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‘Dance's’ format leaves much to chance

"So You Think You Can Dance" contestants are very much dependent on others for their success on the show, and sheer random chance is as much of a variable as skill in these early weeks. By Craig Berman
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

If there's one thing that's constant on "So You Think You Can Dance," it's Mary Murphy's stage persona. The judge is known for both grandiose statements and failure to modulate her voice, so it was no surprise to hear her loudly assert before last Wednesday's performances that the final 16 dancers were all so close that it was impossible to predict who would get voted off each week.

"They are all bunched up in a pack, just getting ready to let loose here. It's going to be tough. It's going to be our best year ever!" Murphy said.

2008 may well turn out to be the best year in the show's four-year history, but the dancers are anything but bunched up in a pack. Much like every other season, there are couples who found their groove from the first moment they took the stage together, and others who can't seem to get it going.

Matt Dorame, Kourtni Linde, Comfort Fedoke and Thayne Jasperson have all been among the lowest vote-getters twice in the last three weeks, so clearly, in the viewers' minds, they stand at the back of the pack. Murphy's law aside, it's a safe bet that all of them will be in danger every week until they finally get sent packing. That's validated by the fact that four of the seven other pairs remaining at the start of the week have never been among the lowest vote-getters.

In some cases, it's because those in the latter group are simply better dancers. But that's hard to prove because the show's format leaves a lot of key variables out of its performers' hands. "So You Think You Can Dance" contestants are very much dependent on others for their success on the show, and sheer random chance is as much of a variable as skill in these early weeks.

The luck of the draw
Dancers on the show never get to pick their partner, their dance style, their choreography, or the guest judge, each of which can have a big say in their ability to shine onstage. This is exacerbated in these early weeks, since the dancers have the same partner from the final 20 to the final 10.  The one exception: if the judges split the elimination between two couples, the orphaned dancers pair off. That gives each a second chance — but with another dancer who hasn't passed muster with the viewers.

For the dancers who get paired with someone compatible, this rigidity is great. Kherington Payne and Stephen "Twitch" Boss have different styles, but always have great chemistry and will make it to the final 10. Joshua Allen and Katee Shean have the same dynamic and work well together, and it would be a stunner if they got sent home anytime soon.

On the other hand, Fedoke has found herself having to dance for her life each of the past two weeks, and her former partner Chris Jarosz got kicked off the show on Thursday. She might do better with someone who has a different expertise, but her new pairing is with Jasperson, another contemporary specialist. Now both have to figure out what is failing to resonate with the audience and pray that they click instantly as partners, because if they're in the bottom three again this week, odds are good that they're gone.

Once "Dance" is reduced to 10 contestants, the partners change each week and everything can switch in a hurry. But until then, it's easy for the favorite couples to build up enough good will that they face little danger unless they trip over host Cat Deeley and fall into the audience.

The weekly styles and guest choreographers also have a big impact on how the dancers are perceived.

A key difference between this show and its "American Idol" parent is that every pair dances a different style each week. That helps make the show more entertaining for the audience.

But at least on "Idol," everyone has to suffer through Broadway Week and Songs Our Grandparents Considered Old-Fashioned When They Were Young Week together.  Here, one pair might get a hip and happening Shane Sparks routine to work with, while another couple must struggle with a duller waltz from a more unknown choreographer.  Ultimately it all evens out — but only for the dancers who manage to survive into the later stages of the competition.

Perhaps the two best numbers a week ago were the hip-hop routines from Napoleon and Tabitha D'Umo — both succeeded in making the dancers look good while simultaneously telling an entertaining story that engaged the audience.

Both couples who performed those numbers sailed through. On the other hand, Chelsea Traille and Jasperson got a thoroughly uninspiring quickstep a week ago, which led to Traille's dismissal.

The judges have a strong influence as well, especially with viewers who just don't know a lot about the technical aspects of dance. Fedoke and Jarosz danced a nice African jazz routine that might have been good enough to advance, but the judges wanted it to be more "animalistic." They were in the bottom three, and Jarosz got eliminated.

William Wingfield put his hand on the ground at the end of the disco routine and still performed better than partner Jessica King, but the judges liked it anyway. They were safe.

Had the judges praised another pair and slammed Wingfield and King, the results a week ago might have been very different. But for the eliminated pair, that was just one more variable that was out of their control that proved too costly to overcome.

Craig Berman is a writer in Washington, D.C.