Where to go if hip-hop is your dream
By Gina McGalliard
Studio owners may be at a loss as to how to guide their professionally minded students into a dance career—especially one in hip-hop. The answer may well lie in Monsters of Hip-Hop, the first all-hip-hop touring convention. It not only features some of the biggest names in the dance industry but also provides key information and opportunities for aspiring dancers to break into show business.
Monsters of Hip-Hop tours to the continental United States, Mexico, New Zealand, and England, and the convention has developed such a following that it attracts participants from Asia, Europe, North America, and Australia. At the tour’s end, dancers selected by the convention’s faculty from thousands of Monsters participants perform in an annual show in Los Angeles.
How it began
Ten years ago, Monsters co-founders Andy Funk, his wife, Becky, and Becky’s sister, Angie Worley, started a dance studio in their hometown of Baltimore. When Funk quit his day job to manage the studio full-time, they began brainstorming how Andy could put his event-planning background to use to make up for his lost income. Becky and Angie had both grown up on the convention and competition circuit and loved hip-hop; they thought a dance convention that featured more than only a few hip-hop classes was needed.
Funk quickly discovered that top-name choreographers (many of whom don’t usually teach) were enthusiastic about the prospect of an exclusively hip-hop convention. “Once we presented our mission and what we were trying to do, [which] was so unique, they gravitated toward it,” says Funk. “They were intrigued and wanted to try it out.”
Today, Monsters is flooded with submissions from choreographers seeking to be on the convention’s faculty. And recently, the company expanded to include an all-contemporary dance tour, Monsters of Contemporary.
Best in the business
Monsters’ faculty list reads like a who’s who of the hip-hop world: Tabitha and Napoleon D’Umo from So You Think You Can Dance; Jamal Sims, choreographer of Hairspray, Step Up, and Step Up 2: The Streets; Justin Timberlake’s choreographer, Marty Kudelka; Rhapsody James; Kevin Maher; Dave Scott; Poppin Pete; Mr. Wiggles; Flomaster; the Jabbawockeez; and Teresa Espinosa.
“They’re so passionate about sharing their knowledge with the kids,” says Funk. “Some of them are well-known celebrities because you see them on TV, and others are not on TV but they’re some of the most popular choreographers we have. Once the kids get to see them and experience their style and their teaching ability, they’re hooked.”
Sometimes former Monsters show cast members come back to teach, such as JaQuel Knight, who co-choreographed Beyoncé’s famous “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” video. Tony Testa, who as a teenager was cast in the first Monsters show, is now not only on the faculty but he co-directed and wrote this year’s show with Rhapsody James. He counts the experience of directing as invaluable in his career and considers the Monsters staff to be family.
“Andy’s a family man, so whenever we’re [at Monsters] it doesn’t feel like this corporate job,” says Testa. “It’s really nice to be with somebody who’s on a level playing field in terms of fairness and equality for everybody and just about people having a great experience.”
A different kind of convention
The convention includes junior, intermediate, advanced, and teacher levels. In order to create an optimal learning environment, Funk limits the number of participants to 600. “We don’t have a thousand or 1,200 people at the event, so people can move and not get bloody noses or crazy things that you hear from some of the huge, huge conventions,” he says.
Although the convention draws hard-core hip-hop devotees, the popularity of the style sometimes attracts those who may not feel so comfortable doing it. Tabitha D’Umo, who has been teaching at Monsters from the start, calls the convention a place to go for kids who think they’re not funky. “What I love to see now, with the success of So You Think You Can Dance and America’s Best Dance Crew, is that a lot of studio kids who typically get embarrassed or shy about doing hip-hop now have somewhere to go,” she says. “[They can] do a strong intensive and inundate themselves with that style so they can start feeling more comfortable.”
Also setting Monsters apart are its seminars about the business of being a professional dancer. The sessions cover everything aspiring dancers need to entice choreographers to hire them: professional etiquette, auditions, headshots and resumes, financial planning, and fashion.
Tabitha D’Umo calls the convention a place to go for kids who think they’re not funky. “. . . A lot of studio kids who typically get embarrassed or shy about doing hip-hop now have somewhere to go,” she says.
