'So You Think You Can Dance': The 15 greatest routines

15. Pasha & Sara’s West Coast Swing
Season 3, Top 14, July 11, 2007

”Oh, jeebus,” we all (or, at least I) thought. ”That camera-mugging doofus from season 2, Benji, is choreographing a West Coast swing number. And poor Pasha and Sara have just started working as partners, too. What kind of hot mess is this gonna be?” Turns out the joke was on us (or just me). The season 2 SYTYCD champion pulled out all his signature moves — the shoe slide, the double cartwheel — but it was Pasha and Sara (i.e., the breaker who was not supposed to be able to do this) that brought the number home, performing as if they’d been swing dancing together for years and keeping the energy dialed to 11 without ever showing us the effort.

14. Lacey & Kameron’s Contemporary
Season 3, Top 20, June 13, 2007

In hindsight, there’s actually not much to this Mia Michaels routine: Lacey’s apparently upset, and she flails around a lot, and Kameron basically just tries to keep her from flailing off the stage (when he’s not flailing himself). But it’s all such artful flailing, opening with such an arresting image — Lacey collapsed in Kameron’s arms as she raises her crooked, quivering arms to the sky — that you can’t help but be immediately sucked in, right up to Lacey’s climatic leap into Kam Kam’s arms. Put it this way: I was on vacation in China when this episode aired, and two separate people sent me the YouTube link of it the next day, or, um, the day before, or something — the time difference was confusing. Even in the temporal and particulate haze of Shanghai, I knew this was a dance people were going to remember.

13. Travis & Benji’s Hip-Hop
Season 2, Top 4, Aug. 9, 2006

A perfect example of showmanship trumping technique. You could pick apart this first-time partnership between the final season 2 male dancers, Travis and Benji (i.e., Tranji), ’cause, with all respect to choreographer Shane Sparks, their dancing is a wee bit o’ the mess. But why would you want to when it’s just so much fun to watch them transform from nerds to crotch-thrusting, assisted-somersaulting studs?

12. Nick & Melody’s Broadway
Season 1, Top 6, Sept. 21, 2005

Any doubt as to why Nick and Melody came in first and second, respectively, in SYTYCD‘s first season is washed away after witnessing these ha-cha-cha slinky steps from choreographer Tyce Diorio. The couple also made SYTYCD history, inducing the debut of the iconic Mary Murphy scream. We won’t hold it against them. (P.S. How weird is it to watch the show without any pre-dance video package or Cat Deeley towering over the dancers in some high-wire-high-fashion frock?)

11. Katee & Joshua’s Bollywood
Season 4, Top 12, July 9, 2008

Just when STYTCD‘s fourth season was beginning to feel lousy with routines that felt like warmed-over versions of dances from previous years, out came this breath of fresh air from Bollywood choreographer Nakul Dev Mahajan. Of course, I don’t quite know how the judges are supposed to seriously critique a Bollywood number, and, indeed, Mary Murphy seemed at such a loss for words that she veered dangerously close to Paula territory with this mind-blowing apothegm: ”On this stage, we have one rule. Heart. Soul. Equals stardom.” And yet, with all the natural heart and soul Katee and Joshua poured into this routine, somehow Mary made a crazy kind of sense, especially considering these two were the only original couple to make the season four finals — and two spots on this list. (Oooo! Foreshadowing!)

10. Jaimie & Hok’s Jazz
Season 3, Top 16, June 27, 2007

Quirky? Sure. Effective? Totally. Choreographer Wade Robson was quick to note that it was less a ”jazz” routine than ”my version of a ballet,” with Hok cast as a flitting hummingbird trying to seduce the blooming flower played by Jaimie. The piece turned out so beguiling that it felt like an excerpt from a professional company’s concert than a piece on a reality dancing competition, and neither dancer was ever quite able to equal it again.

