At International Hip-Hop Dance Championships, the Arizona Brand Is Strong

Conrad Rodriguez of Mesa took home the championship in breaking.
Conrad Rodriguez of Mesa took home the championship in breaking. Courtesy of Hip Hop International
The Grand Canyon State is a powerhouse of hip-hop dance.

Individuals and their crews from Tucson to Gilbert dominate nationally and internationally, as proven again at the 2018 Hip Hop International World Dance Championships. The contest was held in Phoenix August 3 to 11 and is one of the biggest dance contests in the world, drawing more than 4,000 competitors from 50 countries every year.

There are only eight categories in the competition, yet Arizona was able to earn nearly a dozen titles, including No. 1 and 2 adult dance crew in the U.S. and  No. 1 in the world in breaking. Several Arizona dancers also scored in the top 16 in the world in the categories of popping, locking, breaking, and “all styles.”

Ranking internationally was amazing for Leah Roman, who is now the second-place world champion in locking. She’s entered that same competition twice and never made it through preliminaries until now.

“It was heartbreaking and frustrating, but motivating,” says Roman, 31, co-director of The Jukebox Dance Studio in Mesa. She goes by the stage name L-Thrilla. “I made it a goal this year to just make it through. When I saw my name on the top 16 bracket, I was so grateful and excited! And then scared. I was definitely nervous and unsure of myself at first.”

Roman’s crew members encouraged her and she carried on.

“The pressure and the self-doubt can be so strong,” adds Roman. “But the joy I feel when I connect with the music is powerful. I’m blessed and honored to have made it to finals this year and so excited to continue pushing with my Arizona community!”

The experience was also surprising for the world champion of breaking, Conrad Rodriguez, 24, of Mesa.
“I wasn’t in it to win it. I was just like, ‘There’s a lot of people from many countries here in my hometown — I might as well do what I’ve got,' and I won,” says Rodriguez, a member of Furious Styles Crew, one of Arizona’s first dance crews. “I used to have trouble being on the stage or battling. I’d be in my head a lot. I didn’t believe in myself.”

Rodriguez was able to work through doubt by reminding himself of the thousands of hours he’s put into his craft.
“I have to believe in myself,” Rodriguez adds. “Lately I’ve had no doubt, no fear. I didn’t care what anyone expected from me. I just did what I know I can do. It felt good to bug out and spaz out and do the best I could.”

2018 is the 17th year of Hip Hop International and the second year it’s been in Phoenix. The competition has committed to remaining in Phoenix the next two years, possibly longer.

click to enlarge The Exiles crew won placed second in the U.S. in their category. - COURTESY OF HIP HOP INTERNATIONAL
The Exiles crew won placed second in the U.S. in their category.
Courtesy of Hip Hop International
This year’s contest coincided with the 45th anniversary of hip-hop, which began when DJ Kool Herc invented DJ techniques such as isolating drum breaks and fading between songs while playing parties in the Bronx. In honor of the anniversary, the originators of popping, locking, and breaking were celebrated on stage.

The HHI contest includes eight categories. Popping, locking, and breaking are all for individuals, and the category of two-on-two open styles puts duos against other duos and can use any style. The four other categories are for crews. These include mega crews, which have 15 to 40 members and no age limits, and smaller crews of five to nine members. The smaller crews are split into three age divisions of junior (ages 7 to 12), varsity (13 to 17), and adults (18 and over).

Arizona dancers were fierce at HHI last year, and this year, they scored even better. HHI 2018 was only the second time The Rise has ever competed together, and yet they won first place in the U.S. and seventh place in the world in the category of adult crews.

The Rise is part of The Rise Dance Academy in Gilbert, and is an offshoot of the Elektrolytes, a crew that won ninth place in the mega-crew world championships this year and won the Fox reality TV competition show America’s Best Dance Crew in 2006.

The Rise experienced many personal trials en route to HHI, according to member Kalob Insalaco, 20.
“We weren’t sure how good we were going to do even in the USA, and then we ended up getting first,” he says. “It renewed our confidence as brothers and a crew. We were really doubting ourselves, but now we’ve gained confidence. We didn’t care what place we got, because we were with the best in the world and we didn’t expect that.”

Another winning adult crew, The Exiles (second place in the U.S., sixth place in the world), also had no shortage of trials. For two months before HHI, the crew didn’t have anywhere regular to practice after the church basement they’d been practicing in for two years was no longer available.

The Exiles are “super-happy and super-grateful” just to have been on the world stage, says member Anthony Cordova, 27.

“Our main thing we wanted was to be in the right mindset and have the right heart and go out there and represent for God,” Cordova says. “Going into any competition we want to shine our light. Being at the finals was a blessing.”

HHI was held at the Arizona Grand Resort all week, except for the world finals, which were at Grand Canyon University arena and live-streamed to the world.

click to enlarge L-Thrilla, real name Leah Roman, is ranked second in the world in locking. - COURTESY HIP HOP INTERNATIONAL
L-Thrilla, real name Leah Roman, is ranked second in the world in locking.
Courtesy Hip Hop International
While Arizona’s talent is known outside the state, it’s largely unrecognized here, says Insalaco.

“Last year, Arizona took all three medals in the U.S. mega-crew division and now we have The Exiles and The Rise in the world competition and have a lot of other wins and talent. I don’t think it gets enough recognition,” he says. “We’re grateful for what we do get, but it would be amazing to get more support.”

Insalaco mentioned Los Angeles, the Bay Area, and other areas where the community celebrates and promotes its dancers and know who they are.

“In Arizona, we’re coming up as a state with a lot of talent, and that’s really cool because we don’t do it for the recognition,” Insalaco adds. “Arizona likes to be underground and be true to that, but somehow there’s got to be a way to keep that mentality and heart of the dance community as well as have people show up and support it.”
A place where there’s no shortage of support is in the dance community itself. Despite rivalries between groups and dancers, the love is strong.

“It didn’t matter where we placed,” Insalaco says. “What matters is that it’s Arizona teams representing the U.S. more than any other state is. Our Arizona crews were watching each other’s practices and giving critiques and helping. It’s a family even though we’re different crews. When you’re off the stage, they’re your friends again. We’re all one unit because we’re Arizona.”

You can get information on the Arizona hip-hop dance scene, including dance battles and other events, on Facebook. Arizona dancers and crews took the following titles:

No. 1 in the U.S., adult crew
No. 2 in the U.S., adult crew
No. 1 in the U.S., mega crew
No. 1 in the world, breaking
No. 2 in the world, locking
No. 9 in the world, mega crew
No. 2 in the U.S., junior crew
No. 6 in the world, adult crew
No. 7 in the world, adult crew
No. 6 in the U.S., mega crew
No. 7 in the U.S., mega crew
No. 3 in the U.S., varsity crew
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Michelle Beaver