Kaba Modern Created a Dance Dance Revolution

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

The panel of judges gushed.

"What was that?" asked rapper and singer/songwriter Lil' Mama. "That was crazy!"

"It was like y'all took elements from every group, made y'all own crew, and did it better than everyone else!" added hip-hop choreographer Shane Sparks.

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

Location Info


UCI Bren Events Center

100 Bren Event Center Drive
Irvine, CA 92612

Category: Attractions and Amusement Parks

Region: Irvine


VIBE Dance Competition at UC Irvine Bren Events Center, vibedancecompetition.com. Jan. 29, 5 p.m. $25 in advance; $30 at the door.

VIDEO: See Kaba Modern in motion.

"It was precise, it was amazing," said former 'N Sync member JC Chasez. "You showed you don't have to do a backflip to blow everyone away."

The six dancers made it to the next round, and then all the way to the top three. They were often ranked at the top with international superstars Jabbawockeez from San Diego, known for their trademark white masks and edgy, innovative moves.

Calvario, Kaba Modern's manager throughout the show, says there were the requisite reality-show spins. "Producers would ask them things on camera, such as 'What makes you better than Jabbawockeez?' But we were friends with Jabbawockeez and always thought they should be the winners of that season, so there was no way we were going to bash them. Then they would say, 'You're boring. Give me something!'"

Kaba Modern alumni traveled from all parts of the country to Los Angeles to watch the tapings. "They were a real crew," Schwartz says. "You could tell they were a family because they had respect for one another."

The show has opened doors for many hip-hop dancers. Since appearing on ABDC, Kaba Modern's Huang has toured with Britney Spears, and Song is a choreographer for the film Step Up 4. Jabbawockeez, which won that season, started its own clothing line, JBWKZ; went on tour with New Kids On the Block as their opening act; and now headlines at the Monte Carlo Resort in Las Vegas. Last year, Westminster crew Poreotics traveled through Australia on their Tic Toc Tour.

The pressure is extreme, members say. Every routine must be more impressive than the last. "It's like if Justin Bieber put out a bad song," "Dumbo" Nguyen explains of what goes through his head. "It used to be just for fun. Now, it's work."

Calvario now also manages two other ABDC crews, Fanny Pak and the Beat Freaks, while working as an occupational therapist. "When new crews ask about going on the show, I tell them go for it," he says. "Just don't sacrifice your integrity."

*     *     *

"So, it's five-six-seven-eight, tah-tah-tah-tah-tah, one-two-three-LOOK DOWN! Boom-boom-BOUNCE! Booooooooooom-TAH! Tah-guh-tah-guh. Yeah?"

Saaya Anzai demonstrates what she just uttered, her petite body jolting to the rhythm of her voice with freeze-frame precision. Her elbows blast out like toy aircraft wings, then teeter-top up and down. Tah-tah-tah-tah. She dips into a squat, her knees grooving inward and outward as though they're saloon doors. Her chest whips into an Igor hunch as she spirals around, and then drops as though someone just pulled the plug on a robot gone haywire. Tah-guh-tah-guh.

The young men and women behind her watch her movements intensely and mimic them.

"Now faster," says Anzai, her braided ponytail dangling at her shoulder. "Five-six-seven-eight!"

In preparing for VIBE, Anzai teaches the Scream slasher portion, one of the most difficult to perfect, or "clean," because it focuses on popping, an intricate style that involves contracting various muscles in quick sequences to create the look of "pops" in a dancer's body.

"It has to be on point," says Anzai, a 20-year-old UCI student who is studying dance. "If one person is off, you can tell right away. So we go through each movement like picture, picture, picture to make sure everyone's angles are matching—the arms, the legs, everything."

The dancers are entering Hell Week, the rigorous pre-VIBE practice schedule that just about every competing crew has adopted. "It's called Hell Week because it's literally hell," says Jenny Valles, a Kaba Modern alumni who performed in VIBE last year. "Sometimes, you practice from 9 at night until 8 in the morning, and then go straight to class. But no one slacks off because everyone's going through the same thing. And when you're delirious at 4 in the morning, that's when you bond the most."

And then the moment your feet touch the stage, "you're invincible," says Valles. "You basically show the world what you're made of while dancing with people you love the most. It's the craziest feeling."

Before each performance, Kaba Modern gathers into a circle, holds hands and prays. "That's when we pull all our energy together so we're united onstage," Calvario says. He continues to perform with Kaba Modern Legacy, the alumni group, and serves as the board president of Culture Shock LA, a nonprofit community dance collective. "From the very beginning, I wanted Kaba Modern to be about family first and innovative artistry a close second."

At the end of Kaba's latest practice, he tells the crew to perform the locking routine once more, this time taking in all its history. "I want you to tap into the essence."

When they go through it again, it's different. Bigger, livelier, more joyous. A new energy fills the space.

"Can you feel the difference?" he asks. The group cheers.

"Savor these rehearsals," Calvario tells them, simultaneously one of them and their Yoda. "Don't take them for granted. After college, you'll have other joys and other celebrations, but this particular joy is now."

This article appeared in print as "Dance Dance Revolution: Popping and locking with UC Irvine's Kaba Modern dance crew and the movement it helped to create."

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