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FOX's So You Think You Can Dance kicks off its eleventh season on Wednesday, and while the series can't be said to be in its prime anymore — the judges don't really critique anymore, and the whole enterprise might be well served by starting the competition at 16 dancers rather than the traditional 20 — it's still your go-to program if you're looking for top-notch dancing on TV. SYTYCD's greatest virtue remains its scope. It covers the gamut from ballroom styles to modern dance and jazz and any number of evolving hip hop styles. (While no one would confuse a Nigel Lythgoe show for a hip hop authority, there's no denying that it continues to strive to expand its vocabulary.)
For its fans, So You Think You Can Dance is also one of the all-time time-wasters on the internet. With almost all its routines throughout its ten seasons available on streaming video services, reminiscing about great SYTYCD routines of old can easily lead down a deep rabbit hole. Before you know it, 90 minutes have passed and you haven't even gotten to all those Wade Robson group routines yet.
Here at The Wire, we're in the business of facilitating such YouTube rabbit holes, so what follows is our guide to maximizing your So You Think You Can Dance YouTube binge. In this case, we're offering our picks for the all-time best SYTYCD routines in its most popular genres. Buckle in.
Contemporary/Lyrical (Mia Michaels)
Runners-Up: The grande dame of contemporary has choreographed so many classic Dance routines that the show dedicated an entire episode to reprising her routines (it ... didn't go well, but that's not the point right now). Mia's best routines were in the first four-ish seasons: Travis and Heidi's bench dance, Danny and Neil's two princes, Katee and Joshua's "Hometown Glory," Lacey and Kameron's "Dancing." Her best recent routine was a three-hander between season 10's Hayley, Carlos, and Malece. (Also, don't sleep on group routines like "Hide and Seek" and this Alice in Wonderland creation.) That Mia's so-called "message" routines — on subjects like death or aging or aliens — tend to be excellent really helps temper the annoyance factor. Say what you will about casting a dancer the anthropomorphized concept of "addiction," but when everybody involved turns it out so spectacularly ...
The Best: Kayla and Kupono, "Gravity," season 5
Contemporary/Lyrical (Travis Wall)
Runners-Up: Second-season runner-up Travis Wall is the show's favorite son. Since joining the choreography ranks in season five, he's come into his own rather quickly. His first-ever routine — Jeanine and Jason's "If It Kills Me" — remains one of his very best; since then, he's succeeded with routines that were ambitious (Ellenore and Legacy's "Machine Gun"), emotional (Kent and Neil's "How It Ends"), and satisfyingly gimmicky (Melanie and Marko's "Turn to Stone"). His best work remains his most personal, a routine about his then-ailing mother, where he cast himself as her dance partner. Watch Allison Hokler spring to youthful life and dance beside her son in a moment of reverie and try not to feel something...
The Best: Robert and Allison, "Fix You," season 7
Contemporary/Lyrical (everyone else)
Runners-Up: Outside of Mia and Travis, the ranks of contemporary choreographers is something of a patchwork. Tyce Diorio, he of the obnoxious personality and dreadful Broadway numbers, has done some of his best work in this genre: Ivan and Allison's "Why," Kent and Sasha's "Fool of Me," and the wildly praised "cancer dance" between season five's Melissa and Ade. In more recent seasons, Stacey Tookey has stepped up, and while her earliest routines were Mia-lite, she's put her stamp on more than a few great numbers: Billy and Kathryn's "Jar of Hearts" and Eliana and Alex's "Bang Bang." My favorite happens to be from perpetually underrated Mandy Moore, who put together tiny Courtney and tiny Gev and capitalized on their outsized chemistry ...
The Best: Courtney and Gev, "Lost," season four, choreographed by Mandy Moore
Jazz (Sonya Tayeh)
Runners-Up: Sonya has emerged as the definitive mad genius of the show's latter five seasons, with a strong, strange aesthetic and a penchant for big emotions and inhuman movements. One of her very best was one of her earliest, setting Courtney and Mark into an odd gothic courtship in "The Garden." Almost certainly the populist pick for Sonya's best work is the season-defining showdown between season eight's Melanie and Sasha, "Game Over." My preference, eeeever so slightly, is for the spiderlike courtship of season six's two best dancers ...
The Best: Ellenore and Jakob, "Tore My Heart," season six (*technically, yes, it's a "contemporary" piece, but at this point, Sonya is a genre unto herself)
Jazz (Wade Robson)
Runners-Up: Before Sonya, Wade Robson was the show's resident brilliant kook. With his best stuff mainly concentrated in the second and third seasons, Robson put out an insanely high percentage of great routines: Sara and Jesus' "Cabaret Hoover"; Jaime and Hok's Emmy-winning hummingbird routine; Lauren and Neil's "Night of the Dancing Flame"; Brandon and Janette's "Ruby Blue." Arguably, his best work came in group routines, from season two's "Sexyback" and "Ramalama" to season 7's "Fame." His very best would be a massive undertaking and combination of all dance sensibilities, funneled through an old-timey dance club aesthetic ...
