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Enough ‘Idol’ worship, it’s time to ‘Dance’

"So You Think You Can Dance," which began its third season on Thursday, tries to evoke the aura of its popular cousin, "American Idol." It has cranky judges and delusional auditioners with more moxie than talent, and really good but unknown performers who find the ability to shine on the big stage.
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

Less than 24 hours after the "American Idol" finale, Fox brought out the series it hopes can again satisfy its fans throughout the summer.

"So You Think You Can Dance," which began its third season on Thursday, tries to evoke the aura of its popular cousin. That means it has its own cranky British judge, Nigel Lythgoe, who is a little less mean than "Idol" counterpart Simon Cowell but can be excused for that because as president of 19 Television, Lythgoe is also Cowell's boss.

Lythgoe, joined this season by Mary Murphy and in the New York auditions by Dan Karaty, forms one of a troika of judges that decides the hopefuls' fate at an early stage, much like Simon, Randy Jackson and Paula Abdul do on "Idol."

The show also has delusional auditioners with more moxie than talent, and really good but unknown performers who find the ability to shine on the big stage. New York, the first of four audition cities this season, provided plenty of each.

Contestants battle backOf course, there are some differences. The winners go to Vegas instead of Hollywood for the next stage of the competition, and there's also the dreaded purgatory known as the choreography round for those not quite good enough for a quick pass-through and not quite bad enough to be sent packing. That's where the remaining contestants have to learn a dance in about 30 minutes, and are judged based on their ability to figure things out quickly.

Unlike "Idol," there's also the risk of suffering bodily harm. Dancing is a grueling activity that leaves many with constant injuries.

Nowhere was this more apparent than in the case of Heather Zampier.

Jake Johnson and Damon Wayans Jr. on the "Let's Be Cops," red carpet, Selena Gomez is immortalized in wax and more.

Zampier told the camera and the judges that she'd already been through two surgeries on her hips, and had doctors tell her she'd never dance again. Tough news for someone with a "To Breathe is To Dance" tattoo on the back of her neck, one of many examples of ink on her body. Then again, "what do they know?" Nigel said of the doctors, as he gave Zampier her ticket to Vegas.

Hanna-Lee Sakakibara had a more complicated road to the next round, but then again she also had a more complicated path to recovery.

Sakakibara was working as a dancer at a wedding in Israel in 2001 when the hotel's dance floor collapsed. Twenty-three were killed in the accident, and Sakakibara fell three and a half stories and was half-buried in the rubble. She suffered major injuries, and needed metal plates inserted in her face.

Sakakibara didn't earn a quick ticket to Vegas, and was sent to the dreaded choreography room instead. But once there, she did enough that she eventually was given her pass to the next round.

You might think you can dance, but …

Of course, it wouldn't be a Fox reality series if there weren't a substantial number of people to mock.

Derrick Bradley, who performed under the "Dancing Derrick" moniker, claimed he had once danced for 22 hours straight. After his one-minute audition, he was winded enough to warrant medical attention. In fairness, he did spend those 60 seconds moving around like a marionette operated by a six-year-old on a sugar high.

David Kenneth Soller, who calls himself "Sex" for reasons the show mercifully chose not to ask too many questions about, was back again to try his luck. It was déjà vu all over again, as for the second year in a row he was rudely rejected and then saw his mother defend him by castigating the judges. "Nobody can take away a dream from someone else," Mom Soller said. True enough, but they can take away a plane ticket.

Joel Bernabel and Carmen Lugo are apparently going through the kind of breakup that can only be cured by appearing on television, pouring out all the emotions to the cameras, and then dancing horribly. That seemed to be Bernabel's tactic for dealing with heartbreak, but he'd better hope he's a better talker than he is a dancer. Neither was anywhere close to being good enough to advance.

The opening episode also featured Jessica Diaz doing an interpretive dance as Jesus, and Melissa Browne, to whom Nigel said: "if we were doing a sitcom, you would be great as a dancing version of ‘Ugly Betty’." That didn't seem to be a compliment, although America Ferrara seems to be doing very well in that role. Perhaps Nigel only watches reality TV programs.

Talent in Times SquareWhile the truly bad will hopefully soon be forgotten, New York also offered a host of talented performers.

Anya Garnis and Pasha Kovalev were the first to draw the whoops and standing ovations that are the universal sign of judicial approval.

Mary Murphy called them "the best ballroom dancers we have ever had on the show," and they were no-brainers to move on.

Dance teacher Katie Watts first saw student Ashley Keegan easily advance to the Vegas round, and then earned her own passage as well.

The two were as happy for each other as they were for themselves, which in this genre may mean that they wind up turning on each other in the next round.

And Stanislav Savich came back, escorting his sister Farina. Stanislav made the final 20 last season, and then was the first male eliminated.

His sister wowed the judges, with Mary saying "You are the epitome of what we look for in a Latin dancer," and Nigel adding "You could go a long way in this competition."

Then, there was the saga of Jamal Weaver. Weaver's first crack at auditioning was more frenetic than impressive, and the judges decided to send him off to try and prove he could do a swing dance. Usually, that's a sign that they're looking for the unlucky contestant to come back, stink again, and endure another round of mocking.

Not this time. Weaver got crewmate Earnest "E-Knock" Phillips to perform with him, and after a tremendously slow start worked up a routine that had the judges roaring. It wasn't exactly swing, but it did the trick.

"We sit here all day … and sometimes we put up with a load of rubbish, and other times we put up with a lot of abuse, and every now and them a star gets on that stage," Nigel said. "You, sir, are that star. Whether you stay that way later, I don't know, but right now you're a star."

Weaver stayed that way long enough to make it out of the choreography round and get one of the 59 tickets to Vegas that came out of Manhattan. His chances of going further are relatively slim, but for one shining moment at least, he was the star of the New York dance world.

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