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In the beginning, there was dance. This isn’t hyperbole: Archaeologists can trace the origins of dance back to the Stone Age. Dance was a means of ritual and healing, of connection and expression. Movement evolved over time — to traditional African dance and European ballroom, to ballet and modern, to tap, to jazz, to funk — and yet, dance’s purpose is no different now than it was in prehistoric times.
Dance is, and always has been, wordless communication, and there is perhaps no dance form with more to say than hip-hop.
"They're not just movements for the sake of doing the movement," says E. Moncell Durden, assistant professor of practice at USC's Glorya Kaufman School of Dance. "You're actually saying something. It's based out of a type of conversation that exists in a community."
Hip-hop dance emerged in the predominantly black and Latino communities of New York City's South Bronx in the mid-1970s, on the heels of hip-hop music's genesis, and soon spread throughout the country. "Hip-hop dance involves two dances: breaking and social dances. That's it. Nothing else is hip-hop," explains Durden. Social dances, which began to take shape in the mid-'80s, are dances created by a community, rather than a single choreographer, that have recognizable steps.
Hip-hop is now a mainstream dance form, not just across the US, but internationally as well. And once something gets that big and that ubiquitous, the end result is similar to a game of telephone: a mashup that constantly evolves with each new interpretation. It may not be truly authentic, but it's colloquial to refer to all kinds of street dance styles as hip-hop dance: popping and locking (both of which came out of funk, not hip-hop), waacking, vogueing, krumping, house. The fingerprints of the umbrella form — anything danced to hip-hop music and/or incorporating classic hip-hop dance — are now all over pop culture.
With the hip-hop music explosion of the 1990s came the dawning of the backup dancer, beamed to households everywhere thanks to In Living Color's Fly Girls and music videos for just about every pop star imaginable. Hip-hop dance in particular attracted Hollywood's eye, and the success of 2000s dance movies like Center Stage, Save the Last Dance, and the Step Up franchise ushered in a boom of dance-focused TV competition shows where hip-hop was featured, chief among them So You Think You Can Dance and America's Best Dance Crew.
Today, there are still dance movies and dance-in-the-background movies, dancers in music videos, dancers on concert tours, as well as dancers in awards show performances, Broadway shows, Las Vegas shows, and touring shows, incorporating all kinds of dance, though largely influenced by hip-hop's hallmark style.
There are also ads. So many ads. (Remember how heavily Gap leaned on dance in the late ‘90s and early 2000s? They still do.) This past August, Spike Jonze directed a dance-centric perfume commercial for Kenzo that was something of a callback to his 2001 music video for Fatboy Slim starring Christopher Walken. At this precise moment in time, it's near impossible to get through your Snapchat story without the mobile version of JCPenney's dance-y TV spot set to Meghan Trainor's "Me Too" popping up.
Now, more than ever, dance sells. But how do young dancers sell themselves?
If the era of Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, and Gene Kelly tapping across the screen is considered the Golden Age of dance, today's modern era could be considered the Double-Platinum Age. Now, more than ever, dance sells. But how do young dancers sell themselves?
In the global community of hip-hop dance, there may be no greater honor than winning big at Hip Hop International's "World Hip Hop Dance Championship," a massive annual competition that draws thousands of competitors. The championship spawned MTV's America's Best Dance Crew, which was created by Hip Hop International's cofounders Howard and Karen Schwartz; it aired from 2008 to 2012 with an eighth season reboot in 2015, America's Best Dance Crew: Road to the VMAs. The show is how many of the younger dancers at HHI heard about the competition in the first place.
Even though it's currently off the air and its future is unknown, ABDC may still be something of an advertisement to compete at HHI. But what's more, tournament-style TV shows are now like accelerated auditions for commercial work. Dance Moms' Maddie Ziegler went from dancing on a Lifetime reality show, to dancing as Sia's mini-me in the music videos and live performances for "Chandelier" and "Elastic Heart" (among others), to dancing in a Target commercial, to appearing as a judge on So You Think You Can Dance: The Next Generation — but not before co-starring in that Target commercial with Kida the Great, a future contestant she'd end up judging on The Next Generation. If it sounds like the dance world is a small one, with only so many roles and lots of repeat casting, that's because it is.
And it never seems smaller than during one particular week in August.
2016 is the fifteenth year that Hip Hop International has produced a worldwide dance competition that spotlights "authentic street dance styles."
"HHI has been doing it for years, and their reputation is bar none the best," says Emmy-winning choreographer Tabitha D'umo. Tabitha and her partner Napoleon are known in the industry — and on programs like Fox's So You Think You Can Dance — as the husband-and-wife hip-hop dance duo "Nappytabs." As Tabitha explains, "Dance teams and crews that want to compete spend their whole year preparing—"
"Just like you would for the Olympics," Napoleon cuts in.
"Just like for the Olympics," agrees Tabitha. "To come here and compete at HHI, to hopefully take home the title of best in the world. And at a young age, that sense of competition, and that environment they're in, it just pushes them."