9. Brandon & Janette’s Jazz
Season 5, Top 12, July 8, 2009

So unabashedly fun, so filled with innovation and verve, I lost count of the number of times I rewatched it the night it first aired. Did you see how far of a drop that was for Brandon leaping over that first railing? Did you love those crazy point-and-kicks, sly ankle turns, and arms-akimbo gumby twirls? Did you hear that wicked Róisín Murphy song that seemed written purely so Wade Robson could set dance to it? Wade’s fluid staccato steps are truly unique, and with lesser dancers the choreography could easily be the star, but these two managed to match the movement and then some. In a season parched of real Memorable Moments, this was like drinking liquid awesome.

8. Mark & Chelsie’s Hip-Hop
Season 4, Top 16, June 25, 2008

Readers of my SYTYCD TV Watch from last season already know about the warm, well-upholstered spot in my heart for Mark, and this is the routine that put it there. Which is actually kinda odd, since it’s really quite bittersweet: A heartsick woman (Chelsie) tries to keep her workaholic lover (Mark) from leaving, but instead he steals her heart and then walks out the door. One of the biggest complaints about season 4 is the time the judges spent heaping endless praise upon the choreographers rather than discussing the dancers, but in the case of hip-hop choreographers Napoleon and Tabitha Dumo (i.e., NapTab, now and forever), that praise was well-deserved. The couple brought a lyrical storytelling sensibility to their routines that transformed hip-hop from hard-hitting abstract steps to something far more emotionally engaging — along with Mark, they were my favorite SYTYCD discoveries from the season.

7. Danny & Lacey’s Samba
Season 3, Top 10, July 25, 2007

Sexy. Sultry sexiness. Sensual syncopation of a sexological nature. ”Hip hip, chin chin” went the music, and beat beat beat went our hearts (and, er, other regions) when Danny and Lacey first partnered on this number choreographed by another season 2 alum (and certified SYTYCD Casanova), Dmitry Chaplin. I’d like to define just how hot this number was, but since scientists have apparently yet to settle on a measurement for the hottest temperature in the universe, I don’t think it’s even possible. But I can at least note this: The heretofore supercilious Danny had been a fixture in the show’s bottom 3 for the previous three weeks, but after so expertly moving those hips in this number, he never appeared there again.

6. Allison & Ivan’s Contemporary
Season 2, Top 12, July 12, 2006

After this performance, judge Nigel Lythgoe apologized to Allison for not spending more time lauding her consistently fluid, expressive work, because for him the whole number was about Ivan. The baby-faced B-boy barely stumbled through a salsa in his first week, so watching his fluid, expressive work in this Tyce Diorio routine a mere three weeks later was indeed literally like watching the boy transform into a man right before our eyes. Of course, it was easy to forget that Ivan wouldn’t have looked nearly as good without a peerless partner like Allison — which is perhaps why Ivan ultimately lasted one week longer than her on the show.

5. Kayla & Kupono’s Contemporary
Season 5, Top 12, July 8, 2009

I don’t know if I’ve ever seen two dancers throw themselves so deeply into a SYTYCD routine, let alone a SYTYCD routine that so expertly explored a subject as pitiless and unsentimental as addiction. I suspect it was that very rawness that muted the judges from their usual paroxysms of praise, but no matter. This remains for me the best routine of the disappointing fifth season because it had it all: Choreography that challenged its performers, felt fully connected to the music underneath it, and told a complete, cohesive story; and dancers that delivered nuanced performances filled with aching emotion and technically stunning movement. If this reads like a justification for why this Mia Michaels routine is on this list and Tyce Diorio’s quite-good-if-overpraised-by-the-judges “Cancer” routine isn’t, well, that’s just an agreeable coincidence.

4. Heidi & Benji’s Mambo
Season 2, Top 8, July 26, 2006

Yeah, yeah, yeah, Heidi and Benji are cousins and have danced together practically their entire lives, and the mambo is itself a cousin to the couple’s West Coast swing style, so the deck was stacked incredibly in their favor from the get-go blah blah blah…this dance frakking rocked. The couple were tasked with trick after trick — Heidi starting off as a human belt, Benji dropping under Heidi’s legs in a split, Heidi spinning underneath Benji’s leg — and they pulled it all off with effortless aplomb. Pure entertainment.

