At the World of Dance competition, swagger matters almost as much as spin moves

Among the sea of dancers wearing muted athletic wear, one group in flamboyant costumes stood out. Wearing gold bow ties, holding red fans and with glitter gleaming off their faces and arms, the young adults congregated to the side of a large stage waiting for their moment in the spotlight.

Some went over small sections of choreography. One practiced hair flips, repeatedly whipping her head in small circles. A few simply jumped up and down, shaking off nervous energy. Then it was showtime as an announcer called their group’s name — Collabor8 Dance Company — and they filed onto a large stage at the Fairplex in Pomona to dance.

This day was about celebrating hip-hop dance in all its forms including krump, break dancing, jerkin’ and stylized choreography. Some of these dance styles were born on the streets of South Los Angeles and other urban locales, and have since spread from suburban dance studios to religious performance groups to universities across the country.

Dancing to songs like Beyoncé’s “Green Light” and Rihanna’s “Pose,” Collabor8’s routine focused on attitude. The choreography skewed commercial, mimicking the type of dance steps seen on a pop star’s latest music video. Their goal was to impress the judges (mostly professional dancers) and the enthusiastic crowd. When one dancer, clad in varying shades of green including a waist-length chartreuse braid, strutted in Beyoncé-like to the front of the stage, the audience cheered wildly.

It was part of the scene at World of Dance, Los Angeles, a daylong competitive event that drew about 5,000 people to the Fairplex on April 1. Troupes rehearsed against the backdrop of the mountains; teens bounced between dance jams, competitions and surprise sightings of their favorite YouTube stars; one man carrying an enormous boombox and wearing an equally enormous gold chain strolled around passing out fliers for his “bumpboxx.”

When we came off stage, everyone was cheering and congratulating us.

— Julee Flores

While Collabor8 performed on one stage, a freestyle dance battle was taking place at another. The emphasis wasn’t on choreography, precise formations or coordinated costumes but on creativity, showmanship and winning over the crowd.

Behind the small stage a DJ played songs including house, trap and funk music. “Are y’all ready,” the host yelled to the growing crowd. They cheered as he looked down at his clipboard and called out four names.

The dancers jumped on stage, staking out a corner. Then the music started, an endless loop of T.I.’s 2004 hit, “Bring Em Out.” Each dancer had about a minute to show off their best moves. Some were tutting, which involves using the hands and arms to create shapes inspired by Egyptian hieroglyphics, and others house danced, which involves quick footwork.

Flipping across the stage, spinning on his back and contorting his arms in unnatural ways, one dancer received the loudest cheers out of his battle group.

“It’s a different lifestyle,” explained dancer Ricky Cole, 31, who got his start in dance by participating in freestyle dance jams, called cyphers. He performed at the first World of Dance in 2008, competed on the NBC reality show “America’s Got Talent,” and now travels the world performing and hosting World of Dance events.

“People are used to going to competitions where you have to be quiet,” Cole said. “This one is like a festival but for dance.”

Los Angeles-based MDC Crew perform in the youth division.
Los Angeles-based MDC Crew perform in the youth division. (Jenna Schoenefeld / For The Times)

World of Dance takes place in over 25 countries and features competitions and showcases, fashion, art and master classes. The event lasts about eight hours and has professional and amateur dancers.

It is also the inspiration behind NBC’s new reality dance competition show, “World of Dance,” which premieres May 30 and will have dancers compete in front of judges such as Jennifer Lopez and Derek Hough. The popularity of World of Dance reflects the surging growth of hip-hop dance, music and culture into the mainstream.

“This is really about the lifestyle of dance,” said World of Dance founder David Gonzalez. “There is a competition, but it’s not about winning. It’s about participating and celebrating and sharing your craft…. It’s the closest thing to a dance Comic-Con if there’s such a thing.”

The Los Angeles-based Collabor8 Dance Company competed in the upper division category for adults. They were up against teams from across California and would be judged for their originality, execution and crowd appeal.

After Collabor8’s performance, dancer Taylor Henderson, 18, stood backstage with her teammates reflecting on her goal as a dancer. “For me, it’s about trying to get the character across,” she said, while someone helped unpin elaborate ruffles from her costume.

“Everyone here is so accepting,” noted dancer Julee Flores, 20. “When we came off stage, everyone was cheering and congratulating us.”

Acacia Harrell, 16, of Ventura dances hip-hop style.
Acacia Harrell, 16, of Ventura dances hip-hop style. (Jenna Schoenefeld / For The Times)

Gonzalez came up with the idea for World of Dance at a car show. While working with “Hot Import Nights,” Gonzalez, 44, noticed young people performing various styles of hip-hop dance, including krump and break dancing. He had an idea to bring all the styles together, on their own stage.

“At first people said those platforms don’t play together, but I had looked at it from the perspective of music,” Gonzalez said. “All the music is common on all these [dance] platforms. We took the risk and here we are today.”

The first World of Dance competition was held in 2008 at the Fairplex. Since then, the enterprise has rapidly grown, with spinoff events in Mexico City, Mumbai, India and Belgium.

“Dance has no language barrier and I think in many ways as big as this brand is in the U.S., it’s even bigger in different parts of the world,” said Matthew Everitt, 39, a chief executive of World of Dance along with Gonzalez.

With over 2 million World of Dance subscribers on YouTube, videos that can rack up 50 million views, and a reality TV show on the way, Gonzalez and Everitt credit the success of World of Dance to the rise of social media and ability to share content rapidly.

“This is the way the modern-day media ecosystem is working for these type of folks,” Everitt said. “When our channel started to grow people started discovering the craft, connecting to the music, seeing some of these talents that they never had heard of before.”

Gonzalez also believes the family-friendly nature of the event contributes to its continued success. But that may come at the cost of avoiding hip-hop’s grittier roots in urban communities, and using dance as a form of escape from poverty and harsh inner city conditions. That’s a trade-off World of Dance is willing to make.

“[World of Dance] is amazing because it has the edginess of the urban environment without some of the riffraff that comes with the urban environment,” Gonzalez said. “As a parent, you can come into the environment and say, ‘This is cool and pretty safe and I don’t hear any bad language, I see people having a great time.’”