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He starts by educating each Kaba Modern class on the history of hip-hop, as well as on the crew itself. "Every one of you who has walked through the doors has put an imprint on the Kaba Modern legacy," he tells the group. "Not because of your talent, but because of your soul."
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Born on Bronx sidewalks in the late 1970s, taking inspiration from the locking and jiving of previous pioneers, street dance invaded cities across the nation during the 1980s and 1990s, fueled by Soul Train and films such as Breakin'. A shy kid from Harbor City, Calvario would sit in the neighborhood park and watch in awe as guys popped and locked on the grass to beats blasting through boomboxes. Inspired, he'd go back to his room, stand in front of the mirror, and try to mimic what he saw.
In high school, Calvario's interest in hip-hop dance grew, and he would drive to Filipino house parties in Cerritos to watch local dance crews battle in back yards. Sometimes, everyone would gather around the television and watch VHS footage of crews from San Jose and other areas. Hip-hop group dance was just starting to catch on, and it struck Calvario even more than the improvisational, individual styles he'd previously witnessed.
"These dancers would have the rawness of the street, but everything would be choreographed," he says, dressed in a plaid shirt and jeans and sitting in his Long Beach condo, where he keeps a library of Kaba Modern DVDs and books on hip-hop history. "I was mesmerized."
Cheryl Cambay was a member of one of the Cerritos crews that Calvario loved: Funki Junction. Now 37 and living in Long Beach, she looks back at that time and sees an interesting dichotomy. Gang activity was rampant in the Filipino-American youth community, and whenever the crew would go to parties, there was always some concern that violence would erupt. While she believes the dance-crew scene was the "antithesis" of gang life, with a focus on respect instead of hate, she sees some parallels.
"It was still about reppin' where you were from and who had your back," says Cambay, who joined Kaba Modern once she started college. "Everyone just wanted to belong and identify with something and know that someone cared."
Meanwhile, Calvario had formed his own crew at Narbonne High School. The Polka Dot Posse were four guys who danced at talent shows in polka-dot attire. "I'm so embarrassed!" he says, laughing. He went on to attend UCI, where he joined the school's Filipino-American student organization, Kababayan ("countrymen" in Tagalog). Every year, the group puts on Pilipino Culture Night (PCN), an extravagant showcase of traditional dancing, singing and skits. Most members of Kababayan are children of Filipino-American immigrants, and the event remains a way for them to connect with their ancestry through performing arts, a cornerstone of their heritage. For nearly four decades, students at schools have hosted PCNs across California, where Filipino-Americans make up the state's largest Asian-American group.
Calvario, a freshman at the time, wanted to use the event to showcase the full Filipino-American experience, his experience, through the style of dance he loved most.
"I went up to the [club] president and said, 'Since it's Pilipino-American Culture Night and so many Filipino Americans do hip-hop, shouldn't we include our current styles as well as our historical, cultural styles?" he recalls.
He proposed the idea of a PCN hip-hop performance group, but, he says, the president brushed it off. "He was like, 'Yeah, put up fliers and hold auditions,'" Calvario recalls. "I didn't know he was kidding."
Auditions were held, and Calvario assembled a group of seven males and seven females. They practiced in the evenings, outside the university's Cross Cultural Center, sometimes to curious looks from those passing by.
When the big night arrived, UCI students, friends and family members packed the Irvine Barclay Theatre. Performers graced the stage in elaborate traditional garb, their ornate fans and wooden fighting sticks waving in the air. Halfway through the show, the emcee announced PCN's newest act, the Kababayan Modern Dance Suite.
Calvario and the gang came out in streetwear—baggy jeans, sweat shirts, flannels and sneakers. They spun, jumped and body-rolled in unison to popular songs of the day, including TLC's "Ain't 2 Proud 2 Beg" and Arrested Development's "Tennessee." The unsuspecting crowd went wild.
"It was a huge hit," Calvario says, " And the process was so much fun—just all being together."
The group shortened its name to Kaba Modern and started doing gigs outside of PCN, at clubs and at Cal State Fullerton's Friendship Games, the largest student-run Filipino-American gathering in the nation, attracting attention and recruits at every performance. Soon, hip-hop dance crews sprung out of Filipino clubs at other schools, such as Culture (which eventually became Team Millennia), founded in 1994 at Cal State Fullerton, and PAC Modern, launched in 1995 at Cal State Long Beach. The first time they competed against one another was when a car-show promoter invited the three crews to battle at one of his events in Del Mar—a seemingly bizarre location explained by the equidistant travel from San Diego's and Orange County's large Filipino communities. Crowds flocked to the stage area. "I just remember seeing all these videocameras," says Cambay, who joined the crew in its second year. "It was like people couldn't wait to see us."
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