E: This week’s episode starts with a recap of last week’s auditions, in which we review Miss Astranga’s shablam, but also a heafy dose of dancers we haven’t seen yet. Hey, there’s Evan the tapper from last year! Oooh, I hope he does well. I mean, I guess Gabi knew what she was doing in picking Lex, but last year you may remember I was rooting for Evan. There’s also a girl with way more hair than clothes, who we see now and before several commercials. Also, we get Cat making me laugh by calling Vanessa Hudgens a megastar of stage and screen. Ah, hyperbole. It’s so much fun.
No, for real. This episode is fun, even if some people are working perhaps a little too hard to remind us all how important it is.
First up, Tessa Dalke, 18, wearing a pink bikini top with black bottoms and looking like a Germanic milk maid/California surfer girl hybrid with her braided crown of blond hair and cheerful face. She’s a UCLA psychobiology major, which intimidates the heck out of the judges; she explains that she had to decide, in her first year of college, to de-emphasize dance so that her academics stayed in line. My first impression is that she’s hella strong and quirky and super expressive – she does a lot of flexing and bending, including what I can only explain as a standing somersault and a head stand into a back bend. It’s nuts, in the best way possible, and I can’t help feeling a bit awed that this is what she does when she’s NOT focused on dance. Vanessa reports that she had a great time hearing tWitch and Nigel ooh and aah on either side of her as Tessa danced, and goes on to praise the girl’s strength and grace. Still hung up on her education, Nigel compliments her humility, saying she’s clearly good at everything. You’ve just got it, Mary sighs. You know what else she’s got? Sure you do. A ticket to the Academy.
After Tessa flits out of the theater we meet the delightfully rhyming Jay Jay Dixonbey, a 20 year old jazz dancer from Detroit. Last year he was cut in the Academy, but that’s okay, he says, because he ended up touring with Travis Wall’s Shaping Sound. (Glad we got that out in the open, unlike with Lex last year!) In case you were wondering, strong is my first word for him, too; he does these crazy leg swipes, and can turn for days. There’s something fun and joyful about his dancing, even a little flirty with ball room-influenced hip swivels thrown in. It’s a well choreographed audition piece, no question, giving an excellent look at his skill set and range, performed beautifully, and the judges respond in kind. You spin like a top, Mary observes, and have an incredibly powerful core. Nigel gives him an A for attitude and says he leaps like a young salmon. (Really, he says that.) Vanessa tells him he’s hype, and tWitch too praises his attitude. Like Tessa, Jay Jay wins a ticket to the Academy.
Our next segment features a pair of hip hope dancers, best friend South Carolinians Nathan Hughes of Spartanburg (19) and Courtland Davis of Gaffney (24). They joined the same dance crew and bonded over their exuberant hair (one out, one in a bun); they are so close, they assure Cat, that in the six years they’ve been friends they’ve never had a fight. They’re sporting matching outfits (black pants, white short sleeve hoodies with gray pockets and black ties) and perhaps to counter their sweet image they fake fight, Matrix-style, in their routine. There’s a fusion of animation and krump, and I’m digging it, but the routine becomes weirdly uneven as it goes. Why is only Nathan doing solos? The judges prefer Nathan, who had a lot more to do in the routine; Nigel complains justly that Courtland never really had a moment. Vanessa negs them both, but tWitch reminds us that he came from the South, which does not support its artists, so he wants to give them a break. Mary’s a yes, so it’s up to Nigel to have the final word. After considering, he takes a long breath before giving a yes to Nathan and then, eventually, a dramatic yes for Courtland as well. “It’s the South, you know what I’m saying?” tWitch explains to Vanessa. Does she? We may never know.
Next up we have another California girl, 18 year old Hannahlei Cabanilla from Anaheim. She was so shy, she tells Cat in the comfy producer’s lounge, that she didn’t speak to her dance teacher for the first 6 years she went to the studio. So shy, in fact, that rather than ask permission to go to the bathroom she actually peed during a performance, smiling all the while. Damn! I kind of get being that shy, but I am amazed that she is now extroverted enough to be able to tell that story on national TV.
Today she does not look shy – she’s wearing a black two piece dance outfit with long sleeves and a strappy back, her hair up in a long sleek ponytail. Vanessa lands squarely in her corner from the start because they’re both Filipino. Hannahlei certainly doesn’t need any favors to get on the show, however much kinship Vanessa feels; she’s strong, fast and aggressive with great spins and some super fierce poses that show off her flexibility. She glares everywhere, which I love; it brings to mind Balinese dance and karate and swordplay and I love all that too. I even love her music, Sia’s “Eye of the Needle.” The judges stand with her ticket in lieu of a critique, though Vanessa does eventually squeal that Hannahlei makes her proud to be Filipino. Outside of the theater, Hannahlei high fives her dad with her foot.
