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‘SYTYCD’ Finale Recap, Pt 1: The Good, The Bad & The Gumboot

Lyndsey Parker
Reality Rocks

On Wednesday, four of the most talented dancers from one of the best "So You Think You Can Dance" seasons ever competed for the last time, but this certainly wasn't the best "So You Think You Can Dance" finale ever. While there were four routines (out of the evening's total 10) that I really loved--a jazz number by Melanie and Tadd, Melanie's contemporary with allstar Robert Roldan, Sasha's contemporary with allstar Mark Kanemura, and, most of all, a gorgeous Sasha/Melanie pairing--many other dances just fell flat for me. And some were in genres that producer Nigel Lythgoe had to have known would not be popular with viewers (like disco, cha cha, and...wait for it...GUMBOOT STEPPING).

And it wasn't just me who felt this way. Even Nigel himself was left feeling underwhelmed. During one critique on the live show, he complained, "We've got four brilliant dancers in the finale, and I've got to be honest and say I've been a little disappointed this evening with what the finale is." Later that night, he actually tweeted, "A lot of you are blaming the choreography tonight. I don't know & I can't put my finger on it. I'm genuinely disappointed though. It was TAME."

There were other reasons for the overall feeling of disappointment on what should have been the most exciting night of the "SYTYCD" season. Guest judges Kenny Ortega (of Michael Jackson/This Is It fame) and Katie Holmes offered nothing constructive, making Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez look like Simon Cowell on a bad day, they were so totally toothless. Kenny at least brought an interesting résumé to the judges' table--did you know he choreographed Xanadu, Newsies, and Billy Squier's infamous "Rock Me Tonite" video?--but he spent too much time praising the choreographers and allstars, not the contestants themselves. Meanwhile, vapid Katie seemed to take the old "if you haven't got anything nice to say..." adage to heart, mistaking lines like "congratulations on a great season!" and "I hope you're having a great night!" for actual critiques.

And finally, what was most irking was how slanted the show was in favor of the female contestants. Many of the boy/girl routines cast the female dancer in a dominant role (feisty scorned girlfriend, feisty flirtatious vamp), and the two girls got the best duet routine of the night, while the two boys were stuck with the worst. Nigel even boldly predicted a girl will win on Thursday. I just hope this tactic doesn't backfire on him, and outraged viewers don't vote in droves for Marko or Tadd in protest, because I really would like to see either Melanie or Sasha prevail. I would just like them to win fair and square, without any accusations of favoritism.

Okay, enough of my complaining. I've got 10 routines to recap. TEN! Here they are all: the good, the bad...and the gumboot.

DANCES WITH ALLSTARS:

Sasha with Mark Kanemura - Contemporary
Choreographer Sonya Tayeh's "ode to Sasha" starring Season 4's Mark, my favorite "SYTYCD" allstar of all time, was a true meeting of the Mohawks and minds. With an evil-eyed Mark representing the life obstacles literally pushing Sasha down and literally holding her back, this sexy-but-scary dance reminded me of Kupono and Kayla's powerful "Addiction" routine from Season 5--except in this case, unlike the victimized Kayla, Sasha rose up and fought back, like the little "warrior princess" she's been all season long. Sparring with Mark to Deadmaus's "Raise Your Weapon," Sasha wriggled like she had no bones, like she was made entirely out of cartilage, to escape Mark's vice-grip in a vulnerable wheelbarrow position. Then suddenly it seemed like she was made entirely out of muscle, as she overpowered him. By the routine's end, she was triumphant and in control, as she threw him to the floor and stepped over him like he was litter on the street. ("Do you realize you've just beaten up Lady Gaga's principal dancer?" exclaimed Nigel. Hmmmm...I wonder what Mark's boss Gaga would have thought of this routine--would she have thrown a shoe at Sasha again, like she did in top eight week?) Sasha already seemed like the winner after this. "I love that walk at the end, like, you did it!" cheered Katie. Mary Murphy cheered even more loudly, starting off her critique with a big "woo hoo!" and then saying, "Your strength, your intensity, your clarity about what needs to be done, is going serve you amazingly in your dance career, and it has served you amazingly in this competition. You [have an attitude like] 'I wanna be a champion and a star,' and that's what you are." Said Kenny, "I know there's a little art imitating life up there. I know you're battling a little injury, and battling up against a very, very powerful dancer. You came out the victor." And Nigel summed it all up with: "We called you a warrior at the beginning of this series, and you're fighting your way through to the end. You've just thrown down the gauntlet to the other three contestants this evening!"

