E: Hi there! It’s been a long time, hasn’t it – both for me as a blogger and for this show. I’m absolutely thrilled the show is back, and I’m so looking forward to getting back in the swing of all things blog. And while yes, I do miss the days when the show was on for several nights a week and for longer than an hour, I will absolutely take what I can get.
Last year’s gang is back together – executive producer Nigel, ballroom expert Mary, and High School Musical star Vanessa Hudgens – with a notable addition, Stephen tWitch Boss, one of the show’s most successful former contestants, joins the judging panel. How many years has it been since we’ve had a hip hop dancer as on the panel? It feels like a long time since the days of Lil’ C.
The biggest other change (at least so far) is that the show has axed the choreography round. No second chances for you, aspiring dancers! It remains to be seen whether this will result in folks on the bubble being given the benefit of the doubt (and perhaps going down in spectacular flames in Call Back week), or being cut down without pity. Perhaps a little bit of both?
First up we meet 20 year old Marina Mazepa of Konotop, Ukraine, who takes the stage in a pleather bodysuit with flares at the shoulders and hips, her straight brown hair tucked forward into the suit’s high neck so it forms a Sia-like bubble over her face. It’s a mildly impressive feat that she can walk out to center stage at all. What follows is a lot of pained contorting to absolutely terrible music. Don’t get me wrong, it’s amazing contorting – I can’t believe some of the things she does with her body are even possible. Throwing out her leg like that? Unreal. Her feet and extensions are crazy good, and it’s all very sinuous and fluid; I can see the skill in it, but it’s just not what I enjoy. It’s not what I think of as dancing. She pretends to scream (like The Scream) and them oozes out of the bodysuit to reveal a sparkly nude leotard; the judges ooh and ah at this metaphorical birth of a dancer.
And really, the judges couldn’t be happier. “She went through it, didn’t she?” Mary gasps, and there’s a lot more gasping when everyone finds out that Marina did her own choreography. “You have my heart,” Vanessa coos. tWitch praises the quality of her movement, and he’s dead on; even though I didn’t love what she did, I can respect how she did it. Nigel gives an enthusiastic yes to seeing more of her, which makes me laugh because if we’d seen any more of her the censors would have had to get involved. Obviously she’s through.
Next up is b-boy Gaevin “Rated G” Bernales, an 18 year old from Las Vegas who recently aged out of the child hip hop troupe Astral Party Dance Crew. Now he’s a teacher with the group and a performer on the Strip. Looking to follow in Fik-shun’s footsteps? No, he tells us that tWitch is his hero and inspiration. You could do a lot worse than either one of them, Rated G.
He’s got really impressive core strength, demonstrates a few new moves (this twisty side thing) and generally throws himself on the floor a lot. It’s really solid, but definitely not gasp-worthy. The judges wonder if at 18 he’s ready, and Nigel in particular wonders if he’ll be able to waltz. Try me, Rated G suggests, and they do.
While he’s waiting between auditions, Nigel yells grumpily into the audience to “shut that kid up,” which feels unusual rude. But wait! It’s All Star Allison Holker (who also happens to be tWitch’s wife) in the audience with their adorable little son, watching Daddy work. #BossBaby4real.
Up next is a rather unlikely trio of ballroom dancers with strong connections to the show: Nowy Sacz, Poland’s Magda Fialek, 27, who was Kiki’s audition partner last year, season 12’s stand out Alan Genkin, a Philly native who’s also 27, and Kiki’s 30 year old brother Marcus Nyemchek of Teaneck, NJ. As she did last year, Magda speaks for the men. It’s pretty funny.
Of course the audition piece itself is incredible sexy. Both men are dressed in black, but Madga’s wearing a light blue men’s button down over black shorts and sheer black thigh high stockings, and she looks like the morning after in a super flattering way. There’s a slow, slow build, and then a lot of flashing quick partner work. The whole point of the routine is that she’s flirting fiercely with both men. They pass her back and forth, but she seems consistently in control. My favorite part is probably when the three stand in a sort of superhero phalanx formation and swivel their hips in unison; so simple, but so cool. It’s really well choreographed. In the end, Magda rejects both suitors.
Magda is an It Girl, and one of the hottest hot tamales ever, Mary insists. Both Nigel and Vanessa note that Allen is hugely improved and took the focus away from Marcus. That’s the problem of auditioning with another guy, tWitch notes; you’re going to be compared automatically. I’m not sure I noticed that in particular, though I definitely felt like Magda had better chemistry with Allen. It seemed like only two of the three would go through, but it turns out all that talk was just a warning for Call Backs because Marcus goes through along with shoe-ins Magda and Allen.
