Sunday, March 23, 2008

Guest Article: "Filipino America's Best Dance Crew"

Check out this article written by The Brian. He reviews a thorough history of Filipin@ American street dance legacy, and the reason YOU should vote for JabbaWockeez. He also gives a neat look at the East Coast Fil Am dance scene, which addresses my recent entry "West Coast v. East Coast: Comparing Fil Am Hip Hop Scenes." For a New Jersey Pinoy brutha, he got some West Coast knowledge. (Now who is going to document the East Coast scenes?)

Filipino America's Best Dance Crew
by The Brian
March 23, 2008

Kaba Modern and Jabbawockeez are, as far as MTV goes, 2 out of 3 best dance crews in Amerikkka. and many argue that they are in fact the best 2 out of 2, with Kaba getting cheated out of being in the finale, perhaps for cosmetic reasons. what seems to go unexplored on the show is that both crews are pretty much asian american and from southern california. in a pop television landscape devoid of asian faces except for a scattered few, the near dominance of these 2 crews of asian youth is suprising and perhaps frightening. why are they so damn nasty? how did they get to be so hip hop? where are the black people?

KM and J-dub are not anomalies. they did't emerge from nowhere, suddenly bursting onto the scene. on the contrary, they are actually part of a long tradition of Filipino street dance crews on the West Coast. Filipinos have been a force in Cali street culture since swing dancing and zoot suits in the 40's to the mobile dj's of the 70's and 80's to the reemergence of breakin and turtablism of the 90's. And in the past 15-20 years, they have developed a massive street dance choreography culture as well. Kaba Modern is actually 16 years old. The Kaba is short for the Tagalog word for Countryman/woman "Kababayan." Kababayan is also name of the Filipino student association at UC Irvine. Although KM's representatives on ABDC are NOT filipino (which is a travesty; see Mark V's blog for more), they are still part of this filipino dance tradition (and filipino openness to non-filipinos; colonial mentality what what!). [Note that Kaba Modern really has over 30 members, most of whom are Filipino including the choreographers. Similarly, Jabbawockeez is also a larger crew than who's on the show, most of whom are Filipino including their de facto leader Kid Rainen also known as Rynan.]

and they have many contemporaries
who have grown up with them through the decades. Samahang Modern (of UCLA), PAC Modern (Pilipino American Coalition at Cal State Long Beach), Team Millenia (of Pilipino American Student Association at UC Fullerton), Carson Street Dance, Culture Shock LA, Common Ground, Sick Step (known for its member Ryan Conferido and Hawk from So You Think You Can Dance), and the list goes on. I hypothesize that the latter groups that are not affiliated with a college are actually offshoots, inspired by the college groups but sustained by the same dance community.

Pilipino Culture Night 2008 trailer for Cal State Long Beach's Pilipino American Coalition

most of the groups originated in the storm of PCNs, or Pilipino Culture Nights (aka Barrio Fiesta) common at many colleges, where dance performances take center stage. usually filipino folk dance such as tinikling and maglalatik comprise the majority of the show, these filipino americans always leave room for the one "modern" dance where they showcase how hip hop they can be (also known as flip hop). because fil-ams have always been part of cali street culture, this part of the show inevitably became the highlight with filipino student association forming "modern" groups to focus specifically on street dance performances.

the filipino community's over abundance of community events such as festivals and parades gave ample opportunities for these groups to perform and perfect their unique style of choreography. A few notable events really developed the dance groups. Friendship Games, over 20 years old, has brought together filipino college students from all over california and the west coast for a day of fun competitions including one for "modern" dance groups. Vibe Hip Hop Dance Competition (which itself is 13 yrs old) hosted by an Asian frat but with almost exclusively filipino groups participating, has enabled the groups to compete on a big stage with thousands in attendance. Bustagroove, hosted by Culture Shock, is another massive dance competition in the area and almost always plays host to PAC Modern and Kaba Modern.

the existence of a cohesive filipino youth culture
helped sustain these street dance crews. having been deeply immersed in bboy and dj worlds for quite a while, the dancers came in with extensive knowledge of hip hop and infused it into their dance. they developed a style of hip hop choreography that is unique to the mostly insular community and had enough stage opportunities to grow as performers.

Here's a list of some of their most common elements: (try looking for them in this PAC modern performance)
-10-15 minute master mix of 50 billion songs
-breakin routine
-random breakin power moves (flares, windmills, headspins, flips)
-lockin routine
-acting out a voice over
-cheesy guy/girl partner "flirt" routine
-intricate transitions
-sexy girl jazz routine
-street jazz moves
-overly dramatic head whips
-30 dancers on stage at once (think Cebu prisons doing Thriller performances) followed by smaller group sets

What makes this style of hip hop choreography uniquely filipino american is the combination of traditional hip hop dances (breaking and lockin) and the more MTV-influenced street jazz with slight bboy flavor. on the one end, you have these old school dances that most thought were long dead. hell, even the black community dropped these dances like a bad habit in the late 70's/early 80's. in fact, it's latinos and filipinos who kept breakin alive in the US. this commitment to old school is where fil-ams have made a niche. at the other end of the spectrum is their understanding of new school, which is essentially the street jazz style found in many music videos with a bboy energy on top. you will almost never see these filipino crews rock party dances or new school dances that exist outside of music video choreography. these are mostly studio trained dancers (albeit, their own dance studios) after all so the newest dances will never be taught to them. things like the heel-toe, c-walking, hyphy, flexin, krumpin, uptown shake, chicken noodle soup, the wop, the nike, the roger rabbit, etc. are hardly ever seen.

