America's Best Dance Crew judge Shane Sparks explains his show's unlikely beginnings, its ongoing significance, and what hopes lie ahead for crew-based hip-hop dancing...
On Sunday the 27th of September, 2009, MTV will broadcast the fourth season finale of America's Best Dance Crew. After almost three months of grueling competition on national television, one of two dance crews -- Afroborique or We Are Heroes -- will find themselves crowned by show producer Randy Jackson as "America's Best Dance Crew." The show's only been around for a year and half, but this has already become a familiar sight to the legions of fans who tune in every week to watch the incredibly athletic young dancers attempt ever-more daring moves and acrobatics in hopes of avoiding elimination, and then turn to their phones or computers to vote for the crew they want to stick around for at least one more episode. The show, which has been picked up for a fifth season, has become as common and reliable a sight on television screens as Law and Order or American Idol. But despite it's overwhelming success, there was a time, very recently, when a program about hip-hop dance crews, like ABDC, was by no means a viable project for a cable giant like MTV.
While B-boying and hip-hop dance has been a noticeable presence in pop culture since the 1980s, the actual dancers have had a hard time translating their success amongst their peers into the kind of mainstream careers that other hip-hop artists like rappers, and even graffiti artists, have achieved. While MC's and hip-hop producers like Jay-Z or Kanye West have been able to parlay their hip-hop skills into respected music careers, heavy influence on contemporary fashion, and lucrative business ventures, the highly skilled and athletic B-boys and B-girls have for many years had nothing more to hope for than the chance to win a local talent show or maybe star for a couple of moments in a music video, relegated to background role despite their impressive abilities.
At the same time, hip-hop's rise to mainstream prominence coincided with the pop-revival of the early 2000s, eventually leading to the current blurring of genre roles that leaves many current big-name artists performing varied amalgamations of club, dance, R&B and hip-hop music. Hip-hop inspired dance moves became a requirement for teeny-bopper adored boy bands, while even pop artists drifting further into rock-inspired sounds, like solo star P!nk, found it necessary to have a retinue of tightly-choreographed dance-pros moving behind them when performing on stage. As ABDC judge Shane Sparks puts it "it’s always better to see five people do a show than it is to see one, that’s why most artists like Usher, Mary J. Blige, [and] Chris Brown: they all have those dancers with them. Because that number of five or more, the impact is so much stronger than just that solo dancer."
And yet the multi-member dance crew, a familiar feature of the hip-hop landscape back in the movement's early days, was nowhere to be found. Says Sparks, "Somewhere along the line it died out -- and it just went more to like choreography and solo dancing and doing videos. But nobody was ever doing crews anymore. People ... still did crews, and it didn’t just die away everywhere, but more people was into solo dancing, taking classes."
While well-trained solo dancers continued to be an important asset to the entertainment industry, with people like Britney Spears assembling groups through auditions to support her on-stage antics, the big names in the hip-hop dance industry had a hard time bringing their skills to the front of the stage. Trailblazing choreographer Wade Robson, who actually managed to become somewhat of a celebrity himself thanks to his work on Spears' live shows (and rumors of a relationship between the two), put together a show in 2003 called The Wade Robson Project, a dance competition featuring solo dancers. There were plenty of talented contestants on the program, but despite Robson's name-recognition and a plum spot on MTV's primetime lineup, the project soon fizzled out.
Things changed completely, however, just a year later. You Got Served, a modestly budgeted movie starring minor R&B star Marques Houston and his brother Omarion's now-defunct hip-hop boy band, B2K, as well as Robson himself, was released in 2004. The plot focused on two lower-income teenagers attempts to gain fame and wealth by taking their multi-member dance crew to a local spot where they battled similar crews for cash and respect. The film ends with a massive free-for-all dance battle between the heroes' crew and their Orange County rivals, judged by Robson and rapper Li'l Kim. The incredible stunts and choreography of that final scene captured the imagination of thousands of viewers, many of whom had never seen crew-based hip-hop dancing before in their lives.
Sparks, who choreographed the film's dance scenes firmly believes that You Got Served was a watershed moment for the dance crew movement. "When You Got Served came out," he recalls "it made people realize like, 'Oh my God! How beautiful is it to watch these five or ten guys, do this choreography' and how, you know how beautiful that picture is. Everyone was like 'Y know what I want to be like this crew; I want to be like this B-boy crew.' Everybody wanted their own crew. And that started a whole 'nother world."