3. Neil & Sabra’s Jazz
Season 3, Top 6, Aug. 8, 2007

Rather than wax on about Mandy Moore’s dynamite (and Emmy-nominated) ”’80s jazz power lunch,” I’m just going to turn things over to the inimitable poetry of the reaction from the night’s guest judge, Debbie Allen:

”Honey, all I can say is that’s how I like it / I like it like that / I like it like that, honey / Give it to me hard / Give it to me strong / Sometimes jazz can be a little itsy-bitsy / This is the way we like it, honey / I’m just thrilled to see you, Neil / Grow like that / That is so beautiful / And Sabra I just adore you / Absolutely adore you.”

Amen, Debbie. Amen.

2. Travis & Heidi’s Contemporary
Season 2, Top 10, July 19, 2006

Travis and Heidi never overplay their yearning throughout this stunning number, known simply as ”The Bench,” which just makes the quiet flourishes — the hands touching through the bench, Travis collapsing like a rag doll, Heidi slowly pulling the sunflower towards her with her feet — that much more tender. This dance was so good, it won choreographer Mia Michaels an Emmy, but more than that, I think this routine was a watershed moment for SYTYCD, moving it from just a fun and frivolous summer diversion to a show capable of moments far richer and emotionally resonant.

1. Katee & Joshua’s Hip-Hop
Season 4, Top 20, June 11, 2008

After clicking through clips of dozens upon dozens of routines for this list, the one that moves and impresses me most of all, even after repeated viewings, is easily this hip-hop number from the illustrious NapTab. A perfect match of story (a soldier telling his girlfriend he’s going back to war), music (”No Air”) and the two dancers performing it — it ain’t even a contest. Katee brought her technical finesse and deep feeling, and Joshua his preternatural talent and strength, and together they created a number that felt all of a piece, that transcended its steps, imbuing the movement with an uncomplicated humanism that is doubly impressive considering it was their first ever full performance on a nationally televised dance competition show. (I guess Emmy voters weren’t watching the show yet, because it was inexplicably snubbed.) It’s no wonder these two dominated so much of the season (and this list), but nothing they or anyone else have done on So You Think You Can Dance has quite equaled the agile, eye-misting power of their earliest routine.

Comments (242 total) Add your comment
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  • Becky

    How could you have left off the beautiful Travis Wall routine from this season? The one set to Jason Mraz’s “If it Kills Me”. Jason and Jeanine were AMAZING in that. I would have replaced that silly Tranji routine with this in a heartbeat.

    • sydneyb

      totally Totally agree! I think “if it kills me”, Addiction, and Jeanine are the only reasons why this season is worth it for me!

    • BSF

      I totally agree, not only should it be on the list but it should be number one!! like wth! OMG that routine WOW, it was just beyond words!

      • chicadarina

        EXACTLY. That routine was simply AWESOME and the dancers had SUCH good chemistry. Definitely the most memorable for this season.

    • Javabooknut

      I was thinking the same. Jeanine is amazing. And I also love the Carla Jonathan Routine. The mambo was blah, the tranji routine blah. What about Twitch and Katee in the door routine. And I would have easily said bleeding love was better than katee and joshua’s. They are great but I loved twitch, Kelsee and Mark better.

      • Luddite

        The mambo was blah?! What routine were you watching? Because when I was watching that, I was thinking 2 things. 1) #$^%@! 2) Can someone show this to Doreana Sanchez? Because that’s how you pack a routine full of tricks and still make it look like dancing.

      • Caledonia

        Totally agree! I LOVED both Jason and Jeanine’s and Jonathan and Karla’s contemporary pieces. I was disappointed when Jonathan and Karla didn’t get a finale encore.

    • Mr. FAMU

      Dang can you give the season a chance to end before you go adding routines from it to the GOAT category?

      • Nathan

        I totally agree. Jeanine and Jason’s routine to “If It Kills Me” was easily the best of this season. Not including it, makes this list null and void.

    • Theresa

      I completely agree. I have rewatched that routine so many times and it I still get teary-eyed. I even downloaded the song after the performance. Thank you, Travis, Jason and Jeanine.

    • Vicky

      Agreed. Probably my favorite from this season.