Here's how it works:
Each team, or crew, consists of five to eight members, and competes in one of three divisions: the junior division includes dancers aged 8 to 12, varsity is 13 to 17, and adult starts at 18. The megacrew division bears no age requirement, but refers to the number of dancers on stage: a minimum of 15 and a maximum of 40.
As for scoring, "It's a different format, it's very unique," says Arnel Calvario, who's been a judge for HHI since the championship's inception in 2001. A panel of eight judges evaluates each crew's routine — with four judges focusing on performance, and the other four rewarding points for skill — awarding a maximum score of 10.
Dancers face the judges many times in Vegas before a lucky few climb the metal stairs leading up to the brightly-lit stage at UNLV's Thomas & Mack Center, the massive arena where HHI's world finals unfolded on August 13th. Dancers also face judges many times in their home countries, as HHI's World Hip Hop Dance Championship is the culmination of many smaller events across the globe. In America, for example, the crews that compete in HHI's USA championship and win gold, silver, and bronze advance to compete at the World Championship, which begins two short days after the USA finals conclude.
"You can go directly from winning at USA to just losing right away," says Andie Zazueta, a 19-year-old member of Miniotics, a five-member crew hailing from Whittier, California. HHI is the only hip-hop dance competition that draws such high numbers of competitors (3,975 this year, to be precise) from all over the world, and the talent, she says, is of "the highest caliber." She and her teammates won gold at USA in the varsity division last year, an achievement the crew never saw coming, and this year they competed for the first time in the adult division.
"The idea of hip-hop dance, and the choreography and the routines, have been exposed to a massive audience around the world."
Howard and Karen Schwartz founded HHI after an already lengthy career producing aerobics competitions. They'd seen hip-hop dance performed, and become increasingly popular, all over the world, but noted the lack of codification and cohesion across the community. So, they seized the opportunity. There was no international hip-hop competition, and they had the expertise to create the first. The aerobics fad had died down, and hip-hop dance could be a flashier step up (pun semi-intended) into mainstream entertainment and commercial success. HHI's first World Hip Hop Dance Championship was held on the sand in Miami's South Beach, and since then the Schwartzes have garnered legitimacy for not just the competition, but for hip-hop dance in general.
"There are so many opportunities now that didn't exist when we first started this event," says Howard, speaking both to the increased profile dancers receive by appearing in the competition, and to the varying career paths that hip-hop dance's popularity now yields. "When we first started, there was a very, very limited view of what hip-hop dance was, and everybody felt it was breakdance, or b-boy, and that was it. Now the idea of hip-hop dance, and the choreography and routines, have been exposed to a massive audience around the world."
Durden, the USC dance professor, who is also a member of the trailblazing hip-hop dance group Mop Top Crew, explains how much the form has grown since he first started dancing. "When I was coming up with it, there were clear lines," says Durden. "What something is, what something is not, which I'm still steeped in. But today, young people are just like, ‘That's a cool move or movement, I want to learn how to do it, I don't care where it comes from, I want to sit and figure out how I fit it into what I do,' which is great for the individual voice."
Durden is concerned, though, that the buffet sensibility within the broader dance community can deplete the form of hip-hop's roots and identity. Do, for example, the kids who attend krump co-creator Tight Eyez's workshop at HHI know that krump was intended as a means to funnel frustration into artistic expression, and surfaced as a positive alternative to gang life?
As choreographer and TED fellow Camille A. Brown puts it in the written intro to her visual history of social dances talk, "African-American social dances started as a way for enslaved Africans to keep cultural traditions alive and retain a sense of inner freedom. They remain an affirmation of identity and independence." Dance has history. And while HHI reflects a communal eagerness to learn, remix, and evolve hip-hop dance moves, it's not always clear enough is being done to preserve hip-hop's historical context.
HHI does make an effort to invest in education by inviting the creators of foundational dances like popping, locking, and waacking to serve as guest judges, and creators of newer styles, such as krump, to teach workshops. This year, locking inventor Don "Campbellock" Campbell says that he's looking for "the next Don Campbell."
Still, there's worry about erasure. There's frustration over lack of acknowledgement. There's praise for creativity and originality, and unease about perceived commodification.
"There's always a deeper construct underneath," says Durden, who competed at HHI years ago in a locking battle and has since worked with HHI's affiliate in Russia. "And these dances are loaded and coded with meanings and messages that hold certain value in the community."
"Five, six, seven, eight!" commands 13-year-old Amari Smith from atop the shiny stage inside the hotel's ballroom. His crewmates pivot swiftly to the back of the house as if in military roll call, the signal to cue the music.
Amari is part of Prodigy, a Las Vegas-based team that won gold at the USA championship on August 7th. Now the crew is back in the thick of it just four days later to compete for the junior world title.