in contrast, i think a lot of east asian dance groups dont have the same long history with hip hop and draw heavy influence from the pop music scene in asia. and i'm not sure that the cohesive youth network is there to give enough performance opportunities for their scene to blossom. instead, all the other asians join the filipino crews. suchin pak, the korean mtv news correspondent, once told me that her brother growing up in california always wanted to be filipino cuz they were so cool.

so what about the East Coast? the scene is much younger but is finally starting to develop. fil-ams on the east haven't been here as long and are more spread apart so it's taken some time to establish a network. Filipino Intercollegiate Networking Dialogue (FIND) is only a little bit over a decade old. and PCNs on this side of the country are lucky to be as old. but we've seen what's going on on the west coast and we're starting to catch up. and once again, when the infrastructure is available, the scene blossoms.

in the early 2000's, FIND District 6 (DC/VA) hosted the short-lived Expressions where we saw the cali-like crew DNA as well groups from ODU, Gtown, etc. Culture Shock DC (still very Filipino) hosts its own version of Bustagroove called the East Coast Dance Competition in its 5th year pin@y groups like Fr3sh, Moshun, and Rhythmology can be seen. And then there's FIND's Battle of the Barrios in District 3 (NY/NJ area) which has served as testing ground for the past few years for emerging filipino crews from schools like NYU and Villanova. What makes Battle of the Barrios interesting is that they require groups to incorporate traditional Filipino dance into their show, forcing some really creative hybrids to be born.

you should vote for Jabbawockeez. i don't need to tell you that these boys are dope. they also cut their teeth on many of the same dance events/competitions i described above and really are part of this long tradition of filipino street dancers. however, what really sets them apart from the "moderns" is that the Jabbawockeez can boast street credibility. it's beautiful that filipinos have their own street dance performance culture, but it's wack when many of these dancers dont exist as dancers outside the comfort zone of their crews and crew choreography. looking at Kaba, you can tell that as individual dancers, they aren't as tight and probably can't hold their own in a cypher. i would still consider them at the fringes of hip hop dance. they learn breakin, poppin, lockin for the sake of improving their group performances and to enhance their choreography. those at the center of hip hop can do performances too, but are equally focused on steppin up their game to win battles and represent in party cyphers where the solo dancer is king/queen and improvisation is key. and this is exactly why i love jabbawockeez. they are at the center of hip hop. they exist as individual dancers. Kid Rainen is well known in the bboy world and can stand up to the best of the best in breakin. he and his crew are battle tested, cypher approved. so while choreography can take you far, hip hop is ultimately about being free.

edits (3/26/08):

thanks for the feedback. here's a few things i forgot to mention:

1) i'm probably too harsh on the college students. they are afterall students, and the term sophomore or "wise fool" comes to mind. they will of course learn in time. i didn't become a strong dancer until after college, but my involvement in college dance groups was a necessary stepping stone.

2) i'm from the east coast so how do i know all of this?? i've been watching pac modern dance videos since 2001, pre youtube days. i used to try real hard to imitate them too. so yeah, i'm part of the greater dance scene and have observed from the sidelines for a while. but i invite people to corroborate, clarify, and refute as much as they can based on their own experiences.

3) alumni of these college groups often go on to form their own crews or dance studios. they often end up teaching other generations of filipino youth, high school age and younger. by doing so, they spread the culture and in fact cultivate future dancers who will one day go into college and help sustain the existing crews with their own expertise.

4) it'd be great if someone could do a comparison study with the desi dance scene. i think it's probably very parallel. the plethora of large scale dance events like Bhangra Blowout really force the dance to evolve and the groups to reach higher and higher levels, perfecting their style over time.

5) is hip hop tinikling an east coast thing? "modernizing" traditional dances especially the tinikling has been done ad nauseum over here. who else is doing it? and lookout for stepping, which is one dance style that has been creeping into Battle of the Barrios courtesy of NYU's IFA.


Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

Reppin the South:

Let's not forget Florida's own 18-yr s running Def Talent Jam:

and Texas' Goodphil games:

If anyone are from those scenes holla!

Anonymous said...

Yo...You happen to have clips of east coast folks "modernizing" traditional dances? It was a pretty big thing for us at Kaibigang Pilipino at UCSD to flip our tinikling dance (

I know there have been debates about keeping dances "authentic" and all that, but I don't really know how much other orgs in the West have adhered to this.

MV said...

so so so so happyyyyyyy. Congrats Jabba!

As for "modernizing" "traditional" dance, I remember seeing the University of Miami Filipino Student Association doing a merengue tinikling routine. Hot!

darleene said...

I'm reading this late. Sorry. You should also note its not UC Fullerton -- Cal State Fullerton. I'm an alum.