Andy Funk’s vision for the future of hip-hop spawned a groundbreaking conventio
By Heather Wisner
“I am in no way an expert in this field, and certainly not a visionary,” says Monsters of Hip-Hop founder Andy Funk. “I just happen to be a businessperson who, along with my wife and sister-in-law, saw a need and took a chance.”
Taking that chance has paid off for the dance world, or at least a growing part of it. Monsters of Hip-Hop, founded in 2002, is a nationally touring convention exclusively dedicated to hip-hop. It aims to give hip-hoppers greater professional exposure and opportunities, and to that end, it offers workshops and seminars with professional choreographers and agents and auditions dancers for the cast of its annual performance showcase, held in Los Angeles at the convention’s end. Its freestyle battle, Club Stylz, a benefit for the American Cancer Society, has earned more than $8,000 for the agency and provided prizes for, and technical assessments of, its participants. By Funk’s estimation, thousands of dancers have passed through MOHH since its inception, and many have since landed gigs in movies, TV shows, and concert tours.
It’s a remarkable accomplishment for a guy who didn’t know what he was getting himself into. MOHH germinated with Andy’s wife, Becky, and her sister Angie Worley, who grew up on the dance competition circuit and performed with the Towson University dance team. Becky got her degree in health education but wanted to return to her first love: hip-hop. So she and Andy founded Baltimore’s B. Funk Dance Company studio. Andy wasn’t a dancer—his closest brush with the arts was playing drums—but he did have a business and PR background and some event-planning experience, so he became the studio’s business manager. As the studio grew, he decided to quit his job and devote himself to running the business.
But he needed something more. He, Becky, and Angie began talking about starting a convention—not a competition, because there were already plenty of those—specializing in hip-hop and staffed with the best instructors they could find. “I asked my wife and her sister to name the top 10 hip-hop choreographers working at the moment,” he says. “They laughed at me, but we got a lot of them the first year,” including Brian Friedman, Jermaine Browne, and Fatima Robinson.
Not that it was easy. “Quitting my job and starting Monsters was basically a huge leap of faith,” Funk admits. “We trusted that because our event was so unique and we were bringing 10 of the top choreographers in the world together, dancers and their teachers would try us out.” A big part of Monsters’ success was—and still is—attracting working dancemakers who, in turn, may hire dancers. “It’s exciting and rewarding teaching hip-hop to hip-hop dancers—they can challenge the dancers and the dancers can handle it,” Funk says. “This isn’t to put down other conventions, but when you’re working with different types of dancers, the energy is different; if you’re teaching hip-hop to a ballet dancer, they’re going to struggle with that.”
Third-year faculty member Chonique Sneed agrees. “At some conventions I’ve been the only hip-hop teacher, and I can’t get through my entire routine. At Monsters I don’t have to water down my choreography. There’s no convention like it, because it’s all hip-hop.” Sneed, whose clients have included Missy Elliott and Britney Spears, joins a roster featuring former Electric Boogaloos Poppin’ Pete and Mr. Wiggles, Gil Duldualao (Janet Jackson’s choreographer), and Tabitha Dumo (who has worked with Christina Aguilera).
Collectively, they teach hip-hop, popping, locking, street jazz/jazz funk, and break-dancing, although they also encourage dancers to train in multiple genres. “Versatility and adaptability are extremely important, especially in auditions, and it goes both ways,” Funk says. “So many dancers, even at our event, have little to no concept of freestyle. That’s the true test—when you can hear any kind of music and be able to just dance, not relying on a checklist of choreographed moves.”
This year the convention will hit 11 cities; it has traveled to Canada in the past, and Funk eventually hopes to bring it to Europe and Japan. It offers two days of classes for juniors (ages 7–10), intermediate (11–14), advanced (preprofessional, ages 15 and up), and teacher levels.
Along the convention route, faculty members scout for performance showcase dancers. From seeing people in the workshops, Funk says the faculty “can tell if they’re passionate and hardworking.” They need to be: Rehearsals generally run from 9:00 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. for 10 days straight.