After this amazing feat of enthusiasm, we see a montage of fantastic girls, several of whom we’ve seen in promos throughout the show. Perhaps tWitch will be happy to see that so many of them are from the South? Or maybe girls who get dance support in the South (especially pageant girls or debutants?) and not male street dancers. I don’t know, I’m just guessing here. There’s 18 year old Sydney Moss (white top, black bottom, shoulder length dark hair) from Eads, TN, who dances with wild abandon. There’s Chelsea Hough (24, Nashville, black bikini-like outfit) gives off this gorgeous Josephine Baker vibe and blows everyone away (especially an admiring tWitch) with her stage presence and movement quality. 21 year old Rebecca Troyak from Toronto has long slender legs that give her a crazy breadth of movement. And then finally there’s Dayna Madison, 21, from Memphis, the girl with the huge mane of curls. I’m frankly stunned she didn’t get her own segment, but really all I can say about her is that she’s super toned and pretty flirty and like the other three she’s going to the Academy.
And that brings us to the sob story segment of the evening: meet C.J. Butler, a 20 year old from Louisiana, who was in the room when his stepfather murdered his mother. I can’t even begin to imagine that – although as I’m listening, I’m also realizing that I’m going to be peeved if the show is cynically using this kid’s past to just to spice up the episode, if he’s not very good. He talks about struggling with despair – could he have saved her? – but tell us “I try to remember how she lived. You only have to much time.” He found a way out of that pain through dancing. He then imagines his mom at the audition. “That’s my son. He wants to dance, he’s going to dance.” He will be doing, he tells us, his own variety of hip hop.
At first the audition thrills me. He’s wearing a white pants and top set that are splattered as if with gray and black paint, and does this bouncy kneed krump thing that’s so fun, and this knee drop, and it feels original to me. The judges, however, are not so thrilled. You need more in your wheel house, Mary says – but she also wants him to know he needs to let go of this burden of guilt. It’s not your fault, she insists. Nigel says he needs control (fair, I guess?) and Vanessa says she just wants to hug him. So in the end, they all do, and even though they don’t put him through, they offer a lot of actually helpful life advice. “Use your story,” tWitch offers, “you’re still here for a reason.” To the other judges, tWitch explains that this is what’s best about this show – bearing witness to the transformative power of dance.
So, okay. I hope it meant something to you, C.J., and I hope you keep dancing. You are clearly worth more than five minutes of our time. I kept wishing Debbie Allen was there to swoop you up with a scholarship to her dance academy; I hope being on the show connects you to someone like that, rather than just exploiting your pain.
Okay. Moving on from my little tirade. Let me ignore the montage of failures, hurts and weeping, including a girl who seems really good until she slips. I don’t love this transition, but then I never like to see bad auditions or hysterically weeping people.
Then we get a little hip hop montage, in which no one gets named until we’re reintroduced to Dustin Payne, the 26 year old animator who was cut during the Academy ballroom round last year. He laments having to work a 9 to 5 these days to support himself and wishes he could concentrate on dancing full time, but don’t worry – he dances in the parking lot during his breaks! Love that. He’s wearing jeans, a hat and a cross, and his animation is really distinctive, musical and flowy and smooth. As tWitch might say, I’m cheesin’. It’s so good. You’re a prime example of hip hop evolution, tWitch enthuses – he loved the wave concepts, the cool fall and overall Dustin’s confidence. Mary found his tutting and glides mesmerizing. You were clean and commanding, Vanessa tells him. Nigel hopes he’s been working on his ballroom, because he’s through!
Our final dancer in L.A. is Nicole Clonch, 20, from Highland Park. “Someone’s in good hands,” the judges call out as Nicole walks in with her partner – season 2 winner Benji Schwimmer! It turns out they’ve been partners for the last three years and also have been national West Coast Swing champions for that long! It turns out that Nicole has been dancing at Benji’s dad’s studio (ah, that explains how much of his family has shown up on this show) since she was 7. They even have a clip of a tiny Nicole and her twin sister laughably pretending to be 14 so she could watch Benji from the studio audience. Season 2 Cat gives the girls a sweet little wave. Does that make Cat feel old as old as it makes me?
The audition itself is just a bewildering flurry of insane tricks, one after the other. Linked cartwheels, splits, flips, standing pot stirrers, spins (so many spins), lifts that start over Benji’s head and go through his legs to finish on the floor… I can’t even. It’s insane. Honestly I’m not sure what I can say about her movement quality because so much of her moving is being thrown around by Benji, but what they achieved together is certainly astonishing. They finish with him walking off stage, but obviously he’s back before long to bask in the judges adulation.
You got to be great to hang with the big boys, Vanessa intones, and tWitch agrees that just for Nicole to avoid being overshadowed by Benji is a victory. (Indeed, but I have to say, watching the audition I longed for Laci Schwimmer’s crispness and personality.) This is the new West Coast Swing, Mary says – I would say it’s not your father’s West Coast Swing, but who knows, it might be Benji’s father’s. Or it could represent the direction Benji himself is taking the genre as distinct from his father, and I don’t know enough about WCS to say. It sure makes me think about ballroom families and Strictly Ballroom, though. Nigel wonders what other styles she can do, and Nicole says she’s got it all – latin ballroom, hip hop, ballet, jazz, contemporary, even a little tap. Ah, someone knows her audience. Is there a doubt? She’s through.
And that, my friends, is all we get to see of L.A.. I’d say Hannahlei, Dustin and Tessa were my favorites from tonight. Next week we’re off to NYC. I’m really missing the days of multiple episodes a week and more audition cities; I hate to go so long with only an hour of contestants! Would there ever be enough So You Think for me? I just don’t know. Until next week, then, enjoy the late spring and the long nights!