TV Time: SYTYCD Season 11 “Top 4 Perform”

What a time to be a fan of great dancing. Last night’s So You Think You Can Dance finale felt like a true celebration of dance—from the lack of eliminations to the adorable final moments of camaraderie at the end of the episode. Even with so many routines, each dancer managed to keep their energy impressively high, and they actually seemed to get stronger as the night went on (maybe the presence of the All Stars helped). In doing so, they produced my favorite Final Four night of routines in quite some time. However, that might just because of all the tapping.

Yes, this week was a great week to be a tapper or even just a tap enthusiast. Having one of my all-time favorites, Aaron, back as an All Star was the icing on the cake that was this week’s joyful explosion of tap. As someone who spent years wishing this show would throw even the tiniest of crumbs of attention towards tappers, this episode was a feast. Each of the duets and solos showcased not just how technically difficult tap is as style but also how much fun it is to watch and to dance. If nothing else, I hope this finale inspired some little kid to try their first tap class because they want to be like Aaron, Valerie, or Zack.

More tap love to come later on in this recap. For now, let’s get to the rest of the dances!

Top Four Routine
When Travis Wall is at his best, there is nobody better. And this was Travis at his best. No dance this season moved me with its message like this one did, and that that’s because we weren’t told ahead of time that we were supposed to be moved by it. We could interpret it however we wanted to, and I chose to interpret it as an ode to marriage equality. The story unfolded through the choreography in such a beautiful, gentle way, with gorgeous contemporary partnering between both girls and both guys. Ultimately, I think the guys caught my eye a little more than the girls did because of their total commitment to every emotional facet of this piece, but that final image—with the two guys and two girls holding hands before joining to form one unified line—was so powerful and inspiring and joyful that I forgot for a second that this was still a competition at all.


Valerie and Ricky: African Jazz
This routine was executed well enough, but it definitely wasn’t the most memorable routine of the evening. Both Valerie and Ricky totally committed to the choreography, but they approached it in different ways. I thought Valerie was much looser in her movements than Ricky, which made them look out-of-sync at times. I know this dance style allows for a little more freedom of movement than other forms of jazz, but I still found their differences somewhat distracting. However, I do commend both of them for starting the night with such a demanding routine and still managing to perform the rest of the show without looking tired at all.

Jessica and Zack: Broadway
I wish we could have seen these two paired together sooner because they were magical together. Something about Zack’s ability to inhabit the character he’s asked to play in each dance seemed to rub off on Jessica because I don’t think her stage presence has ever been better. They both danced with such confidence—from their sly smiles to each intricate flick of their legs and change of their hand positions. I could have watched an entire show of them doing Spencer Liff’s brilliant interpretations of Fosse choreography. And this routine helped solidify my belief that one of these two would be the best fit for the On the Town part that’s given to this year’s winner.

Jessica and Ricky: Jazz
While I liked this week’s Ray Leeper piece better than last week’s, I still don’t connect with his dances beyond being impressed with the technical precision they call for. Don’t get me wrong; I think Ricky and Jessica were basically flawless in this routine, and it showed off their abilities perfectly. However, I wish his routines had just a couple of “breather” moments, so the dancers could have a second to connect with the audience and each other. With that all being said, though, I would kill to have legs like Ricky. Never in all my years as a dancer have I seen someone (guy or girl) with extensions like his.

Valerie and Zack: Contemporary
Does Tyce just really dislike Valerie? That was all I could think at the beginning of this piece (in conjunction with his harsh behavior towards her during/after the jazz routine he did for her and Ade), as he asked her to play a blind woman. However, Valerie turned the tables and used her “too nice” demeanor to captivate everyone by taking a dance that could have been a serious “issue dance” and turning it into a work of joy and light. The simple beauty of her performance floored me, and it wouldn’t have been possible without Zack’s careful partnering. I was shocked by how subtle and truly lovely this dance was—both in its choreography and its performance.

Valerie and Jessica: Bollywood
Why do the Top Two girls never get a dance that’s as good as the Top Two guys? I think Bollywood is entertaining, but it’s not going to earn either of them votes. I can never even tell if it’s being executed properly and neither can the judges, so I end up getting frustrated. I thought both Valerie and Jessica performed this dance really well, but it felt a little slow to me compared to other Bollywood routines this show has had.