The echoey intro of Beyoncé's "Formation" pulses through massive speakers, playing at full volume, and the crew stomps into, well, formation. Amari takes 11-year-old Jayna Hughes's hand, as she climbs over the backs of her crewmates with vogueing flair, while Beyoncé sings, "I'm so reckless when I rock my Givenchy dress." On "Rock his Roc necklaces," Jayna hits the ground hard.
Meanwhile, her fellow Prodigy dancers explode across the stage, stomping and punching and roaring, like mini krump masters. And they are masters: They've basically been krumping all their lives. Jayna, for one, started training in hip-hop dance when she was 5 years old.
"Dance doesn't have a headlining position in the entertainment industry. It has an assisting kind of fulfillment."
"If I looked at them as the kids that they are, I wouldn't be able to train them," says Prodigy's coach Kay More when we chat later that day. "I'd be like, ‘Aw, you're so cute.'" The former professional dancer and Junior Olympic gymnast created Prodigy in 2009 with the intention to compete at HHI.
When you're competing at this elite level, says Kay, you're a professional, no matter your age. And as hip-hop dance becomes more visible, and careers in hip-hop dance more viable, the entry age into the field gets younger and younger. Just this year, So You Think You Can Dance devised an entire season devoted to kids, subheading it: The Next Generation.
Yet despite these showcase programs and exceptional cases like Maddie Ziegler's, most dancers are not the stars of the show.
"Dance doesn't have a headlining position in the entertainment industry," says Valerie Ramirez, co-director of The Lab Creative Arts Studio in West Covina, California. "It has an assisting kind of fulfillment."
Quote-unquote "making it" in hip-hop dance means booking a gig as a backup dancer on tour and promoting a musician, or booking a gig in a commercial and promoting a product. "As a soloist dancer, it's really based on how you can appeal to an artist, how you can fit into a campaign for another company," adds Valerie. "It's a complement to something that already exists. It's not really it's own thing." The other avenues dancers pursue to achieve success — studio owners, coaches, choreographers — follow suit.
Dancers are almost always in the service of something other than themselves. That doesn't mean that a hip-hop dancer is forever meant to fall in line and be a good soldier, argues talent manager Nelson Diaz of BTB Creative Agency, so long as that dancer's work expands beyond the limits of the dance world. "I don't represent dancers," explains Nelson. "What I always say is, I represent ‘entertainers.' With that being said, we always look at ways to utilize dance as a tool, to help them evolve and get into different arenas."
Case in point, Nelson's client Miles Brown is now a series regular on ABC's Black-ish, but the 11-year-old began his professional career as a hip-hop dancer known as Baby Boogaloo. He danced as Baby Boogaloo on Yo Gabba Gabba and in Justin Bieber's Believe concert movie in 2013. "We used his dancing to build some notoriety, to build a name," says Nelson, who's represented Miles from age 5 onward. "And leveraging that allowed us to get him into rooms that dancers normally would not get into."
But first, aspiring Baby Boogaloos need to get into rooms that get them into those other rooms.
One-handed handstands aren't an unusual sight at the Westin Lake Las Vegas, the official hotel of this year's HHI. Neither are random backflips that land feather-light in the breezeway outside the Casablanca ballroom. Dancers mark routines while in line for skyscraper-tall iced coffees and every quick carb available at the Marrakesh Express coffee shop, and pop-up dance battles materialize at all hours in the hotel lobby.
Public naptime isn't unusual either, puddles of dancers in full dress and makeup criss-crossed atop one another, fast asleep despite the old-school boombox blasting DMX's "Party Up (Up in Here)" around the corner and another crew's handheld Jambox playing "Crank That (Soulja Boy)" not two feet from the nappers. (Both 2000s music choices are considered classics at HHI, and crop up regularly in many, many, many routines.) After their naps, the kids leap to their feet, and run their warm-up drills.
The physical work required of a hip-hop dancer can't be overstated.
Dancers have long been considered artists, first and foremost. Creativity, emotion, and big ideas are the hallmarks of innovation in a discipline focused on how a performance makes the audience feel. But, more and more, particularly with the increasing relevance of competitions like HHI, dance is considered a sport, too. Athleticism and accuracy are essential for landing gigs, and for winning competitions. And ensuring accuracy also involves physiology.
Kay More thinks a lot about sports medicine when it comes to her dancers. After HHI last year, she introduced a holistic training regimen to her Prodigy kids, focusing on nutrition, sleep, and recovery.
"‘Go home and go to bed,'" says junior Prodigy member Amari in his best Kay impression. "‘You can eat, but go to bed.' Because she knows how crazy we train." Jayna — Amari's crewmate with the Beyoncé walk at the beginning of her crew's HHI set — says transitioning to Kay's "clean eating plan" made sense to her. Eliminating fried foods and refined sugars for the entire year didn't faze the 11-year-old one bit. "She just wants us to be safe, so that if we do get hurt, we can make our muscles heal a little bit better and faster."
