I know it’s a bit schizophrenic to shove so many dance styles into “ballroom,” because ballroom dance is incredibly varied; a champion salsa dancer can have trouble with a Viennese waltz and vice versa. But even if you remove some of the more obvious outliers (I put West Coast swing, Lindy hop and disco all into the “other” section, just because they’re more fringe and hybrid forms than “traditional” ballroom dances), you still get a wide variety of dance, from the supposedly strict quickstep to the barely-a-ballroom-dance paso doble.
Ballroom performances on SYTYCD are a mixed bag. Trained ballroom dancers don’t tend to last long on the show: Benji and Heidi from US season 2 and Lacey and Pasha from season 3 are outliers because they were so naturally talented at everything. The best most ballroom dancers can hope for is to make the show’s midway point before being eliminated. This means that outstanding ballroom performances on the show tend to be only moderately technically proficient at best, and usually have to get by on the dancers’ personality and ability to master the basics. True ballroomers watching the show (and there are lots because whether they admit it or not, absolutely everybody in the dance world watches SYTYCD and most of them love it for what it is) often use the phrase “hot mess” to describe a “good” ballroom performance on it.
But there’s nothing wrong with a hot mess, even if every once in a while one wants a technically superb performance too. (Again: high quality viewing recommended where possible.)
12.) Katee and Joshua, U.S. season 4 (top 6), paso doble.
The first of many choreography appearances by Australia’s Jason Gilkison on this list. Paso doble is all about the sheer goddamned fierceness, and there’s never really been a paso on any edition of the show that could match this one by that measure. (And there’s been plenty of good paso to choose from: Gemma/Rhys from the first Australian season, Melissa/Artem from the first American season, Travis/Heidi from the second American, Natalli/Francis from the Canadian, etc.) Katee and Joshua totally inhabit their characters and the pure drama instilled into the routine as a result is just fabulous. That ending? Joshua looks like he is going to fuck shit up.
11.) Kate and Rhys, Australian season 1 (top 6), rumba.
Jason Gilkison again, this time with a gorgeous “traditional” rumba (IE, non-Cuban/African) that I can only describe as “stately,” but using that word in the best possible way (as opposed to its traditional application, IE, old society dowagers with a bit of dignity and class). Not much else to say here. It’s just very, very good.
10.) Chelsie and Mark, U.S. season 4 (top 18), tango.
Tango is a style that routinely gets performed badly on the show, partially because it requires less technical excellence per se, as compared to more of a general idea of how to partner as a ballroom dancer (something that non-ballroomers often have trouble with). It also requires either real chemistry or the ability to fake said chemistry, or else a technically proficient tango such as the one performed by Blake and Ashle in the first American season can come across as cold rather than sultry. This tango is noteworthy, both because it has Chelsie (arguably the best female ballroom dancer to ever appear on the show, although I would make an argument for Lacey as well), but even moreso because of Mark’s ability to totally become the Latin lover needed to make the dance just that convincing.
9.) Ashle and Blake, U.S. season 1 (top 6), smooth waltz.
Waltz on the show has steadily gravitated to variations on the faster, more energetic Viennese waltz, probably because it’s more associated with weddings and thus has a built-in romantic connotation to it, and also because it’s more exciting to watch and choreograph. But there’s something about a slow, stately smooth waltz that Viennese just can’t duplicate; slow and deliberate has a place just as much as fast and exciting. And I can’t think of another waltz on this show that has ever been as goddamned elegant as this one was.
8.) Donyelle and Benji, U.S. season 2 (top 18), cha-cha-cha.
Man, it is so much fun to say “cha-cha-cha.” Just try it out right now. And fun is key here, because this routine is a shitload of fun. Donyelle and Benji were one of the best partnerships in the history of this show by far, playing off each others’ strengths magnificently, and the result was a series of performances that were just about flawless. The crowd went absolutely apeshit for this (they had to edit it down on the live broadcast, but apparently the cheering didn’t stop for the better part of ten minutes) and it’s entirely understandable why; it’s technically proficient, flirty and sexy, and once more just goddamned fun. This isn’t a hot mess; it’s just hot.
7.) Allie and Danny, Canada season 1 (top 16), quickstep.
Quickstep has unfairly been deemed “the dance of death” on the show because it’s a pretty difficult genre of ballroom, but honestly – there have been as many entertaining quickstep routines as there have been bad ones in SYTYCD history, all the moreso as choreographers have chosen to incorporate elements of swing and Charleston into the quickstep for the purpose of a better visual performance. (And if you’re looking for a real “dance of death,” it’s krump, AKA “the genre that has not been performed really well once on this show.”) There isn’t too much more to say about this routine than that, except that A) it makes obvious how bullshit it is to say “traditional quickstep isn’t entertaining,” because with the exception of a couple of lifts this is pretty damn traditional quickstep, and B) Danny looks uncannily like a shorter version of Hugh Jackman. Which doesn’t make the dance better, but come on, it’s mini-Wolverine doing the quickstep!
