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Of Trader Joe's And Hip-Hop

April 14, 2008

It was a cashier at Trader Joe's by the name of Cuba who introduced me to the MTV series America's Next Best Dance Crew while ringing up my groceries. We'd somehow gotten into a conversation about baseball and then sports in general during which I admitted that I didn't really watch many games. When Cuba asked me what sports I followed, I sheepishly responded that I loved dance, even though many people don't consider it a sport. Cuba said: "Sure dance is a sport." "It's very athletic at any rate," I shrugged, ready to leave.

But Cuba wasn't ready to move on to the next customer. He proceeded to tell me about America's Next Best Dance Crew, a recently-finished series on MTV in which hip-hop dance groups from all over the country compete for glory and a $100,000 grand prize. Viewers call in and vote for their favorite crew each week until all but one of the crews are eliminated and a winner is declared.

For many minutes after he'd finished totting up my grocery bill (apparently oblivious to the line of shoppers forming behind me) Cuba talked in animated terms about the show -- the dancers' passion and cool costumes; the fact that one group danced in masks while another performed their routines in roller-skates; the real-life stories behind the crews' rise to fame via MTV. His enthusiasm was infectious.

When I told Cuba I was bummed that I missed the series (I don't own a TV and am usually busy in the evenings going to review live theatre productions or making music) he immediately grabbed the till receipt out of my hands and scrawled an MTV URL and the show's title on the back of it. "You can watch the entire series online," he said before waving to the next customer and sending me on my way.

When I got home, I did as I was told. Even on a 12" laptop screen, America's Next Best Dance Crew made for engrossing viewing. I'm so glad that the Internet makes seeing these programs possible long after they've been recorded -- and the bonus of watching the shows on the Web is that all the episodes are blissfully ad-free.

I was particularly taken with the originality of the choreography and the visceral power of the performances. Many of the steps were intricate, involving complex footwork, the isolation of numerous different body parts and precise coordination between all dancers. Though the style was recognizably hip-hop and incorporated a lot of moves from break-dancing, every now and again, I would catch some moves that surprised me. Some steps, for instance, seemed like they were ripped from the unlikely traditions of Cossack and Morris dancing. At one point, dancers squatted on their haunches and sprang up to their feet repeatedly like Russian folk dancers; at another, they skipped and flicked their wrists like members of a Morris group from rural England. It was boundary-pushing stuff and the on-screen audience went wild every time one of the groups tried something unusual.

What was also interesting was the way that the presenter constantly used the language of war to talk about the crews. He referred to them "battling" it out and "fighting" their way to the top. Yet at the same time, the dancers themselves and the judges were constantly undermining the "street fighter" spirit of the event by talking about the "brotherhood" and "sisterhood" that existed between the groups. It was also significant that in the final episode, all the crews (including those eliminated early on in the series) returned to perform duets or trios with troupes which they had previously competed against. Upon final analysis, the series appeared to be less about competition and war and more about teamwork and synchronicity.

A staggering 38 million viewers called in to vote in the final week, in which a crew of young Asian men from San Diego who called themselves JabbaWockeeZ and danced in gloves and masks, faced-off against Status Quo, a crew of equally youthful-looking black guys from Boston who danced in loose baseball-style jackets and jeans. JabbaWockeez won and everyone danced and cheered until the final credits rolled. It was a pretty emotional finale.

If America's Next Best Dance Crew is anything to go by, this country need not fear for the future of dance. The art form is alive and well, and thriving all over the country. I can't wait until the second series which kicks off in the summer. Who knew that a trip to Trader Joe's could yield such fruit?

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