Tadd with Joshua Allen - Hip-Hop
First of all, it was nice see Season 4 champion Josh, the first hip-hop dancer to ever win "SYTYCD," back on the show for his first go as an allstar. (I hadn't spotted him on my TV screen since he was a pro partner on that seen-by-only-me weight-loss dance show, "Dance Your Ass Off.") Josh was paired with this season's resident B-boy for a hard-hitting, hard-hustling Lil' C duet to Ace Hood's "Hustle Hard"--appropriate since, as Lil' C put it, "Tadd sure has been a hustler to get to the top four," and as Mary said, "You have been hustling hard ever since you started the show!" (I think it's safe to say that Tadd is the biggest underdog among the final four, and if actually wins on Thursday, it will be the biggest upset in "SYTYCD" history.) I am just not so sure if Tadd hustled enough to improve his chances of taking the grand prize. There wasn't quite enough swag for me. The routine started out strong, but the hustle lost its muscle about halfway through. The problem might have been what Mary called Tadd's "sweet-pea factor," his undeniable and apparently insuppressible adorableness that made it hard for him to be 100 percent convincing playing a street thug. Kenny thought "the pairing was perfect" and Katie said she "loved [Tadd's] sweetness and smile," but Nigel griped, "I did find it a little too sweet." Still, he elaborated: "But you've got this magic smile. You were dancing with the Season 4 champion; I wonder if you'll be the champion of Season 8. It's going to be very interesting. Not a bad job, but still not as strong as I would like it."

Melanie with Robert Roldan - Contemporary
This lovely and emotional Stacey Tookey routine (to Sinead O'Connor's "Sacrifice") was all about Melanie's unrequited love for Robert, and while it certainly was believable that Melanie would fall hard for a hunk like Mr. Roldan, it was kind of a leap to imagine him not returning her affections. Who wouldn't love America's sweetheart, the Shirley Temple of "SYTYCD"? However, Melanie made it believable. I think the girl could have a real career in acting along with dancing; everything she does has so many layers to it, so much dimension and depth. I loved seeing Melanie's yin to the yang of her fiercest competitor, Sasha; while Sasha had been tough and wily in her allstar routine with Mark, here Melanie was soft and fragile. But interestingly, both routines ended with the ladies walking away, strong and in control (at the conclusion of this number, Melanie found the courage to walk away from Robert). "I would push myself to the front of the line to have a chance to work with you, my darling. You bring a combination of theater and emotion and technique and drama and skill to everything you do on that stage. It is incredible to watch," gushed Kenny, who seemed to have fallen so in love with Melanie himself, he practically offered her a part in his Dirty Dancing movie remake. Katie called her a "magical person." Said an equally smitten Mary, "Something special happens when you dance. The room gets really quiet. People stop moving and fidgeting. You have the captivating capability to draw people in, in just the first few seconds. You're in a class of your own." And Nigel said, "I don't know if you've captured America's heart; you've certainly captured mine. I think that Sasha threw down the gauntlet, and you just picked it up and slapped her in the face with it!" (Nigel never could make up his mind between Melanie and Sasha, could he?)

Marko with Lauren Froderman - Contemporary
While last year's winner Lauren, with her flair for drama, sort of upstaged Marko in his intense Tessandra Chavez-choreographed, Me'Shell Ndegeocello-soundtracked depiction of a toxic relationship, Marko did dance like a champion himself here. (This was definitely his "moment" of the night.) He was a strong partner for Lauren (with whom he shared killer chemistry; Kenny said they were "made for each other"), and it was impossible not to be moved by the way he dove so fearlessly into the emotion of the dance. "You just thrust greatness upon yourself," raved Mary, who on past episodes had declared Marko her favorite. "You were just living it in every single moment. You've been given a second chance in life [he was shot in an armed robbery, and still has a bullet lodged in is arm], and I can feel that you're not going to waste any bit of it. It's such a beautiful thing." Said Nigel, "I think just then, you joined in the finale tonight, because that was a fabulous performance." Was it enough, though, to top the girls? We shall see...