      • Mimi

        How could you leave out Travis’ contemporary danced by Jeanine and Jason. I have watched it sooo many times and I still get chills. Awesome!

    • Nee Nee

      Yeah, Jeanine and Jason would most definitely make my list.

    • JB

      YES – I completely agree. No routine has stuck with me like Jeanine and Jason’s since Lacy and Cameron’s contemporary.

    • Linda

      I couldn’t agree more. I thought that was hands down the best routine of season five.

    • I agree

      I would make that routine #1! Jason and Jeanine were AMAZING.

    • bkidwell98

      Soooooooooooooo with you!!!! While I LOVED the addiction routine, this was my favorite, by far!

    • kellybelly

      Totally AGREE! Jason&Jeanine Heart necklace was fantastic!

      Also, where was the love for Katee&Twitch’s “Mercy” Door routine? That was Great!

      Or Melissa&Ade’s Disco or Samba from this season?

    • kellybelly

      I also LOVED the Max&Kayla routine where he’s a Prince taking over her thrown or visa-versa. Max was way UNDER-rated and left too early.

      And that routine with Brandon&Jeanette – the rock vs.hip hop, Jeanette was wearing leather wraps – that was great!

    • Amanda

      i totally agree 100% i was going through this list just waiting for it to come up and i was so disappointed when it didn’t. the heart necklace was so amazing with fantastic chemistrey!! it totally should have made the list

    • rachelkohn

      Absolutely, that was THE best thing I’ve ever seen and I was a dancer for almost 20 years!

    • verychicindeed

      I totally agree! I liked your ranking but “If It Kills Me” with Jeanine and Jason was the best!!

  • john t.

    umm..where’s jeanine and jason’s contemporary? that was one of the best performances this season!

    • Mr. FAMU

      Give season 5 a freaking chance to end before you start adding pieces from it to the GOAT category.

      • Anon

        FAMU: It’s over. There is one results show left. Are we supposed to be waiting for even more performances?

  • kurt

    Great list, good choices. Personally, #7, Danny and Lacey’s “Hip Hip Chin-Chin” is my favorite, and think it will move up any future lists. It was the number that made me realize SYTYCD transcends reality television… It’s more of a variety show with some actual artistic depth. And it has the best host on television.

  • beachie841

    I love the list and the comments – but many of the dates/seasons are off. Chelsie and Mark were S4/2008 not S3/2007. Brandon & Janette S5/2009 not S4/2008. I agree with Kurt that Cat Deeley is the bomb. Beautiful, amusing, stylish and not fake at all.

  • ken

    How on Earth could you leave out Katee/Twitch’s “Mercy” door performance from Mia Michaels? Like, come on! That was one of the better uses of a prop on the stage, IMO.

    • BSF

      yep that one too!

      • chicadarina

        Yep. That was an awesome routine as well.

      • Mimi

        Yep. That one is one of my favorites and should be on the list.

    • fan

      THAT WAS WAS ONE OF THE MOST MEMORABLE FOR ME!!

    • Karrie

      “Mercy” is the one I keep going back to – over and over and over.
      It’s just amazing. So perfectly staged and choreographed – and performed!

    • ME

      Oh I LOVED that one. It was another Mia Michaels routine that got nominated for an Emmy.

  • Sara

    Agree with everything (thank you, thank you for including Mia’s Addiction and the Dancey samba) BUT–I would have to include Will and Jessica’s Adam and Eve dance. Two of the most beautiful minutes I’ve ever experienced in dance.

  • Tiffany

    The best one, which should be there went with this season! Jeanine and Jason’s Contemporary to “If it kills me” by Jason Mraz.

    Also the park bench w/ travis, it was a mia micheals routine. I think this list should’ve included more mia micheals routines. her’s never fail.

  • Ender

    Sara & Neil’s disco is my fave. Dug the moves, the song, the energy. All ’round goodness.

    • Mr. FAMU

      One my favorite performances of all time too.

    • Maserda

      Neil’s backflip was amazing in that routine. Actually, I realized after Season 4 ended that almost all of my favorite routines from that season had Neil in them. Who can forget the Neil/Danny dance “fight”, choreographed by Mia? That was fierce! THAT is how two men should dance against each other!!!