After this joyful note, we have a montage of successful ballroom auditions, unfortunately featuring much more commentary than dancing: first we have New Jersey’s Cole Mills and Armenia’s Natella Devitskaya, 24 and 23, both dressed in black, and then the similarly black-class Sosa siblings, Tristen (21) and Stephanie (18) from Orem, Utah. We couldn’t have ballroom without dancers from Eastern Europe and Utah! Then there’s Dillon Lehman, 22 from Brooklyn, NY, who changes things up by dancing alone and by wearing a white button down shirt. Obviously it’s totally unbuttoned, but at least it’s not black! Finally there’s KJ Mills, 19, of Salt Lake City, and his partner, 30 year old Lehi Utah native Hope Jackson, who’s wearing a sparkly acid yellow dress with a personality to match; when the judges ask what they’re dancing, she deadpans that it’s hip hop. She gets a big laugh out of the judges, and they’re through. KJ celebrates with a little goofy leg wiggle. Looking forward to knowing you more, ballroom dancers!
The time we don’t spend with them gets devoted to two “inspirational” dancers. First off, there’s Taylor Haines, 20, of Anchorage Alaska. This daughter of an Olympic cross country skier divides her time between the great outdoors and the dance studio, not hampered at all by having her left leg amputated at knee due to birth defects (being born without ankle bones, for one). She’s confident and comfortable with herself and I really like her, as do the judges. Her audition is solid without being brilliant, and they fall all over her before telling her that she’s an inspiration who won’t be going to Call Backs. It’s a little patronizing, but probably fair.
Less fair, perhaps, is the treatment of 27 year old Jay Jackson, whose drag name is Miss Astranga Honey Darling. He’s got an amazing gold bedazzled leotard and a fierce attitude that stems from trying to get work as a male dancer but being turned away because his look was too feminine. Drag chose me, he explains. He’s pretty quotable. (Duh.) . His dancing is athletic and dramatic, but his hips are stiff, and it’s not the caliber we’re used to, but he’s absolutely full of energy and fun; Vanessa and tWitch jam out to his inevitable RuPaul song choice. “You made my eyes water three times,” Nigel says of various moves that featured the family jewels slamming into the stage floor, the last of which being a split. “Right in front of the logo, did you see that? It’s a brand thing,” the savvy Ms. Honey Darling explains, totally cracking me up. The judges all note her courage, strength and the importance of representation on the show before giving her the axe, just like the did with Taylor – except, wait. Nigel gives his no, but Vanessa had too much fun to follow suit, and tWitch is unprepared to play the bad guy so he does the same thing, and then Astranga starts chanting “Come on Miss Mary!” and the appeal to Mary’s crazy side is too much. I enjoyed his performance value, but coming right after Taylor, it’s a little hard to watch him get through on personality.
Next we have a montage of clueless badness, which features an aerialist (ie, clothed girl on a stripper pole). The best part of the whole thing is the moment when the girl explains that her dad drove the pole there. Ah, Nigel. Don’t pretend you don’t love the sexy stuff.
The penultimate contestant is a stand out from last year, Alexis Gilbert, the curly haired girl wearing the picnic table checked top. Cat reminds us that she was on Jenna’s team but cut immediately because no way was Jenna dancing with a GIRL. Alexis trained like crazy in all disciplines to be ready for this year, she explains – oh, and she kind of exploded over social media with 10 million hits on her audition video. If you remember the audition, it makes a certain amount of sense – she mixed this very fresh, girl next door vibe and megawatt smile with super sexy moves.
This year its all about the sexiness – the 23 year old is wearing a high necked black leotard with long sleeves, hair straightened into a long sleek ponytail (not so girl-next-door!), and the choreography whips from fast to slow to a quirky, plunking tune. She’s knowing but still cute, and the judges don’t even both to vote, they just hold up tickets. And why wouldn’t they? We all know she can dance. tWitch sees a lot of himself in her, and is moved by her desire to both prove and improve herself. They both made it impossible for the judges to say no. Will Alexis make it through this year? She’s seeming like a good bet now.
Our final contestant of the night is 18 year old Eddie Hoyt from Boscawan, New Hampshire, who has a real Eddie Haskel look – short red hair, pale skin, glasses. He describes the shock to his parents when, after many years of Christian home schooling, he came out as gay. Dance is his refuge, the place where he feels like he can be himself.
And to Nigel’s delight, he’s a tapper. Dressed in a maroon short sleeved button down over black pants and a black t, he stomps along to a mournful violin. The taps enrich the music, complicating it, adding layers and texture and harmonies. It’s mesmerizing, a wondrous interaction with the music, aching and joyful all at once.
I wish I could do that, tWitch shakes his head in awe, “I’m cheesin.” I wish I could do hip hop like you, Eddie replies. (Ah, that doesn’t bode well for him making the live shows, does it? I mean, he won’t have to dance like tWitch – who can? – but he will have to do hip hop. At some point. Even Kiki did.) . Nigel gets a gleam in his eye, and Vanessa, smelling blood in the water, cries out “BATTLE!” And they do. And it is, by far, the best thing about a generally nice episode. The men throw down similar versions of each other’s moves but in their own styles, and it’s magical to watch. Eddie’s the first tapper on the hot tamale train, Mary tells a jubilant Nigel. (That just cannot be true, can it?) I want to root for this kid, and I hope he can dance other styles!
And that’s the evening. We’ll see more LA, and then head to the Big Apple, and we’ll see what the judges find. Some great people, I hope. As ever, I’m pretty giddy that the show is back, and I can’t wait to see what’s next.