Chaz Walter has competed on the varsity level of Prodigy for the past three years. He laughs when asked about Kay's nutrition plan: "She tries. You can't eat healthy all the time." But the training has paid off. At 18, Chaz is officially a working, paid professional, now appearing in Cirque du Soleil's show Michael Jackson One at Mandalay Bay. He went straight from his high school graduation ceremony in May to sign his contract.
"Everybody thinks they want it until they go into the training and realize how difficult it actually is to get to this level of competition."
The rigor of competing at HHI filters out those who discover they'd rather treat dance as a hobby from those who meet competition with the "bring it on" outlook. As Kay puts it, "The goal would be to jump into the industry after this and feel like, ‘Oh wow, it's not as much pressure as HHI. Anything's easier after that!' It's good, realistic training if this is what you want to do as a profession."
Ashleigh Habgood and Alley Williams agree. They co-own Neverland Studios in Auckland, New Zealand, and traveled more than 6,700 miles with their eight-person junior team, Khaos, plus a ninth member who serves as a reserve, plus an additional nine girls who aren't competing this year at all. That's 18 tween and teenage girls to chaperone.
"They're here to experience the competition," says Ashleigh. "And that in itself is like, ‘Okay, whoa, this is what is expected.'"
Like Prodigy, Khaos made it to the world semi-finals both this year and last year. Ashley says she's seen the HHI experience intensify in the three years she's trained teams to compete here. "It's not unusual for crews to change their sets just before they compete, or two or three times during the week, depending where they placed in preliminaries." Routines for HHI consist of a series of sets, or snippets of music with unique choreography attached to the beats, strung together. Crews will swap out individual sets and switch around the lineup from round to round. Longtime judge Arnel supports the tactic. Doing so, he says, is "really strategic and smart — if you can raise the level."
Not every crew can. Competitors at HHI might place second in prelims, and get knocked out in semi-finals. They might suffer a minor fall (.05 deduction). They might suffer a major fall (.1 deduction). They might injure themselves on stage, and limp off. They become experts at working really, really hard, putting their bodies and brains through constant, unrelenting stress that only resets the next day.
Coaches like Ashleigh and Kay feel the responsibility to both train their dancers' technique, and open their eyes. "Everybody thinks they want it," says Kay. "Everybody thinks they want it until they go into the training and realize how difficult it actually is to get to this level of competition."
For the past three years, Cirque du Soleil has held open call auditions during the international competition. This year, they're held in the very same Casablanca ballroom that crews pass through over the course of the preliminary and semi-final rounds of the championship.
During a break, one of Cirque's scouts says that she and her colleagues were expecting 200 dancers to show up; instead, they've seen 400. Cirque calls back 300 the next day. Of those 300, only 35 make it into their database. But making it into the database doesn't mean automatically getting cast in a show. According to Cirque's casting FAQ, "If you are selected following an audition, your name is entered in our database of potential artists for casting calls on current shows and upcoming creations. Please note that we do not offer contracts at the end of an audition." Those lucky 35 got the audition equivalent of a "maybe someday."
"The industry is very competitive," says Kay. "That's why a competition like this is the perfect prep for the industry."
The idea is to go from competing in a series of qualifying rounds to competing in a lifetime's worth (or at least, a dancer's lifetime's worth) of auditions. The mental component — of reconciling with rejection in real time, of extinguishing exhaustion and replacing fatigue with new fire, of going from the top, again and again and again — is just as important as physical ability.
At HHI, hip-hop dancers of every age practice the art of accepting rejection, while simultaneously not allowing that rejection to define them. "These kids are in prime developmental years," adds Kay. How they fare in high-level competition, she says, "shapes self-confidence."
Dancers confess feeling terrified of the HHI stage, specifically because of the level of talent that graces it. There's a lot of respect tied up with fear, mixed with expectation and hope. "I've never felt more nervous than on the HHI stage," says Miniotics' Aidan Dacy Carberry from the Whittier rehearsal room back in April. "Getting on that stage is the worst feeling in the world."
"I never remember what I do on the HHI stage," says crewmate Michelle Chong. "I go on, I do it, I go off, and I'm like, ‘What did I do?' I don't know. I literally don't know what I do. It's muscle memory at that point."
"It's not even enjoyable until afterwards, that's how I feel," adds Aidan. "I feel like I'm just suffering on stage trying to do my best."
Still, Prodigy's Jayna says that dancing hip-hop and competing has helped boost her self-esteem in other areas of her life. After transferring to a new school two years ago, she felt shy and overwhelmed. The petite 11-year-old with long dark hair is soft-spoken. She wears glasses. She doesn't look like someone capable of a guttural roar in a public space. But performing with Prodigy has brought out a sense of fearlessness. "With hip-hop, it's a style where everyone has to be joined together, and it's just so powerful that it helps encourage us to get stronger and hit a little harder. It really helps me become stronger at school."
"It's not even enjoyable until afterwards, that's how I feel. I feel like I'm just suffering on stage trying to do my best."