The Best: Top 20, "Commanche," season six
Jazz (everyone else)
Runners-Up: Once again, the largely unheralded Mandy Moore has quietly done of of the show's best work (though her batting average isn't the highest), including season 8's stylish "Another One Bites the Dust" with Lauren and Tadd. Season ten featured a pair of routines choreographed by season four alumni, Courtney Galiano's "Clarity" and Mark Kanemura's "I Am the Best." Ultimately, it's impossible to top Moore's boardroom showdown from season three, featuring gymnastics and a little Annie Lennox ...
The Best: Sabra and Neil, "Sweet Dreams," season three, choreographed by Mandy Moore
The vexing thing about Broadway-style routines on this show is that their in-house Broadway choreographer is Tyce Diorio, whose style is all Fosse limbs and precious few throughlines. He's had his moments — Nick and Melody's "All That Jazz" from season one; Kent and Neil's "Shoeless Joe from Hannibal, MO" from season seven — just not that many. More interesting have been routines by Joey Dowling (Jakob and Mollee's "Easy Street") or Spencer Liff (Billy and Katee's "Macavity"). Leave it to Hollywood director and frequent guest judge Adam Shankman to turn a promotional tie-in to the Hairspray movie into the series' best Broadway ...
The Best: Top 14, "You Can't Stop the Beat," season three, choreographed by Adam Shankman
Runners-Up: Easily the most unsung of SYTYCD genres, if only for the sheer number of stunningly beautiful routines the series has produced in this maligned "boring" style. Look no further than Lacey and Danny's "Keep Holding On" in season three, Courtney and Mark's "Time of My Life" in season 4, or Jakob and Mollee's "Ordinary Day" in season six. The latter two were choreographed by Jason Gilkison, who works semi-rarely for the show but nearly always delivers. Our pick for the best sees Jean-Marc Genereaux choreographing like a ballroom Mia Michaels, which in this case means "creating a heart-tugging story" and "using a lot of Celine Dion." Ironic that a guest-judging Mia kinda nitpicked it at the time ...
The Best: Kherington and Twitch, "Keep Holding On," season three, choreographed by Jean-Marc Genereaux
Runners-Up: Ballroom routines tend to be more formulaic by design. The thrill comes in watching these dancers (by and large contemporary or hip-hop dancers) nail the components. Second-season alum Dmitry Chaplin choreographed one such on-point number for Joshua and Chelsie in season four. Miriam Larici and Leonardo Barrionuevo have teamed up to present a few of the more memorable tangos, specifically Brandon and Janette in season five and Lauren and Pasha in season seven. But their best-ever routine involved a rather unexpected degree of difficulty ...
The Best: Ellenore and Ryan, season six, choreographed by Miriam Larici and Leonardo Barrionuevo
Runners-Up: Not the most frequently-heralded dance — and certainly the one most often hamstrung by big froofy dresses — but some of the stronger pairs from the middle seasons managed to nail it: Janette and Brandon in season five; Jakob and Ashleigh in season six. Choreographer Jean-Marc Genereaux comes across like a manic Quebecois in backstage segments, but he knows his way around a foxtrot, including our pick for all-time best.
The Best: Anya and Danny, season three, choreographed by Jean-Marc Genereaux
Runners-Up: Rather infamously regarded as the kiss of death on the show, especially during the early seasons, before the judges began taking pity on the poor dancers and grading on a curve. Still, a handful of legitimately great quicksteps have emerged, all zippy and impeccably postured: Karla and Vitolio from season five (though mostly for that nifty costume trick), poor doomed Iveta and Nick from season eight, and powerhouse duo Aaron and Jasmine from season ten.
The Best: Eliana and Ryan, season nine, choreographed by Jonathan Roberts
Runners-Up: There's a bit of a sameness to the way SYTYCD does Bollywood, probably due to the fact that Nakul Dev Mahajan is the only Bollywood choreographer they've ever used. Which is why it takes a lot to stand out among the crowd. It helps if you were, say, the first Bollywood routine the show ever attempted, as was the case for Katee and Joshua in season four. It also helps if you're a soon-to-be champion paired up with one of the show's most-beloved all-stars, as was the case for Amy and Alex in season ten. It also helps if you're a group routine featuring what was perhaps the strongest top five girls the show's ever had ...
The Best: Top five girls, season five, choreographed by Nakul Dev Mahajan
Runners-Up: Doriana Sanchez is to the disco genre on SYTYCD as Nakul is to Bollywood, so the disco routines then become an arms race towards the fastest, most lift-intensive routines. Which is why dancers keep getting injured when they pull disco out of the hat. One particularly memorable routine utilized season three dancer Neil Haskell's gymnastic background for a rather insane flip. But the true disco all-star in the show's history has been Brandon Bryant, whose super-fast disco with his season five partner Janette drew raves, only for him to eventually top that as a returnee in season nine ...
The Best: Tiffany and Brandon, "You Make Me Feel," season 9, choreographed by Doriana Sanchez
CLICK OVER TO PART 2: Hip Hop, in all its diverse glory, and Latin ballroom...