Zack and Ricky: Hip Hop
I know this phrase gets thrown around so much on this show, but WHERE DID THESE TWO COME FROM? I was so impressed with both Zack and Ricky in this routine. It’s one thing to do a lyrical hip hop, but this was hard-hitting, no-nonsense, gritty hip hop. And they both not only danced it well; they sold the hell out of it. Hip hop demands total commitment or else it looks ridiculous, and these two brought their A-games to this dance. From the tricks to the footwork to the interconnected tutting, this choreography was some of the most intricate and entertaining hip hop choreography ever seen on this show. This dance seemed anything but easy, but it also seemed like both guys really enjoyed doing something so far out of their comfort zones. And that’s a testament to the choreographers.


Valerie and Aaron: Tap
I thought this routine was very cute in terms of its style and very intricate in terms of its rhythms, but there was something missing; it didn’t have the “wow!” factor I was expecting, to be honest. First of all, I don’t understand why the costume department didn’t put Valerie in a red dress to match her shoes; it was distractingly awful costuming, especially when Aaron looked so good in his suit. I also felt Valerie was looking down at her feet way too much, and it took away from the connection she should have been making with Aaron and the audience. In the moments where she looked up and at Aaron, she was dynamite. However, she seemed uncomfortable at times with the difficulty of the routine—or maybe looking down is just a force of habit for her when she taps (I see it all the time as a tap teacher). I wanted to tell her what I tell my students: “Your feet know what to do; don’t worry about them so much.”

Ricky and Kathryn: Contemporary
I have to apologize in advance for my lack of any kind of deep commentary about this dance; I nearly forgot everything that happened onstage as soon as Nigel opened his mouth and started talking about the “stupidity” of suicide. Now, I can barely think about this beautiful dance without going into a blind rage because of his incredibly thoughtless, insensitive, and ignorant comments about such a serious issue. When I do think about the dancing, though, I remember being annoyed with once again being told what to feel by a choreographer. Yes, Stacey Tookey, your dance was beautiful, but it actually didn’t move me even half as much as the opening routine did. I was distracted by Kathryn’s wings when I should have been watching Ricky, who literally faded into the background at times because of his dark costume and the dark lighting. What I did see of him, though, left me in awe of his talent as always. I think dancers like this didn’t need such a heavy story; I just wanted to see them dance.

Zack and Aaron: Tap
I could write a 75-page thesis about why this dance represents everything I love about tap. But for all of our sakes, I’ll try to keep this as short as possible. There have been some very strong SYTYCD tap routines in recent years, thanks to the brilliance of Anthony Morigerato. However, there’s never been anything like this. The idea of tap as a conversation—a means of sharing stories with your feet—has never been more perfectly expressed. The concept behind this routine was wonderful, especially because it highlighted what the dancers were doing instead of distracting from their talents. And the talent that was on display was beyond hyperbole—everything great thing you can say about both Aaron and Zack was true. Aaron dances with such easy grace and confidence; he’s everything a great tapper should be. And he brought out the best in Zack. You could feel the sense of homecoming on Zack’s face and in his body language throughout the dance; he may be versatile beyond belief, but this—a challenging tap routine—is his happy place. And that made it my happy place, too, as a viewer. The way the routine built with the music was genius, and the use of rhythm was so creative it leaves me speechless days later. But the thing I took away from this routine was the sense of pure joy on Zack’s face. He oozed confidence and charm, but, even more than that, he simply glowed with happiness. That mixture of technical complexity and joy is why tap has meant everything to me for 21 years, and I’m so glad America got to see my favorite style at its absolute best in this routine.

Jessica and Robert: Contemporary
Travis was on fire in this finale. His opening routine was so hopeful and inspiring, and this routine was so dark and subtly sexy. I was worried that Jessica might overplay the sensuality needed to pull this off, but she was impressively genuine. I’ve always been in awe of her strength, and this routine showed it off in a different way—by forcing her to make even the most challenging transitions look smooth. It takes strong legs and a strong core to make most of that choreography look so fluid. I loved all the little details in this routine, too, but none more than Jessica grabbing Robert’s hair and throwing him to the ground at the end. It was such a definitive moment, and she sold it so well.