“There are so many pitfalls they can run into when they pick up and move to L.A., if they don’t know how to handle their business,” says Funk. “They’re going to end up back at home and not dancing or drop their dream and not go for it.”
In each city on the tour, the convention’s faculty chooses four finalists, contenders for a chance to perform in the annual show that follows a weeklong intensive in L.A. The finalists receive VIP tour passes that allow them to attend unlimited Monsters workshops free of charge for one year. This year the chosen dancers came to L.A. to rehearse for the show in North Hollywood’s El Portal Theatre, which Funk describes as “the most intense training they’ll ever have.” It’s not unusual for rehearsals to run from 9:00 in the morning until past midnight.
The experience is a training ground for dancing professionally, because dancers must learn to conform to each choreographer’s demands. “Each choreographer works differently, so you have to adapt at the drop of a hat,” says Chicagoan Katie Leone, a cast member. “So that’s what I think was the biggest learning experience for me—learning how to change your mind-set as each choreographer comes in.”
The show isn’t simply a bunch of strung-together numbers; it’s a full-on production with a concept and story, and it comes together in less than two weeks. This year’s show, conceived and produced by Tabitha and Napoleon D’Umo, had a futuristic theme involving concepts such as teleportation, telekinesis, and time manipulation.
“This show is almost like boot camp for dancers who want to become professional dancers,” says Tabitha D’Umo, who, along with her husband, has hired numerous Monsters participants for gigs. “They see what it’s like to put a show together in a week and a half, under pressure, working with a handful of different choreographers who all have different personalities, different work ethics, different intensities. And they have to adjust to all those circumstances and be able to deliver an amazing show.”
The instructors themselves often offer career opportunities to Monsters participants; many choreographers have booked dancers they found on the tour. Three Monsters alumni toured with Britney Spears; Jamal Sims booked several dancers for Hannah Montana: The Movie; and Chuck Maldonado booked others for the new Nickelodeon show The JumpArounds.
Monsters can also be a prime spot for dancers to find agents, since representatives from MSA, Clear Talent Group, DDO, and BLOC routinely scout for talent there. The convention also features auditions in which scholarships are given to top studios in L.A. and New York.
“The list of professional dancers coming through, being signed by agents, who are going on to work in the industry is really phenomenal,” says Funk. “And that’s not just coming from me—the agencies and choreographers all talk about Monsters kids.”
Brooklyn Lavin, the director of choreography and dance agent for Clear Talent Group, has signed 10 Monsters alumni to her agency. She enjoys working with Monsters dancers because of their dedication and professionalism. “I travel to a few [Monsters conventions] a year because the [dancers] have amazing talent,” says Lavin. Plus, she adds, they are “truly focused.”
First-time Monsters participant Sohey Sugihara, a native of Hokkaido, Japan, can attest to the opportunities found at Monsters. Last year, after hearing that many great dancers came out of the convention, he sat in the audience during the show and vowed he would be on that stage the following year. His wish came true: He attended the convention—his first ever—this year, in Santa Clara, California, and was cast. And his good fortune didn’t end there; he recently signed with MSA.
“It was a really great experience and I actually cried at the end of the show,” says Sugihara.
Funk, who lost his brother to leukemia, feels it is important to give back to the community. So every tour stop includes Club Stylz, a freestyle dance contest that raises money for the American Cancer Society; during the 2008–09 convention season, it raised more than $12,000, according to Funk. After the classes on Saturday, 10 or 12 groups showcase their dance numbers in the competition and receive feedback. Also included are a free parents’ class, a battle, and an individual freestyle dance contest.
“It’s really an opportunity for [students] to get familiar with being onstage and performing individually and freestyling. It’s so important as a commercial dancer to be able to freestyle,” says Funk.
Funk hopes all who come to Monsters having grown from the experience and with cherished memories, whether or not they seek a professional career. “I would want the average kid to come and feel like a million bucks when they leave—that they had a blast, that [they] got a chance to see celebrity choreographers and realize that they’re down-to-earth and humble and that they appreciate where they’ve come from,” says Funk. “That’s one of the stipulations of being on the Monsters faculty. They can be the biggest celebrities, but they always take time with the kids and are approachable.
“We want [the kids] to have an experience where they made friends,” he continues, “and where they were challenged and had opportunities as well.”