I had the opportunity to attend the taping of last night’s So You Think You Can Dance and talk to all of the Top 10 dancers including the two that were eliminated at the end of the episode. The popular Fox TV dance competition, now in its 16th season, is hosted by Cat Deeley and features hundreds of dancers from around the country (and world) vying for 10 spots on the show. Coming from many different dance backgrounds and genres, the contestants perform solo, paired, and group dances for the four judges in a variety of dance styles, including ones with which that they have little or no experience.

(l-r: Mary Murphy, Dominic Sandoval, Cat Deeley, Laurieann Gibson, and Nigel Lythgoe)

(l-r: Mary Murphy, Dominic Sandoval, Cat Deeley, Laurieann Gibson, and Nigel Lythgoe)

The four judges this year include the show’s co-creator Nigel Lythgoe and choreographer Mary Murphy, an enthusiastic fixture of the series, along with newcomers Laurieann Gibson who has choreographed dance numbers for Lady Gaga, Beyoncé, and Alicia Keys, and B-boy dancer/choreographer Dominic “D-Trix” Sandoval, who was a contestant on the third season of the show. To be honest, what I know about the world of dance could fit on an index card, and yet this show has not only made me appreciate many dance forms I didn’t even know existed, it has moved me to tears on many occasions. Being in the studio during a taping only upped the ante on my floodgates, I’m surprised I got through the night in one piece. If you watch the whole show, you can see me in the crowd applauding so furiously that I think I damaged the nerves in my hand!

The show opened with a very powerful group number that featured all 10 of the incredibly talented young dancers. The modern dance piece, choreographed by Emmy-winning choreographer Travis Wall, took on America’s epidemic of gun violence in a way that only dance could do. The 10 dancers shot this number right before the live show began and because of some technical problems, they had to do the entire taxing routine three times in a row. It was so moving that I cried all three times. Take a look:

At such a divisive time in this country filled with so much bullying and needless cruelty, this show consistently gives me hope for a better tomorrow. Seeing these impossibly talented young people perform difficult dance numbers that they learn in a very short period of time with such skill and grace moves me on so many levels. Even though it’s a competition that’s now at the point in the season where two dancers will be eliminated each week, the camaraderie that was clearly evident among all of the dancers in the studio and backstage is very moving and says so much about the positive role of the arts in our lives.

Unlike the opening group number, once the live show begins, there’s no going back for the couples (the dancers are paired but judged individually), they only get one chance to perform their routine, mistakes and all. Sometimes the most interesting part is to see how the dancers recover from a mistake — this can even gain them points with the judges. After each of the live shows, “America” can vote for the different dancers (online or through the Fox Now app) which puts the four dancers with the lowest scores “in danger” the following week. At that point, the judges can “save” the two of the bottom four who they think are the most worthy based on their performances that week, and the other two are eliminated. This is the part I can’t bear because they’re all so freaking talented. Last night was the first time that two dancers from the Top 10 were eliminated and I can’t say I agreed with “America’s” choice. Not the first time that I’ve felt THAT emotion!

After the show ended, I went backstage and waited for the physically and emotionally spent dancers to appear. It’s an unusually young crowd of dancers this year, ranging in age from 18 to 21. First out were Madison Jordan, a 21-year-old contemporary dancer from Minnesota, and Ezra Sosa, an 18-year-old Latin ballroom dancer from Utah whose sister is also among the Top 10. Their dance routine last night, choreographed by Ray Leeper, was excellent as always.

Danny Miller: Madison, I have yet to see you perform where I didn’t burst into tears, you are mesmerizing on that stage. I can’t even imagine how you handle all that pressure each week and perform so flawlessly.

Madison Jordan: Oh, thank you so much! There are definitely a lot of nerves, especially backstage, but as soon as we’re about to go on, we shake it off. We have to, because those kind of nerves will definitely show on stage which is not going to work in a live performance.

Much is made on the show of the diminutive size of Mariah Russell, a 19-year-old contemporary dancer from Nashville, and Bailey Munoz, an 18-year-old B-boy from Las Vegas, but there is nothing small about their insane dancing abilities. I thought that couple gave one of the strongest performances in last week’s show and they were equally skilled this week in their number choreographed by Luther Brown. Bailey’s Filipino family, sitting directly behind me, was going nuts and holding up single cards that spelled out BAILEY.

Mariah, how different is it dancing to this large an audience? Do you find that to be a little overwhelming?

Mariah Russell: It’s incredible, but I’ve been doing dance competitions pretty much my whole life. This is obviously the biggest competition I’ve ever been in but I feel like I have a lot to bring and this level of dance is something I’ve always wanted to do. I’m definitely just putting in all of the work that I can to make sure that I have the best time of my life out there because I don’t know when I’ll have an experience like this again!

Do you guys  follow all the social media that’s out there about you and the show?

Bailey Munoz: Social media can be tough, it can be pretty toxic, but we just have to remain positive. I’m trying to stay away from it right now because I don’t want it to affect how I’m dancing, but I also know that social media can be a great tool for dancers.

