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The dance styles of So You Think You Can Dance, explained

Understanding So You Think You Can Dance

The eleventh season of the beloved dancing reality show So You Think You Can Dance premiered May 28, 2014, and as always, SYTYCD is showcasing dancers from every major genre of dance, including contemporary, jazz, ballet, hip hop, tap, and ballroom. These styles of dance are randomly assigned to contestants, which makes things tricky since each contestant is required to dance outside of his or her comfort zone (i.e. in a style that they might not be well trained in).

While most of the styles are fairly well known, the details can be somewhat obscure at times. What makes a dance jazz and not hip hop? What sets contemporary apart? With that in mind, here's a guide for understanding some of the prominently featured dance styles on the show.

What is ballet?

By: Julia Jester

Classical ballet is the foundation from which nearly all dance styles have developed. It requires strong technique, athleticism, and grace.

Originating in the Italian Renaissance courts of the 15th century, ballet de cour began as a casual pastime before Catherine de Medici, an ardent patron of the arts in Florence, helped develop it into a cohesive form performance complete with themes, geometric choreography, and theatrical elements. She then funded the art form in the French court, where King Louis XIV, a ballet dancer himself, elevated ballet to a professional endeavor requiring rigorous training. Louis XIV's personal teacher Pierre Beauchamps is credited for standardizing the five fundamental positions of the feet through which all balletic movements move.

In the mid-1700s, French ballet master Jean Georges Noverre diverged from the standard opera ballet to create ballet d'action, emphasizing the storytelling element of the form. Romantic ballets emerged in the 19th century, at which time dancing on the tips of toes, called en pointe, became the standard for ballerinas. During this period, ballet became overwhelmingly popular in Russia, where both choreographers and composers collaborated to create some of the world's most enduring ballets — for example, The Nutcracker, The Sleeping Beauty, and Swan Lake. As movement sequences became more difficult, the original romantic tutu consisting of a calf-length tulle skirt was replaced by a shorter, stiffer tutu, which revealed the intricate footwork and precise lines of the dancers.

Ballet was revolutionized in the 20th-century, when the Russian-born choreographer George Balanchine immigrated to America and founded the New York City Ballet. There, Balanchine transformed the art form by creating neo-classical ballet, which aimed for the purity of expression by eliminating distracting theatrical elements. He also introduced the contemporary plotless ballet, in which movement rather than storyline is designed to convey emotion.

American Ballet Theatre artistic director Mikhail Baryshnikov, modern choreographer Twyla Tharp, and Joffrey Ballet founder Robert Joffrey also greatly contributed to American ballet. Today, both classical and contemporary ballet companies, such as The Washington Ballet and Complexions Contemporary Ballet, respectively, continue to develop the style.

Some identifying elements of ballet include:

  • Five positions: the basic positions of the feet and arms through which most ballet skills move through
  • Well-maintained posture, extension, and precision

  • Body alignment: the rotation of the legs from the hip so that the feet are facing outward (known as "turnout"), correctly placed arms, and centered upper-body

  • Complicated patterns of dance moves, challenging steps such as leaps and turns

  • Graceful athleticism: muscular, toned physique combined with elegant, fluid motions

Here's an example of a popular form of ballet known as pas de deux — "step of two" — choreographed by Thordal Christiensen and performed by SYTYCD contestants Melissa Sandvig and Ade Obayomi.

What is jazz dance?

By: Brandon Ambrosino

Jazz dance is an umbrella term encompassing several different styles of dance that became popular in the early 20th-century. Though jazz dance has mixed roots extending back through both African and European traditions, it's a uniquely American creation, which developed simultaneously with jazz music in New Orleans. Unlike in other parts of the United States, slaves in New Orleans were allowed to retain and practice elements of their African heritage, and on Sundays, would gather in the Place des Nègres — later called Congo Square — to sing and dance.

