THE Fox reality show "So You Think You Can Dance" may or may not be a victory for dance -- more on that later -- but it is undoubtedly a victory for TV. No show rewards close viewing more -- it's the only show I routinely rewind, hoping to pull more nuances from the performances, or attempting to understand why the show's judges saw merit in what appears on quick glance to be flimsy work. It is ideal summer TV: watching other people move with purpose, but in ways you couldn't possibly replicate, so as to avoid any guilt about inactivity. Originally crafted as a summer place holder to capture eyeballs and text-message-vote dollars while "American Idol" caught its breath (they are both produced by 19 Entertainment), "SYTYCD" has morphed into the better of the two shows, and is quite possibly the best reality competition on TV. "Idol" never gets much harder than karaoke, and with the advent of "The Singing Bee" and "Don't Forget the Lyrics," singing amateurs on TV are perilously close to saturation point.
The third season of "SYTYCD" begins its two-night finale tonight at 8 , and will likely showcase all the reasons "SYTYCD" has usurped "Idol's" spot. Competitors on "Idol" may or may not hit their notes, but that's largely their only challenge; rarely do they disappear wholly inside a foreign style. On "SYTYCD," that's the goal each week. There are hip-hop dancers who must learn how to be elegant, just as there are trained ballroom champs who must learn to be swaggering or sultry.
Each of this season's four finalists has faced a challenge along these lines. The unbearably handsome Danny Tidwell is an accomplished ballet dancer with contemporary leanings, but he had to find a heart. Sabra Johnson is a relatively inexperienced contemporary dancer with pristine technique and spongelike adaptability, but she had to find courage. Neil Haskell is a pretty-boy contemporary dancer given to acrobatic feats and huge grins, but he had to find a brain. That might make Lacey Schwimmer, the younger sister of last season's winner, Benji, and a Latin ballroom junior champion, the Dorothy of the bunch. Wide-eyed and maybe a bit naive, she has seemed the most committed to growth of the four, eager to shed her practiced tics, maybe because they're uncool. (She is also the only dancer of the four to have never been in danger of elimination.)
Even more than its dancers, though, "SYTYCD" fetishizes its choreographers, a rotating bunch who, in the eyes of the show, can do no wrong. There's Mandy Moore (not to be confused with the pop singer Mandy Moore), whose routines have been crisp, energetic and modern, and the sublime Mia Michaels, advocating on behalf of "alien" movements, and sometimes even getting the dancers to achieve them. Hunter Johnson has lent a touch of class to the competition with his waltzes, and Alex Da Silva's Latin routines have been slick.
And then there's former child rapper and Britney Spears choreographer Wade Robson, whose theme-heavy routines are just this side of kitsch (see Hok & Jaimie's flower/hummingbird routine in Week 3). As the season has progressed, his routines have become increasingly kooky, though none were as preposterous as his utterly naive, in both ideology and technique, "anti-war" routine that each of the Top 10 contestants had to perform three weeks ago. Generally, though, it's Robson's job to make the contestants look good -- he choreographs many of the group dances that the contestants perform, helping them jell into a moving unit. Even the dance eccentrics in the group are served by these routines -- they're the ultimate proof of their malleability. But to witness where the dancers differ, just take a look at the feet: one barefoot, one in Nikes, one in heels, and so on. It's a rainbow coalition of style.
These are high times for dance in America -- over 10 million votes were cast in last week's installment of "SYTYCD" -- but it's not just on TV. The Soulja Boy, the Aunt Jackie, the Ratchet, the Toe Wop, the Chicken Noodle Soup, turf dancing -- the list of craze-worthy hip-hop dances seems to have grown in the past year, with regions from New York to Atlanta to the Bay Area birthing and popularizing local styles. And though you can find these dances celebrated in a song, or songs, dedicated specifically to them, the dances themselves have become more important. They live, and evolve, on the block, but they're transmitted, and immortalized, online. A cursory YouTube search turns up hundreds, if not thousands, of clips of people, kids, mostly, doing their best versions of the dances -- approximately 15,000 hits for the Soulja Boy and 1,000 for the Aunt Jackie, as opposed to 23,000 hits for the waltz and around 4,000 for the pasodoble, both far more established dances.
These clips -- particularly the homemade ones -- constitute their own "SYTYCD"-like world. Comments abound. Temporary virtual mini-communities form. Stars are made.