Special to the Sun
Thursday, July 30, 2009 | 1:57 a.m.
Part conference, part performance, part sneaker-wearing onstage rodeo, the annual World Hip Hop Dance Championships are back in Las Vegas this weekend for a second year of street dance competition.
Created by Howard and Karen Schwartz, executive producers of hit MTV dance competition “America’s Best Dance Crew,” the World Hip Hop Dance Championships pit crews from across the globe against each other in a two-part dance battle marathon.
If you thought hip-hop and street dance were decidedly American phenomena, think again. At the 2008 competition, crews from places as distant as Japan, New Zealand, Colombia and the Philippines all left their mark on the audience.
For 2009, 30 nations will be represented during the competition, which is open to the public.
Here’s how it works: Divided into the three age divisions – junior crews are ages seven to 12; varsity crews are 12 to 18; adult crews are 18 and older – each team of five to eight people must showcase an original two-minute routine that features three styles of hip hop dance as well as creativity, confidence and impeccable performance.
You can pop, lock and vogue, or break, crump and whack, but you must put on one seriously entertaining show.
“A lot of dancers get up here and they’re just here to dance,” explains longtime competition judge and producer Dennis Danehy, son of Don Campbell, who is credited with creating the dance style known as locking. “They don’t know how to perform. When you’re in front of five or six thousand people, you can’t look down; you can’t be nervous.”
But nerves are an understandable problem for the crews, many of which have traveled thousands of miles and spent hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars trying to reach the Vegas stage.
This year, 120 crews across the three divisions will compete in the preliminary rounds held at Loews Lake Las Vegas Resort. Finally, on Sunday, Aug. 2, the finalists will do battle one last time at the Orleans Arena, with the winners stepping up to the podium to receive their medals under their nations’ flags.
“A lot of people don’t get the opportunity to travel abroad; we’re bringing abroad here and allowing them to experience different cultures, different ideas, different philosophies,” Danehy says.
That idea exchange is part of what makes the competition special. Held over the better part of a week with most of the crews housed at the same resort, the annual competition, now its eighth year, allows dancers the chance to mingle and make friends, teaching each other new moves and culturally influenced styles in the process. Salsa, African dance and other folkloric styles often make their way on stage.
“This event isn’t just a competition; it’s a meeting and greeting of the minds, people’s cultures. People sign autographs for other people. They share pictures; they share stories. People congregate in the lobby and just talk about hip-hop,” Danehy says excitedly.
Ever since his father was presented with the competition’s respected Living Legend of Hip-Hop Award five years ago, Danehy has been working at the World Hip Hop Dance Championships and watching them develop into something that is often described as the “Olympics of street dance.”
Walkie Talkie constantly buzzing, Daney says his relationship to the competition is like that of a “proud father.”
“[Dancers] walk out with such an amazing experience that the medal’s not actually necessary. But we have to keep in mind that a lot of these people come from all over the world for a medal,” he says. “They go through visa issues; they go through registration, all this stuff to get a medal. There’s no money involved here. It’s for respect and bragging rights, which is the coolest thing imaginable.”
But bragging rights won’t come easy.
Last year’s adult division champions, the explosive all-male Philippine All Stars, are back to defend their title, as are silver medalists and “America’s Best Dance Crew” vets Kaba Modern.
The 2008 varsity champs, Sweet and Sour of New Zealand, are also moving up to the adult competition for the first time.
“Last year [the Philippine All Stars] all came in with a focus,” Danehy says. “They’re very, very religious in the sect and they all came with God as their guide. ... I’m sitting there in the audience watching and all of a sudden I got goose bumps. ...It was amazing to watch because it gave all the elements you need to see in hip-hop, plus it was a great performance. ...They came with confidence, they came with energy and they rocked the house.”
The Philippine All Stars had another interesting role in last year’s competition: They led the onstage prayer circle, which immediately follows the finals.
“We all thank the man upstairs,” Danehy says. “Whatever religion, it doesn’t really matter, we all give thanks for being able to express ourselves creatively through a religion that we all are bonded by, which is hip hop. That’s our religion.”
And there’s another reason to give thanks: “Every year that circle gets bigger and bigger.”