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Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Trust The Music: The Chinese Association Dance Crew

By: Dennis Chen

The heavy bass from the speaker system could be heard by anyone who happened to be near the gymnasium’s basketball court at UC Irvine. Music blasted as hundreds of feet moved to the beat of the drums and snares in Kanye West’s “Power.” Not one empty trashcan was in sight. Empty water bottles were scattered everywhere, as every trashcan was either filled to the rim or overflowing with them. Inside the gymnasium, the air was humid and stuffy from the body heat of all the dancers. It had been an exhausting night. Hillary Temple stands up from her seat behind the judges’ table and surveys the room full of people. Immediately, the noise level quickly diminishes as hushes and whispers take over the room. Her long, curly blonde hair rests upon her strong shoulders. She takes a deep breath and begins to speak. Close to one hundred heads turn to give her their attention. Murmurs fade into silence. She clears her throat and begins to give the closing statements for the upcoming season’s auditions. She clearly commands a lot of respect at the event. Hillary remains standing as the two other coordinators, Rwang Pam and Stan Fu give their own closing statements to the mass of hopefuls. It had been an eventful night, with over one hundred dancers leaving their hearts on the floor while competing for the limited spots available on the team. As the coordinators’ announcements come to an end, lethargic bodies struggle to get up off the gym floor. As dozens of exhausted dancers dripping sweat and lugging large water bottles and gym towels head toward the exit doors, the three coordinators huddle up to discuss the talent that they had just seen. It is just a little past 2 a.m. on Monday night, technically Tuesday morning, on October the 18th. Instead of being at home studying or at the movies with their friends, the coordinators find themselves at UC Irvine reviewing audition notes over and over again. Of course, they all have class in a few hours, but staying out this late on a weeknight for dance is nothing new. After all, this is their passion.

Meet CADC, short for the Chinese Association Dance Crew. CADC was established 17 years ago as a branch of the Chinese Association at UC Irvine, which also has a Dragon Boat branch and a martial arts branch in addition to a board of directors that oversees the entire organization. Specializing in hip-hop dance, CADC, composed of roughly 40 undergraduate students, competes in multiple hip-hop dance competitions during the academic season, including but not limited to the “Big Five”: The Bridge, Vibe, Fusion, Ultimate Brawl, and Body Rock. However, CADC is not alone. UC Irvine, which is home to four major teams, is home to a vast and quickly growing dance community. The school, having more hip-hop dance teams than any other school in the area, is well respected within the West Coast dance community. Out of the four teams, three are competitive and regularly place within the top three at major competitions. Last year, CADC had a great season, placing second at The Bridge and gaining attention with their Kill Bill themed performance.

With a large variety of music, ranging from Michael Jackson to N.E.R.D, in their mix, the members of CADC’s 2009-2010 season were able to capture the excitement and thrill of the Kill Bill film and put it on stage. The team was even invited to perform at Body Rock, the most anticipated dance event of the season due to the fact that its hosts only invite the best of the best to perform. Temple, who was front and center for the opener of the performance, still remembers the the performance clearly. The team was backstage, hidden in the wings, waiting to take to the stage. Then, the moment they were all waiting for. The emcee belches out, “Up Next, hailing from Irvine, California.... C-A-D-C!” Chills shoot down their spines as the members run to their positions. For some, performing at Body Rock had been a life-long dream and the entire day so far had been so surreal. The music begins to play. As the dancers hear their cue, an eerie whistle from the Kill Bill soundtrack, screams fill the theatre as the audience realizes what the theme is. With a fusion of aggressive dance moves mixed with fight choreography, the dancers execute a highly energetic performance that stuns the crowd. Midway through the performance, the stage begins to clear as members rush off to the sidelines, leaving only the females on stage. Here comes the girls’ piece, a section of every CADC performance that many look forward to, as the team is well known for having highly skilled female dancers. However, this time, the crowd was going to get something truly special. All the girls were fully dressed as geishas. The girls begin center-stage, but quickly fan out to produce two perfect diagonals, typically considered to be the most difficult formation to produce on-stage. Sonia Park, the only girl dressed in red, takes center and whips out a Japanese fan. Dancing with fan in hand, Sonia continues to hit every bass and snare in the song as audience members jump out of their seats in excitement. But before anyone even notices, the team is already performing their closer. As all forty bodies rush onto stage and move in unison, Rwang Pam, who portrays the main villain, takes center and is the only person to perform different choreography, highlighting his character’s importance. As Rwang and Becka, who plays Uma Thurman’s character, The Bride, interlock in a fierce battle, the rest of the team performs clever choreography that accents the movements of the epic battle taking place. Suddenly, the music comes to an abrupt stop when Becka whips out a sword and slashes it through the air as Rwang’s body goes limp and falls to the ground. All the other members lie motionless on the stage floor, further exaggerating the dramatic ending of their performance. Becka remains standing, back to the audience, as the crowd erupts with applause. CADC had just stolen the night with a jaw-dropping performance that would remain engrained in the minds of many for years to come.