"She's very strong already," says her mom Jerevi. "I see it come up more when she dances. It doesn't surprise me, but it makes me proud. Because that's all I want. I don't want an 18-year-old daughter who doesn't want to go to college because she's scared. I don't want that. I want her to be independent. You can't live your life sheltered or scared. I want her to know how to put gas in her car, I want her to know how to change a flat tire, everything."
Jayna is not alone. In the junior category, Beyoncé's "Run the World (Girls)" and the aforementioned "Formation" are on regular rotation from routine to routine, particularly for all-girl crews. Beyoncé is an icon of female empowerment, making her music the de facto soundtrack for these young women. The girls strut assertively; they raise their arms up, high above their heads, and flex their muscles. Their stone-cold facial expressions and self-assured body language demands that they be seen.
"To do it as a profession," Tabitha D'umo says of dance. "You really have to do it for the love."
"Because you're not going to make millions and millions and millions of dollars," adds Napoleon. "You're doing it because you love this art form, and that's the same thing we tell all the adults. If you're doing it to be famous on TV, and you're doing it to be rich, you should go do something else — act or sing. Because dancing is for the art. You can make a living, you can make a really good living, but if that love isn't there you'll burn out."
Some dancers do in fact become stars, though. Take Parris Goebel.
Elle titled its profile of the 24-year-old dancer/choreographer/director and freshly minted pop recording artist from New Zealand (known as Parri$), "Everyone Wants to Work with Parris Goebel." And judging by her collaborator rolodex, that's not an exaggeration.
She's choreographed tours and live performances for Jennifer Lopez (whose world tour she worked on at age 21), Rihanna, Nicki Minaj, and Janet Jackson. Last year, she choreographed and directed 13 music videos for Justin Bieber's album, Purpose, showcasing her ReQuest crew. Her music video for "Sorry" is the third most-viewed video on YouTube with nearly 2 billion views.
Parris got her start at HHI. Throughout competition week this year, her story is bandied around like a fable with a constructive moral: This is the first rung in the ladder of your career.
Parris was just 17 when she won gold at the 2009 HHI world championships with the crew she founded two years earlier, ReQuest. She went on to compete with ReQuest on the sixth season of America's Best Dance Crew. ReQuest and the crews that she's created since, like junior level Bubblegum and megacrew The Royal Family Varsity, have collected a total of 18 HHI World titles.
You can watch the videos of her crews' competition performances over the years for a crash course in "Becoming a Star 101." In The Royal Family's 2013 gold-winning routine, she's one of a vast ensemble, never singled out, hitting the final pose from the back row. In The Royal Family's 2015 silver-winning set, her crewmembers bend over for her entrance, and the crowd roars; the number ends with Parris standing and the rest of the crew crouched on the floor. In 2016, she watched the world finals from the front row, entertaining every selfie request from fans between performances.
HHI considers Parris a legend; she considers HHI her entry into professional dance.
"My first HHI comp was probably the first moment and turning point for me that I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, maybe I have something special,'" she reveals in her "HHI Spotlight," a short digital series produced by the competition earlier this year. "I've reached a point where I've showed myself that I can do anything I put my mind to."
"I'm a bit more confident in myself now, and represent myself a bit more," Parris says about her evolved style since. "I'm not afraid to be outside the box. When I was younger I was more self-conscious about different opinions and what needed to happen and what you can't do, where now I don't have any more fear."
Throughout HHI week, it's almost impossible to tell which dancers are members of The Royal Family — the catchall name that covers all of Parris's crews — and which are fans sporting Parris's Royal Family merch. In addition to the crowned "P" symbol (which stands both for Parris and for The Palace Dance Studio, Parris's hip-hop-only training complex in Auckland) found on baseball caps and hoodies, a number of young dancers wear denim jackets with the words "Run and Tell Your Friends" printed in a graffiti-esque scrawl on the back.
'Hey, I'm already onto the next thing, let me drop an album. I don't want to just work for Beyoncé, I want to be Beyoncé.'
Run & Tell Your Friends just so happens to be the name of Parris's, or Parri$'s, EP. She premiered the original songs, including her first single "Friday," at HHI with a one-night-only performance called "The Parri$ Project," which was closer to a live concept video than a concert. The Bubblegum crew wore the jackets for their world finals performance, in front of a crowd of 10,000 people.
Honestly, it's more or less inaccurate to refer to Parris Goebel by her first and last name at this point. Everyone at HHI refers to her simply as "Parris," whether they know her or not.
"Parris was somebody who was born and raised and basically grew up in this competition," says Prodigy's Kay, one of many HHI alums who have watched her star rise. "And it created that high caliber that could launch her into, at 21, already a top industry choreographer. Now it's like, ‘Hey, I'm already onto the next thing, let me drop an album. I don't want to just work for Beyoncé, I want to be Beyoncé.'"
Not everybody skyrockets. Everyone hustles, Parris included, but many dancers are unsure if they'll truly be able to make a life of this passion like she has.
UPeepz, a megacrew from the Phillipines of 40 men and women, fundraised for two years for the chance to compete at HHI. The last time they competed at HHI was in 2014; they placed seventh, and only sixth place and up moved onto the finals.
