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'So You Think You Can Dance': The 15 greatest routines

15. Pasha & Sara’s West Coast Swing
Season 3, Top 14, July 11, 2007

”Oh, jeebus,” we all (or, at least I) thought. ”That camera-mugging doofus from season 2, Benji, is choreographing a West Coast swing number. And poor Pasha and Sara have just started working as partners, too. What kind of hot mess is this gonna be?” Turns out the joke was on us (or just me). The season 2 SYTYCD champion pulled out all his signature moves — the shoe slide, the double cartwheel — but it was Pasha and Sara (i.e., the breaker who was not supposed to be able to do this) that brought the number home, performing as if they’d been swing dancing together for years and keeping the energy dialed to 11 without ever showing us the effort.

14. Lacey & Kameron’s Contemporary
Season 3, Top 20, June 13, 2007

In hindsight, there’s actually not much to this Mia Michaels routine: Lacey’s apparently upset, and she flails around a lot, and Kameron basically just tries to keep her from flailing off the stage (when he’s not flailing himself). But it’s all such artful flailing, opening with such an arresting image — Lacey collapsed in Kameron’s arms as she raises her crooked, quivering arms to the sky — that you can’t help but be immediately sucked in, right up to Lacey’s climatic leap into Kam Kam’s arms. Put it this way: I was on vacation in China when this episode aired, and two separate people sent me the YouTube link of it the next day, or, um, the day before, or something — the time difference was confusing. Even in the temporal and particulate haze of Shanghai, I knew this was a dance people were going to remember.

13. Travis & Benji’s Hip-Hop
Season 2, Top 4, Aug. 9, 2006

A perfect example of showmanship trumping technique. You could pick apart this first-time partnership between the final season 2 male dancers, Travis and Benji (i.e., Tranji), ‘cause, with all respect to choreographer Shane Sparks, their dancing is a wee bit o’ the mess. But why would you want to when it’s just so much fun to watch them transform from nerds to crotch-thrusting, assisted-somersaulting studs?

12. Nick & Melody’s Broadway
Season 1, Top 6, Sept. 21, 2005

Any doubt as to why Nick and Melody came in first and second, respectively, in SYTYCD’s first season is washed away after witnessing these ha-cha-cha slinky steps from choreographer Tyce Diorio. The couple also made SYTYCD history, inducing the debut of the iconic Mary Murphy scream. We won’t hold it against them. (P.S. How weird is it to watch the show without any pre-dance video package or Cat Deeley towering over the dancers in some high-wire-high-fashion frock?)

11. Katee & Joshua’s Bollywood
Season 4, Top 12, July 9, 2008

Just when STYTCD’s fourth season was beginning to feel lousy with routines that felt like warmed-over versions of dances from previous years, out came this breath of fresh air from Bollywood choreographer Nakul Dev Mahajan. Of course, I don’t quite know how the judges are supposed to seriously critique a Bollywood number, and, indeed, Mary Murphy seemed at such a loss for words that she veered dangerously close to Paula territory with this mind-blowing apothegm: ”On this stage, we have one rule. Heart. Soul. Equals stardom.” And yet, with all the natural heart and soul Katee and Joshua poured into this routine, somehow Mary made a crazy kind of sense, especially considering these two were the only original couple to make the season four finals — and two spots on this list. (Oooo! Foreshadowing!)

10. Jaimie & Hok’s Jazz
Season 3, Top 16, June 27, 2007

Quirky? Sure. Effective? Totally. Choreographer Wade Robson was quick to note that it was less a ”jazz” routine than ”my version of a ballet,” with Hok cast as a flitting hummingbird trying to seduce the blooming flower played by Jaimie. The piece turned out so beguiling that it felt like an excerpt from a professional company’s concert than a piece on a reality dancing competition, and neither dancer was ever quite able to equal it again.

9. Brandon & Janette’s Jazz
Season 5, Top 12, July 8, 2009

So unabashedly fun, so filled with innovation and verve, I lost count of the number of times I rewatched it the night it first aired. Did you see how far of a drop that was for Brandon leaping over that first railing? Did you love those crazy point-and-kicks, sly ankle turns, and arms-akimbo gumby twirls? Did you hear that wicked Róisín Murphy song that seemed written purely so Wade Robson could set dance to it? Wade’s fluid staccato steps are truly unique, and with lesser dancers the choreography could easily be the star, but these two managed to match the movement and then some. In a season parched of real Memorable Moments, this was like drinking liquid awesome.

8. Mark & Chelsie’s Hip-Hop
Season 4, Top 16, June 25, 2008

Readers of my SYTYCD TV Watch from last season already know about the warm, well-upholstered spot in my heart for Mark, and this is the routine that put it there. Which is actually kinda odd, since it’s really quite bittersweet: A heartsick woman (Chelsie) tries to keep her workaholic lover (Mark) from leaving, but instead he steals her heart and then walks out the door. One of the biggest complaints about season 4 is the time the judges spent heaping endless praise upon the choreographers rather than discussing the dancers, but in the case of hip-hop choreographers Napoleon and Tabitha Dumo (i.e., NapTab, now and forever), that praise was well-deserved. The couple brought a lyrical storytelling sensibility to their routines that transformed hip-hop from hard-hitting abstract steps to something far more emotionally engaging — along with Mark, they were my favorite SYTYCD discoveries from the season.

