The urban dance scene did evolve, in certain aspects, from hip hop dance roots. Several moves and grooves and concepts were inspired by hip hop and funk styles.
But in the past 2 decades or so, urban dance has come to develop its own identity.
From competitions like Body Rock and VIBE, teams like GRV, Choreo Cookies, and huge dance workshops taught by traveling choreographers and concept videos with production crews – there are a lot of moving parts that make up our culture and lifestyle.
Let’s go back a few decades to better understand what urban dance means to us.
What is Urban Dance?
Urban dance is a genre, commmunity, and lifestyle revolving around choreographed pieces and performances by a dancer or groups of dancers. It is influenced by several different dance styles, but is ultimately based on the choreographer’s individual interpretation of the music.
A big part of the modern urban dance culture stemmed from collegiate dance teams and competitions.
How Collegiate And Competitive Dance Teams Started
Dance Teams In Southern California
(*Note that other dancers and events around NorCal, the east coast, across the nation and world contributed to the community’s inception, but in this section we will focus on SoCal’s story. It’s not the only part, but it is a big part of the dance community’s development!)
Most great things in the world started with a few friends just wanting to have fun. The urban dance community is no different.
Arnel Calvario and his friends loved making routines to perform in the “hip hop suite” at Pilipino Culture Night (PCN) hosted by Kababayan, UCI’s Pilipino cultural club. But these dancers did not have a group to dance with, nor a stage to perform on, outside of that one annual event.
Thus, Kaba Modern was formed in 1992. In ’94, CADC was formed through the Chinese American Association at UCI, and the same dance company “Culture” (later known as Team Millennia) was founded in Fullerton by Danny Batimana. In ’95 PAC Modern was formed at CSU Long Beach, then Samahang Modern at UCLA.
“All these different groups popped up in different areas. But we never had a chance to compete together… until car show promoters noticed the appeal in hip hop crew performances and created dance competitions at their events.
It was a great way to meet other dancers from other areas and watch them dance, but the setting wasn’t very relevant. We were a part of a marketing tool – a buzz for promoters to capitalize on.”
– Arnel Calvario
Arnel’s roommate suggested hosting their own competition to give these newly formed, aspiring groups to showcase to each other in a more authentic way. The inception of VIBE Dance Competition created a domino effect in competitions – we soon saw Prelude, Maxt Out, Ultimate Brawl, and Fusion, to name a few.
Flyer from “The Vibe” – year 1. Photo courtesy of Arnel Calvario
The hip hop dance scene in San Diego was still very much “underground” until 1993, when Nike sponsored Angie Bunch to start a hip hop dance company called Culture Shock San Diego.
In ’94, Culture Shock Los Angeles was formed. Currently, Culture Shock International is represented in Chicago, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Oakland, Ottawa, San Diego, Toronto, and Washington DC.
“In addition to Culture Shock, Formality and high school all-male teams started to turn the San Diego dance scene more serious. A parallel surge was happening in the collegiate scene in Irvine, with Arnel.
It was around then that our underground dance community blew up, a lot of it thanks to the internet and social media.”
– Angie Bunch
YouTube And Social Media’s Effect On Urban Dance Culture
“YouTube wasn’t created until 2005, more than 10 years after our dance community started. Technology provided a way for dancers to connect socially and artistically.”
– Arnel Calvario
YouTube took something that was previously only experienced in person and made it easily sharable and discoverable from a screen. In fact, a lot of dancers I talk to refer to a specific video, choreographer, or performance on YouTube that made them want to start dancing in the first place.
Communities in different regions sprang up, drawing inspiration from other dancers and teams from YouTube videos.
For years, Boogiezone’s forum on their website was the one of the only ways dancers could to talk to each other – but in late 2006, Twitter was launched, then Facebook, and Instagram in 2010.
Now, dance videos saturate our social media feeds and a dancer across the country is just one DM slide away.
With this abundance and accessibility also rose the danger of styles becoming homogenized, our passion becoming a trend, and voices getting lost in the noise.
Choreography and Concepts Reach New Levels
Choreography, as all art does, evolved over time.
“Movement has gotten more intricate. Grooving to whole counts evolved to hitting high hats and striking heavy beats.
And we are also starting to do a lot more storytelling with our movement, which is an artistic direction I really love. Choreographers are pushing the boundaries beyond dance.”
– Keone Madrid
One form of this storytelling is “concept videos”.
Instead of recording choreography with a point-and-shoot from the front of the studio, dancers are pushing the artistic envelope with high-production videos in 4K resolution, shot from different angles, in new settings, with costumes, lighting, acting, comedy, props, motion graphics – anything to deliver a more comprehensive message.
