'So You Think You Can Dance' Season Finale Recap: And the Winner Is...

A spectacular, jam-packed season finale proved that even a shoo-in victory can feel thrilling. Also, Paula Abdul showed up!

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A spectacular, jam-packed season finale proved that even a shoe-in victory can feel thrilling. Also, Paula Abdul showed up!

Summer is the best, we know this, debate over. But just to play devil's advocate for a second, sometimes summer is the worst? Especially these last few days when all the markers of summer's conclusion won't stop splashing us in the face and popping our water wings. I'm talking Labor Day sunburns, expired Otter Pops, unreasonably high temperatures that make us rue the day we ever fantasized about warm weather, and, worst of all, the end of So You Think You Can Dance. Man, does that last one sting. Like many summer series SYTYCD lures us in with the promise of no-strings-attached, easy enjoyment while we wait for Fall's more Significant offerings, but unlike most other summer series SYTYCD proves far more brilliant and valuable to our lives than we maybe expected. Guys, we were watching FINE ART for at least two hours a week. Putting aside the strobe lights and District 78 remixes, almost no other show celebrates art and the human form quite like this one.

The conclusion of SYTYCD feels particularly fraught this season in that every year brings a more serious threat of cancellation, and its current status has never been more dire. I won't lie, I was somewhat surprised Season 11 was greenlit in the first place. For that I am of course grateful, but for the question marks currently hanging over next season I shake my fists at the sky. Now more than ever SYTYCD has stepped out from the shadow of American Idol's manufactured suspense and has refashioned itself as something more vital and celebratory. It's no small thing that every episode includes montages of viewers dancing in their living rooms, diagrammed opening titles, and dance tutorials by the choreographers. Where this show once was all about the systematic elimination of also-rans, it's now much more concerned with pushing dance into a newer realm of possibility for us all. And where the show's title used to be a threatening rejoinder directed at its contestants, it now seems like a friendly question to the audience, an invitation to jump in. This is a long way of saying that SYTYCD is a national treasure, not only as fantastic entertainment, but as something that can be considered important.

Also this season was very good. Boasting new choreographers, a sprawling, endlessly game cast of dancers, and a noticeably fleet and loose spirit, Season 11 was just fantastic, and of course the right person won. Let's talk about it, and get into some of the season's highlights as well.


Ricky! A frontrunner since his very first appearance in the auditions (yes, he was actually featured in the auditions!), Ricky's victory proves that a frontrunner can breeze through a competition and still make it feel thrilling. While there was part of me that wouldn't have been shocked if Zack had garnered a plurality of votes from underdog-sympathizers or if Valerie had charmed her way into voters' hearts through sheer force of personality like previous winners Amy or Russell, I was relieved that those things didn't happen. Ricky is a truly outstanding and deserving dancer, and it's no coincidence he was involved in many of the season's best routines. As illustrated below!


As is tradition, the judges and the Top 4 each chose their favorite routines of the season. So while many of the season's best routines weren't represented here, the finale still contained a significant number of incredible encores. Here were the best ones:

Mary Murphy chose Jessica & Casey's Contemporary routine choreographed by Travis Wall. This was indeed one of the season's best routines. Its original performance was not only borderline flawless, it came at a crucial time for both Casey and Jessica as it saved them from going home in a double-elimination week. This encore performance was slightly rougher in execution, but its transcendent greatness served to underscore just how impressive it is that these kids can remember and reprise SO MANY different routines from throughout the season. Truly outstanding.

Guest judge Debbie Allen chose Valerie & Ricky's Hip Hop routine choreographed by Pharside & Phoenix and it was just as amazing the second time. I still can't believe that insane side-split lift Valerie does.

Ricky chose the Contemporary piece he'd performed with Jessica and choreographed by Sonya Tayeh and the spare music and haunting lighting gave me chills all over again.

Sonya again... Zack chose his Contemporary routine with All-Star Amy and choreographed by Sonya Tayeh. Yeah, this one was another spare, haunting piece about death and it ends with that stark image of Zack walking into the light. Simultaneously upsetting and gorgeous. Thankfully there were no further discussions of suicide afterward.


Despite being primarily focused on celebrating the past season, the finale wasn't without fresh new moments of ingenuity!

Uh, THIS GROUP NUMBER. The Top 10 dancers were paired up with 10 All-Stars to perform this Contemporary routine choreographed by Sonya Tayeh & Christopher Scott, all factors that would automatically make this my favorite thing. But THEN it was also set to Temper Trap's "Sweet Disposition" and built on the theme of strangers cheering each other up and holy moly. It got me. Why bother fighting it? This piece was like a bottle rocket aimed directly at my heart. Kablam.

Also loved the opening number in which the Top 20 were choreographed by Warren Carlyle. By the way, spoiler alert, Warren Carlyle! You can't put Ricky front-and-center for so much of it and even force him to pretend to play a trumpet and claim to not know he was going to win this thing. Also, it turns out that tuxedos and laserbeams go together way better than I previously thought. (The new laserbeam lights were the de facto star of the finale.)