7. Danny & Lacey’s Samba
Season 3, Top 10, July 25, 2007

Sexy. Sultry sexiness. Sensual syncopation of a sexological nature. ”Hip hip, chin chin” went the music, and beat beat beat went our hearts (and, er, other regions) when Danny and Lacey first partnered on this number choreographed by another season 2 alum (and certified SYTYCD Casanova), Dmitry Chaplin. I’d like to define just how hot this number was, but since scientists have apparently yet to settle on a measurement for the hottest temperature in the universe, I don’t think it’s even possible. But I can at least note this: The heretofore supercilious Danny had been a fixture in the show’s bottom 3 for the previous three weeks, but after so expertly moving those hips in this number, he never appeared there again.

6. Allison & Ivan’s Contemporary
Season 2, Top 12, July 12, 2006

After this performance, judge Nigel Lythgoe apologized to Allison for not spending more time lauding her consistently fluid, expressive work, because for him the whole number was about Ivan. The baby-faced B-boy barely stumbled through a salsa in his first week, so watching his fluid, expressive work in this Tyce Diorio routine a mere three weeks later was indeed literally like watching the boy transform into a man right before our eyes. Of course, it was easy to forget that Ivan wouldn’t have looked nearly as good without a peerless partner like Allison — which is perhaps why Ivan ultimately lasted one week longer than her on the show.

5. Kayla & Kupono’s Contemporary
Season 5, Top 12, July 8, 2009

I don’t know if I’ve ever seen two dancers throw themselves so deeply into a SYTYCD routine, let alone a SYTYCD routine that so expertly explored a subject as pitiless and unsentimental as addiction. I suspect it was that very rawness that muted the judges from their usual paroxysms of praise, but no matter. This remains for me the best routine of the disappointing fifth season because it had it all: Choreography that challenged its performers, felt fully connected to the music underneath it, and told a complete, cohesive story; and dancers that delivered nuanced performances filled with aching emotion and technically stunning movement. If this reads like a justification for why this Mia Michaels routine is on this list and Tyce Diorio’s quite-good-if-overpraised-by-the-judges “Cancer” routine isn’t, well, that’s just an agreeable coincidence.

4. Heidi & Benji’s Mambo
Season 2, Top 8, July 26, 2006

Yeah, yeah, yeah, Heidi and Benji are cousins and have danced together practically their entire lives, and the mambo is itself a cousin to the couple’s West Coast swing style, so the deck was stacked incredibly in their favor from the get-go blah blah blah…this dance frakking rocked. The couple were tasked with trick after trick — Heidi starting off as a human belt, Benji dropping under Heidi’s legs in a split, Heidi spinning underneath Benji’s leg — and they pulled it all off with effortless aplomb. Pure entertainment.

3. Neil & Sabra’s Jazz
Season 3, Top 6, Aug. 8, 2007

Rather than wax on about Mandy Moore’s dynamite (and Emmy-nominated) ”’80s jazz power lunch,” I’m just going to turn things over to the inimitable poetry of the reaction from the night’s guest judge, Debbie Allen:

”Honey, all I can say is that’s how I like it / I like it like that / I like it like that, honey / Give it to me hard / Give it to me strong / Sometimes jazz can be a little itsy-bitsy / This is the way we like it, honey / I’m just thrilled to see you, Neil / Grow like that / That is so beautiful / And Sabra I just adore you / Absolutely adore you.”

Amen, Debbie. Amen.

2. Travis & Heidi’s Contemporary
Season 2, Top 10, July 19, 2006

Travis and Heidi never overplay their yearning throughout this stunning number, known simply as ”The Bench,” which just makes the quiet flourishes — the hands touching through the bench, Travis collapsing like a rag doll, Heidi slowly pulling the sunflower towards her with her feet — that much more tender. This dance was so good, it won choreographer Mia Michaels an Emmy, but more than that, I think this routine was a watershed moment for SYTYCD, moving it from just a fun and frivolous summer diversion to a show capable of moments far richer and emotionally resonant.

1. Katee & Joshua’s Hip-Hop
Season 4, Top 20, June 11, 2008

After clicking through clips of dozens upon dozens of routines for this list, the one that moves and impresses me most of all, even after repeated viewings, is easily this hip-hop number from the illustrious NapTab. A perfect match of story (a soldier telling his girlfriend he’s going back to war), music (”No Air”) and the two dancers performing it — it ain’t even a contest. Katee brought her technical finesse and deep feeling, and Joshua his preternatural talent and strength, and together they created a number that felt all of a piece, that transcended its steps, imbuing the movement with an uncomplicated humanism that is doubly impressive considering it was their first ever full performance on a nationally televised dance competition show. (I guess Emmy voters weren’t watching the show yet, because it was inexplicably snubbed.) It’s no wonder these two dominated so much of the season (and this list), but nothing they or anyone else have done on So You Think You Can Dance has quite equaled the agile, eye-misting power of their earliest routine.

Originally posted August 6 2009 — 12:01 AM EDT

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