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The show features a tiered format wherein dancers trained in a variety of dance genres enter open auditions held in a number of major U. cities to showcase their talents and may move forward through successive additional rounds of auditions to test their ability to adapt to different styles.

The judges then retire briefly (typically during the night's headlining musical guest performance) to determine which man and woman (which are not necessarily from the same couple) will leave the competition, the eliminated dancers are then announced and given a brief send-off via a video montage.

On very rare occasions, the judges have been unwilling to send any of the bottom dancers home on the merits of their performances that week and have abstained from making an elimination and instead allowed all competitors to proceed to the next week (often to be followed by a double elimination the following week), since Season 7, dancers have also been routinely paired with "All Stars", returning dancers from previous seasons who partner with the contestant dancers, but are not themselves competing.

The dancers are put through a battery of rounds that test their ability to pick up various dance styles; these are typically some of the more well-represented genres that are later prominent in the competition phase, such as hip-hop, jazz, ballroom, and contemporary.

Additionally the dancers may be asked to perform further solos in styles of their choosing and participate in a group choreography round in which small teams of contestants must display their musicality and ability to communicate professionally by choreographing a performance to a randomly selected piece of music — this challenge is notable as being the only time competitors are asked to choreograph themselves, aside from solos, the Callbacks are often collectively portrayed as one of the most exhausting and stressful stages of the competition; each successive round sees cuts in which a significant portion of the remaining dancers are eliminated from competition and dancers are given a limited amount of time to adapt to styles they are sometimes wholly unfamiliar with while being physically taxed by the rapid progression of rounds and a limited amount of rest.

The total number of hours shown in a given week during the performance phase of the competition has varied from two to four hours; in season one there was no results show and the dancers' eliminations were pre-recorded the week they occurred and then broadcast at the beginning of the next week's episode.