Due to their recent success in the past years, CADC’s popularity has increased significantly. But this is nothing new for the organization, which has had its fair share of ups and downs. In the past, CADC was well known for intricate, themed “sets,” a term used to describe a finished performance routine. Their sets included extensive story lines and heavy use of costumes and props. But by far the most unique feature of CADC is the fact that all of its members must be undergraduate students at UCI. However, this can be considered a disadvantage in the competitive world of hip-hop dance. While other teams are led by seasoned veterans who have been performing for five or six years, the leaders of CADC can have only been dancing with CADC for four years at maximum, because of this rule. In the past, several famed dancers within the community have danced on CADC but all “graduated” when they graduated UCI. However, this perceived disadvantage also pushes the dancers on CADC to train harder, giving them more initiative than their competitors.

“Our new members look up to the people who have done so much for the team and they train themselves so that they can step up once the seniors have left. We call it the Second Year Jump. Our freshmen members are still learning how things work, then in their second year, they dramatically improve by a lot. So by their third year, they are all very skilled and ready for leadership positions. However, it’s not necessarily about replacing the roles of older members. For example, if a dancer specializing in “popping” is going to graduate, there does not necessarily have to be another “popper” ready to fill his spot. Our dancers find their own interests and train. When the coordinators see talent that is not being used, we try our best to utilize it and incorporate it into our set. If we see that one of our dancers is becoming a strong “wacker,” we make sure to acknowledge his talent and ask for his help. Not only does this keep things fresh, but it pushes our dancers to train harder because they know their time on the team is limited,” commented Pam.

In order to help keep track of all of its current members and alumni, CADC assigns a Greek letter for each year’s newcomers. One year would be deemed “Alpha Class” and another would be named “Beta Class,” and so on. This is especially useful because of CADC’s large amount of alumni, numbering approximately 150 members. CADC’s alumni are known collectively as Chaos, which has been around since Beta year, 2002. Since then, members of Chaos, including one of CADC’s founders who is now 35 years old, have been visiting practices and coming out to all of CADC’s events. “They come out to our clubbing events, competitions, and help represent us everywhere we go. We can count on them and ask them questions whenever we need help. It allows us to hear funny stories and learn about our history directly! I love it! It’s like having tons of older brothers and sisters,” stated Temple. Many members of Chaos have gone on to dance for other well-respected dance teams such as Breed4ever, 220, The Company, APT, and many other teams in the community. Some of the alumni have even gone on to work in the industry and teach all around the world. Because of the long history that CADC has, upholding tradition and continuing the legacy has become a very important concern. For example, the most important competition to the team is the All-Cal competition. Although it used to be the biggest competition, it is now a fairly small event and not too many people even know about it anymore. But it is the first competition that CADC ever competed at, and that is what makes it the most inspiring competition of the season for CADC’s members. All-Cal is an event in which the Chinese Associations of many universities compete against one another in a hip-hop dance competition. “We are very proud to say that we have won nine years in a row now, and we are really excited that we have done that,” said Temple, “We’re happy that we are making our alumni proud!”

“I have always wanted to be on Kaba Modern and when I first got to UCI as a freshman, I competed in Kaba Modern’s Dance-A-Thon but I was cut during the first round. So I was really discouraged after that,” recalls Temple, “however, later that year, I went to the Mesa Housing dance where I saw CADC perform and once I saw them, I immediately knew that CADC was the team I wanted to be on. They had so much energy and they looked like they were having so much fun.”

Temple was first introduced to the dance scene by her friend, Joanna. The two had met at Dance-A-Than and decided to go together to CADC’s auditions. They spent all their time together talking about the dance scene and quickly became avid dance “groupies.” When Temple finally met members of CADC, she was extremely intimidated. However, the members were quick to break the ice and begin talking to her as if they had been friends all along. “They treated me as their equal, which made me really respect them and admire them,” says Temple.

