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Atlanta ‘Dance’ auditions offer poignant stories

One dancer lost a hand to soft-tissue sarcoma, another was a crack baby raised by his aunt.
/ Source: Entertainment Weekly

A few weeks ago, I logged onto my Gmail. Bored, lonely, and tired of discussing the latest “Matlock” re-run with my cat, I decided to start chatting with a friend and asked her what she was up to. '

'I'm in New Orleans,'' she typed. ''It's so amazing here.'' As I read her words, I looked down at my legs — covered with a pair of Diet Coke-stained sweatpants — which were cradling a bowl of plain Uncle Ben's rice. Naturally, seeing myself in such a state, I immediately began feeling bad for myself. Why must I cope with sitting in my apartment like some sort of a boring jamoke while my friend gets to enjoy the awesomeness that is New Orleans?

Why do I bring this up? Because I felt a bit of déjà vu viewing last night's Atlanta-set episode of “SYTYCD.” After an hour of watching the average performances I've come to expect this season, the show teased the New Orleans auditions. And holy gumbo, some of the dancing in the Big Easy looked incredible, for once. But, unfortunately, since I do not boast the stamina of one Adam B. Vary, another lovely writer, Allyssa Lee, will be covering the New Orleans episode tomorrow, as well as this season's Wednesday results shows. (I'll still be giving you my take on Tuesday night performances.) So welcome her tomorrow by throwing her some beads! (You won't get the desired results, sorry.)

So before I get too sad about my absence tomorrow, let's talk about last night's episode. But wait a tick — now, instead of getting upset about missing you all, I'm getting all verklempt about the episode! Boy, did they cram a lot of inspiration down our throats in that last half-hour or what? Somewhere around 10 p.m. EST, I suddenly felt like I should, I don't know, climb a mountain something. Then I was forced to nix the thought after remembering that New York City's highest point is The New York Public Library — at least according to “The Day After Tomorrow” rules.

Dancers with poignant storiesAnyway, first off, we had Jessica Jensen, a dancer that Cat branded as “SYTYCD's” ''bravest'' contestant yet. (How many times have we heard that?) Of course, even if Jessica wasn't the bravest, she certainly had gumption. Just over one year ago, the dancer lost her hand to soft tissue sarcoma. And not only does the girl have a sense of humor about her tragedy — she told Cat she made a joke to another contestant about gnawing off her fingers — but she danced beautifully.

Strangely enough, Jessica's strongest suit as a dancer was her upper body. Her gracefulness, and the way she was able to align her body so her missing hand wasn't as obvious, really impressed the judges, and yours truly. She definitely was lacking in strength in her lower body — you could see her legs shaking while trying to maintain her developé — so I believe Nigel, Mary, and Lil' C (as guest judge) were smart to put her through to choreography. Perhaps she fell behind, or perhaps the judges realized how difficult it might be to ask other dancers to conform to her disability, but she ultimately was denied a ticket to Vegas. Too bad — the girl had talent, with drive to match, even if she wasn't close to top 20 caliber.

One dancer I could see making it into the top 20? Thomas Hamilton, a man with a back story so compelling, it rivals Vitolio's from last season. Thomas was born a crack baby, was cared for by his aunt (since his mother still had drug problems), and now has big dreams of leaving Scottsdale, Ga., to make it into the big leagues. And the guy certainly deserves to get out. I found his dancing, inspired by “SYTYCD's” own Mia Michaels (plug, anyone?), to be passionate, something often lacking in many audition solos. I actually liked that he turned his solo into a praise dance, calling attention to something other than a well-defined midriff.

Sadly, that's all that Nigel seems to look for these days — the judge claimed Thomas didn't connect enough with the audience. Perhaps it played differently in the theater, but his fluidity and emotion certainly came across on the small screen. Of course, the downside of dancers like Thomas is how they make me feel about myself: This guy was born with a handicap, endured special education classes, and transformed into a mature man with serious talent. After a stable upbringing and four years at a second-tier university, I can tell a good poop joke.

But let's talk about performance. As we saw in a montage in the first half-hour — a montage about as necessary as X-ray goggles on Superman, by the way — there were plenty of auditioners who were unable to connect with the judges. Chief among them, Amber Jackson. Amber staged a solo for herself replicated by way too many contemporary dancers: A developé here, hold, roll to the floor, hold, make a move that looks like she needs Pepto, hold, and done. Seriously, some of these contemporary dancers look like they're preparing to compete in a Mr. Olympia contest, sans all the grease.

Technicality is important, but we don't need to see them hold every position for five seconds in order to understand they are trained. Where's the passion?

Nigel noticed the lack of oomph, and called Amber out on it: ''Your performance is s---,'' he told her. Regardless, they put her through to choreography, and Amber made it to Vegas.