Eventually, this kind of social song and dance became popularized beyond the African American communities, especially as Southern blacks migrated to Northern cities during the Great Migration. Social dances like the Charleston and the Jitterbug caught on. In the 1940s, the improvised, social aspect of jazz dance began to be replaced with intricate choreography as more dancers with training in ballet and Modern took up the dance form, especially on Broadway stages. This emerging style of technical jazz became codified in the movement of Jack Cole, Jerome Robbins, Gwen Verdon, and Bob Fosse.

Today, jazz dance continues to evolve and blend with other dance styles — for example, street jazz and theatre dance. However, true to its roots, jazz dance continues to hearken back to the ethnic eclecticism that birthed it.

Some recent and contemporary pioneers of jazz dance are Katherine Dunham, Michael Jackson, Luigi Faccuito, and Michael Bennett. Noted jazz choreographers on SYTYCD include Wade Robson, Mandy Moore, and Sonya Tayeh.

Some identifying elements of jazz dance include:

  • Isolations: a dancer isolates one specific part of her body, such as her rib cage or wrist
  • Grounded movement: dancers keep a low center of gravity, and often bend their knees
  • Syncopation: accenting an offbeat or note of the musical accompaniment that surprises the audience
  • Contractions: motivated by her breath, a dancer will make a C-shape with her core
  • Sensuality: there is a sexiness in jazz dance that is lacking in more traditional styles

Here's an example from SYTYCD, featuring dancers Alexis Juliano and Nico Greetham. The choreography is by Spencer Liff.

What is tap dance?

By: Brandon Ambrosino

Like jazz, tap dance was born from a fusion of European and West African cultures. In the mid-1600s, slaves in the Southern United States began to imitate the jigs and social dances of the Irish and Scottish, combining them with the West African Juba dance. The Juba, which involves slapping of the arms, legs, chest, and face, grew in popularity after the Negro Act of 1740 made it illegal for slaves to play drums — slaveowners were worried that blacks were using drumming to communicate in code with each other with the hopes of planning an uprising. Percussing their bodies, then, was a way for slaves to supply the rhythms that otherwise would have been lost due to the drumming ban.

In the middle of the 19th-century, this evolving style of dance made its way onto the stage with the rise of minstrel shows, which featured white performers, in blackface, caricaturing the song and dance of slaves. Though these shows purported to feature "authentic" black culture, they were conceived and performed by mostly white artists. The exception to this rule was William Henry Lane, a free African American. Lane's dance skills shot him to fame — his name received top billing over white performers, and Charles Dickens even wrote about him in his travel book American Notes. Lane came to be known as "Master Juba," and is thought to be the most important dancer of the 19th-century, and the inventor of American tap dance.

Tap dance continued to evolve through the end of the century, and was performed either in hard-soled wooden shoes (Buck and Wing) or soft-soled leather shoes (Soft Shoe). In the 1920s, metal taps were added to dancers' shoes, which helped to further differentiate the emerging style of dance from its predecessors. With the rise of the musicals on stage and screen, tap dance became a part of America's cultural fabric. Its popularity saw a brief decline due to the rise of rock-and-roll in the 1950s, but thirty years later, the genre saw a renewed interest among dancers, especially among black dancers who looked up to hoofers like Gregory Hines, Sammy Davis Jr., and Savion Glover.

Today, tap dance is broadly divided into two categories: rhythm tap and theatre tap. Rhythm tap focuses more on musicality and improvisation. Theatre tap (also called Broadway or Show Tap) is a much more presentational style of dance, and concerns itself with the aesthetics of the entire dancing body.

Some foundational tap vocabulary includes:

  • Time steps: a dancer keeps time, or the musical beat, with her feet
  • isolations: a dancer isolates one part of her foot (heel, toe, ball) to make a sound
  • brush: one foot remains stationary, the other strikes the ground moving forward or backwards
  • shuffle: the combination of two or more brushes
  • ball change: a two-count move that changes the body's weight from one foot to the other
  • flap (pronounced FUH-lap): a quick brush followed by a step

Of course, in performance or practice, many of these foundational moves are combined into more advanced footwork and rhythm.


