Hey, Vegas club-goers, there are a few eight-year-olds I’d like you to meet.
At the Orleans Arena on Sunday, Aug. 2 a group of tiny Japanese girls in purple camouflage pants and teased ponytails started dancing in perfect locking unison to a song more than a decade older than they were. MC Hammer’s “Too Legit To Quit” gave way to Celine Dion’s Titanic anthem, “My Heart Will Go On” and the girls paused their frenetic, music video-quality dancing to hold the lone male member of their group aloft, his shirt ruffling like Kate Winslet’s on the ship’s bow. With a few more tightly choreographed hip-hop passes, the crew known as Monsoon finished its routine to raucous applause. I couldn’t help but think: Ninety percent of the girls on the tables at XS would kill to dance like this.
Of course, most grade-schoolers can barely perform a passable “Macarena,” let alone two minutes-worth of street dance that rivals Justin Timberlake’s moves. (His choreographer, Marty Kudelka, was in the audience doing research, I presume.) But with the Orleans Arena hosting the 8th Annual World Hip Hop Dance Championships on Sunday, the children onstage competing in the international street dance Olympics were not only incredible lockers, poppers and breakers, but they were also only the tip of the iceberg.
Created by Howard and Karen Schwartz, executive producers of MTV dance competition America’s Best Dance Crew, the World Hip Hop Dance Championships is a yearly summit for street dancers from across the globe. Dancers come from as far away as the Philippines, New Zealand, Spain and Singapore to compete not for money, but for a medal, a spot on the winners’ podium and a year’s worth of pride.
To hit the top spot and hear their national anthem play across the Orleans Arena, the teams of five to eight dancers in each of three age divisions had to bring routines that showcased not just technical skill, but also creative choreography and stage presence that impressed a panel of international judges like dancer Shane Sparks and Cirque du Soleil Love cast member Natasha Jean-Bart. Simply locking in unison didn’t cut it. Standing back tucks weren’t going to earn anyone gold. You had to go big. And you had to bring lots and lots of attitude.
Attitude was in full force during Mexican crew Neutral Zone Adults’ first WHHDC performance. The crew switched from technical precision to dancing aggression with a swing of the hips, eventually coming to such an animalistic climax that the crew formed a three-level pyramid with the man on top howling toward the ceiling like an infuriated wolf.
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In the Varsity division (ages 12-18), New Zealand crew Dziah 2.0 flooded the stage like hip-hop ninjas, their faces all but covered by black masks that they ripped off to reveal spiked heads of bleached blond hair. At one point a crew member became a living prop, with two dancers simultaneously planting a foot on his chest and back to push off into dramatic shoulder-high back flips.
Later, they built a standing pyramid three bodies high, then tilted forward into a terrifying intentional crash before curling into dive rolls at the last possible second. And just when their furious dancing started to resemble a war dance, a music change left the all-male troupe vamping like drag queens with flexed wrists and practiced sashays.
But the attitude on display wasn’t only onstage. The atmosphere inside the Orleans was a mix of support, pride and competitive intensity. Each unexpected spin or humorous twist elicited appreciative cheers from the crowd, and dancers called out the talents of their fellow competitors in post performance interviews. Moves that had stood out in last year’s competition found their way back onstage, a tweak here or there rendering them fresh while recognizable – a subtle homage. And new moves sure to be repeated were sprinkled throughout the evening, the mental catalogs of dancers and coaches in the audience brimming with new jumps, spins and flips.
When 2008 champions the Philippine Allstars took to the stage for the final competitive routine of the evening, the applause reached such a crescendo that were it not for the ads for upcoming events on the Orleans’ televisions you might think you’d crossed the Pacific and landed on Filipino shores.
The routine that followed saw the crew toss a dancer into the air like a basketball, fit their bodies together into slowly moving human car, and then spin the vehicle so a dancer’s feet suddenly became the muzzle of a gun firing a single shot into the crowd.
When their two minutes were up, the Allstars’ crew leader Ken Johns had words of encouragement for the crowd and his fellow competitors.
“In God’s eyes,” he said seriously, “you’re all stars.”
Perhaps the most unexpected show of support came between routines during the adult competition, when a member of German crew Physical Funk took the microphone after finishing their routine.
“I love hip-hop music,” he said. “I love hip-hop dance. I love hip-hop. But there is something I love more…”
He grabbed the hand of a fellow dancer and led her to the front of the stage. Kneeling in front of her with the crowd watching in eager anticipation on their feet, he asked her to be his wife.
She took the mic and addressed the man before her: “In the language of hip hop,” she replied, “Yo, baby!”
The arena broke into cheers.
And when it came time, well after midnight, for the winners to take their places on the risers under their flags and accept their medals, it was a trio of unfamiliar faces that were called to the stage and the winners’ podium. Flags from Singapore, Mexico and France rose above the stage as the victorious crews bounded up to accept their medals and revel in the payoff of hours of practice and miles of travel. No one looked more surprised than the gold medal winners themselves, France’s R.A.F. Crew, whose slick slow motion breakdown and gravity-defying performance had left such a strong impression.
However, it was a different French dancer who best summed up the shared sense of identity that permeated the Arena as consistently as the smell of buttered popcorn and the cheers for Michael Jackson tunes.
When host Chris Spencer asked a member of Varsity division crew Undercover how he learned to speak perfect, unaccented English, the dreadlocked smiled out at the audience as if it were the silliest query he’d ever heard.
“The music,” he answered. “Rap music.”
“Yes,” the Orleans Arena seemed to say in its cheers, “we speak that language, too.”
2009 World Hip Hop Dance Championship Winners
3. Freshh, Canada
2. Monsoon!, Japan
1. Lil Phunk Boyz, USA
3. Kana Boon!, Japan
2. Irratik, Canada
1. Request, New Zealand
3. Joyce & The Boys, Singapore
2. Neutral Zone Adults, Mexico
1. R.A.F. Crew, France