DANCES WITH FELLOW CONTESTANTS:

Melanie & Marko - Disco
It was the reunion of this season's "power couple," and that alone was reason to boogie in celebration. But the chemistry these two exhibited from the moment they were paired up in their famous top 20 week "Turn To Stone" routine didn't seem quite as palpable in this routine. With a choreographer like Doriana Sanchez (the disco dominatrix known for her punishing speeds and complicated lifts) and a soundtrack like Donna Summer and Giorgio Moroder's "I Feel Love" (the song that arguably kicked off an electronic music revolution), plus a fab couple like M&M, this should have been more far-out and groovy than it actually was. Doriana wanted them to be "human mirrorballs" and an "explosion of energy, fun and sparkles," but I didn't quite feel the love. However, Kenny told them, "You guys look like you just jumped out of the screen of Saturday Night Fever. Fun, electric, sizzling, great!" Katie also raved, "The expression on your faces makes me want to dance!" But, as is often the case, the regular judges were a lot less effusive, and a lot more honest, than the guest judges. Mary pointed out, "The lifts coming in and out, some of them were a real struggle, and you went in and out of the style." Said Nigel, "It was, I thought, a little bit of a struggle. You seemed a little uncomfortable in the style a bit. I'm rather hoping I'm going to see you both do better in your future routines." (Well, Nigel, maybe you shouldn't have had such lame dance genres in the finale, of all nights. Just sayin'.)

Sasha & Marko - Broadway
This Spencer Liff routine required both dancers to play against type. The cool Marko had to become a dork (playing a goofy waiter), and androgynous Sasha had to transform, swan-like, into a screen siren (playing an elegant diner who attempts to seduce Marko and bring a whole new meaning to the term "table-dancing"). Dancing to the vampy classic "Whatever Lola Wants" by Ella Fitzgerald, Sasha channeled her inner Jordan Casanova, and Marko was the cutest reality-TV geek this side of "The Glee Project's" Cameron Mitchell. I wasn't blown away, but I liked this, as it was fun to see new sides of both distinctive dancers. "Marko, from leading man to character actor! Sasha, from warrior princess to sophisticated lady! Great transitions!" said Kenny. Mary and Katie also loved the pair's character makeovers, with Katie calling Marko "incredible" and "fabulous" and even comparing Sasha to Cyd Charisse. Only Nigel didn't think this routine made for fine dining. "I'm afraid I'm going to ruin the party. It didn't knock me out, I'm afraid," he said. "I think you make a better warrior princess than you make a vamp, Sasha. And I didn't get off on Marko's character at all. For Broadway, I like to see much stronger characters." A round of deafening boos ensued. Apparently the audience disagreed with Nigel, and wanted to have whatever Sasha and Marko were having.

Sasha & Tadd - Cha Cha
This was choreographed by the Grammy-nominated Mark Ballas, who was on loan from "Dancing With The Stars" (funny how he kept such a poker face when I recently asked him about the possibility of him working on "SYTYCD"). But Mark probably won't be winning any Emmys for this routine, one of the biggest disappointments of the night. I liked the music choice, an interesting one for a non-traditional cha cha (Basement Jaxx's "Raindrops"), but even a cool song and the show's undeniably coolest contestants couldn't save this. Nothing clicked. The duo seemed to regress before my very eyes. My very sad eyes. While Sasha was stronger than Tadd, giving me flashbacks of her days dancing with her old dead-weight partner Alexander, neither she nor Tadd lived up to the potential they'd demonstrated throughout the season. Even they admitted the routine was "really frickin' tough." While Kenny just pep-talked them and Katie diplomatically praised their past work while cowardly refusing to comment on the routine she'd just seen, Mary and Nigel came down hard on the pair. "You've got to handle what's been given to you and you've got to make it work, and this did not work tonight," Mary sighed. "The connections, the body positions--both of you were struggling. There's a lot of big problems right now." Added Nigel, "Tadd, you just couldn't apparently cope with this style at all. It felt really uncomfortable to watch. Sasha was somewhat better, but Sasha, this isn't good for you either, in the finale." Luckily for Sasha, she had other routines to help get the votes, but this cha cha may have ruined Tadd's finale chances, even if his next routine did help him regain favor with the judges.

Melanie & Tadd - Jazz
This Ray Leeper routine was just so damn fun. At first I was not so sure if the sweet, cherub-cheeked Melanie would be able to get into the character of a tough-as-nails broad who stands up to a cheating cad. But much like Sandy in Grease, Melanie transformed--complete with Sandy-worthy black Spandex pants and a Pink Lady-esque sneer. The routine was a sort of G-rated striptease--during the number Melanie shed one shoe, and then the other, yet never missed a step, plus she eventually stripped Tadd down to his boxer shorts. (This cheater was caught with his pants down, literally!) And both dancers stayed committed in character. Melanie once again flaunted her acting chops, but Tadd was totally believable too, and his persona reminded me of the fun bed routine he did with Jordan earlier this season. "That just brought my evening to life!" howled Nigel, adding, "Tadd, you totally redeemed yourself on that routine." Kenny agreed that this was a comeback for Tadd, saying, "The chemistry was exceptional, and the story was adorable." He also singled out golden girl Melanie for extra praise, saying, "Before you even started, you already had me gripped to the stage. You're already in the zone before step one begins!" Katie called the routine a "breath of fresh air" and "fun to watch," and Mary told them, "You brought sexy back for sure!" This routine was exactly what the show needed, after several numbers that didn't quite pull out all the finale stops. But sadly, any post-cha cha redemption Tadd had earned after his great routine would soon be squandered...

