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The ‘Dance’ finalists stand toe to toe

"So You Think You Can Dance" (Fox, Wednesdays, 8 p.m. ET) will close its second season on Wednesday with the crowning of a winner from among four finalists: Benji, a 22-year-old swing dancer; Donyelle, a 26-year-old hip-hop teacher; Heidi, a 24-year-old Latin/swing champion; and Travis, an 18-year-old who's already spent two years on Broadway in "The Music Man." Based on the ratings for the season
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

"So You Think You Can Dance" (Fox, Wednesdays, 8 p.m. ET) will close its second season on Wednesday with the crowning of a winner from among four finalists: Benji, a 22-year-old swing dancer; Donyelle, a 26-year-old hip-hop teacher; Heidi, a 24-year-old Latin/swing champion; and Travis, an 18-year-old who's already spent two years on Broadway in "The Music Man." Based on the ratings for the season, a lot of people are going to be watching.

"Dance," of course, came from one of the same mad scientists responsible for "American Idol": on-screen judge and executive producer Nigel Lythgoe, who is a much lower-key version of Simon Cowell, possessed of a sharp tongue he balances with considerable warmth. The entire show, in fact, is much kinder and more upbeat than "Idol," largely because dance in the United States is not the powerful machine that pop music is, so the outcome is more about pride than it is about a lifetime of gold-plated bathroom fixtures.

The winner will take home $100,000 — reality-show peanuts, given that it's not even a very good night on "Deal Or No Deal" — as well a car and a contract to perform with Celine Dion's show in Las Vegas. It's a nice take and a fine chance for exposure, but no one's making untold millions, eliminating most of the need for unseen handlers. And as a result, the atmosphere is simply not as nasty than you'd find on "Idol." In fact, the four finalists are often seen hugging, playing, and hanging out together — and not just in Ford commercials.

The four finalists bring very different personalities to the stage. Travis is the kid, technically superb as the judges often tell him, but inexperienced. Benji is the exuberant, eerily Clay-Aiken-ish ham. Heidi is the more conventional dancer of the women, letting her hips and her bottomless legs quiver along to a string of Latin numbers. Donyelle is the curvy-bodied underdog who has battled both worries about her weight and an injured toe.

As with "Idol," the winner will be decided by viewer voting, which is a change from the previous eliminations, which were judges' choices made from a list of candidates viewers picked. So, again as with "Idol," who wins is not only a question of who is the best performer, as the judges have sometimes pointed out. It is a contest, not to find America's best dancer, but America's favorite dancer. And what that means is that guessing at the winner is as much a historical study of fan behavior as an evaluation of dancing.

Certainly, Benji's Aikenesque appeal — he's skinny, nonthreatening, and almost adolescent in appearance, and his style is cheery and conventional — bodes well. In keeping with that tradition, he has been a darling of the fangirls who make up a large chunk of the audience on a show like this. On the other hand, fangirls can be overestimated in number because they shriek at such a high volume. Justin Guarini didn't win the first "Idol," and Clay Aiken didn't actually win either, despite his post-show success as his generation's Pat Boone.

As for Travis, he, too, has a devoted circle of admirers. His dancing is consistently polished, and he stands out in group numbers, as the judges pointed out during last week's final performances. If you put these four dancers on a stage together, there is something that can make a person inclined to stare at Travis. In some ways, his biggest impediment may be that so much of the audience is made up of devoted Benjiphiles. There exists the possibility that the two of them will split the squeal vote.

Heidi is perhaps the most difficult of the dancers to relate to. She can come off as surprisingly stiff and square, right down to her coiffed and sprayed hair, which is perhaps typical of the ballroom circuit but a little stagy for elsewhere. Still, she has specialized in salsas and other heated-up routines, including a solo this week that featured all the feathers, hips, and sparkles you could possibly ask for. She is probably the least likely to win, because if the fans go for technical dance, that will likely favor Travis, while if they go for engaging personalities, that will probably favor either Benji or Donyelle. She just isn't the sort of contestant fans typically hand money to, despite her obvious talent and agreeable personality.

Donyelle is the potential wild card. Like Kelly Clarkson, she feels like a "real girl" among porcelain dolls. That quality can work in both directions. There are those who happily embrace a woman with a different body type than all the spindly dancers around her, and there are those who simply think that isn't what a dancer looks like and will never vote for her. She's an excellent dancer, but like Benji, she seems to have drawn fans who are as passionate about her personality and their love of her and what she represents as they are about her dancing.

It's worth noting that the men on the show impressed more consistently than the women. By way of illustration, during the final round of dances, Benji and Travis did a comic hip-hop routine together dressed as a cross between high-school nerds and Alpine goat-herders. Heidi and Donyelle, by contrast, shared a low-energy Broadway number in which they were hampered by unflattering outfits and inexplicable white false eyelashes that made them look uncomfortable and unattractive.

The two women suffered from inferior choreography and styling — and the judges said so. But even correcting for that, it was tough to miss the fact that Benji and Travis's performance was packed with power and brought the audience to its feet, while Donyelle and Heidi's was plodding and uninspired. Benji and Travis have emerged as stars in a way that Donyelle and Heidi simply haven't. Whether that's the luck of the draw, or whether it has some meaning based on who watches the show and what they're looking for, is hard to say for sure.

The fans will speak

Other than the rough gender division, the final dances, all of which were very short given that 11 of them were packed into an hour, didn't cast all that much light on likely winners. There were no knockout performances that looked like coronations. All four solos delivered more of what each dancer has done before, and all the mixed-couple dances were no better than so-so.

No one stepped up and earned the prize in the final set of performances. What that means is that fandom will likely work its unfettered will on the outcome, and that probably means a victory for either Benji or Travis, unless they split the most vocal fans down the middle and knock each other out. Forced to pick a favorite, it would probably be smart to go with Benji. A hero of MySpace, and capable of mustering the power-voting swoons of a generation, he seems to have the inside track. But in a voter-run finale, it is quite true that anything can happen, and it's smarter not to make any bets at all.