6.) Courtney and Mark, U.S. season 4 (top 6), Viennese waltz.
Sometimes you only get the barest glimpse of a truly great partnership and this is one of those times. Courtney and Mark both were excellent partners through the first half of their season (Mark with Chelsie, as shown above, and Courtney in a great partnership with breakdancer Gev – their cha-cha was the very last dance I eliminated before finalizing the top 12), but when they finally danced together in the top 6 week it was obvious that if they’d been paired together from the start it would have been a goddamned explosion. Their modern jazz piece was the more hyped of the two, but I like this waltz – a Jason Gilkison number – even more. Most good waltzes on this show get the “this felt like a wedding waltz” line, but this one really does feel like a wedding waltz – it’s romantic and the lifts aren’t too showy, and its restraint is what makes it so incredibly good.
5.) Natalli and Francis, Canada season 1 (top 12), salsa.
A lot of the salsa on SYTCYD is performance salsa – it doesn’t look much like anything you’d see in a club, IE, “real” salsa dancing. Which is fine, and most salsa routines on the show are at least entertaining – but this one stands out because, awesome lifts aside, there’s a lot of recognizable club salsa in this dance, which ironically is often more difficult than the big lifts. And club salsa is pretty awesome, so that’s why this is my favorite salsa performance out of all the ones in the series. (Plus, I like Francis’ little hat.)
4.) Talia and Charlie, Australia season 2 (top 10), quickstep.
The two best dancers on the best season of the show would give argument for including this period, but on top of that, this is yet another Jason Gilkison routine. Maybe it’s getting a little old seeing that name again at this point, but Gilkison is particularly noteworthy as one of the few choreographers in any genre who really understands both the limitations and the strengths of the SYTYCD format, and uses them to best advantage just about every single time. He knows when to loosen the boundaries of a dance, and when to stick to the rules. This quickstep is easily the less “traditional” of the two quicksteps on this list, and there are a couple of small (but noticeable) mistakes – particularly the first early slip and the fudged unison coming down the stairs – but it’s still the best, because it has a killer opening and because it’s so light and playful. A while back I said that Charlie reminded me of nothing so much as a young Fred Astaire; well, this is the routine that sealed that for me, and if Charlie is the Astaire then it’s no patch to compare Talia to Ginger Rogers. Pure performance quality.
3.) Vanessa and Henry, Australia season 1 (top 14), samba.
Jason Gilkison AGAIN. And there’s not much to talk about here, beyond maybe a quick digression about how many ballroom choreographers include African tribal dance elements into their sambas because it’s such a natural blend and so related to the original roots of the dance – so let’s just say that Vanessa and Henry nail this, including both the initial, silent portion as well as that last lift/drop which crosses the line from “daring” into “actually actively dangerous,” and move on, shall we? (Hm, there was actually a fair amount to talk about. Oh well.)
2.) Lacey and Danny, U.S. season 3 (top 10), samba.
Here we have more traditional, relatively restrained samba to balance out the tribal samba just preceding. Danny is interesting – far and away the best technical dancer to ever appear on any season of the show, but he was so good that it ironically made him a weak partner sometimes because he couldn’t dance less well so as to hide the inequality of talent with his partners. Which meant that a lot of his dances were good, but didn’t look great – unless he was dancing outside of his contemporary home-base and was paired with a master in that area. Which, given that he danced a lot with Anya and Lacey, meant that ironically the best contemporary dancer in SYTYCD history mostly gave his best performances in ballroom dances. This is his finest, a holy-shit samba with Lacey that’s just staggering. Seriously, look at him work that pirouette in there: five spins and a sixth ending in a fucking high leg sweep!
(Additional note: one of my roommates poked his head in, watched the video, and then asked me why Sasha Grey was dancing a ballroom dance. I am not sure whether or not that is flattering to Lacey.)
1.) Heidi and Benji, U.S. season 2 (top 8), mambo.
It almost feels like cheating to include one of Heidi and Benji’s two ballroom pairings, given that they’re both ballroom champions and former partners. But whatever. This mambo is a lot better than the salsa they performed in the top 4 (which was not bad of course, but to me came across as a bit precious despite being technically superb). This is Alex da Silva asking Benji and Heidi to do approximately 65,000 tricks in one minute forty and the two of them saying “sure, that all you got?”
And of course, they absolutely nail the whole thing.