Kaba Modern Created a Dance Dance Revolution

Popping and locking with UC Irvine's dance crew and the movement it helped to create

Kaba Modern Created a Dance Dance Revolution

They were missing . . . something.

Technically speaking, the dance routine was near-perfect. Every jive kick, every side leap, every knee slide had been drilled for hours on end. But Arnel Calvario had an idea that would make it shine.

"Everyone, gather around the laptop," he says.

Alfonso Fuentes, Saaya Anzai and Jullian "Juju" Blankenship catch some air
Ediphotoeye
Alfonso Fuentes, Saaya Anzai and Jullian "Juju" Blankenship catch some air
Arnel Calvario (left) and Darren Wong. Calvario founded Kaba Modern in 1992 at UC Irvine
Ediphotoeye
Arnel Calvario (left) and Darren Wong. Calvario founded Kaba Modern in 1992 at UC Irvine

It's 9:30 p.m. on a Wednesday in January, but on the cold, concrete floor of the outdoor breezeway to UC Irvine's Crawford Hall, the 34 members of Kaba Modern sit in a semi-circle and stare at the computer that's resting on a speaker. Dressed in loose street clothes—sweat pants, hoodies, Nikes and Vans—some position their legs in front of them, then lean forward and stretch.

"We're gonna go back to the roots and do a little show-and-tell," Calvario announces, smiling. He clicks play. On the screen, six men and one woman are wearing striped socks, pegged pants and fedoras. A lit-up backdrop reads, "Soul Train."

"Whoooooaaa!" a few girls say.

Disco music plays and the performers onscreen start moving, bouncing their heads in a rhythmic groove, slapping their hands on their knees with vigor and playfulness.

"These were the original Lockers," Calvario explains. The group nods and laughs. "Funky, right?"

As the young men and women watch the 1970s dancers strut, kick and dip low with fancy footwork, several of them bop their heads to the beats. Mouths gape in awe. They eagerly listen as Calvario talks about the legendary dance crew and the history behind locking, a style of funk dance whose name was taken by the group onscreen, created and led by Don Campbell in Los Angeles, from the ashes of the Watts riots in the early 1970s.

"Did you hear them cheering for one another, like, 'Yeah! Hoo! Ha!'?" Calvario asks. "That is the spirit of locking. Locking was created when things were very dark and dismal, and people felt so segregated and alone. But when the civil-rights movement happened, all of a sudden, there was this sense of opportunity, freedom, power, and that's what locking is created out of. It's not about the routine; it's about celebrating that freedom within and overcoming that struggle. So when you're up there, you should be looking at one another—you should be celebrating together."

The history lesson comes at a time when they could use a jolt of perspective. Kaba Modern has been intensely fine-tuning its routine for next weekend's VIBE, one of the biggest, most prestigious hip-hop dance-crew competitions on the West Coast. The event takes place every January at UCI's Bren Events Center; this year's iteration will bring together 15 crews from as far away as Japan to battle it out onstage before a panel of judges and a deafening audience of 3,000 (and tens of thousands more who'll watch replays on YouTube). Some crews integrate storylines and theatrics into their routines; others perform to crowd-revving mashups of pop hits. Dancers flip across the stage and spin as though they're pinwheels on the ground. Add laser strobe lights and special effects, and it's pure visual insanity.

Kaba Modern members have chosen a movie theme this year and will perform a fusion of dance styles, including choreo, whacking, popping, breaking, krumping and contemporary, all to remixed music from films such as Titanic, Scream and 300. Calvario, who founded the UCI hip-hop crew in 1992 and now serves as its adviser, dropped in on a rehearsal to help with the Zoolander portion, a locking showcase performed to Wham!'s high-energy, New Wave jitterbug hit "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go."

At 38, Calvario is young enough to sport a short faux-hawk and patent-and-plaid Nike sneakers with cool ease, but he's called "Yoda" by generations of Kaba Modern members because he's wise and always so positive. They also refer to him as "Grandpa" because he has built a massive family of dancers—and helped to spark a phenomenon that has infiltrated the mainstream.

Celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, Kaba Modern paved the way for the wildly popular collegiate hip-hop dance-crew circuit, which still has its strongest roots in Orange County. What started as an extracurricular activity for Filipino-American students with rhythm has exploded into a thriving dance scene, one chased by television producers and serving as a launching pad for those pursuing careers in the entertainment industry or dance instruction. More than 20 hip-hop dance crews dot the region, and six will compete in this year's VIBE: Kaba Modern, Chinese Association Dance Crew (CADC) and Common Ground from UCI; Fullerton-based Team Millennia and IV League; and PAC Modern from Cal State Long Beach. Each organization is similar to a college fraternity, in that it has unique traditions, rituals, and an emphasis on brother- and sisterhood.

In 2008, Kaba Modern received mainstream attention when members starred in the first season of MTV's hit show Randy Jackson Presents America's Best Dance Crew (ABDC). Dancers have gone on to appear in music videos, tour with top artists and choreograph for hip-hop films. Right now, with the public's newfound interest in urban dance, Calvario sees an opportunity. "While people are listening, it's important for us to make sure they understand it has a rich history so they don't take the art form lightly," he explains. "It has its own roots, its own vocabulary. It wasn't just a freak accident."

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