Dance videos are not just about dance anymore.
“Concept videos encouraged more originality. And that sense of competition shifted more toward being authentic.
It pushed artists to think outside of the box again.”
– Arnel Calvario
Commercial Hip Hop
Labels are always going to be tricky – people are bound to have differing interpretations of what a certain word means or doesn’t mean.
So even the term “Urban Dance” is going to connote different things for different dancers.
There was a time when it was referred to as Commercial Hip Hop, as there was a lot of influence from the music industry’s backup dancing and videos.
Dancers were influenced by Michael Jackson, Justin Timberlake – or I guess (more accurately), their choreographers at the time.
Michael Jackson’s “Moonwalk” (backslide) on Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, And Forever in 1983
Marty Kudelka is a choreographer who’s worked with music artists like Justin Timberlake, Mariah Carey, JLO, Janet Jackson, and more. He also choreographed for films and commercial ad campaigns for Coke, Tommy Hilfiger, Old Navy, and McDonald’s. He’s been recognized as MTV Video Award Nominee for Best Choreography in a Music Video 5 times and has appeared on shows such as Dancing With The Stars and So You Think You Can Dance.
His work is so widely celebrated in the “Industry” side of dance – but he is also a big role in the “Community” as well.
This is how labels get tricky. Because they’re all moving parts in the same story.
The urban dance community was influenced by popular dance movies, as well.
Like, what girl watched Honey (2003) and didn’t think “I WANNA BE HER.”??!
Do you guys remember… You Got Served (2004)?
Though not the most accurate depictions of street dance and street dance culture, these movies helped introduce the idea of dance as its own art form into the public stream of consciousness.
Step Up (2006 – forever)
And Step Up seems to not be stopping with the staircase anytime soon!
There were a lot of influences and overlaps in the process of Urban Dance becoming what it is today.
The Urban Dance Community Culture
The Class Taking / Teaching Culture
A huge part of the choreography scene is, of course, learning choreography.
With dance styles like ballet, tap, or jazz, there are classes and programs at dance studios specifically design for your level of experience.
With urban dance choreography, each class is treated like a standalone workshop.
It is based on a piece of choreography rather than training a particular set of skills.
Hip hop and all styles are more about sessioning amongst other dancers, learning techniques and moves off each other in a less structured way, or even learning choreography combos based on that style (i.e.: “waacking-inspired”).
In the choreography scene, what started as friends teaching each other their choreo in their garages, now take the form gigantic workshops and weekend-long convention-like dance camps.
Classes have become such a huge part of our urban dance culture. Whether your dream is to get chosen for select group, keep up with a fast-paced piece, or become a world-traveling choreographer, a surefire way to improve as a dancer is by taking each class with a directed purpose.
The Dance Team Structure
Adding to the already existing, older teams that we mentioned above, the number of dance teams has grown tremendously, nation- and world-wide.
Team expansion – Photo courtesy of Anna Sarao
Several are college campus-based, as teams like Kaba Modern and Team Millennia initially were, but a significant portion of dance teams are not (or not anymore) affiliated with a college.
Being a part of a dance team is no ordinary commitment. The sense of camaraderie and a shared passion/mission makes being on a team more like having an extended family.
(The same idea goes for our dance community – which is why connecting with other dancers is so important to us!)
Most dance teams are founded and run by a director or group of directors and there is usually an audition process to join the team. But every dance team is different in style, personality, and purpose.
GRV at Body Rock 2016
Competing teams put performances together to compete in competitions. Exhibition teams or projects may perform at the same shows, but not as a part of the competition lineup. Other dance teams run on a more company or collective – type of model, meeting up to make a video or perform for a specific case.
And now major competitions have competing teams from all over the world,
dance brands and vendors that are specific to the Urban Dance culture,
freestyle battles and pre-shows,
world-renowned dancers as judges,
full-blown marketing and media teams and stage crews running the behind the scenes work,
and it all continues to grow.
Vendors at Body Rock 2016
The professionalism and production value of dance competitions, matches the professionalism and performance value of the dancers.
The platforms and resources for dancers are elevating as the bar for talent, passion, and opportunities are raised as well.
Choreographers Who Travel and Teach Their Own Work For A Living
Imagine getting on a flight that was fully paid for, landing in a beautiful foreign country, meeting new dancers, teaching them your piece that you made, being shown around the area by your hosts… and earning a living from this.
Sounds like a dream, no?
Ok ok, in actuality, being a “traveling choreographer” is not all fun and games. We at STEEZY work with these choreographers, and as much as they love what they do, the job comes with its own set of very difficult challenges and unexpected roadblocks…
But the dreamy part about it that everyone attests to is the fact that, in this age of free sharing (thank you, internet) dancers are able to create their own work that they are proud of and get paid for it.