Now, two years later, Temple is one of three coordinators for CADC’s upcoming season. Last year, she was elected captain, so she was able to experience taking up a leadership position on the team already, but the responsibilities are very different. The coordinators hold the main responsibility of artistic direction and making major decisions in terms of where the team is headed. The captains act as mediators between the team and the coordinators. The structured hierarchy is very important, especially when it comes to helping the newcomers adjust easier. Temple remembers her thoughts when she had first made the team, “I realized that the team required a level of commitment that I really did not expect. I was somewhat clueless and thought that there would only be practice once a week from 5pm to 7pm. Haha! I guess I did not expect the 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. practices and the “hell weeks.” Hell week is typically the week before a competition, in which a team practices every single night in order to prepare themselves. “When I first made the team, my level of dancing wasn’t as important to the coordinators as the team bonding was. They were really big on the bonding. Another thing I did not expect was the frequency of competitions. There were a lot! Also, because I was a newbie, I was babied a lot, which I did not expect at all.” Now, as a coordinator, Temple not only has to help the newcomers adjust to the hectic lifestyle, but she also focuses on the huge challenge of making sure the team is able to mesh well and dance together as a group. This year, CADC had 40 members on its roster. “Our team chemistry is not a problem, but our ability to maintain our cleanliness and strength of the dancing is especially challenging given the number of people,” said Temple.

At practices, Temple and the other coordinators spend a great amount of time making sure the team is “clean,” in other words, making sure the team moves in unison. After the entire team arrives at 9 p.m. sharp, the team takes a lap. Huffing and puffing, the dancers run as the warmth of their breaths is seen escaping into the frigid night. Upon return, the coordinators begin to play music and lead the team into stretches, which takes a considerable amount of time. Stretching is extremely important in order to warm up the dancers’ muscles and loosen their bodies so that no one get injured. The team talks and tells jokes as they sit on the ground, stretching out their hamstrings. The laughter echos in the parking structure and can be heard from as far as two levels up. After stretching, the choreographers set the dancers into their formation, also called “blocking,” and begin testing our various effects. Five, Six, Seven, and Eight! Some bodies duck low, while other jump high. The choreographer doesn’t like it. Five, Six, Seven, and Eight! Some bodies spin to the left, while others spin to the right. Nods of approval go around as someone produces a camera to record the new change. Three hours later, they are finally done blocking that piece. The dancers are tired as their minds try to grasp all the new changes. Sometimes, it becomes frustrating. But they all know it will be worth it once they are on-stage performing. Of course, blocking always changes, so everything they have learned may not be used, but it’s a gesture of faith that the dancers give to their coordinators. After blocking several more pieces, the prepares for their run-throughs. Although run-throughs are the most tiring, they are always put at the end of practices in order to recap everything they had learned earlier. Having just ended a break, lethargic bodies struggle to find the strength to get up off the ground. Members stretch out their muscles, which have grown cold from sitting down. High fives and words of encouragement go around as dancers take to their positions. The music begins playing and the team puts on a competition worthy performance with full out movements and facials. During each piece, dancers not currently on-stage yell and scream out cheers for their friends who are giving it their all. Although many are gasping for air on the sidelines, they know that their cheers motivate their friends and that’s a lot more important than catching their breath. Half an hour later, they are done with their run-throughs. As members grab their water bottles and huddle up in a tight circle, Temple, Pam, and Fu begin to make announcements. Remember to bring costumes for a costume check. Remember to wear lots of layers, it’s getting real cold at night. There are only seven practices left until The Bridge, so stay focused. The listens attentively for forty-five minutes. Finally, everybody stands up and makes a circle, putting their hands in the center. “Dance crew on three!” shouts Pam, “One, Two, Three.” “Dance Crew!!!” yells the team, in a spirited cry that can be heard from even outside the structure.

The chant has always been a tradition for many years. Rwang Pam emphasizes the need to uphold traditions while making sure everyone loves what they are doing and more importantly, loves each other. As a coordinator, he believes that he must take both the positive and negative feedback into account. “There are also a lot of other managerial duties such as keeping track of all the members’ schedules, paperwork for competitions, finances, fundraisers, and keeping practices productive so that our new set will be ready when it comes time for the competition,” stated Pam, “And of course, this year, there is the issue of finding a place to practice.”

CADC, being an on campus organization, has a valid permit to practice on the ground floor in the Mesa Parking structure, which is their home. However, the permit only allows them to practice until 10 p.m. and the team always practices much later into the morning. In the previous years, this has never been a problem. However, this year, UCI Parking, which has already gained notoriety among students due to strict parking policies, decided to enforce the 10 p.m. curfew. Considering that the team’s practices generally begin at 9 p.m., the new policy basically eliminates the Mesa Parking Structure as a practice spot. In the meantime, the team has had to find makeshift areas on campus every night, sometimes chancing the parking structures. What makes it especially difficult is that campus security routinely patrols the campus, so the team must move locations several times, costing them valuable practice time. But this does not just affect CADC. Other dance teams like MCIA, Common Ground, Kaba Modern, as well as other student organizations such as KASA, Jodaiko, ICS, and many Greek organizations will all be affected by these changes. Temple passionately states “UCI needs to understand that our local dance teams bring revenue and potential students here to UCI. UCI is well known for our dance community.” Although issues with UCI Parking regarding CADC’s practices have actually already occurred five times already in the past, this is by far the most extreme case. The issue affects so many individuals that the dance teams and organizations have been meeting up to discuss ideas and plans of action. Already, a Facebook group page has been made that includes members from multiple organizations and serves as an open forum for discussion.