"Honestly speaking, everything we did after that HHI performance, it was all directed towards coming back here," says Phim Villanueva, a member of UPeepz sitting cross-legged inside the upstairs holding room at UNLV's Thomas & Mack Center.
It's world finals night, three hours before the qualifying crews take the stage one last time, and the room is uncharacteristically quiet. "This is the end goal. We've invested so much in this competition." Phim explains that UPeepz rallied to get sponsors, ranging from Converse, to a grocery store owned by one of their junior member's families, to the water provider for Quezon City. Securing sponsors helped UPeepz host fundraising concerts and classes, the proceeds from which covered HHI's registration fees and hotel accommodations for their entire 40-member crew.
"All of the flights are our own hustle," says Chips Beltran, director of UPeepz and junior crew Lil' Peepz. Chips adds that a handful of the crew members, like himself, are full-time working dancers, while the rest are either enrolled in university or employed in other professions — the crew's "working peepz," as he calls them. Dance is where working peepz, and recently graduated students like Phim, derive their sense of purpose.
"Work is work, it gets you through your everyday expenses," says Phim. "But what gets you through the day is your love for doing what you love."
Dance is an acceptable, sustainable career in the Philippines, albeit in a comparatively small nation with fewer opportunities for big success. Becoming an internationally renowned choreographer is the dream, but emigrating to another country, or even traveling temporarily to compete, is dicey.
"The embassy is really, really strict about visas," says Chips, adding that the embassy denied one of their teammates a travel visa for the competition, compelling the crew to change its lineup last-minute. Chips and Phim are careful not to speak negatively about the government; the rest of the world, meanwhile, is all too aware of its recent threats of violence, the newest in a long history of oppression.
"The Philippines is a small country, and there are just a handful of people making a name for the nation," says Chips, tying his long straight hair into a messy low bun. "This is the competition to win if you want to get out there, if you want to make it. This is the competition you have to win."
Members of HHI-winning crews from the Philippines in years past, like Philippine All-Stars ("the OGs," says Chips) and A-Team, the megacrew who placed first in the world in 2014, saw their careers take off after HHI. "They're getting recognition — they get to dance all around the world, they get booked. HHI is the biggest stepping stone for all the Philippine teams."
"Winning would change everything," Chips adds.
Winners in each category receive a cash prize, albeit not a huge one. Junior, varsity and adult crews that win gold at the World Hip Hop Dance Championship get $2,000 each. The megacrew division receives $4,000, but the take-home is rather insignificant after expenses. ($4,000 wouldn't even cover the international airfare for four of UPeepz's 40-person crew.) Winning is more about the glory, and the aftereffect.
"This is the competition to win if you want to get out there, if you want to make it. This is the competition you have to win."
The same holds true for American crews competing in the adult division, like Miniotics.
"There's a sense of seriousness attached to the adult division," says Michelle, who started training with Miniotics at age 13. "HHI used to be a pathway to ABDC, so that was like that industrial jump you need as a crew to really, really make it in the big world, to continue pursuing what you love." ABDC's on-air future may be uncertain, but HHI's career-generating impact is lasting.
None of the members of Miniotics are full-time professional hip-hop dancers yet. Some of them are in college. All of them work to pay the bills. Aidan is a janitor. Michelle works at her university campus. Kai Chuesakul-Linville sells keychains at the mall. But the hope is that winning at HHI might open doors, and accelerate their brand building.
"I don't think we can necessarily consider ourselves professional yet," says Kai. "However, we do treat ourselves as professionals. Until we start doing what we really want to do, which is to make money off this, teaching what we know and performing as much as we can, I think we have a ways to go."
But let's get back to the kids. Is now the best time to be a young kid pursuing a professional career in hip-hop dance? Yes. There are way more opportunities for kids to get noticed now than there were in the era commonly referred to by veteran choreographers, like Napoleon and Tabitha, as "back in the day."
Back in the day, says Tabitha, aspiring dancers typically had to wait until they were 18 before they could pursue dance professionally. Step one: move to New York or Los Angeles. Step two: train and try to get into classes with the top working choreographers. Step three, as Tabitha describes it, "Hopefully those big choreographers see you in class, and maybe book you on a job, or recognize your face, and then sort of after a few auditions go, ‘Oh, I've seen them around town now, maybe it's time to book them on something.' These kids now are getting that type of exposure in their hometowns."
How? For starters, studios all over the world train juniors for large-scale competitions besides HHI, like World of Dance, Vibe, Body Rock, and Set It Off, where the aim is not only to get prepared for the professional world, but to get noticed by it.
Says Khaos co-director Ashleigh Habgood, "If there weren't these kinds of intense competitions around, kids might cruise until the age of maybe 15, 16, and then go, ‘Oh I want to be a dancer.' But by then, it's really too late. You really need to have laid that foundation."