Here's a beautiful tap dance from Season 10 featuring Aaron Turner and Melinda Sullivan (from Season 7). The choreography is by Anthony Morigerato.

What is Broadway dance?

By: Brandon Ambrosino

Broadway dance developed alongside jazz dance. When jazz found its way from New Orleans to New York in the 1920s, stage directors began to incorporate it into their shows as momentary bits of spectacle scattered throughout loosely-framed narratives. However, once directors and choreographers started using dance to advance their plotlines instead, the choreography became more intricate and the dancers more trained. There are examples of this type of dance throughout the 1930s — Anything Goes, for instance — but it wasn't until the 40s that it really took off.

In 1943, a jazz dancer named Jack Cole choreographed the Broadway musical Something for the Boys. Cole was trained in East Indian dance, and would often blend some of those elements into American jazz. His unique fusion of jazz, ballet, and ethnic movement was revolutionary, and it earned him the title "Father of Theatrical Jazz Dance."

Some recent and contemporary Broadway Dance choreographers are Gower Champion, Michael Kidd, Randy Skinner, and Chet Walker. Noted SYTYCD Broadway choreographers include Andy Blankenbueler (also a choreographer for Broadway shows) and Tyce Diorio.

Some identifying features include:

  • story-focused and character-driven movement
  • exaggeration
  • quirkiness
  • athleticism

Here is an example of Broadway dance from SYTYCD to "Moses" from the musical Singin' In The Rain. It's choreographed by Tyce Diorio and performed by Jeanine Mason and Phillip Chbeeb.


What is contemporary dance?

By: Julia Jester

Contemporary dance is an expressive style of dance that abandons the rigid, centered aspect of classical forms of dance, and utilizes unconventional movements from styles around the world. It incorporates certain elements of ballet, modern dance, and jazz.

Contemporary dance emerged in the 1950's as dancers reacted against the rigid constraints of ballet technique. Seeking to move with ease and fluidity, dancers began to experiment with manipulating their cores — a thought unheard of in classical ballet schools, which taught students to maintain a rigid, upright core throughout dancing. The three most influential choreographers on the development of contemporary dance were Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, and Lester Horton.

Because of its versatility, contemporary dance is used in a variety of performance mediums throughout the world. It has evolved both commercially and professionally, with the emergence of companies such as Shaping Sound, co-founded by SYTYCD veterans Travis Wall and Nick Lazzarini. Though SYTYCD features many dance styles, some of the best dances from the show have been contemporary. Notable contemporary choreographers on SYTYCD include Mia Michaels, Travis Wall, and Stacey Tookey.

Some identifying elements of contemporary include:

  • Abstract: the emphasis is on movement rather than narrative
  • Unpredictability: dancers often use contrasting rhythms, directions, and postures
  • Breath: in many forms of contemporary and modern dance, performers use breathing as a central part of their dancing
  • Floor work: many contemporary students learn that the floor is their first partner
  • Non-standard movement: there isn't a set contemporary dance vocabulary, so performers are free to experiment and create new movements and positions

One of the most iconic contemporary routines on SYTYCD was "Gravity," a dance choreographed by Mia Michaels to depict the struggle of addiction. The piece, performed by Kayla Radomski and Kūpono Aweau, won the 2010 Emmy Award for Outstanding Choreography:

However, not all contemporary pieces have to incorporate technical skills or complex movements. In this SYTYCD routine, also choreographed by Michaels, contestants Lacey Schwimmer and Neil Haskell show how powerful simplicity of movement can be:

What is ballroom dance?

By: Brandon Ambrosino

Ballroom dance typically involves two dancers, the leader and follower, who maintain upper or lower body contact throughout.

The first reference to the genre is found in Thoinot-Arbeau's 1588 Orchésographie, a study of French Renaissance social dancing. Throughout the next two centuries, courtroom social dance — which was always performed facing the throne, since subjects weren't permitted to turn their backs to royalty — featured prominently during high society events. As court etiquette relaxed, so did this style of dance.

