Season 10 of Fox's hit reality-dance show So You Think You Can Dance (SYTYCD) got underway just two weeks ago, and already arguments abound in my household as to who will win. SYTYCD have become a ratings juggernaut over the past 10 seasons, a more cultured and artistic version of American Idol, which has garnered a slew of Emmy Awards and generated a Congress-endorsed "National Dance Day" (this year, July 27th). True, the winners may not go on to achieve the same level of fame as some other reality shows, but the show provides a platform for young dancers to be noticed, and several former contestants are now popping up in commercials and episodes of Glee. With any reality TV show the fun lies in guessing who will be eliminated next. But what if that were predictable? What if there were away I could predict this winner of this season's SYTYCD?
For those of you not familiar SYTYCD, the show follows a well-worn reality show format: the first several weeks show dancers auditioning in cities across the U.S, a top 20 are chosen (10 male and 10 female) and each week two dancers are eliminated (or as the British host Cat Deeley rather sinisterly puts it, they are cut). Dancers are put into pairs, and each week must perform a randomly selected style of dance. Dancers who receive the fewest viewer's votes must dance for their lives, with the panel of three judges (comprised of Executive Producer Nigel Lythgoe, motor-mouthed Mary Murphy and a special guest) decides who is sent packing. Eventually one male and one female are declared America's favorite dancer, and peace and harmony are returned in my house.
At this point I need to play my geek card. As an epidemiologist and demographer, I cannot resist the urge to crunch the numbers and try and make predictions. Data on the characteristics of the contestants of the previous nine seasons reveal some interesting trends. SYTYCD is clearly a young person's game: 60 percent of the winners to date have been aged 18-20, and no one over the age of 24 has won (the oldest runner up was Stephen "Twitch' Boss when he was a positively ancient 25). Some dance styles dominate with 60 percent of the winners contemporary dancers, and only 20 percent of the winners coming from the broad hip-hop, breakdance, animation, popping and krump group. There has been only one ballroom winner (Benji Schwimmer, Season 2) and one ballet winner (the fantastically named Chehon Wespi-Tschopp, Season 9). If you represent tap, belly dancing, jazz, broadway, or martial arts fusion (remember Cole Horibe, Season 9?) then your odds of winning are low. Florida, Georgia and California have each produced 20 percent of the winners, with the rest coming from Arizona, Massachusetts, Texas and Utah.
I then took this to a different level, or some would say, I took this a little too far. I fitted a statistical model using the data for the past nine seasons to see what was associated with success on SYTYCD. Looking at simple outcomes of winner versus looser and finalist versus earlier departure, those aged 18-20 have a 70 percent greater chance of winning, while those aged over 24 have practically no chance of even making into the top 10. If you are a contemporary, hip-hop/breakdance/animator/krumper, or a ballroom dancer you have a strong chance of making it to the final, and of winning. But tappers, belly dancers and broadway hoofers should probably not give up their day jobs. Coming from California, Utah, Florida or Georgia puts you in with a good chance of at least making it to the final, and states with the largest amounts of sunshine seem to produce the most winners. In summary, if you are an old belly dancer from Wisconsin this is probably not the competition for you.
So how do these results apply to this to this year's crop of dancers? Tap dancers never do well and there are 3 of them this year, one of whom is old (24!) and from Nevada (Aaron Turner), while the others (Alexis Juliano and Curtis Holland) are young (18) and are both from Florida. Expect Aaron to be the first of the tappers to go, with Alexis and Curtis following not too soon after. There is only one jazz dancer, Jasmine Mason, she is young (19) and from a sunny state (California) so expect her to make it a long way. The contemporary and hip-hop/animation groups are especially crowded this year. But there are 5 contestants who fit the profiles of previous winners. Among the contemporary dancers there is Malece Miller, 19, from Utah and Makenzie Dustman, 18, from California, while Jenna Johnson an 18 year old ballroom dancer from Utah should not be overlooked. The two men with the characteristics most suited to winning are Dorian "BluPrint" Hector a 19 year old animator from Georgia and Du-Shaunt "Fik-Shun" Stegall, an 18 year old hip-hop dancer.
Last week saw the first round of eliminations, providing me with the opportunity to test my predictions. One eliminated dancer follows trend: Carlos Garland, a 24 year old (old!!) contemporary dancer from Florida, while the other, Brittany Cherry, a 19 year old ballroom dancer from Utah, seems to buck the trend. In my analysis I measured only age, style and state, and there are clear patterns of winners across these. But I cannot measure the contestant's backstory, and in previous years having an under-dog story has been powerful in propelling a dancer to victory (season six's krumper Russell Ferguson). This year we have Tucker Knox, the 22 year old contemporary dancer who survived a major car accident, and Jasmine Harper, the 19 year old who had her heart broken by a previous fan favorite (Cyrus "Glitch" Spencer, runner-up in Season 9). Although I think youth, style and state will continue to be factors in Season 10, and will likely shape who makes it to the top 10, you can never count out the influence of a good story. Or a pretty face. And for that reason I am going totally against my own analysis and putting my money on Aaron Turner.