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Dance became a state of mind for the students, who'd spend their days and nights working on routines, even if just in their heads. "I would do our formations while sitting in class, drawing it all out on paper," says Danny Batimana, the founder of Team Millennia, who now manages the Poreotics dance crew (season 5 champions of ABDC) and gives inspirational talks at high schools. "Instead of studying, I'd mix music on a singing machine."
During those early days, the three groups were cross-city rivals, fiercely competitive and always strategizing ways to one-up the others. "It was like those cheerleading competitions," Calvario says with a laugh.
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Kaba Modern adopted the slogan "Often Imitated, Never Duplicated" as a way to stake its claim in the scene.
When VIBE was created in 1995 by UCI's Lambda Theta Delta, an Asian-American fraternity, it was the first major hip-hop dance-crew competition on the West Coast. "That's when it exploded," Calvario says. "Other crews started—220 in San Diego, 909 in Riverside. UCI's Japanese student association, Tomo No Kai, started its own crew, then the Vietnamese club. It became a phenomenon." The groups were mostly made up of Asian-Americans, but they have become more diverse through the years.
Still, it was mostly a college fad; after graduating, members found themselves with talent to spare but nowhere to use it. Elm Pizarro, a dancer who lives in Aliso Viejo, watched the evolution of the scene in Southern California and saw that as big as it was becoming, there was a ceiling. Those who wanted to pursue dance opportunities beyond the collegiate circuit, perhaps work as backup dancers in music videos or tour with celebrity artists, found it difficult to break into the industry due to a lack of resources and knowledge. So in 2003, he launched Boogiezone, an online discussion forum on which dancers could post questions such as "What should I wear to auditions?" or "How can I network with industry professionals?" The site grew to 20,000-plus members from around the globe.
"We're kind of like the catapult or the doorway," Pizarro says. "Whatever it is you want to be, Boogiezone is the thing that helps you get there."
To further educate, Boogiezone started offering Tuesday-night hip-hop classes at Focus Dance Center in Irvine, featuring an instructor from outside the professional dance industry. Pizarro brought in big names from the dance world, including Teresa Espinosa, who has choreographed for Janet Jackson, Britney Spears and Miley Cyrus, and Dee Caspary, a choreographer for Justin Timberlake's tour and the TV dance shows So You Think You Can Dance and Dancing With the Stars. The workshops, which drew members from all crews, paid close attention to the intricacies of hip-hop dance, fine-tuning techniques such as krumping, the rugged and aggressive style born out of South-Central LA, and punking, a style first witnessed at underground gay nightclubs in Hollywood in the 1970s. Every class was filmed and put on YouTube, so dancers could practice the moves at home and discuss them. Collectively, the videos racked up more than 18 million views.
Over the years, Pizarro says, the once-segregated scene transformed into a strong community. In 2003, he launched his own crew, Boogiezone Breed, with members who represent more than 23 dance groups across the West Coast. "The barriers have come down," he says.
And the best was yet to come.
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In 2008, Calvario got a call from Howard Schwartz, the founder of Hip Hop International, which hosts the World Hip Hop Dance Championships that Kaba Modern competed in each year. He was creating a new MTV show called Randy Jackson Presents America's Best Dance Crew and wanted Kaba Modern to audition.
For Schwartz, the Irvine-based crew was on his shortlist. "They stood out," he says. "A lot of new dance crews were coming onto the scene, and they all seemed to look alike. [Kaba Modern members] had a presence about them and their style was different. And it affected you. Everything they did had an emotional aspect. Audiences are always looking for a breakout crew, one that will give you goosebumps. They were it."
Calvario was hesitant at first. He would have to choose just five to seven members from a team of more than 30. And the thought of appearing on an American Idol-style reality show scared dancers who thrived on being part of an underground movement. Nobody wanted to sell out by becoming too commercial.
At the same time, Calvario was excited about the idea. "I thought this would be a huge opportunity to have a voice that's larger than just our bubble," he says. "The face of hip-hop doesn't always include our community." By community, he says, he means both the Southern California hip-hop dance scene and the Asian-American demographic.
He decided to go for it and handpicked members whom he felt were some of Kaba Modern's most versatile and creative dancers: Mike Song, Jia Huang, Cindy Minowa, Tony Tran, Yuri Tag and Lawrence Kao. For their debut audition, the six dancers took the stage and performed a manic minute-long routine to Fieldy's Dreams' "Baby Hugh Hef" that made their bodies look like robots being shot down by machine guns.
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