Monday night's show had actually been taped last Thursday, and reporters who had witnessed the outcome, including myself, had been sworn to secrecy. But it was surprising to find that even Shankman — a two-time guest judge on the show — didn't know what had happened until minutes before it aired on TV. "Now," says Shankman, "I think it's going to come down to Danny [Tidwell] and Sabra [Johnson]. Neil [Haskell] is the most improved and Lacey [Schwimmer] is a great performer, but for me, it's Danny and Sabra."
No matter who takes the $250,000 prize, they're probably going to need to sleep for a week. Last season the top four dancers were lucky they could walk, let alone dance. Bruised and battered, they limped to the finale after a monstrously challenging 10-week competition.
Donyelle Jones had a sprained big toe. Travis Walls' hip wasn't working. Benji Schwimmer was getting painkillers injected into his back. "We had so many injuries," says judge Mary Murphy. "We had a sprained knee. We had a near broken toe with Donyelle, with all the cartilage and ligaments torn. Dmitry had his heel sliced open all the way from the back of the heel around to the toes. Benji was getting cortisone shots in his back and hips. Travis' and Ivan's backs went out on them completely. It was really crazy."
"I could hardly move," recalls Travis, who was in the audience tonight. "None of us could."
So this year, the producers decided to take a kinder, gentler approach. For the first time, the dancers had a whole week off around the Fourth of July. "Even if they weren't feeling fatigued, to have a week off made a huge difference," says Donyelle Jones, also in the audience tonight. "They came back refreshed." The top four this year were also taken to a local spa last Friday for some serious pampering. "They're going to get a little spa, a little massage," said executive producer Nigel Lythgoe. All day Friday? "Oh, no, no, no," said Lythgoe. "They've got to work. They've got 11 or 12 routines to do next week between the last night of competition and the finale." Says Murphy, "I talked to the kids and they're in pretty good shape. We told them in Vegas (before the competition started in earnest), and I think they took it to heart: Get your bodies prepared. And that's exactly what they did. So just maybe we're going to see some of the best dancing out of them in the finale, which we definitely did not have last year because of the injuries. There's no way you can get the best out of somebody when they have a sprained knee or a broken toe."
The top 20 this season will return for the finale this Thursday. Besides big group numbers, they'll be performing the judges' favorite routines. As to the two knocked out of the competition tonight, it came as a bit of a surprise to Mary Murphy, who assumed Pasha was a big hit with the young girls. "I have a feeling it was a really, really close call with Pasha," says Murphy. "The little girls loved him. And all along we've been saying to Neil, 'You need to get your shoulders down.' And his back always seems so rounded."
"I don't see Neil being the winner," says choreographer Shane Sparks. "If hip-hop wasn't [one of the dances] on the show, maybe. But he's not the most versatile." How about Sabra? "I like her," says Sparks, "but she's not my type. If I were holding an audition, it would be Lacey all day long. She killed everything all season. And nobody can touch her when she hits the stage. She's got an inner sexiness, a confidence." What about Danny? "He's the most incredible dancer I've ever seen," says Sparks. When you tell Sparks that's quite a statement, considering the history of ballet greats, he says, "I never paid attention to ballet, so I haven't seen them all. But for sure, he's the best dancer who's ever been on this show. When he can do eight pirouettes and then walk out of them like it was nothing? I can't do that. So if I see a dancer do something I can't do? Then that's a good dancer."
"I don't think a girl will win because so many girls do the voting," says Travis. "There's this girl thing. And I'm not saying this because he's my brother, but I think Danny should win. Lacey has a built-in fan base because of her brother. But Danny's created his own fan base. I'm so surprised he got this far, because America doesn't go for the best dancer. And he's the best dancer this show's ever had."
Better than Travis himself, who came in second last season? "Oh my god, yes," says Travis. Even if Danny doesn't think so? "He's crazy," says Travis. "Really crazy."
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