Bam Martin, David Lee, and Tony Tran at STEEZY Workshops in New Jersey, 2016
You can be an independent artist with your own style, brand, mission, and schedule. And a lot of fans.
The digital age has bred a culture of “dance celebrities.” Not quite Jay-Z and Beyonce and her soon-to-be-born-twins famous, but niche famous. Like how Keone and Mari are recognized by the majority of dancers (or even those just interested in dance), but my mom doesn’t know who they are. Like that.
“Now it’s about taking a mix of our experiences from the older days and teaching younger generations to love dance in a way that’s more than a fad.”
– Keone Madrid
You see, all the shoe-throwing and Instagram views are nice, but traveling choreographers have something that’s so much more important because they get to produce their own work.
They have a voice.
And they are giving us,the community a voice.
““Dance celebrities” have such a huge following, so it’s important for them to share knowledge of the art forms they perform, and be positive role models for the dancers who follow and support them.”
– Arnel Calvario
Scott Forsyth & Brotherhood for STEEZY Studio, 2017
Totally, completely, absolutely. And we’re so happy to work with choreographers who are not only amazing artists, but people who genuinely want to use their skills and knowledge to help dancers all over the world.
Not only did social media, the internet, and technological advances push dancers, it pushed other artists to grow in ways that cater to dancers’ newfound needs.
Cinematographer Gerald Nonato started recording competitions for dancers to be able to watch and keep footage of their performance that wasn’t shaky and crappy.
“Since I was a dancer myself, I know how much hard work goes into each set. I wanted to be able to do each performance justice and make sure it is documented in the best way possible.”
– Gerald Nonato
Now, Vibrvncy (where Gerald is the Director of Photography / Cinematographer) provides media coverage for several dance events and produces professional videos and photos for artists.
Other organizations and companies were formed, with their own ways of giving back to the community.
World Of Dance started in 2008 as a single dance show. Now, they host events in more than 25 countries, connect dancers all over the world, and operates a multi-channel network on YouTube with more than 300 channels and 20,000 videos. Their new show on NBC with Jennifer Lopez will be a 10-episode competition with a grand prize of $1 million for the winning team.
Hip Hop International was founded in 2000 in Los Angeles. HHI produces live and televised dance competitions, including USA Hip Hop Dance Championship, the World Hip Hop Dance Championship, Urban Moves Dance Workshops and World Battles, which feature world-renowned bboys, lockers, poppers dancers of all styles.
MTV’s America’s Best Dance Crew was extremely influential to our community, as it gave dancers the opportunity to showcase their talents on TV as the talent, not as backup dancers to a vocal artist. Crews would be given a challenge each week, work on their routine, then perform it for a panel of judges and a national audience. One crew is eliminated each week, losing their chance to win the $100,000 grand prize. The show first aired in 2008 and ran for 7 seasons. After a 3-year hiatus, ABDC came back in 2015, where we saw many familiar faces from the community make their national debut – like the Kinjaz.
“It’s intent. It’s a conversation. It’s emotion. It’s a voice. It’s a social change. Exploration. Creation. Vulnerability. Empowerment. It taps into your soul and awakens something bigger, deeper. “What moves you?” asks each individual to reflect on their movement, their inspiration, their expression.”
Shaun Evaristo started sharing his work on YouTube in 2006 when he still lived in the Bay Area. People overseas now had access to his work, as well as a community and culture that they never knew existed. His artistic vision was new for a lot of viewers.
“My dancing wasn’t just about following beats and rhythms. I found that I could use emotion to drive my movement. That was my voice. There’s all this vocabulary of moves out there, but what resonated with people was the way I tried to talk through them.”
Shaun moved to and started teaching in LA. This led him to find opportunities like working with the Korean music industry in artist development, soon venturing out to the European and Japanese industries as well. He traveled and worked alongside Keone and Mari Madrid, Lyle Beniga, and other international artist. This
“…started to blur the industry / community boundary. And that’s what mL is, a cross between those.
A welcoming of all movers.”
“Dance is more powerful than we use it for. As long as we keep our focus on collaboration, rather than competition, the positive impact it can have for humanity is endless.”
– Shaun Evaristo
STEEZY (Who dat?! Jk, it’s us.) Our mission is to make dance accessible to everyone. Originally, in April of 2014, we started as a blog and social media platform. Now, we offer online dance classes from world-class choreographers on STEEZY.CO. Our blog continues to be a resource that dancers all over the world can count on for helpful advice, history lessons, inspiration / motivation, and of course, a hearty laugh 😉