    • Amy Leigh

      Any routine with Neil is on my favorites list. I loved his & Lauren’s Wade Robson jazz/angel vs devil routine set to “Night at the Dancing Flame”. Or even their hip-hop routine to the “Way I Are” was great. I would LOVE to see Neil perform any of the awesome routines he was in on tonight’s finale.

      • Miggs

        YES! The angel/devil routine is my favorite of all. The image of Neil chasing Lauren around the stage will stick in my mind forever.

  • Jsk

    I love the dances you included… but there has been some amazing performances this season as well. I think my favorite one is the one about a lady who has cancer. Danced by Melissa and Aday (sorry don’t know how to spell his name)

    Makes me cry every time I see it.

  • Brian

    Will and Katee’s pas de deux. Stunning.

    • whiskey

      SO agree…Will and Katee were absolutely breathtaking in that routine.

  • alice

    I would have liked to see will and katee’s pas de deux in season four up there. i know they messed up that leg trick, but it was still amazing.
    great list!

    • Sherry

      I agree. Katee and Will’s performance and stunning. I could watch several times and feel inspired by it.

  • Jack

    nothing is better than the bench…especially anything from season 4

    • strickens_girl

      Agreed. It still gives me the chills.

  • Crystal

    This is the same list/commentary from last year with just new season stuff added in, right?? Agreed with the new stuff!

  • Why

    What is the consistent diss for the “Cancer” routine around EW.com? It’s not Ade and Melissa’s fault that the judges were ridiculous about it. Regardless of how you felt about the over-emotional response of those judges (which may have just been some honest emotion as I am many of the people I know who watch the show were not dry-eyed after it was done) – it was a highly moving, well-danced routine by two dancers who really did well at nearly everything that was thrown at them. And with personality to boot. Surely it beats a Kayla (no personality) and Kupono (no strength and limited dance technique) boring routine any day. I just don’t get the lack of acknowledging one of a rather boring season’s most in sync couple and an extremely emotional and touching dance.

    • BSF

      again jeanine and jason’s contemp routine should be number one!! if anyhtign wins the emmy this year it will be that one! in a mostly otherwsie unmemorable season that was unfrekinbelievable! katee and twitch’s door routine should def be on there too.

      • Shia

        I loved the routine … but I think part of what made it seem more amazing than it actually was is that the season overall was so ho-hum.

    • BSF

      oops sorry it wasnt meant to be a reply to u, but since im replying for the second time i loved melissa and ade’s dance too! :)

    • Maggie

      my mom has survived breast cancer, so i definitely had an emotional connection to ade and melissa’s piece. i thought the dancing was beautiful, but for some reason the addiction piece left a bigger impression on the season for me. maybe it was the music, i don’t know. i’m looking forward to seeing both of these pieces on tour though.

      • Maserda

        Kupono’s evil smile is the thing I most remember about that dance… it was definitely the coolest one of that night.

      • Jennie Floyd

        I loved both dances. For anyone who has suffered with breast cancer, or knows someone who has, you could not watch that piece without being moved to tears. My husband and I were weeping at the end. I loved Melissa and Ade as a couple too. Addiction was powerful and moving, by far Kayla best performance, finally getting her to show some emotional depth, but it just didn’t resonate as much for me. Both fab dances though.

    • chicadarina

      I did enjoy the cancer piece, however I am with the writer here in that the addiction piece was more memorable for me. The dancers had SO much emotion in the addiction dance, and the focus of the piece was primarily the dance and not the back story (although Kupono did mention someone close to him suffered from addiction). It was the only dance from Kupono I really enjoyed. The cancer piece was beautiful to watch, but there could have a bit more emotion from the dancers. It was the backstory of the dance which overshadowed the perfomance, unfortunately.

      • Shia

        In what way did the cancer routine *focus* on the backstory? Only in the judges overblown reactions.

    • Kate

      You are horribly mistaken.

  • Riley

    I would add the travis routine “if it kills me” and the pas de deux “imagine” from last season. two amazing dances!!

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