When the explosion of dance crews and "battling" happened in the late '70s and early '80s as hip-hop grew, competitive reality television was years away. But with the popularity of “American Idol,”“Dancing With the Stars” and “So You Think You Can Dance,” a group dance competition such as "Randy Jackson Presents America’s Best Dance Crew” on MTV was probably inevitable.
Now, as its second season draws to a close, the show can lay claim to being one of the most popular on MTV -- it draws celebrity fans (Miley Cyrus), millions of votes (39 million for last year's finale) and credibility in the hip-hop dance community.
The two crews remaining for tonight's finale, Super Cr3w and SoReal Cru, specialize in different types of dance under the same urban umbrella, one that stretches from the back alleys of the "boogie-down" Bronx to the streets of the Philippines (where the current world hip-hop dance champions hail from). “America’s Best Dance Crew” co-creators Howard and Karen Schwartz -- also creators of the USA and World hip-hop dance championships -- have embraced the kids who live the lifestyle worldwide, helping make the show a must-watch affair that may soon receive a greenlight for a third season.
The Schwartzes, former sports marketers known as the pioneers of competitive sports aerobics (remember the legwarmers and headbands of the early '80s?), have latched on to hip-hop dance. Four years ago, after having established the USA and World hip-hop dance championships, the duo began pitching the show. Then the Big Dawg himself, "American Idol" judge and music producer Randy Jackson, stepped in.
"I thought 'Wow, if this thing was turned loose and went a little bit that way, this could actually be amazing and people could really get into it,' " said Jackson. "I grew up in the 'hood in the South in Baton Rouge, and there were crews around all the time dancing . . . so I wanted to try to expose America to that."
"We began this . . . because we just felt that the hip-hop dance community was not being exposed to a larger audience," said Howard Schwartz. NBC picked up the show (calling it "World Moves"), but at the last minute decided not to go forward with it.
MTV scooped it up, and in its second season, "ABDC" -- as it is abbreviated by fans -- has drawn nearly 2 million viewers for its premiere episodes, most of whom are in the channel's 12-to-34 age demographic. Its popularity is also reflected in ticket requests for the 550-seat set, which reach between 13,000 and 15,000 for each taping.
Apart from the dancing, that crowd goes to see JC Chasez and the other two judges -- high-profile choreographer Shane Sparks and chart-topping rapper Lil Mama -- along with the celebrity faces who continue to pop up in support of the show. In the first season, Ashley Tisdale, Cyrus and Taye Diggs stopped by. The star parade continued in Season 2 with Christina Milian, the Kardashians and Eva Longoria visiting as fans (and as friends of host Mario Lopez), and Missy Elliott shaking her tailfeather on stage with the crews. "ABDC" was named best dance show at the Teen Choice Awards last month, and a dance showdown during the awards included a performance by the JabbaWockeez, last season's winner.
"When you look up on the stage, you see so many backgrounds," said Chasez, a member of 'N Sync. "Even though we're getting exposed to the dance culture, we're also watching personal stories."
The stories this season included a dancer whose father was in a coma, another living out of her car and a crew that had a deaf member.
Show runner Joel Gallen said that in casting crews, the story is one of the main factors.
"First and foremost, you look for skill," he said. "You want to also look at their stories. Who are they? Where are they from?" said Gallen.
The closeness and the personal touches allow viewers to relate, but they also make it tough for the competitors.
"That's one of the hardest things . . . when you're so tight like that and you have to separate [being friends] from the competition. It's just really heartbreaking to do," said Mike "Murda" Carrasco of Super Cr3w, who defeated two crews whom they had befriended.
The creators took care to address fears of the show "selling out" and not being "real" enough for the hip-hop community. "Last season, there were a number of crews who stood on the sidelines watching, saying 'Is this for real? Is there credibility? Is there great foundation?'" said Karen Schwartz.
But crews took notice of how the show portrayed dance. Pre- and post-elimination, Howard Schwartz said, the show is "opening up business avenues and a commercialization that [dancers] have never had before."
This season, the judges have questioned America's voting sensibilities many times, but popular is popular -- a crew's streak on "ABDC" reflects not only success on the show but also possibly in the dance marketplace. A quick count on Sunday night of the final three crews' MySpace pages shows Super Cr3w had 4,526 friends, Fanny Pak had 8,648 and SoReal Cru had 12,463.
It's that sort of visible, countable evidence of crews' followings that has spawned a nationwide tour. The roster is not yet complete, but JabbaWockeez and Break Sk8 from Season 1 are in. But a direct relationship with "ABDC" isn't the only future for its crews. Exposure from the show helped Kaba Modern (Season 1) "expand their dance classes and travel around the country performing," said Karen Schwartz. Break Sk8 toured with Donna Summer, and it's rumored that JabbaWockeez, who have performed in a Lakers halftime show, have just signed a $5-million deal with Nike.
Sparks advises crews to keep their options open.
"What people don't understand is that everything that has entertainment has a little dance behind it," he said. "You got movies, commercials, TV, videos, video games -- all these things have dance."
And as for tonight's winner, whoever it is will have supporters and detractors, will be $100,000 richer and will be invited to join the tour. And they will miss the journey. Those are the only certainties.
For top moments of "ABDC" Season 2 with photos and video, go to latimes.com/showtracker.