Most of these solos were ones we’ve seen variations of before, and they were all great showcases for what makes these dancers special. However, I have to give Valerie points for her eponymous song choice. And Zack’s solo proved what I’ve believed to be true for a while: When it comes to pure skill as a tapper, he’s the best this show has ever seen.

My SYTYCD Season 11 Winner Prediction: Zack. I think he had the best night in terms of memorable performances, and I think his natural charm has won over so many people. Zack has the combination of genuine likability and true talent that has proved to be a winning formula for SYTYCD contestants over the years.

Favorite Routine: Zack and Aaron’s tap

8 thoughts on “TV Time: SYTYCD Season 11 “Top 4 Perform”

  1. I agreed with every word you said about Zack and Aaron’s routine. First of all, I heard two notes of Piano Man and I was all in, and their dancing was SOOO fantastic. I could watch that routine a hundred times and always be enthralled. My favorite part was when they did the over the top jump while the music picked up and they looked like they were floating in the air for a second, then they landed and kept tapping perfectly in sync. I love tap so much and this may have been my favorite routine this season. I too think Zack should win. I’ve liked him pretty much all season and he had the strongest night overall for sure. Plus, he seems like a no brainer for the Broadway prize. Out of the top 4, he’s the one I see on On the Town.

    • Thank you so much for this comment—and I totally agree that Zack is obviously the best fit for On the Town. He was made for a role in that musical. I’m also so thankful that you specifically mentioned the over the top, because I had about 100 words written about that moment specifically but cut them because I didn’t want to ramble forever. Not only was their height and synchronicity unbelievable; Zack’s face as he went into the over the top was confidence and joy personified. He got this downright fierce look on his face, and you could tell in that moment that he knew he was nailing this difficult choreography and had the audience eating out of his hand. It was a moment of genuinely blissful emotion on a show that’s increasingly asking its dancers to lose that in favor of playing sad, angry, or detached “characters.” And I absolutely adored it.

  2. OK, first I’d like the 75 page thesis please. It must be said, one of the great joys I get over here at NGN is when I talk out loud in response to something you said, as though we were having a conversation. Needless to say, I did that a lot with this one. But putting that aside. I think I will do some housekeeping items and then breakdown my highlights from the evening.

    Notes to SYTYCD should we get a 12th season (FINGERS CROSSED)

    1) Bring Misty back, she was a breath of fresh air in the early rounds and I could watch Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Christina Applegate alternate the 3rd chair regularly. No need looking for anyone else.
    2) Exit Tyce and bring Mia back – I am sorry, but the studio isn’t big enough for his ego, his dances are a blur of boredom and I miss Mia desperately.
    3) TURN THE LIGHTS ON! too many routines, including Katherine and Ricky’s a couple of nights ago have been marred, if not ruined by not actually being able to see them. America is watching on a TV, light the stage for us, not your audience in the studio. If last season was prop heavy, this season could have used a sponsorship from GE/LED
    4) Tell the choreographers to shut up. I don’t need to be told what to feel. If you must let me know what inspired your piece, I don’t need to know it is suppose to make me feel sad, happy, heart filled or whatever other description they use to pander the audience into what we should be thinking about. Dance is art. Yes it is the expression of the choreographer and dancers but as an audience, we are receiving art and it is ours to interpret and respond to as we see fit.
    5) Give the female finalists a decent routine! I can roll five routines in the finale that the guys did off the top of my head, but not a one of the female versions can I recall unless it is with dread – Wade Robeson I am looking at you, and no I am STILL not over what you forced Lacey and Sabra to do.