How do the dancers deal with the situation when one of you is “in danger” and the other one isn’t?

Mariah Russell: Ugh, that’s definitely the toughest part of all. But you just have to keep that connection going between you and just think of that. We’re all just hoping to go as far in the competition as we can.

Next up were Anna Linstruth, a 19-year-old hip hop dancer from Las Vegas, and Benjamin Castro, an 18-year-old dancer from Miami. For me, Benjamin is the top male dancer of the season, I can’t even believe what he’s been able to do in some of his dances. Last night the pair performed a routine choreographed by Randi & Hef.

You were both so great in that amazing Travis Wall group number. What was it like having to do it so many times? I was worried for you all having to repeat it again and again!

Benjamin Castro: I mean, for me, I was a little worried, too, because I was really able to tap into the heavy emotional part of it the first few times and then you start to worry that you’re losing the meaning a little bit. But in the end, when you get on that stage you just remember the message you’re trying to send and you get it together.

How much time do you even get to rehearse something that intense?

Anna Linstruth: We probably had like a day, a day in a half. (Laughs.) Yeah, we put that together real quick.

Whoa, how the hell do you do that?

Benjamin Castro: You just put your trust in the choreographer and in the people around you. Travis Wall is a genius, man. And he never had to say anything twice, he’s so smart and he knows how to work with people.

Anna, you were “in danger” this week until the end, that’s got to be an uncomfortable place to be.

Anna Linstruth: Yeah, it was incredibly nerve-wracking. I want to make sure I never get there again, that was tough!

During the show, I was sitting behind the family of Sophie Pittman, an 18-year-old contemporary dancer from Tennessee, and it was moving to watch them watch Sophie’s performance with Eddie Hoyt, a 19-year-old tap dancer from New Hampshire. Their dance was choreographed by Travis Wall.

I was also entranced by the performance of Gino Cosculluela, an 18-year-old contemporary dancer from Miami, and Stephanie Sosa, a 19-year-old Latin ballroom dancer from Utah (and Ezra Sosa’s sister), choreographed by Emma & Sasha.

You’ve been dancing for many years, obviously, but the stakes have to be a thousand times higher in this setting, no? Or do you just put your brain in a different place?

Gino Cosculluela: I think it’s a bit of both. The nerves are definitely higher because the expectations are so much higher, but we’re both strong dancers who have trained all of our lives so I think we know how to deal with that added pressure.

Sophie Pittman: But it is crazy to think that it’s not just the judges and our parents watching now, it’s all of America watching, that can be a little overwhelming to think about. This whole experience is a little surreal. But I love dancing so much. When we had to do that opening number three times, I was just thinking how much I love getting this message out to people. If we have to do it three or more times, I will keep doing it because I think it was a really important message.

Finally, this week’s two eliminated dancers came out. I thought Stephanie Sosa gave a killer performance on the show and gasped when her name was announced.

Stephanie, this is the one part of the show that I can’t stand! You were so great, I hate to see you go. Did you get to go backstage afterwards and lose it a little bit?

Stephanie Sosa: Oh, thank you so much, it’s hard. I did lose it a little bit but I just have to remember this is just part of a bigger picture. I got to dance on national television which was amazing. And I get to go on tour with the cast this fall. I’m just so proud of my brother, I want him to go all the way!


Eddie Hoyt was such a favorite in my house that I had to take a picture with him to show my family members. He was on the show last year, too, where he very movingly (and somewhat accidentally) came out on national television. My favorite part of this season was his emotional final audition, light years away from his performances on last year’s show. “This was quite a different experience this year,” judge Mary Murphy told him through tears following his audition. “Last year we fell in love with you because you were this cute little pumpkin up there tapping his heart out, and this year, you came back and put so much into it and so much emotion. I don’t think I’ve ever cried over a tap routine before!” Nigel Lythgoe concurred. “It was remarkable and such great choices.” The other two judges agreed. Dominic Sandoval said Hoyt’s number was the greatest tap routine he’d ever seen in his life, and Lauriann Gibson added, “I have one thing to say: Greatness needs no explanation.”

Eddie, I was flabbergasted when you were eliminated, you so killed it in tonight’s routine. How do you cope with that?

Eddie Hoyt: It’s really hard when you reach your dream and then have to leave, especially when I feel so incredibly connected to my partner and to the rest of the dancers in the Top 10. But this whole experience has been so incredible I can’t help but see it in a positive light. I’m just so honored to be here.

What’s next for you?

I’ve got some projects in the works and I would love to do more musical theater and my own choreography. I love performing live so that’s definitely what I hope to stick with.

Here’s Eddie’s emotional tap audition that he performed freestyle that had the judges in tears.

Okay, I’ve never danced a day in my life and I’m old enough to be the father of all 10 dancers, but I’m so inspired by these people and this show. Is it too late for me to devote my life to dance?