It might be Season 11, but I’m no less excited for the So You Think You Can Dance Top 20 performances to start than I was all the way back for Season 2, when the show was returning for the first time. Every year, while waiting for the summer season to start, we can hold ourselves over on YouTube, where they have all dances from every season you’d ever want to see. It’s nice to have choices when going down one of these hours-long rabbit holes, but there are some choice dances that really make the cut when you’re craving some So You Think You Can Dance.
At this point in the show, most dances are performed with a technical excellence that we take for granted; Everyone is just that good by now. When a dance can be deemed truly one of the best, it’s not necessarily the winner of the season, the steps, and the technical aspects of the dance, it’s the emotional investment, the thing that continues to draw you into your computer screen despite a fuzzy, pirated picture and a poor internet connection. Most routines leave us in a post-viewing trance, amazed at what the contestants can churn out in a week or less. However, certain pieces demand to be remembered, and on certain lulls that inevitably come during each season, it leaves us craving the feeling only the best can give us every time we watch.
1. Bang Bang, Eliana and Alex — Season 9
It became apparent pretty early on that Eliana's ballet background equipped her to be all around amazing. This particular piece, with its slow pace highlighted her control, amazing ability to interpret abstract body shapes, unreal legs and feet, and awe-inspiring flexibility. With Alex there to be a rock solid partner in strength and technique, this contemporary piece, choreographed by Stacey Tookey, is impossible to watch just once.
2. Bleeding Love, Chelsie and Mark — Season 4
This was near the beginning of the "NappyTabs" So You Think You Can Dance hip hop movement, and it certainly made an impression. Prior to this season, most of the dances in the category could be divided into hard-hitting hip hop, krump and animation or slow, sensual R&B types of routines. Husband and wife choreography duo Tabitha and Napoleon brought a new spin to the genre. This was a hip hop dance that told an emotional, relatable story more like one of the show's contemporary dances. We bought the feelings and story between ballroom dancer Chelsie and jazz dancer Mark in their nontraditional (but awesome!) costumes, all while they were busting out a type of partner hip hop that made us do a double take (and later favorite on YouTube).
3. Medicine, Tucker and Robert — Season 10
We don't often get to see all male or all female duets, unless they're in the finale, but as this dance proves, it's always rewarding when we do. I included the story package in this one, because it enhances the Travis Wall-choreographed story (dance starts at 1:01) very much. There's a twofold personal background for the performers that draws you into this piece before either dancer takes his first step. The choreography, strong dancing and partnering, and real emotion behind the moves surpass the expectations for a lovely, affecting routine.
4. Sweet Dreams, Sabra and Neil — Season 3
It's hard to keep your distance from a dramatic, professional power struggle in general, but when it involves two of the season's top four dancing it out, it's even better. When I watched this in real time many years ago, that under the table handshake was SO PERFECT, I knew this was a dance for the ages. Choreographer Mandy Moore struck the perfect balance between literal, subtle, and technical with this one. Neil and Sabra's size difference made their opposition visually pleasing and the prop use of the table added a grounded element that reinforced the power in the piece. This dance makes it apparent why these two made it to the finale, and one of them even won!
5. Pretty Lil' Heart, Makenzie and Paul — Season 10
Hip hop is one of the more common and popular genres on the show, so it's always refreshing and extremely memorable when the choreographers change things up. So late in the run of the show, Dave Scott did just that by slapping on some costumes that look more fitting for jazz or Broadway routines and going a slower, softer route with the music. The simple story and compelling partner work make this a stand-out hip hop routine, made more impressive by two non hip hop dancers.
6. Hip Hip Chin Chin, Lacey and Danny — Season 3
This dance already had a bit of an unfair advantage with Lacey's ballroom background, but that only makes it more fun to watch because she's SO good. In a pleasant, but not too shocking surprise, Danny the contemporary dancer more than holds his own as her partner here. The catchy music, cool costumes and quick pace made you feel like you'll miss something if you blink. A lot of people don't "get" ballroom, but this piece is the perfect example of why the genre is actually very exciting. It's dances like these on the show that make you want to put on your dancing shoes and find the closest salsa club that doesn't actually exist in real life, but does in dance movies. I guess I'll take watching this one over and over again as a consolation.
7. Cinema, Comfort and Cyrus — Season 9
Routines like this can help me argue that Comfort had done some of her best work on So you Think You Can Dance after her season. It doesn't hurt that resident animator Cyrus was paired with her on this one. Not to mention that choreographer Christopher Scott is insane in the absolute best way. It's hard for the brain to even process every tiny move in this dance, let alone imagine choreographing something like it. If this can even be considered hip hop, it's really like no other, and these two complement each other perfectly. The subtlety in movement is unmatched and seems almost superhuman. It's impossible to look away.
8. The Chairman's Waltz, Jaimie and Hok — Season 3
This dance was mesmerizing from the very beginning, when Jaimie slowly rises up in plié, holding bent-knee positions while in relevé with super leg strength. It's a jazz dance, but is very thoughtfully choreographed and utilizes the styles of each dancer so beautifully that it doesn't seem to fall entirely under any genre. Dancer personification of objects can sometimes come across as cheesy, especially when set to culturally specific music (this selection is from Memoirs of a Geisha), but this piece is so tastefully done. It tells the story while incorporating technique and still managing to make each dancer stand out individually and as a partnership.
