With a combination of mesmerizing presentation and a refreshingly supportive behind the scenes vibe, the West Springfield High School dance team is winning big, both on and off stage.
It begins with an ominous cacophony of mysterious sounds. Eerie voices, hydraulic whooshes, menacing gears, odd clicks and snaps, metal clanging and banging. They emerge dressed in black topcoats with white face, replete with black mascara and lipstick, looking like a legion of hungry zombies from a senior prom gone bad. They join at the elbow and move with exact precision, their joints snapping into place. It’s only just begun.
Is it the opening to the latest installment of the film horror fest “Saw”? The sequel to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”? An episode of cable’s “The Walking Dead”? No on all counts.
It’s actually the beginning of one of the most powerful and astonishing dance performances of any kind you will ever see, one that sears into the mind, disrupts the soul, yet makes you want to watch it again and again. And even more surprisingly, it’s all high school kids, or better yet, national champions, as in the national champion hip-hop dance team from West Springfield High (VA), who recently won their second straight hip-hop dance title at the National Dance Association championships in Orlando in the Large Varsity Hip-Hop category.
Team coach Jason King knows exactly what he and fellow coach Tara Perez want their team to do when they’re out on the floor performing this mesmerizing “Matrix”-themed routine, or any of their stunning, award-winning hip-hop routines for that matter: they want their dancers to get into your head, to make you squirm, to above all, be memorable. This is clearly no ordinary dance team, and certainly no ordinary dance routine won them their national crowns.
“If you’re really close, you can see their eyes roll back in their heads, and they’re walking with their mouths open. And before we go out and perform stuff like that, we tell the kids, look, certainly perform right, be in time, but also, make people feel uncomfortable when you’re dancing, look into people’s eyes, look right through them, because that’s how you’re going to get emotion out of the crowd, and make them never forget what they just saw.”
Coached adoringly yet precisely by Perez, 29, a former Washington Wizards dancer/instructor, and King, 30, a mechanic-cum-underground hip hop hoofer who had a stint on So You Think You Can Dance, this group of kids from Fairfax County have clearly created something very special, not only on stage, but off stage as well. They do other more traditional routines, but their dark and startling hip-hop numbers are what people will remember, and what has won them national titles. So how do they begin to craft such dark yet memorable performances?
“We’ll take various bits and pieces of clips, from all different types of songs, and sound effects and everything,” says King. “It’s a lengthy process to mix it all, we base it on what kind of theme we’re going with. We want a lot of really intricate sounds, transformers, and metal cranking, and clicking, and ticks and tacks and stuff like that, to really set off the mood of the routine, we want something really powerful. The music is the first thing that everyone hears, it’s the thing that gets the kids going. The actual song from the performance has about fifteen different songs mixed into it, all sorts of different pieces and overlays and background ambience.”
Their hip-hop performances certainly live on the darker side and that’s what makes them special, and they can definitely elicit some emotional responses from the audience. King describes one time last year when the team was performing another astounding routine based around Heath Ledger’s Joker character in “The Dark Knight” at a WSHS basketball game.
“Apparently one child was crying at the performance, so one of the parents wrote to the school, saying that they’re not going to return because their child had nightmares all weekend. So they asked us to tone it down just for the basketball games and stuff like that. It was really intense, but that’s exactly what we want.”
You can clearly see how special they are on stage, but you can also feel that there’s something else pretty special going on here, in the way the two coaches talk so lovingly about their kids.
“I think we have a really good balance between being an authority figure and also being a coach, and having the family portion of it too”, says Perez, who’s in her 8th year as coach. “I mean, we have some of the kids calling us and begging us to practice sometimes. They’re like, ‘We miss you guys!’ So it just shows you how much we support each other, I don’t know what I would do, and I know Jason doesn’t know what he would do without the team. We’re very close. We consider each other like family, because we’re around each other all the time.”
King, who enters his sixth year as co-coach this coming year, echoes Perez’ sentiments. “We definitely put a family type vibe out there. From the first day of practice after they make the team, we tell them, you’re a part of this team, there are no cliques, I don’t care if you’re a senior or a freshman, you’re a part of it. I mean, they come to us for advice, we give them the best kind of advice we can. They work harder for each other, it’s not for the trophies, it’s not for the glamour, it’s to be able to look each other in the eye and know they did everything they could for each other, and for us. It pushes us to work harder for them. We see how hard these kids work and it makes us go back and try to change something to make the routine even better, for them. We really push the family feel, we’re always around each other, we literally spend all the time together, and we want to be together, it’s literally a family. We all truly care for each other, there’s nothing like it. There’s absolutely nothing like it.”
So what do Perez and King look for when holding tryouts for this top notch group? Good skills and athleticism, for sure, but for them, that word “family” crops up again and again and is integral to the team’s success.
“There are a couple things we mainly look for”, says Perez. “First more than anything is their dedication and commitment. We practice 4-5 days a week, 3 hours a day, so to make the team, they have to commit to the schedule all year round. But another big thing we look for is respect, we want all the dancers to be humble, we want them to be respectful. We don’t want people on the team who are cocky, or who have attitudes. We’re a family, and we treat each other like family, so we want people who are able to fit into that.”
And it’s not just a girl’s thang, guys are welcome, and encouraged, to try out.
“Most dance teams in the past have been almost all girls,” King continues, “I think we were the first in the area three or four years ago to bring on guys, we had four guys on the team, now we have two. It kinda set the trend for other dance teams to show the guys that it’s OK to dance, you don’t have to be in football or basketball, you can do something to represent your school or represent yourself. For hip hop, you see a lot of guys want to get into it now because dance is so big, because it’s going to open up a lot of eyes, especially in Fairfax County, and even nationally, getting dance recognized as something bigger than a club, and recognized to get funding as well.”
Along with the family vibe, the two coaches want their kids to not only go out and dance, but to put on a performance, something that not many dance teams are able to consistently achieve.
“We want them to always do something really powerful, something really striking”, King says with emphasis. “We make sure the kids know that this is a performance, it’s not just a dance. We always like to compete, but we also like to perform. You see some other teams, they just compete, they don’t perform. That’s our big thing, we love to have a performance.”
Steve Houk lives and breathes music, and has ever since his days as a baby bouncing around his family’s music-filled converted barn in Wilton, Connecticut. Even though he lives by day as a TV executive in Washington, he comes out at night in his cape and cowl as an accomplished music writer as well as a blogger on midliferocker.com. Some of his most memorable interviews can be found on his blog, chats with the likes of Yoko Ono, Buddy Guy, John Mayall, Robin Trower, Peter Frampton, Luther Dickinson, Joan Armatrading and many others. Steve is also lead singer for Northern VA classic rock cover band Second Wind, and invites all to come out and rock with him and his band of brothers-from-other-mothers. Check out Second Wind’s website.