In the 19th century, the waltz and polka rose to prominence in both Europe and America. By the beginning of the 20th century, ballroom had become a popular pastime, and witnessed a widespread democratization. Partner dancing moved well beyond the exclusive parties of royalty, and became accessible to the general public. As a result, more jazz-influenced "low" styles of ballroom — two-steps, trots, lindy hop — began to develop as jazz music found its way to cosmopolitan centers.

Perhaps pushing against the democratization of the dance form, some tried to bring standardization to the genre, the most notable example being the Imperial Society which was created in 1904 to "safeguard" ballroom. This standardization helped pave the way for later ballroom competitions, which began in the 1920s.

Traditionally, males lead and females follow. However, as social codes continue to morph, so, too, does this classical gendered hierarchy. Another development in modern ballroom dance has been the infusion of same-sex couples into the performance and competition worlds. Same-sex ballroom couples have been shown on SYTYCD auditions in seasons five and six.

Some identifying elements of ballroom dance include:

  • contact: the dancing couple maintains touch throughout the entire piece, or most of the piece
  • frame: there is a correct way for partners to hold each other in closed dancing position — think of Patrick Swayze telling Baby, "This is my dance space" in Dirty Dancing.
  • poise: posture and poise are important in most dance styles, but a particular emphasis is placed on the stretch of the follower's upper body in ballroom
  • lead/follow: regardless of which person is leading the dance, the follower should make following appear effortless

Here is a Paso Doble (a kind of Spanish ballroom dance) from SYTYCD Season 9. It was danced by Cole Horibe and Lindsay Arnold, and choreographed by Jason Gilkison.

What is hip hop dance?

By: Julia Jester

The history of hip hop is distinctly American, though, like other "distinctly American" forms of dance, its roots extend back through jazz to African dance.

In the 1960s in New York City, the uprock and breaking dance styles started to develop alongside hip hop music. At the same time, dancers in California, inspired by Hollywood robots, were working on dance moves to imitate them through locking and popping. In the 1970s, professional street-based dance crews emerged and popularized these various subcategories of hip-hop. As hip hop gained ground in the American cultural imagination, dancers blended the two different coast styles into one big genre of hip hop.

Social forms of hip hop dancing evolved alongside hip hop music — in the 90s we had the Running Man and the Cabbage Patch, in the 2000s the Soulja Boy and the Dougie. Unlike most dance styles on this list, hip hop was developed without a formal structure and was not created in a studio. In other words, a hip hop dancer only needs a natural sense of rhythm and practice, rather than formal training, to become skilled in the style.

Recently, modern hybrids of hip-hop (lyrical hip hop, jazz-funk) have become popular in the entertainment industry. However, because these versions incorporate highly technical elements of other dance disciplines, these versions (sometimes called "studio hip hop") are not always considered to be authentic.

Some identifying elements of hip hop include:

  • Competitive nature: hip hoppers challenge each other with dance moves
  • isolations: dancers control and move specific parts of their bodies

  • Popping: quick contraction and release of a dancer's muscles to the beat of the music

  • Locking: performing a series of movements to "lock" parts of the body in different positions

  • Breaking: improvisational freestyle movements performed closely to the rhythm of a song, often including flips and tricks

An example of commercialized hip hop is this routine choreographed by Napoleon and Tabitha D'umo and performed by Alex Wong and Stephen "tWitch" Boss.

The power couple "Nappytabs" also made lyrical hip-hop a show favorite with "Bleeding Love," performed by Chelsie Hightower and Mark Kanemura.

And here’s Jimmy Fallon and Will Smith’s history of hip hop dancing:

You didn't answer my question!

This is very much a work in progress. It will continue to be updated as events unfold, new research gets published, and fresh questions emerge.

So if you have additional questions or comments or quibbles or complaints, send a note to Brandon Ambrosino: brandon@vox.com or Julia Jester: julia@vox.com.

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