Coinciding with the surprise success of You Got Served was the arrival of popular dance shows on American broadcast television. In 2005, ABC premiered the first incarnation of what would become their runaway hit Dancing with the Stars, a British import which paired various celebrities with professional ballroom dancers. While the show brought dancing into primetime, it relies more on nostalgia for classic variety programming and the novelty factor of watching NFL players attempting the foxtrot than any elements of the burgeoning contemporary dance scene for it's ratings.
In the same year, Fox, who already had a huge hit with singing competition American Idol, debuted a slightly more comprehensive dance show called So You Think You Can Dance?. The competition, which Sparks also works on as a choreographer, features performers competing in various forms of dance, which include street and hip-hop styles as well as more traditional jazz and ballroom performances. While it has become a hit show that helps showcase a little bit of hip-hop culture, the real excitement was still happening under the radar.
Regional dance competitions were becoming bigger and bigger, with crews traveling across the country just to compete in the biggest shows. Exciting new styles, like Krumping, were emerging all over the country. Documentaries like Rize -- a David LaChapelle directed feature about krumping -- found small, passionate audiences, and the growth of YouTube gave dancers a new venue where they could present their unique abilities to millions of viewers around the globe. Sparks, who was still an active dance instructor and judge at many of the big regional competitions, believed that crew-based dancing was ready for it's moment in the sun.
Luckily for him, big names in the entertainment industry were feeling the same way. Randy Jackson, the music business heavyweight and American Idol judge was looking to turn The Hip Hop International -- a huge dance festival and competition that Sparks had been judging for year --, into a TV show and tapped Sparks as a possible judge for the venture.
"He actually literally walked up to me and told me he had this project in mind," remembers Sparks. "I had actually been hearing about this show being turned into a TV show and we really didn’t know what was going to happen, but once Randy got involved he came up to me and was like I got something that I want to talk to you about. And I went in and I literally had to audition and do what I do, and a week later, two weeks later they called me up and said 'Y’re booked for the biggest dance show ever created!' [Laughs]"
Despite the success of You Got Served and the ever-increasing popularity of the genre, many were initially skeptical about the prospects for a show based on a still-marginal trend that would air on a basic cable network, MTV.
"Oh my god you know how many people told me that I shouldn’t do it?" Sparks relates. "They was like, 'Y gonna leave So You Think You Can Dance?' 'cos at that time I couldn’t do both of them, and they were like you’re gonna leave for this dance show that is on MTV, that no one knows about. Went from the big network to MTV, and I was like 'Y’all don't understand, I’d rather do something that I love and have the heart for.'"
Sparks, it turns out, made the right decision. He'd always found success by taking risks (his choreography career began when a Dance Complex worker mistook him for a dance instructor and asked him to teach a class. Despite having no experience, Sparks gave it a go and his workshop quickly became the most popular in the Los Angeles area), and ABDC was an instant success, with it's first season winners, the mask-wearing Jabbawockeez, becoming instant icons both in the dance world and within pop culture in general. Fan's instantly fell in love with the shows fast-paced style, with each crew putting on a performance based around a particular challenge (create the illusion of weightlessness, incorporate a famous Michael Jackson dance move) every week. The competitive nature of the show forces the groups to come up with new ideas to trump their competitors, which leads to jaw-dropping moments like when a member of Season Three's champion group Quest Crew backflipped horizontally over two of his colleagues, or when Season Two's So Real crew used intricate choreography with the show's cameras to create dazzling visual sequences on-screen.
While crews are kept on the show by votes from the viewers at home, the two groups that receive the least votes each week are forced to battle each other for the approval of Sparks and his fellow judges: rapper Lil' Mama and *NSYNC alumnus JC Chasez. It's a format directly based on the dance competitions that inspired the show, and fans have responded to it on a level which has once again invigorated the greater dance scene around the U.S. and beyond. Fans of the show have no doubt noticed both the increased ambition and sheer number of local dance crews, as Sparks himself has on his travels around the country.
"Y’all don’t have a clue of how big an influence our show has on people," he exclaims. "Everywhere I go. I go home to Cincinnati, Ohio, they have Midwest dance crews. I go to Kansas City they have KC dance crews. Every city is trying to get their own ABDC. And it was not like that just 5 years ago."
But the show has served as an inspiration for more than just the archetypal B-boy crews like Jabbawockeez and Super Cr3w (who have won previous seasons). 80's pop enthusiasts Fannypack made a strong showing in Season Two, while Season Three even saw a group of southern cloggers, Dynamic Edition make it a few rounds into the series before they were eliminated. Season Four has seen perhaps the most varied group of crews, ranging from country enthusiasts Southern Movement to Latin sensations Afroborique, and, for the first time, it is the so-called "novelty" crews -- Afroborique and the ballroom-influenced We Are Heroes -- that have made it into the final round. One of the most contrary aspects of hip-hop to its observers is that it is at once an all-inclusive melting pot of different styles and ideas, and yet -- at the same time -- is often ruled by very strict rules about what constitutes "real" hip-hop, whether in music, art or dance.
