If you'd rather chew on your own intestines than watch a single episode of American Idol, you might want to sink your teeth into another reality option from producer (and Idol judge) Randy Jackson. It's called America's Best Dance Crew, and if you followed the show's first season—which wrapped on MTV in February—you already know that the winning crew hails from the 619.
No MTV? Then you'd better YouTube the Jabbawockeez, because the talented hip-hop dance collective has to be seen to be believed. There is, after all, a reason they earned props week after week from Dance Crew host Mario “AC Slater” Lopez and judges JC “'N Sync” Chasez, choreographer Shane Sparks and rapper Lil' Mama (along with millions of vote-casting TV viewers).
But long before the crew began showing up on Ellen, Live with Regis and Kelly and the movie Step Up 2: The Streets, they were a disparate group of hip-hop kids who coalesced in San Diego.
A handful of the 10-member, all-male collective grew up locally—including de facto leader Raynen “Kid Rainen” Paguio, a former dance instructor at Culture Shock in Old Town—while the rest came from places like Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Arizona before “America's Finest City” birthed America's Best Dance Crew.
“The birthright of the crew is San Diego,” Paguio says with pride. “That's where we first started to hang out.”
The individual members met at hip-hop showcases and competitions starting back in the '90s, but it wasn't until 2003 that they officially formed Jabbawockeez. The group lifted its name from Lewis Carroll's famously nonsensical poem “Jabberwocky,” which also inspired the crew to don expressionless white masks during their performances.
“The poem is about a dragon,” Paguio explains. “This kid is trying to slay the dragon, but it ends up being a figment of his imagination. That's what we try to do with the masks—keep it mysterious, make it seem not real what we're doing. We also want people not to look at the individual, but to everybody as a group.”
Paguio brings up the group dynamic several times, frequently referring to his crewmates as brothers and the crew as a brotherhood. The close-knit group only became tighter when it lost a member in the days leading up to the Dance Crew auditions.
Gary “Gee One” Kendell died of fungal meningitis in December 2007 and was, Paguio says, the heart of the Jabbawockeez—an upbeat personality whose positive demeanor and unique dance style set a tone for the entire crew.
“We shed a lot of tears when he passed away,” Paguio says. “But at the same time, it was a beautiful struggle. While we were doing the show, we didn't let on that we were sad—Gary would've wanted us to shine the light and show happiness—but during that time we cried together and showed our brotherhood and got a lot closer.”
Kendell served as a source of constant inspiration for the Jabbawockeez as the crew made its way through each round of the Dance Crew competition. Rather than losing themselves in mourning, Kevin “Keibee” Brewer says the crew tried to honor their friend by celebrating and elevating hip-hop and self-expression.
“We just wanted to represent our homie that passed away and to represent hip-hop, the culture, in a really positive way,” Brewer says. “We wanted people to understand what hip-hop is. We understand it to be all about love.”
While the crew grieved privately behind the scenes, they still had to develop and perfect new choreographed routines every week in order to keep pace with the stiff Dance Crew competition.
“I wouldn't have wanted to be one of those judges,” Brewer laughs. “When it came show time, everyone pulled out 100 percent, which made for a really good season.”
The Jabbawockeez drew on their years of experience—both as individuals and as a collective—to come up with the final-episode routine that ultimately allowed them to best the rollerskating BreakSk8 crew and win the competition.
“You start by learning from somebody,” Paguio says. “You learn about the history of hip-hop… you learn different styles and then you develop your own style. That's something we've tried to do with the Jabbawockeez. We let people understand the foundation and then they do their own thing.”
Brewer hopes it wasn't just the Jabbawockeez's sick skills on America's Best Dance Crew that proved inspirational, but also their expression of love and unity for hip-hop culture as a whole.
“People understood that through our brotherhood,” he says. “It's an unspoken thing that people can see through us. As far as what hip-hop is really about, I don't think [viewers] got the full scope of it. But we gave them enough for them to want to look into it more.”
Jabbawockeez perform at 8:30 p.m. Saturday, May 3, with E-40 at 4th & B. 619-231-4343. www.jabbawockeez.com.