‘[Hip-hop is] everywhere. When a staggering number of dance teachers tell us they have added hip-hop to their curriculum just to stay competitive, that tells me it has a future.’ —Andy Funk, founder of Monsters of Hip-Hop
The convention has also established a relationship with Ailey Extension, which offers classes for the general public. Ailey Extension hip-hop teacher Robin Dunn and director Yvette Campbell worked out a deal that allows MOHH to hold master classes at Ailey. The first time around, 150 people signed up for the MOHH class in just three weeks. “When Yvette and her staff saw how many people they could have coming through their beautiful space, they expressed interest in holding more master classes,” Funk says.
Campbell believes it’s a good match. “We felt that they are one of the best hip-hop groups around and that we’re one of the best contemporary groups,” she says. “We want to offer something [dancers] can use, and dancers from Monsters are getting hired in their field.”
Along with jobs, Monsters offers scholarships to Ailey Extension and the L.A.-based Debbie Reynolds Studio and Millennium Dance Complex. In each convention city, talent agents observe the audition and deliver a “business of dance” seminar that informs the dancers, parents, and teachers about auditioning, headshots, and union issues. Some MOHH dancers have signed with participating agencies, including Bloc.
“We’ve got a lot of success stories,” Funk said. “I want to reinforce that, because hip-hop has a lot of negative connotations.” Hotels have been leery of booking the convention because they’re afraid of gang violence; Funk has had to reassure them that MOHH is a family-friendly event, with edited lyrics and adult supervision. Having relationships with Ailey and with Disney, who has sent scouts to performances, has helped legitimize the event, he says.
So has the list of successful alumni. When Janet Jackson was scouting, MOHH dancers got their own audition, and four of them are now performing with the singer. MOHH alum Laura Edwards landed dance gigs in Step Up and the movie version of Hairspray. Bryan Tanaka toured with Salt’n’Pepa and Destiny’s Child. Tucker Barkley has done music videos and worked on the upcoming film Naked with MOHH choreographer Dave Scott. MOHH: The Show cast member Nick DeMoura assisted choreographer Mickey Minden on Pussycat Dolls Present: The Search for the Next Doll (Season 1), danced in the film Walk Hard, performed in a Las Vegas industrial, and worked with Dave Scott in Prom Night. Perhaps the most visibly successfully MOHH alum are Cedric Gardner and Lauren Gottlieb, who appeared on So You Think You Can Dance this year.
Twenty-four-year-old Tanaka, whose first big job was performing with the Seattle Supersonics dance team, found Monsters in 2002, when the convention came to Washington. There was no show yet, but he auditioned for—and won—a scholarship to Millennium Dance and was scouted by the MSA talent agency. Shortly after he arrived in L.A., he signed with MSA and started getting dance jobs a few weeks later. He calls Funk an instrumental part of that process, and says Monsters is “a great step forward into the industry. The teachers are unbelievable—it’s all hip-hop, all styles. If you can’t come to L.A. yet, they bring L.A. to you.”
The widespread popularity of hip-hop bodes well for his studio and for Monsters, Funk says, and should dispel the lingering idea that the dance is merely a fad. “It’s been around over 20 years—that’s pretty long to be a fad,” he says. “Just look at MTV, commercials, TV programs like So You Think You Can Dance. It’s everywhere. When a staggering number of dance teachers tell us they have added hip-hop to their curriculum just to stay competitive, that tells me it has a future.” It’s also attracting more boys to dance. “I have been told that we have more male dancers than most other conventions,” he says. “It’s unfortunate, but I think most boys are more comfortable saying they’re going to a breaking class than going to ballet class.”
So Funk is focusing on the future, working on new ideas like the MOHH Next Generation tour, which will spotlight the work of young, emerging choreographers. But he’s also mindful of the past: “When we decided to act on our idea back in 2002, we had no idea that our convention would grow to the extent that it has,” he says. “With all of our anticipated expenses, we needed to attract over 250 dancers to just break even. We had almost 300 dancers from 15 different states attend our inaugural event with little to no advertising, no sponsors, and basically no promotional support.
“We started as a family business and still rely largely on family to help us maintain our operation. We are basically running year-round at this point and we are continually working forward.”