“The students are slowly climbing up the ladder,” says Temple, “and we hope that this issue will reach important people at UCI. We are fighting for our passion. But the problem is that the parking department is completely separate from the dean, who would be a lot easier to convince. In my opinion, we’re an on-campus student organization that is not allowed to practice on-campus. It just sounds ridiculous,” says Temple.

“Honestly it doesn’t really make sense to me. It’s better than us going out drinking and doing drugs. We’re just dancing. We’re not getting in anyone’s way, so I don’t see why they’re doing this. Why are they taking away the only spot we’re allowed to practice in? If they’re not willing to give us studio time, then they shouldn’t have any problem with us practicing in the parking structure,” stated Sonali Samarasena, member of Common Ground.

“Enforcing a curfew at the parking structures will make organizing our annual Pilipino American Culture Night much harder, as some students can only meet late at night to practice for it. It will also make learning the Tinikling dance much harder since the dancers wont have as much time to practice in the structures as they used to. And the Tinikling sticks are made of actual bamboo and will rot if exposed to rain. We need the roofs of the structures to protect the sticks from rain,” commented Brent Gutierrez, member of UCI’s Kababayan Club.

However, outside of dancing, there are many issues that members, especially newcomers, face due to their heavy involvement in dance. Because practices end so late and use up so much of the members’ energy, many are too tired to do homework or study after they arrive home. In fact, due to UCI’s heavy workload and the physical exhaustion from practice, many are forced to choose between sleep and excelling in school. Many set aside pockets of time during the day for the sole purpose of sleeping and all understand that picking a class that begins before 11 a.m. is suicide. “The biggest thing I sacrifice is sleep, not energy, because I enjoy spending my energy on dance. I don’t regret it though, because you will always be able to sleep, you know?”said Temple as she sipped on a cup of Starbucks coffee from UCI’s student center, “Academically, I had to learn how to balance my schedule. Especially now that I’m in a leadership position, I make myself work harder to maintain my grades in order to set a good example for my dancers. It really is a struggle to maintain our grades and it is the primary reason many of our dancers consider not returning to the team.” However, CADC is different from most other dance teams because they work with the academic calendar since they are a collegiate team. While other teams have their hell weeks during finals’ week at UCI, CADC, having anticipated the clash, will have already planned to have hell week a week in advance.

Rwang Pam stresses the need to prioritize school, work, and the team. “They are all equally important but you can’t do them all at once,” says Pam, “it is all about trying to find that perfect balance. I plan out my days hour by hour in order to make sure that I make good use every second in my day. I always have a set schedule.” However, Pam wasn’t always so on top of his game. He still remembers a time when he put dancing before school, causing his grades to suffer significantly. During his very first hell week, Pam had a final exam that was at 11 a.m. However, practice did not end until about six in the morning. His body was exhausted and his brain was filled with dance choreography, not academics. As he walked towards his car in Mesa Parking structure, he decided not to return home because he knew that if he did, he would definitely fall asleep and miss his final exam. However, the air was cold and seemed to pierce his lungs with each breath. He decided to duck into the backseat of his car to keep himself warm and review for the exam. As he stretched his body out to relieve his tired muscles, he closed his eyes for only a second. The burning sensation behind his eyelids felt painfully satisfying. He opened his eyes and sat up. He winced as the glare from the sun shot through the windows and hit his eyes. “That’s when I knew something was wrong,” said Pam, “it was way too bright to be 10 a.m.” He frantically whipped out his cell phone, checking the time. But it was too late. He had missed his final exam. “That’s when I hit rock-bottom,” says Pam, “I was so disappointed with myself. That’s when I realized that my priorities weren’t right. But that doesn’t mean school always comes first. My priorities are constantly shifting depending on what currently needs the most attention. Sometimes it’s school and sometimes it’s dance. But I make sure to stay on top of it.”

