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.
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."
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."
* * *
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."
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.
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.
* * *
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.
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.
"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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