    Now, onto the night:

    DUO WHO HAD THE MOST FUN: Ricky and Zack’s Hip Hop routine.
    I have to say, something about the big playing card props when it started made me long for Neil and Danny’s Mia Michaels routine from their finale (seriously can she please come back, if only to do group numbers). But that nostalgia didn’t last long because suddenly two of the least swag driven dancers on the show suddenly began mopping the floor with a routine that was pure energy. By the end I was grinning from ear to ear. Sure their isolations weren’t razor sharp, but you know what, I didn’t care. I didn’t care because they came into that routine all in and committed to every piece of it from the attitude to the execution from start to finish. And through it all the tapper and the contemporary dancer had an absolute blast. You could see it at the end of the routine the way they embraced and you could feel it every step of the way. It was the most terrific surprise of the night.

    BEST MOMENT OF THE NIGHT – The Opening Routine by Travis Wall
    I have been on the Travis train from day 1. That necklace routine with Jeanine and Jason to Jason Mraz had me at hello. What he did for the group routine was the very best that Travis has to offer. Storytelling through movement, exquisite lines and powerful bursts of energy that grab hold of your imagination and force you to consider something from a different point of view. That’s what his routines often give, the moment to consider. When I watched that routine I felt like it was a clear statement that love is love and that is the beauty that love holds. Perfect.

    Oh Nigel, just when you think his dirty old man tendencies were the worst thing he could do on the show. NOPE! Not only did he manage to steamroll over a dance that obviously meant a lot to Stacy Tookey and Ricky, he was ill-informed and offensive. It was obvious someone grabbed him during a commercial break because he walked it back ever so slightly. Of course this then marred the glory that was Zack moment after what would prove to be one of the high points of the night. UGH.

    This routine’s tip of the hat to Fosse with the fantastic slow/fast accents was such a wonderful throw back to the hey day of dance movie musicals. Zack brought out an effortlessness in Jessica that I had been waiting to see all season. She really let go and entered the character/world of that dance, which is truly saying something because the complexity of the steps had to have been treacherous. It made me sad that these two hadn’t been paired earlier and often. Had they been, I think they, not Ricky and Valerie would have emerged as the season’s favorite duo.

    FAVORITE DANCE OF THE NIGHT – Zack and Aaron tap
    I have watched it no less than twice a day since Wednesday and I watched it four times before moving onto the next routine the night of the performance. I get chills thinking about this routine and all its perfection. The music, the storytelling, the intricacies of the steps, the synchronized movement and stunning lulls of the movement creating that conversation. Watching them dance you see the ebbs and flow of their bodies creating that quiet pub atmosphere that Billy Joel sings about in Piano Man. A friend said something to me that I thought so perfectly explained this number. Had Zack and Aaron just danced without music, we would have known that was the song it was set to from the opening steps. Everything you wrote about this dance was true. If it had been all of those technical things it would have been a fantastic dance. But add into the mix the giddy wonder that is Aaron (reminding me once again why he was my favorite all. season. long.) and Zack’s face with the look of a boy who had come home and it was sheer magic. This show is at its best when sincerity, humility and talent rise together in a routine. It creates the perfect storm of why dance is amazing. We saw it in Mia Michaels’ The Bench and we’ve seen it a handful of other moments along the 11 seasons. This Piano Man routine wasn’t only the routine of the season for me, it will forever rank as one of my favorite routines of all time. And I truly believe I will watch it everyday for the rest of my life.

    Ricky is by far the best dancer of this top four. Like many before him though, that alone will not win you this show. For me while Ricky’s technical prowess has always been impressive but, like Danny, I didn’t always believe he was connecting with the dances. He lacked the ‘entertainer’ piece that I love about all my favorites from this show. I didn’t connect with the girls this year at all truth be told. There were girls I thought who did well at different moments and I was fine with Jessica and Valerie being in the final four. But for me once we got to top ten this was a guy’s win to lose. Jessica has grown tremendously and that has been impressive to watch. And for me your take on Valerie’s tap routine sums up what I thought from (and said) in week one. Her dancing for me comes across as labored and it takes me out of her routines.

    I have made no mystery of the fact that ever since Zack had that breakout moment a few weeks ago I have been on the train for him to win. Week after week he has affirmed for me just how much of a well rounded dancer he is in this competition. He goes after everything he’s given with gusto and when he lands in a style that suits him, it creates the feeling of a favorite sweatshirt on a cold winter night. And the fact is, whenever I think about going to see On The Town this Fall it’s Zack I want to see.