Um, Australia, you are doing magical things over there. Here was a guest performance by Australian SYTYCD winner Michael Dameski. It seemed like a lot of gymnastics and was entirely insane. I loved when Cat Deeley crept up and touched his legs wondering "Are there springs in there?" before concluding "They're just regular legs."


Okay now let's just take a second to talk about some of our favorite routines from the season not reprised in the finale. That's okay, right? Is this a safe place for that? Okay, great.

I still really like this Paso Doble routine choreographed by Jean Marc Genereux. Come on. It's a ballroom routine set to "Dragula"! Are you not entertained!

Remember this Travis Wall routine performed by Bridget and Emilio? I sure do! It's one of my favorites of the whole season, duh.

Yeah, this was great too. Valerie & Ricky's Viennese Waltz choreographed by former contestant Lacey Schwimmer.

This one was just from last week! The Top 4 perform a routine choreographed by Travis Wall. Again with the hints of same-sex romance, a simple but rare event on this show.

And yes: Jessica & All-Star Ade's Ray Leeper-choreographed Japanese nightclub jazz routine. DEAL W/IT.


Cat Deeley. Sure, Ricky may have been crowned America's Favorite Dancer and he'll get that quarter-mil and magazine cover and Broadway gig, but if we're being really and truly honest with ourselves, So You Think You Can Dance's biggest star and winner for ten years running remains Cat Deeley. Cat Deeley is really and truly wonderful week in, week out, and especially this week. The Shazam montage. The way she glides between mirth and seriousness and provides the softest landing for dancers with dashed hopes. And did you catch the Lost In Translation moment between Cat and Ricky when she embraced him after his win? WHAT was she whispering into his ear just outside of microphone range? We'll never know. But the final and best example of Cat Deeley's excellence was in how modestly and unassumingly she waved goodnight to the audience before stepping backward behind a cloud of confetti to allow the dancers to hug and cavort and celebrate and generally enjoy the moment. She's the face of the show, this statuesque goddess with charisma to spare, yet she makes sure the kids are the stars. All people on TV should be Cat Deeley, because she is the best and we deserve it.


... Quite a menagerie of judges, right? Debbie Allen, Jenna Dewan-Tatum, Adam Shankman, and Tara Lipinski. Two things, though: (1) Why couldn't Debbie Allen have made more appearances throughout the season? She is hilarious and rarely intentionally so. Also (2) yes Adam Shankman is still the worst. Well, second worst after Tyce, but did you shudder when he said "It's great to be home"? Question is rhetorical.

... Oh, hey, Paula Abdul! Did you guys know that she is the lead judge on SYTYCD Australia? I think I probably knew that deep down in my bones. But what a delight surprise when she came out and made some kind of weird speech about how dance is universal, or whatever. I've missed her!

... Sorry to any Enrique Iglesias fans out there, but he did a very terrible job performing whatever this song was supposed to be. He basically just sang the hook on his own song while some other guy ran around shouting at the audience? And also Enrique Iglesias seemed to be openly searching for a teleprompter and appeared winded and unprepared and I am pretty sure straight-up lipsynced all his parts? Is Enrique Iglesias okay?

... I really enjoyed this performance by the dance crew we'd allegedly voted on months ago but never saw perform on the show. That's because they apparently received so many votes that producers decided to put them in the finale. Anywho, I liked the light-up "Bollywood" sign behind them and also the sequined vests and also when they climbed on top of each other into a pyramid. What more could anybody ask for?

... Jesse Tyler Ferguson returned to do a quick bit about auditioning for the show. I liked that Travis Wall got in on the action and shouted out complicated moves for Ferguson to decline to do. Anyway, it was fine. I don't love Jesse Tyler Ferguson's SYTYCD involvement, but if it keeps this show on the air, so be it.

... Speaking of "as long as it keeps this show on the air," those Degree commercials all season have positioned Jasmine as one of the series' most prominent faces, an unlikely feat considering she spent most of her season relying on judges' saves to continue in the competition. Still though, she is amazing and I hope she's getting super rich from her endorsement deal. This weirdly staged scene wherein Jasmine introduced the Top 4 to R&B singer Ciara and she gave them all advice on using deodorant or whatever was very strange. I don't know.

... Probably one of the most notable asides in this episode was when Nigel candidly described his conflicts with rival dance show Dancing With the Stars. The gist was that he'd openly complained on Twitter that the other show wouldn't allow former SYTYCD contestant and current DWTS dancer Allison to return for her alma mater's season finale and do that "Dirty Diana" routine with Rudy. But apparently Nigel worked it out with the producers and it happened. I guess the most interesting angle to this initial conflict was, as Nigel explained, that DWTS employs A LOT of SYTYCD alumni, but whereas the two shows were once considered rivals, these days they're almost comrades in arms. Both shows are arguably past their prime and maybe better off working together than against each other. Who even knows. I guess I just like it when behind the scenes drama spills out onto the show, and I mean that as a compliment to Nigel Lythgoe. He really does make the weirdest decisions when it comes to professional discretion sometimes and I love him for it.

... Just look at these baes. Whether it's for nine months or forever, I'm really going to miss these people. And thanks for reading, friends! Writing about this show has been so, so fun.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.