Dancers tackling Nappytabs' intricate choreo at The Academy (Adam Rose/FOX)

"SYTYCD" Season 15 Recap: Welcome to The Academy

After four speedy rounds of solo auditions, we've arrived at The Academy!

If you've been living in "So You Think You Can Dance" Land for a long time (shout-out to everyone who was alive and watching back when Nick Lazzarini won Season 1 in 2005), The Academy is the new Vegas Week, when the narrowed-down group of dancers who impressed the judges in NYC and L.A. get thrown to the wolves. (This year, as we found out in last night's ep, Academy sessions happened at the Dolby Theater in L.A.) They're put through grueling choreography rounds, where they're tasked with picking up choreo super fast, then performing it, then hoping not to get cut, and then moving onto the next style—learn, rehearse, repeat.

This week, the choreographers on deck were husband-and-wife dream team Tabitha and Napoleon D'umo and ballroom wizard Jean-Marc Généreux. But first, we kicked things off with a prelim in which the 70 Academy dancers did solos for Nigel, Mary, and Vanessa. Those performances determined whether or not they'd move on to the choreography rounds. And the judges weren't playing—Nigel said he was ready to "break a few hearts."

So, how'd the first Academy episode play out?

The Solo Standouts

Darius Hickman

This contemporary dynamo auditioned last season, and the judges loved him and his story (his mom went to prison, and dance got him through the ordeal). This season, he's back, with his mega-deep pliés in second, fierce focus, and legs. The performance was excellent—one Mary said would "keep her going for the next couple hours." Not sure what that means, but Darius is on to meet Nappytabs!

Jensen Arnold

We know Jensen from last season, too: She's Lindsay Arnold's little sister, remember? But she says she's ready to step out of her big sis's shadow. (More possible big sisters, based on looks, for Jensen: Lauren Conrad and Julianne Hough. Right?!) She busted out a side aerial to start things off, and continued with a whole lotta shaking and sassing from there on out. (Nigel called her dancing heavy, but we just pretended we didn't hear that.) Unsurprisingly, she got through to the hip-hop round.

Tessa Dalke

We bow down to Tessa. She's the one studying psychobiology, remember? And now she's at The Academy a week before her bio midterms. Um, go girl. Her jumps are as light as, well, air, and she's got the prettiest feet we've seen this season. Mary thought she was extraordinary (same!), and called her solo the best of the day. Unsurprisingly, she got through to choreography.

By the end of the solo round, 53 dancers remained. And they got to tackle...

Hip Hop with Nappytabs

Tabitha promised the dancers "the hardest work they've ever done in their lives." And so the remaining Top 20 hopefuls partnered up for "moments of slow grooves" and "a bunch of musicality moments." They had 90 minutes to learn the routine, during which, naturally, some of them started to get injured and exhausted and scared. Then it was time to perform in groups of six, three pairs at a time.

The first group "really brought it" and all get to stick around (including terrific tapper Evan DeBenedetto). But from there, the cuts came fast and furious. For every few dancers that nailed the routine (including Jay Jackson and Hannahlei Cabanilla), a bunch were cut. By the end of the hip-hop round, eight more dancers were out of the running.

Ballroom with Jean-Marc Généreux

Then it was cha-cha time! And Vanessa got the giggles! Returning favorite Kyle Bennett, Jr., was up first. Could the animator cha-cha? Kind of! Nigel commended his effort, and he was on to the next round, along with the rest of his six-person group. Ballroom vets Jensen Arnold and Melany Mercedez got some screen time next, and were both expected to crush it. But here's the thing: Getting a not-fluent-in-ballroom partner (like Melany, who was paired with animator Ryan Green) can make the situation...complicated. Fortunately, the judges know that, and Melany and Jensen both got through, along with fan fave Jay Jackson.

41 dancers are on to the next challenge—cue Travis Wall and Mandy Moore! Same place, same time, next week!

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Photo by Brooke Fera

Enter the World of the Knicks City Dancers with 2 of Their Newest Rookies

Auditions rarely fail to deliver on suspense. But this? This was the nail-biter to end all nail-biters. Hayoung Roh and Chelsea McCloskey, both professional dancers based in NYC, had made it through what felt like endless rounds of cuts, both on Zoom and in person. Out of the nearly 500 dancers (from 30 states and nine countries) who'd answered the Knicks City Dancers' open call for video submissions, just 20 remained—McCloskey and Roh among them. "We were separated into six holding rooms, where we kept trying to figure out the math," Roh recalls. "How many girls are there in total? Who was called back?"

Finally, the women returned to the audition room to dance one last time—or so they were told. Instead, KCD head coach Alyssa Quezada dropped her bombshell: All 20 women had made the final cut. They would be 2021–22 Knicks City Dancers: the latest and greatest edition of one of the most prestigious NBA dance teams. "It was the biggest celebration and the coolest moment of my dance career so far," says McCloskey now. And that was just the oh-so-perfectly-dramatic beginning.

Chelsea McCloskey stands on her left leg while kicking her right leg up with her arms crossed, a smile on her face. She is auditioning for KCD. Chelsea McCloskey Photo by Tess Mayer

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