Best of the Best

Since “So You Think You Can Dance” debuted in 2005, we’ve watched each week of its 11-season run hungrily, eager to see what the choreographers have in store for us. Their routines are the core of the show, and the source of some of our favorite television memories. But many “SYTYCD” pieces have also helped shape and shift trends in the larger dance community. They’ve brought amazing musical artists to our attention, changed the face of contemporary dance—even created new genres (hello, lyrical hip hop!).

To the dancers and choreographers who bring “SYTYCD” to life: We salute you. Here are the routines that changed the course of the show—and forced the world to take made-for-TV dance seriously.

Ramalama (Bang Bang) (photo by Kelsey McNeal, courtesy FOX)

Ramalama (Bang Bang), Season 2

Choreographer: Wade Robson

Dancers: The Top 10

Song: “Ramalama (Bang Bang),” by Róisín Murphy

The impact: In the early days of “SYTYCD,” everything Robson touched turned to “You’re safe this week.” His group routine for Season 2’s Top 10 was so far from a “typical” jazz routine that America went wild for it. The zombie-esque choreography showcased the angular, fiercely musical style that would become Robson’s signature.

Calling You (photo by Kelsey McNeal, courtesy FOX)

Calling You, Season 2

Choreographer: Mia Michaels

Dancers: Travis Wall and Heidi Groskreutz

Song: “Calling You,” by Céline Dion

The impact: Michaels defined contemporary dance as we now know it on the show with this routine. Remembered as “the bench dance,” it featured the perfect balance between simple, quiet movements and explosive lifts and jumps. One second, Wall and Groskreutz were touching hands through the bench in a moment of innocent passion; the next, Groskreutz was flying into Wall’s arms.

Time (photo by Kelsey McNeal, courtesy FOX)

Time, Season 3

Choreographer: Mia Michaels

Dancers: Lacey Schwimmer and Neil Haskell

Song: “Time,” by Billy Porter

The impact: Michaels’ tribute to her late

father was one of the show’s first tearjerkers. Schwimmer portrayed a young Michaels reuniting in heaven with her dad, who was played by Haskell with sincerity and charm. Time marked a turn for “SYT” contemporary routines: They started to focus on powerful narratives rooted in real-life experiences. (Later, Tyce Diorio and Travis Wall created memorable contemporary pieces about loved ones stricken with cancer, and Stacey Tookey and Sonya Tayeh also explored themes of abandonment, loss and heartbreak.)

The Chairman's Waltz (photo by Kelsey McNeal, courtesy FOX)

The Chairman’s Waltz, Season 3

Choreographer: Wade Robson

Dancers: Jaimie Goodwin and Hokuto “Hok” Konishi

Song: “The Chairman’s Waltz,” from Memoirs of a Geisha

The impact: Pair a dreamy contemporary dancer with an eclectic b-boy and you have a potential choreographic disaster. But Robson set Goodwin and Konishi up for success in this piece—affectionately known as “the hummingbird and the flower”—by customizing the choreography to their talents, rather than trying to shoehorn them into something pre-made. “We studied flowers and hummingbirds and how they interact in nature,” Goodwin remembers. “It was important to Wade that we kept the clarity in our storytelling.”

Sweet Dreams (photo by Kelsey McNeal, courtesy FOX)

Sweet Dreams, Season 3

Choreographer: Mandy Moore

Dancers: Neil Haskell and Sabra Johnson

Song: “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This),” by The Eurythmics

The impact: This is the routine that brought classic jazz (think layouts and fan kicks) back into the mainstream. Moore’s idea was to create a piece about a business lunch. “I asked if I could use a table, and the show felt the routine didn’t need it,” she says. “But I begged, and finally co-executive producer Jeff Thacker gave in.” Thank goodness: The powerful, athletic piece was all about the hard-hitting accents in the music, which Moore highlighted with lots of awesomely intense table-slamming.

Bleeding Love (photo by Kelsey McNeal, courtesy FOX)

Bleeding  Love, Season 4

Choreographers: Tabitha and Napoleon D’umo

Dancers: Chelsie Hightower and Mark Kanemura

Song: “Bleeding Love,” by Leona Lewis

The impact: Lyrical and hip hop used to be different worlds. But in Season 4, the NappyTabs dream team brilliantly combined the two—using their strong hip-hop choreography to tell an emotional story—and “lyrical hip hop” was born. “We choreograph to the words, and every word has a meaning,” Napoleon told audiences. Hightower and Kanemura nailed it onstage, and the moment when Kanemura used his hand to “tear out” Hightower’s heart quickly became one of those “let’s use this in our next comp routine” moves.

Dhoom Taana, Season 4

Choreographer: Nakul Dev Mahajan

Dancers: Katee Shean and Joshua Allen

Song: “Dhoom Taana,” from the Om Shanti Om soundtrack

The impact: Before this piece came along, most of America had no clue what Bollywood was. But the style immediately became a “SYT” classic. With its hyper-upbeat music and intricate hand gestures, this routine was a guaranteed success in the sensory-overload department. Beyond its fun and flashiness, though, it also opened a major door for the show by introducing audiences to a previously unfamiliar style.

The Garden, Season 4

Choreographer: Sonya Tayeh

Dancers: Mark Kanemura and Courtney Galiano

Song: “The Garden,” by Mirah

The impact: After three seasons of “good girls,” it was refreshing to see a duet in which a woman got to be both a vixen and a powerhouse. Turns out, that’s just the Tayeh way. This routine—one of Tayeh’s first for “SYT”—showed off the quirkiest sides of Kanemura, as well as new facets of Galiano. “Sonya brought a different element of jazz to the show,” Galiano says. “I felt so strong and sexy.” Girl power!

Gravity, Season 5

Choreographer: Mia Michaels

Dancers: Kayla Radomski and Kupono Aweau

Song: “Gravity,” by Sara Bareilles

The impact: With Radomski as a powerless addict and Aweau as her addiction, this hauntingly beautiful routine struck a cord with viewers. “Kupono and I were pushed to extremes we didn’t think were possible,” says Radomski. “An enormous number of people reached out to us afterward. We had no idea we would be able to move people so deeply—and, in some cases, help them make it through a dark time in their lives.”

How It Ends, Season 7

Choreographer: Travis Wall

Dancers: Kent Boyd and Neil Haskell

Song: “How It Ends,” by DeVotchKa

The impact: Wall is the ultimate “SYTYCD” success story: After being named runner-up during Season 2, he became one of the show’s most beloved choreographers. Though he made his “SYT” choreographic debut during Season 5 (the impressive If It Kills Me for Jeanine Mason and Jason Glover), it was this duet that solidified Wall’s superstar status. “This routine made a huge impact because it was so personal to Travis,” Boyd says. “This was also the first time two men had danced together in an emotional way on the show. There are many issues and opinions about gender in our society, but the reason we dance is to tell stories and relate to humanity—regardless of gender.” Keep breaking those boundaries, Mr. Wall. We’re all along for the ride.

 

 

(From left) Darriel Johnakin, Diego Pasillas, and Emma Sutherland (all photos by Erin Baiano)

Congratulations to Dance Spirit's 2019 Cover Model Search finalists: Darriel Johnakin, Diego Pasillas, and Emma Sutherland! One of them will win a spot on Dance Spirit's Fall 2019 cover. Learn more about the dancers on their profile pages, and then vote for your favorite below. You can vote once a day now through July 15.

We also want you to get social! We'll be factoring social media likes and shares into our final tallies. Be sure to show your favorite finalist some love on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, sharing their profile pages and using the hashtag #DanceSpiritCMS.

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Photo by Erin Baiano

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