Sparks definitely seems to support the former outlook on the genre, and is excited about the new direction his show is taking this season. "I think the audience is ready to see different winners," he says. "I think that I don’t care how good a B-boy crew is, after you’ve seen four seasons of it it’s like, we’ve seen almost everything you’re gonna do with a little change here and there. Let’s see something different, and Afroborique, when they came on the show, one thing they were was different. Were they gonna beat out the hip-hop crews? We didn’t know, but they stepped up and they took their style and their individuality and they flipped it. And you know, they stepped up and they took heed to what was going on. They were not going out just because they wasn’t raised in the hip-hop world. It was like 'Well we could do a little bit of this, but we [are] still going [to] keep the essence of who we are.' And that’s why people start respecting them."
Despite the success of his show, however, Sparks thinks crew-based dancing, and the dancers who support it, have a long way to go in terms of making their mark upon the world. One question the show is starting to run into -- like many of it's reality-competition-for-a-profession-related-title peers -- is what happens to the winners after they are dubbed "America's Best Dance Crew." While Jabbawockeez has found some mainstream success (for example, they have appeared in a Gatorade advertising campaign alongside notable athletes like Muhammed Ali and Dwayne Wade) many of the crews have nothing to do after the season is over but go back to their usual schedule of dance competitions and possibly travel with the ABDC national tour. As a result, the show -- and its title -- are starting to be seen for many as an ultimate goal for many crews in the dance world, rather than as a step towards greater success.
While Sparks is happy to help provide a venue for talented dancers to showoff their moves, he thinks the show should represent something more.
"I want them to want to be on this show because they want to further their career," he explains. "I don’t want it to be the last stop. Because after you get off that show there is years and years and years of dance that’s gonna be stuck in your body, that you wanna capitalize on. They’re like 19-20 years old. So what do you do after you get off this show? You’re 20 years old, it’s only [been] three months, now you’ve done ABDC -- now what? I want them to look at the show just as being a stepping stone. Even when you win, it should just be a stepping stone to get to everything else that’s going on in this dance world. I mean the dance world’s so big right now, but it could be so much bigger if the dancers mentally got their minds together and took care of their business, instead of just dancing and thinking 'I want to win a medal [and] I want to win a hundred thousand dollars,' because that money’s gone in the first year."
There are two main goals Sparks has on his mind right now, both for him and for the dancers he mentors. First, he believes that just as many rappers have used their influence and initial financial gains to become powerful media moguls, dancers need to take over important roles in the entertainment industry. Lamenting the fall-through of plans to make a sequel to You Got Served, he says "You just get the wrong people behind certain situations and it just kills great ideas and great concepts. And that’s why I’m working so hard to become the person that’s in charge. The person that’s in the forefront. Because I will make sure the best projects get out there, and you have an honest person that really respects and loves what he’s doing getting out there and being the front man instead of some crackerhead or some jokehead or some person that’s really stupid getting out there and just taking people’s money getting all this talent and making them do all this work."
Secondly, he believes that dancers need to market themselves in the same way that other entertainers and athletes have for years. Talking about ABDC's most beloved crew, he says "Jabbawockeez: really smart crew. If they’re really smart, they’ll get out there and take that and market themselves so well that ... dancing is so cold right now, and if you market yourself right you can be in any movie, any TV show, any commercials, you can be sponsored by any clothesline ... picture the basketball players, anyone that plays baseball. They’re just talented at something they love to do. They’re just talented. But they make all this money based off of endorsements and people who wanna use their face based off of them being talented. How come they can’t do that for dancers?"
"That’s my goal," he continues. "They should be getting that big old million dollar deal for wearing Nike stuff, just like [how] Tiger Woods gets out there and puts on a Nike shirt, to swing at a ball, you know what I mean! They get out there and spin on their heads, jump off stage, spitting fire, doing this and doing that, breaking their backs. They should get the same respect."
For now though, Sparks and his show remain the most visible aspect of his life-long passion. If Sparks can be as successful with the opportunities that come his way as he has been so far, his dream of a world where dancers can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with basketball stars and arena-filling pop divas may well come true. Until then, ABDC continues to air on MTV twice a year, providing a venue for some of the most talented and driven young people performing on any stage today.