Dance

A Hip-Hop Dance Crew’s Frabjous Reign in Las Vegas

The Jabbawockeez parlayed that triumph into commercial projects, appearing in ads for Pepsi and Gatorade and opening for New Kids on the Block on tour. In the spring of 2010, a private performance at a birthday party turned into an audition when the crew found out representatives from MGM Resorts were in attendance.

The crew ended up booking a trial run of sorts: a limited engagement at the MGM Grand during the resident artist David Copperfield’s weeks off. The Jabbawockeez brought on the Dumos, who had worked on several Las Vegas productions, to help create a 90-minute show. The result, “MUS.I.C.,” incorporated a diverse soundtrack, simple storytelling and playful humor. “We realized comedy was a big part of the brand,” Napoleon said. “It was as simple as somebody picking their nose in the mask.”

That wide-net approach worked. With the backing of the MGM machine, the crew mounted three more Las Vegas productions, as well as shows in locations as far-flung as Australia, over the next decade. A few years ago — “when some of us began to hit 40,” said the dancer Rynan Paguio (Kid Rainen) — the remaining original members stopped taking the stage regularly, focusing instead on directing and producing. Now a new generation of dancers, many of them mentees of the founders, perform in Las Vegas and beyond.

The Jabbawockeez have always been a diverse, majority Asian American group. (Thirteen of the current crew members identify as Asian American, four as African American, two as Hispanic, and one as Caucasian.) They view racial diversity as intrinsic, but not central, to their artistry and brand.

“When we came up, man, we were just all mixed together, all different races, all over Southern California,” Brewer said. “Being around so many different kinds of people was just normal.” That colorblind mentality remained as the crew’s profile and reach grew. “We’ve never looked at ourselves as an Asian crew, or a diverse crew,” Nguyen said. “We’re just a dance crew that, if this is a buffet, you’ve got Mexican food over here, you’ve got some food from Vietnam, everywhere.”

But the Jabbawockeez’s choice to mask — obscuring individual identity and race to emphasize uniformity and universality — relates to a larger debate among hip-hop dancers and scholars, which gained momentum during the social justice movements of the past year.

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