The night's first auditioner, Billy Bell, didn't even need to prove to the judges that he could master choreography — the trio sent him to Vegas right off the bat. It was a bit of a curious decision, if you ask me. The contemporary dancer certainly was impressive, considering he started to dance just five years ago, but his upper body needed some serious help. His arm placement was all kinds of wrong, and his back never really seemed aligned correctly.

But Billy was a bit like a Crocophant, yea? Because if you looked solely at his bottom half, he's all but poised for acceptance into ABT. His tour jeté was gorgeous, and the guy had such perfect arches in his feet, I started to get a little green. Either the judges took that into account, or found him as darling as I find those Sweet Millions ads, but the guy is going to Vegas…even if I bet he won't be there long.

The mere fact, however, that the judges put Billy through to Vegas without choreography makes their slight towards Anthony and Antwain Hart all the more egregious. How often do hip-hop dancers on “SYTYCD” sail right through to Vegas? About as often as Kate Hudson makes a good movie. (Zing!) Meanwhile, contemporary dancers who simply shake their locks and buttocks on the stage are given the golden ticket mere seconds into their tired routines.

I'm sorry, but Anthony and Antwain rocked it. They were clever, in sync, and, good — and it's been awhile since we've seen a combination of those three qualities on the “SYTYCD” stage. Worse yet, the judges had already seen the duo two seasons ago, so they knew full well that the pair could dance well. Yet, they still sent the Hart brothers to choreography, and Antwain was let go after struggling with partnering. Anthony, on the other hand, got his ticket to Vegas. Maybe I'm just a conspiracy theorist (excuse me as I adjust my aluminum foil cap) but the judges seem to have one heckuva bias against hip-hop dancers.

Travis the time-wasterAnd now for the time-waster of the episode: Travis Denison, an Adam Shankman look-a-like who appeared stuck in the Jock Jams era. The routine was so 1990s (''Darrin's Dance Grooves,'' anyone?), I half expected my old Alf pogs to start flying out of the screen. But you know what? Unlike the producers of “SYTYCD,” I've decided not to waste any more time on this attention-happy contestant. Moving on.

The more time we spend on folks like Travis, the less time we get for people like Jamal Jackson and Victor Smalley, two dancers whose routines were cut far too short. Contemporary dancer Jamal had skills, but his landings, to me, looked a bit sloppy. Victor, channeling quirkiness akin to Mark or Kupono, was clearly the more adept of the two. His pirouettes were so perfect and poised, he reminded me of a male version of one of those jewelry box ballerinas. And the guy had one more thing going for him: the mohawk. Having a mohawk on “SYTYCD” is like having an awkwardly spelled name on “Rock of Love”: It's pretty much a guarantee that you're gonna get far.

Speaking of dirty things, last night we met someone named Matthew ''Boogie Links'' Pollard, a man whose arm tattoo might as well have read ''Hide Your Daughters.'' At first, I thought the guy was going to be just another attention-starved loser. But you know what? The popper was actually pretty good! Now, I would have liked him even more if for some reason he didn't remind me of Rich Hall as David Byrne in that classic “SNL” sketch. (''You might ask yourself: Why such a big suit?'') But I wouldn't say I was shocked to see the guy cut after choreography.

Nor was a shocked to see Jonathan Bryant cut before choreography. The guy immediately got on my nerves, thanks to his terrible impression of Cat and sense of self-confidence that was clearly rooted in insecurity. Jonathan wasn't bad, per se, but his solo was so manic and fast-paced, I felt like I was about to get a seizure of Pokeman proportions just watching him. Plus, I didn't understand why he clung on to that sweater cardigan like Mister Rogers on a windy Make-Believe day. Just take the darned thing off! Here at “SYTYCD,” we encourage nudity! (Just ask Nigel.)

Following his routine, the judges attempted to give Jonathan constructive criticism, but the guy appeared not to take it. And though he might have been giving off a little bit of a ''cocky smile,'' as Nigel said, I honestly believe the guy was likely just disappointed in himself, and dealt with it the wrong way. But Jonathan got a verbal beat-down anyway. And truly, the somewhat tense exchange was nowhere near dramatic enough to actually be remotely interesting. Strangely enough, this exact sentiment was echoed by Nigel himself, who said he would be bored stiff watching the scene on television. And yet...there it was. Sigh.

Will “SYTYCD” ever learn? More dancing, please! Let's turn it to you now, fellow SYTYCD fans: What did you think of the show? Has the talent pool really dried up, or is the best yet to come? Are you getting contemporary fatigue? And, finally, were you surprised Lil' C managed to use words that actually exist this week?