Loews Hotel at Lake Las Vegas has been bumping to a very different beat for the past few days. Where there’s normally a pianist playing the classics, this weekend there’s a DJ spinning Snoop and Rick Ross. Accents from New Zealand, Japan and Trinidad rise from typically serene hallways, where dancers in jumpsuits, ties or Chuck Taylors stretch hamstrings against the hotel walls and count out rhythms with intense concentration. “Five, six, seven, eight.” Around every bend there’s another pack, standing in formation half-dancing through routines they’ve practiced a thousand times already.
Watching them half-kick, half-booty shake, half-spin and half-pop, it's hard to believe the frenzy of energy that the crews bring to the stage. Under the spotlights these are totally different animals. Faces flip from huge smiles to gaping mouths to exaggerated frowns in time with the pounding bass line. Arms fly from pose to pose; asses jiggle with abandon; hair flies around them almost unable to keep up with the movements. Usher's got nothing on these kids. Nothing.
This weekend is the seventh U.S. and World Hip Hop Dance Championships, a six-day competition that will eventually crown the premier dance crews in the world from a field representing 25 different countries. Already the ranks have been cut. Tuesday night marked the U.S. preliminary round, during which crews in three divisions, junior (ages 7-12), varsity (ages 12-18) and adult (ages 18 and over), were whittled down to a selection of finalists. On Wednesday evening, in front of a packed Loews ballroom, the finalists duked it out again, popping, locking and breaking their way through two-minute routines in front of a panel of expert judges.
Sitting in a deserted conference room following the U.S. finals, competition founder Howard Schwartz described his reasons for pioneering a hip hop dance competition.
“It was our idea to take street dance and make it popular, make it available to the public,” said Schwartz, who got involved in hip-hop dance along with his wife, Karen, after spending years developing an aerobics championship which eventually aired on ESPN. “[Hip hop dance] didn’t have any type of representation. Street dance was just that, in the streets.“
Schwartz saw in hip hop dance a well-kept secret. While the styles and moves had permeated music videos and advertising, the best performers still danced in the streets, throwing down in battles that had no place in the back of a Beyonce video or in an ad for Coca Cola. So, the Schwartzes created a contest specifically to showcase street dance, and then they created a hit MTV dance show to go with it.
If the competition has helped give both the dancers and their art form much-needed exposure and a measure of legitimacy sometimes hard to peg onto street culture, America’s Best Dance Crew, has done so to a much greater degree. The show’s first episode received 400,000 votes from viewers. That season’s finale racked up 39.5 million votes and made the winning crew, JabbaWockeeZ, into a household name. Heck, even a few years ago, how many white kids in the suburbs knew what a dance crew was, let alone could name one?
Today there are plenty of troupes eager to show off their skills. With the U.S. rounds completed, a fleet of international dancers are arriving at Loews. All will take the stage Friday night to compete in the preliminary round of the World Championships, after which the finalists will perform at Planet Hollywood on Sunday, August 3rd for the chance to have a gold medal hung around their neck, step onto the podium and hear their national anthem played over the theater speakers. It may not be the Olympics, but it’s pretty damn close.