And, no doubt, the surge in TV competitions like So You Think You Can Dance: The Next Generation has been a boon to getting kids center stage sooner. A big win introduces those dancers to a broader audience, including fans and so-called starmakers — like frequent guest judge and longtime director/choreographer, Kenny Ortega, perhaps best known for the High School Musical trilogy. But there's visibility beyond all that, too.
"The dance world is still a pretty small, tight-knit group in regards to who-knows-who-did-what," says talent manager Nelson Diaz. "Until you get to social media."
Yes, the two-word answer to anything remotely related to celebrity or modern success: "go viral."
This isn't viral in the one-hit-wonder sense. This is viral in the existential sense. This is the Maddie Ziegler-effect, cross-pollination across every field until every word typed, tapped, and tweeted is Maddie Maddie Maddie, and, suddenly, she's inescapable. There's no recipe, but there are predictable ingredients: Instagram, YouTube, and a dash of reality TV.
Look no further than So You Think You Can Dance: The Next Generation for theory-in-action of this viral stew. This season the show adopted social media-inspired graphics like chat boxes, giant smartphones, and oversized page-swiping fingers. Twelve-year-old Sheaden Gabriel made it to the top 10; he currently has over 68,000 followers on Instagram.
"I've been on music video sets where they say, ‘We need some dancers, we're looking for some new faces,' and they literally pull up YouTube."
"He's been able to work with some really big choreographers that have followings and huge YouTube accounts," says The Lab's Valerie Ramirez, who coached Sheaden to USA gold last year at HHI with junior crew Classic, adding that Fox promoted his Instagram handle during his run on The Next Generation. "He's definitely had opportunities where he's been able to broadcast his account, and it's been able to work really well for him in building that sort of following."
Even beyond gigging on TV, establishing connections with adult mentors, who have large followings of their own, is invaluable. Of those big choreographer stars that Valerie mentioned, Matt Steffanina is among the biggest and shiniest — his YouTube channel currently boasts over 4.7 million subscribers and over 821 million views.
"YouTube has opened up so many opportunities," says Matt. You might think he's talking about his own success here, but he's not. He's talking about the new generation of dancers just starting out, and the immediate access that YouTube affords them. "People don't realize how much it's changed dance, because before you had to live in LA. There was no other option."
As a choreographer for artists like Taylor Swift and Chris Brown, Matt says he's seen the powerful role that YouTube plays in talent scouting. "A lot of things happen behind the scenes with social media that people don't realize. I've been on music video sets where they say, ‘We need some dancers, we're looking for some new faces,' and they literally pull up YouTube. ‘What about these two guys from Florida? Oh, what about this girl from Texas?' You never know who's going to come across a video, and that's what's so powerful about YouTube and social media."
Matt is now one of hip-hop dance's most widely recognizable choreographers, in part because of his recent win on The Amazing Race alongside fiancée Dana Borriello, who is also a dancer. But it's been his tutorial videos that have cemented his popularity in the dance community, providing free instruction for those learning to dance from their basements and bedrooms, and his exhibition videos from his classes at LA's Millennium Dance Complex that have introduced a number of talented kids to the spotlight.
Sheaden and fellow So You Think You Can Dance: The Next Generation competitor Tahani Anderson may owe some credit to Matt specifically: both have been featured in several of Matt's videos, including one from September 2015 that Matt titled: "AMAZING 11 Y/O Boy Dancing to ‘What Do You Mean.'"
It's not enough to have choreographers and directors notice you on social media, though. The real money is in commercial work, and that's where dancers are typically able to transform their craft into real income. "A lot of clients are measured on how many viral videos and Instagram followers they have, and what their engagement is," says Nelson. High engagement, he adds, "shows to companies that, wow, this audience is a captured audience. And, with that said, we're able to monetize that. We're able to have brands come to us."
The 11-year-old freestyler known as Phoenix Lil'Mini is one such client on Nelson's roster. Phoenix is another Instagram heavyweight, currently pulling in over 62,000 followers. "I found her because she was dancing with one of our older clients in a viral video," says Nelson. "So, we now use that as kind of the calling card and the marketing tool to leverage her for other things. She's gotten opportunities with non-endemic companies that are not what you would think would fall under the dance world category." The freestyler has worked with H&M and Uniqlo, for example.
Though every hip-hop dancer's path to success changes course, most share a handful of mile-markers, and Phoenix's story is no different: get discovered in a viral video with other rising star dancers, get commercial work, build your brand, get noticed by big recording artists, get cast in new viral videos — lather, rinse, repeat.
At the start of Phoenix's career, which was just over a year ago, there were four defining performances that got the ball rolling:
There was the "Watch Me (Whip/Nae Nae)" video produced by Yak Films that has earned over 31 million views since May 2015.
Then there was the freestyle to Nicki Minaj's "Truffle Butter" that dancer/choreographer and immaBEAST company director WilldaBeast Adams posted in June 2015, highlighting her as a "#lilBEAST," which garnered over 2 million views. There is absolutely nothing going on in that video save for Phoenix's masterful isolation work — which, granted, is more than enough — plus off-screen audio of someone, possibly Will (as Phoenix refers to him) marveling, "Where do her grooves come from? I'm so happy."