Melanie & Sasha - Contemporary
This was my favorite routine of the night, and considering that these two dynamite ladies danced it together, that's no huge surprise. The last time Melanie and Sasha danced together, in a dark Sonya Tayeh routine, they were so incredible that guest judge Lady Gaga threw her platform boot at them. This Stacey Tookey dance couldn't have been more different from that Sonya number, but it was equally amazing, and equally shoe-toss-worthy. Playing two suppressed '50s housewives wanting to break past the picket fences that hold them captive like prison bars, Melanie and Sasha completely brought Stacey's wholly original concept to life. Deep, painful life. My heart ached as I watched them, and like Kenny, it "made me feel hopeless; I wanted to reach in and sort of grab hold on them and break them free." I think Sasha embodied desperation better here--her dancing style and facial expressions were more frustrated, more fiery--but Melanie was perfect in the demure housewife role, and her sorrow seemed more real. Like Kenny said, they were both "actresses that can dance." Together, they brought out the best in each other. Oh, can't they just tie for first place? That'd make Nigel doubly happy, but I'd be more than okay with it too.

Marko & Tadd - Gumboot Stepping
Um, gumboot what? Look, I'm all for introducing new, largely unknown types of choreography into the "SYTYCD" mix, but finale night is not the night to do it. I mean, if Jeannine Mason had done her lame Russian folk routine in Season 5's finale week, she may not have won that year. And certainly new, largely unknown types of choreography (and I mean unknown to both the viewers AND the dancers) shouldn't be introduced in the FINAL NUMBER of the finale. This seemed like a blatant attempt to throw Marko and Tadd under the bus (or down the mineshaft--that metaphor will make sense if you keep reading), so that Nigel would get his female winner. And as much as I also want a girl to win this year...well, the whole thing just made me angry. Marko and Tadd did their best pushing wheelbarrows around the stage and slapping around in rubber Wellie boots and Super Mario Brothers miner overalls to this Chuck Maldonado routine, but they didn't hold a candle to the experts who originated the style in South Africa. And they looked positively exhausted after doing four other dances in just two hours (one allstar number, one solo, and two other fellow-contestant routines, apiece), which is probably why they were totally out of sync. At the end, it seemed like they just gave up, and I couldn't really blame them. What a bummer way to end the big night. Katie once again didn't even bother to criticize them, just benignly telling them, "I hope you are having a great night!" All I know is, Marko and Tadd probably were having a great night...until this mess. And Nigel's comments certainly didn't cheer them up. "I'll be honest with you: Right from the beginning of the competition, I thought a girl would win. And I haven't changed my mind," Nigel said. He'll probably get his way--but Melanie and Sasha didn't need this act of manipulation to win, and it did the boys a disservice. Not cool, Nigel. Not cool.

So, now it is prediction time. I think it's safe to stay that, unless voters protest and vote for the boys (hey, it could happen), a girl will win this thing. I imagine Tadd will place fourth and Marko third, but when it comes down to Melanie vs. Sasha, I just feel like just picking one of their names out of Cat Deeley's hat. I think Melanie might have the edge, but Sasha, a fighter since day one, should not be counted out. But maybe it doesn't really matter which girl wins. Nigel told them, "I think both of you would grace any dance company at the end of this," and Mary summed it up best when she told them, "No matter what happens tomorrow, you have to know you're just so, so well-loved, and you've just been amazing the entire season."

So Thursday we'll find out which girl (or, maybe, boy) wins, and to make up for this Wednesday's relative lack of truly exciting routines, the two-hour finale will be packed with memorable dances from earlier this season, like Ashley and Chris's jail routine, Sasha and Kent on the wall, Melanie and Marko's statue dance, Twitch and Sasha's hot breakfast, and much more. As Katie Holmes might say, I hope you'll be having a great night! See you then.

[photos courtesy of Fox]

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