujawa: Now that Nigel’s pointed out his “awful feet,” it’s hard to concentrate on anything else, but on the plus side, he has stunning grace and fluidity, combined with great strength, that helps him stand out in group numbers.
2. Daniel Baker: I thought I preferred Chehon just a bit, but Daniel may have shone just a little brighter in that thrilling ballet routine.
1. George Lawrence II: It didn’t hurt that he was front and center during Mia Michaels’ Top 20 number, but I couldn’t take my eyes off him for a second. He also stood out in the Top 10 guys number, which was a bit of a hot mess. Kid has amazing technique, and dances with a tremendous amount of feeling, to boot.
Top 3 Routines of the Night (a tough call)
3. Whitney, Lindsay, and Nick, Jason Gilkison’s “Dance Again”: Everything you love in a saucy Latin routine, only with two ferocious females instead of one. Whitney and Lindsay were in incredible sync from beginning to end, and that move where the former popped out from Nick’s legs while Lindsay spun on his shoulders was boom-boom-pow indeed.
2. Top 10 Girls, Travis Wall’s “Gateway to the Afterlife”: A stunning piece of work that combined a single door, a flood of light, and small, controlled bursts of movement that allowed each of the Season 9 ladies to shine.
1. Eliana, Daniel, and Chehon, Demond Richardson and Dwight Roden’s “Robot Swans”: Eliana’s deadly aluminum tutu certainly helped, but the technique here was mesmerizing. I felt like I was holding my breath in suspense from beginning to end.
What do you think of the SYTYCD Top 20? Who are your early favorites? Who do you think could be at risk for an early exit? And are my rankings mostly in line with yours, or do you question my taste level when it comes to the art of dance? Sound off in the comments, and for all my reality recaps, follow me on Twitter @MichaelSlezakTV!