"If they start saying negative stuff, I'm just going to be like, ‘You are a person that I don't know, and I don't care what you think.' Because I'm me, and I'm going to dance like me."
Shortly thereafter, Phoenix won gold at HHI's 2015 world championship with her crew ChapKidz, nabbing the title that every kid hip-hop dancer covets: best in the world.
And in September of last year, Phoenix danced in a special performance on the So You Think You Can Dance season 12 finale with her freestyle mentor (and So You Think You Can Dance alum), Cyrus. The video hasn't gone viral to the degree that Phoenix's other videos have, but her performance in it spurred something else: the show's now storied kids-focused spin-off.
As executive producer Nigel Lythgoe put it during the televised finale, "She has got so much flavor it makes me believe we should be doing a show for kids called So You Think You Can Dance. She is sensational."
When Phoenix auditioned for The Next Generation this past year, Lythgoe made it even clearer. "You were almost the inspiration for this show. We thought, ‘Wow, we've got to show America how great these kids are.'"
"That was a big moment," says Phoenix during a Skype interview in July, alongside her mom Stephanie. "Because I didn't think I would influence it a lot, but I guess I did!"
Phoenix was eliminated just shy of the top 10 on The Next Generation. She opted out of competing at HHI this past summer, but she's still been plenty busy. She plays soccer three to five days a week year round. She attends elementary school. She constructs silver spray-painted robot families out of recycled toilet paper rolls. And, she dances, daily, whether she's freestyle training on her own in her family's garage, or sessioning with her freestyler friends (mostly adult dancers in their 20s and 30s). Oh, and last year she also danced in Missy Elliott's video for "WTF (Where They From)."
So, what does she think about social media, and all those followers tracking her Insta-success on her own account, as well as on the YouTube fan channels and Facebook fan pages they've made for her?
"Yeah, so here's my thought about that," says Phoenix. "I like it, but I also don't like it. I like it how people are enjoying people, but if they start saying negative stuff, I'm just going to be like, ‘You are a person that I don't know, and I don't care what you think.' Because I'm me, and I'm going to dance like me."
"LET'S GO!" is the most repeated phrase at HHI's world championship by far. Parris belts it out from the front row when Bubblegum and The Royal Family Varsity take the stage. Chips, soft-spoken when talking about what winning HHI would do for his Filipino megacrew UPeepz, cups his hands around his mouth and hollers loud during his Lil' Peepz's performance.
Prodigy, who won gold at the USA finals, doesn't make it to the world championship stage — the team is knocked out after semi-finals. So too is Miniotics. Lil' Peepz advances to the world finals, and the crew dances its synchronized heart out with Chips's sideline support, but does not place.
Parris's Bubblegum girls win bronze in the junior division; her megacrew The Royal Family Varsity also takes home the bronze. Canada's T.eenagers, an all-girl junior group from Quebec decked out in camo leggings and army green bomber jackets, wins first place. UPeepz takes the megacrew gold.
Winning gold at HHI may pave the way for dance world success, for a lifetime of gigging in the background, but dancers prepare just as much for those supporting roles by losing at HHI. That's life, isn't it? Not in the "tough cookies" sort of way, but in the "this is what it means to exist" way.
Life, for most people, is a supporting role. Most people never hold the leading part in anything, not even their own lives. We have families, and co-workers, and friends, and a lot of responsibilities that take precedence over making ourselves stars.
Competitions like HHI are not just adept at preparing kids for careers in a ruthless and unyielding field, but they also prepare kids for that scary, stressful dance of adulthood.
A lot of the hip-hop dancers who compete at HHI do want to dance professionally when they grow up. Prodigy's Amari, definitely. His crewmate Jayna, maybe. She used to want to be a pharmacist, she says, "But now everything's changing, because I am getting a lot of dance stuff."
Jerevi isn't too worried about it either way. "As a mom you just want your kids to pick a career that they're going to be comfortable in, in life. If dancing doesn't work out, I know she'll be okay to do something else. Plus, she's only 11."
Phoenix Lil'Mini's mom Stephanie agrees, adopting the same laidback approach that might make a mom on Dance Moms gasp in abject horror, "I think more than anything is to just enjoy it. Because it can end at any time. Our motto is, ‘If you don't like it anymore, don't do it.' It's all supposed to be for the fun and the joy and the experiences. She's had so many amazing opportunities, where most 10- or 11-year-olds don't learn to work with adults and be on set, and they're all amazing, amazing life lessons."
But surely Phoenix, the freestyler who launched a Fox TV show, knows what she wants to be when she grows up, right? A professional dancer for life?
"I literally have no idea," she says with a laugh. "I try not to think ahead too much, because then I get nightmares."
Stephie Grob Plante is a writer in Austin, Texas.