    • Everything about this comment is perfect. I agree with all five of those points—especially #5. It’s such a strange pattern that this show has fallen into, and you’re not alone in never forgiving Wade for what he did to Lacey and Sabra. I remember being so upset in that moment because it just wasn’t fair. This week’s wasn’t anywhere near as bad, but it still wasn’t a fair fight with the brilliance of the guys’ routine (which was wonderful for all the reasons you highlighted).

      I loved reading your thought about Aaron and Zack’s tap because you make me feel less alone in my obsession with it. I have watched it probably 4-5 times a day since Wednesday, and I have showed it to so many people who don’t even watch the show because it just makes people happy. I also want you to know you’re not alone in your belief that this is probably one of my favorite routine’s in the show’s history. It might actually be my new #1.

      Your analogy of Zack’s style as a warm sweatshirt on a winter night is wonderful. He projects such warmth and comfort in his solos and his duet with Aaron. It reminds me of how I feel when I tap, although I could never in a billions years and with a billion lessons be as talented a tapper as he is. He has a true gift for not only capturing the difficulty of tap but also capturing the easy grace and charm of the best tappers (Kelly, O’Connor, Astaire) in the way Aaron did last season.

  3. I’m so glad I found your review–what a good read! I think this season’s finale was so good it has become one of my favorites of all time, and “Piano Man” has become my favorite SYTYCD piece of all time. Zack is definitely now my favorite male contestant of all time, and it’s weird because I only noticed him in Top 6 with Fik-shun.

    I picked Ricky as my favorite right from the auditions, but after a couple of weeks in the top 20, I found that while my brain knew he was in a league of his own in terms of technical ability, his dancing just didn’t grab me by the heart (or even the throat or the stomach). There wasn’t anyone else that caught my eye so I lost interest in the season and just watched some dances on YouTube when people on my Twitter timeline gave glowing reviews (and these people were Ricky fans). I had to watch Phillip’s choreography debut because I have a soft spot for him from Season 5, and I was blown away by Zack. It’s hard enough to be completely in sync with a partner, but being able to move in exactly the same way was something I don’t remember anyone successfully doing on the show since Jeanine Mason with Phillip in their hip hop routines. So I was like who is this guy and why haven’t I noticed him before? I watched the show back, and yes, he was a good dancer from the start. But the thing that set him apart to me was his ability and willingness to give EVERYTHING of himself to a dance every single time. Commitment feels like a weak word for it; he lays out his heart and mind and soul and holds nothing back, and that to me is what makes his dances extraordinarily beautiful and special. For me no one else has been able to do that consistently this season; the closest would have to be Serge.

    The other thing about Zach is that I never really “got” tap until I saw him this season. I loved Aaron last year but I liked him better in other styles, and he was never able to sell tap to me. When I saw Zack tap in the Top 20 I thought, that dude looks cool dancing it. Then when I watched the show back and saw his solos, there was just something so compelling about him when he taps that made me want to pay attention. And then as if Piano Man wasn’t enough to win me over to tap, HIS FINAL SOLO. Just that confidence and charm, the way he was speaking and reaching out to the audience through his body and his feet, the quietness of the music, the clarity and musicality of the tap sounds, and just the pure joy radiating from him. I get it now. So I have him to thank for making me appreciate a dance form I never thought I would even like.

    I want Zack to win the whole thing, quite obviously, but I think the audience support for Ricky is just too big and strong from the start to overcome now. Regardless of the outcome I’ll definitely follow Zack’s career after the show, and I feel like his future is going to be strong and bright.

    • Thank you so much for the kind words about my review and for sharing your thoughts about this season!

      As someone who has tapped for basically her whole life, I’m so happy Zack helped you see all that this style can be. He’s such a wonderful example of the joy that tappers can bring to an audience simply by showing just how much fun they’re having in their style. “Piano Man” and Zack’s “Superstition” solo were such wonderful moments for tap on SYTYCD because they were simply as good as tap can possibly get. I don’t think there’s a better endorsement for Zack than the one you gave him, saying he helped you appreciate a whole new style of dance.

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