Despite the tremendous effort put forth by the dancers, parents are still very disapproving of their children’s involvements with dance. “At first, they didn’t like it at all, but I kept reassuring them that I knew how to prioritize. Eventually, they learned to accept it.” However, it isn’t the scolding from their parents that most members are worried about. Because school and dance take up so much of their time, members rarely have time for jobs. For this reason, they end up having to ask their parents for money, which makes them feel incredibly guilty. Friends of members have all suggested that they cut out the unnecessary obligations from their lives. However, as Rwang says, “Dancing is not necessary, but it is very necessary. You can’t see yourself not doing it. So it’s kind of a sticky situation.”

Because of all this pressure, electing the right leaders is especially important. Hillary emphasizes how her fellow teammates have always challenged her to push harder and improve herself. She strives to be a good role model and set an example for her team. “The dancers challenge me and listen to me at the same time, Haha! Somehow, I’ve taken up the Mama role of the team. I take care of all the new kids…” Sometimes she forgets that she is now a coordinator, as it feels just like yesterday when she was a rookie. Of course, now so many things have changed from her perspective. She takes the team a lot more seriously and is beginning to realize that at cabinet meetings when things get real quiet, all eyes are on her and the team expects her to say something, which is still pretty weird for Hillary and the two other coordinators.

But they should definitely not doubt themselves, as they are already bringing CADC forward in new ways. On October 16th, CADC helped host a major competition for the first time. Enkore, a new event sponsored by Kallusive clothing, was held at Long Beach Terrace Theater in Long Beach, CA. It is a unique event because the teams that perform have to be invited, so the lineup consists of only elite dancers.

Temple stated, “We were very excited and very nervous. To be honest, we had no idea what was going on. We were getting new details and information about the venue literally only days before the event. We had meetings about what to put in the gift baskets for the judges and the hospitality baskets for each dance team. At one point, we wanted to throw in bottles of alcohol… but we decided that was a bad idea. Haha!”

Hosting the event gave members of CADC the opportunity to sit back, relax, and watch the dancing instead of worrying about competing. But it was also a very good opportunity for CADC to get significantly closer to the dance community. Pam commented, “Yeah, no one really knows the members of CADC. So it was nice to hang out with others and just chill for once.” Enkore was definitely a success, as the venue was filled with eager audience members awaiting performances from big names such as Kaba Modern, Choreo Cookies, Common Ground, and NSU Modern. There was even an official after-party after the show had concluded. Hosting Enkore was definitely a step forward for CADC and really helped spread their name and a positive message about giving back to the community, which is what coordinators strive for.

Now, Temple, Pam, and Stan Fu, the third coordinator, had a tough job deciding who they were going to accept into CADC and who they were going to have to deny. Because the team means so much to them, selecting the right dancers was like selecting the right future for the team. CADC had a great run for the 2009-2010 season, but after the season ended, they had lost a lot of seniors and other dancers due to outside commitments and responsibilities. They are looking for talented dancers who not only have a drive to learn but also have the right chemistry for the team. Pam, of African-American descent, and Temple, of Caucasian descent, make it very clear that people of all races and backgrounds are welcome despite the crew being a branch of the Chinese Association. Temple’s favorite part of the audition process is seeing how individuals change after they make the team. Comparing how a person behaved before and after the auditions are a favorite pastime of CADC members. Temple’s favorite person to pick on is David Lee, who she describes as, “Having been really involved in the ‘All-Male’ scene,” which is typically looked down upon due to the fact that performances rely heavily on crowd-pleasing acts and attention grabbing antics, rather than legitimate dancing. “I have seen David grow up into a mature and talented dancer, although he still goes full-out with his Fauxhawk haircut,” says Temple.

Temple is extremely excited to finalize the new members of the team on the team roster, as she knows they will get the most out of the next season. She knows that the newcomers will learn how to not only dance as a team, but also how to communicate effectively and work with the sensitivities of individuals. Temple personally found out how much people could care for one another and how superficiality is not as widespread as many believe. Also, being of Caucasian descent, she learned a great deal about Asian cultures from her teammates. “I encountered Pho, which is Vietnamenese noodles, for the first time at 4 a.m. after practice one night. Yuck! But really, I learned about the diversity of people and how to please them while never offending others. Most importantly, I learned how to have a family away from home.” As the new season comes, Temple, Pam, and the rest of the team prepare for new friendships, new memories, and the creation of new legacies. From hell weeks to study sessions, CADC is not only a top-tier competition team that is a force to be reckoned with, but they are a group of individuals that share the same commitment to their passion and care unconditionally for one another. CADC is family.

Reporting Notes:

-interview with Hillary Temple

-interview with Rwang Pam

-interview with Sonali Samarasena

-interview with Brent Gutierrez

-attended Fall 2010 auditions

-attended Enkore Dance Competition

-attended CADC practices

-visited the CADC table on library walk




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