9. Mercy, Katee and Twitch — Season 4
It's hard not to dance in your seat when the first bars of Duffy's Mercy starts to play, so it was a delight to find that Mia Michaels choreographed this scorned lover story in such a memorable way. Twitch and Katee's preexisting friendship and chemistry definitely helped as the two threw their whole selves into this cheeky piece with an assist from a prop door that is perfectly and saucily incorporated into the routine. This was one of those dances that proved Katee was a genre chameleon and Twitch was not just a one note hip hop dancer.
10. Jump, Witney and Chehon — Season 9
Witney was kind of a force to be reckoned with in the competition, even if she sometimes flew a little under the radar amidst the amazing talent of her season. That's not to say Chehon wasn't, of course. But when it came to her specialty, it was hard to tear your eyes away from Witney, and paired with Chehon's strength, the two make such a dynamic pair in this samba, it can't be overlooked.
11. After Party, Amy and Fik-Shun — Season 10
This partnership had some of the best, most fun routines of the season, which might factor into why both of them won. This piece came early on in the season, and the rehearsal package hinted at Amy's nerves about delving into the hip hop genre. Once that luggage trolley hit the stage, though, it was obvious that this was a duo to beat, and that this was one of the best dances on the show to date. It was another Tabitha and Napoleon creation with a super fun story, perfect music choice, and detailed choreography that fell together in a routine that became an instant favorite.
12. Circle of Life, Top Ten Dancers — Season 9
Group dances are not to be forgotten in this roundup, and when it comes to "the best," there are so very many that could qualify (we might need a best group dance roundup). This piece was a feat of choreography and technique. It's hard to top anything related to The Lion King, especially when the animated movie and Broadway show are both masterpieces of American pop culture. Though if anyone could do the original material justice, it's this group of talent, where each dancer is wonderfully highlighted in a unique routine that reminds us why we love both the source material and what this show can do with it.
13. If It Kills Me, Jeanine and Jason — Season 5
Ah, this dance. The emotion and performance is so pure when put to movement in this piece, it feels borderline voyeuristic to be part of the audience. It's as if we accidentally walked in on a couple having a tender moment. Compared to other pieces in the series, this one is relatively simple on the choreography front, allowing the technique and talent shine through, but the highlight is the feeling that is infectious from simply watching this dance. The sweet use of the heart necklace prop helps tell the story, but a few choice moves at the end, not to mention the real kiss that closes the piece make this dance even more compelling and emotional than some of the more romantic movies that exist.
14. Not Myself Tonight, Lauren and Pasha — Season 7
Put a Cha Cha and a skimpy outfit on stage, and it's hard to look away. But add Pasha into the mix and you know it's going to be good. In a seemingly strange choice of Christina Aguilera song, it's easy to be skeptical of yet another ballroom dance with a nontraditional music choice, but this one is filled with complicated, fun to watch footwork and tricky lifts at all levels. It's hard to believe this partnership hasn't been dancing together forever, and that they put together the routine in less than a week.
15. Toxic, Eliana and Cyrus — Season 9
A ballerina doing hip hop in a tutu? You have my attention, yet I'm not convinced. Well, all it took was one vertical extension from Eliana to have me believing. This hip hop dance is so unique while utilizing both dancers' specialties and staying true to the genre. The concept is cool, the Britney Spears remix is even cooler and this routine was a quick indicator at the increasing talent in each season's Top 20.
16. Gravity, Kayla and Kupono — Season 5
It's never easy to pull off a dance inspired by a choreographer's personal story of hardship in theirs or a loved one's life, and addiction is no light matter to put into two young dancers' hands (or feet?). Mia Michaels was right to trust this pair with this particular story, using an interesting interpretation of Sara Bareilles's song about a failed love. The song is equal parts haunting and sad, and the costumes and makeup all added to the dark mood of the piece. More than anything, though, was the emotion, conviction, and mastered technique executed with calculated grit that drew in the audience, and made this routine unforgettable.
17. Run The World (Girls), Jasmine and Comfort — Season 10
Jasmine and her legs are legendary, there are a lot of reasons she made it to the top four. For her own finale selection, she chose outside of her contemporary genre and went with hip hop. This was a daring choice, but after seeing the magic she worked with Comfort, it was easy to see why she took the risk. This ended the season with quite a bang and reminded us why we love Comfort and why Jasmine deserved to make it to the end. The choreography, costumes, and props in this piece are so dynamic, and the dancers who performed it did so to the fullest.
18. Young and Beautiful, Top Six Girls — Season 10
Group dances are always fun to watch and usually performed very well, but they can also be mere opening or closing elements of the show, the real meat coming from the partner dances. This school of thought was disproven by the top six girls last season in this group number, which was a pleasant surprise and blew everyone away, including the judges. It made that night's elimination even harder to take because just by performing, these girls showed how much they added to our summer Wednesday nights.