Exploring the company we keep at UCI and beyond

Roller derby girls. God Without Religion. Harry Potter enthusiasts (fanatics?). These are a small sampling of the groups and organizations that have formed at the University of California, Irvine (UCI) and around Orange County. Members share a devotion to their cause and a desire to pursue it in collaboration with others, which are the subjects we examine in this blog.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Common Ground

By Wes Koseki

Sabrina Torres, Andy Del Valle and the rest the Common Ground dance team waits anxiously in the backstage of the Bren Events Center at the University of California, Irvine. They are one of eleven teams competing in the Vibe hip-hop dance competition. They stand holding each other, each person’s heart beating faster than the next, hoping against hope to hear their name. Hard practices, long nights and months of learning and cleaning choreography culminated to a short six-minute performance in front of a sold out crowd at Vibe XV.

“In third place,” says the host of Vibe XV hip-hop dance competition, Mookie, on stage. The crowd had experienced over three hours of nonstop music and dancing and now awaited the results to see where their favorite dance crew placed.

Vibe is an annual hip-hop dance competition in the winter presented by the Lambda Theta Delta fraternity that features the best and brightest dance teams from all over Southern California. This is the fifteenth year of the dance competition and, as predicted, sold out completely. This year 11 teams entered with hopes of competing for a $1,000 prize, but more importantly pride. The hip-hop community had always been a significant part of UCI’s image and its popularity grew with the show Randy Jackson presents: America’s Best Dance Crew, a competition show on MTV that aired in March of 2009 and featured dance crews from across the country competing to be the greatest in America. The dance crew Kaba Modern, based at UCI, made it onto the first season show and was one of the last teams to be eliminated, but inspired many UCI students to create and join dance crews and become part of the over 450 clubs at the school. The diverse student population at the school easily led to various types of dance groups found on campus from traditional styles such as, swing, ballroom and salsa, to more freestyle types of dance, like hip-hop and their subsets such as popping or break dancing. Hip-hop dance competitions are relatively new to university life as many have only run for less than twenty years, however their popularity is growing significantly. There are now competitions hosted all over Southern California by different schools or dance teams such as The Bridge, hosted by Team Millennia in Fullerton, CA, Fusion hosted at the University of California, San Diego, and Ultimate Brawl hosted by 909 Hip-Hop Dance Troupe in Riverside, CA.

I visited Common Ground’s practice located on the third floor of the Mesa Court Parking Structure ten days before Vibe XV and found a dance team that was searching for a way to separate themselves from the rest of the crowd, starting with opening their team up to dancers from schools outside of UCI. Members came as far away as San Diego and Fullerton to be a part of this team, particularly because of the team camaraderie that is established at practices that occur three days a week.

Sabrina described that when she first came to Common Ground last fall “[They] basically made us feel really welcome and I didn’t feel like any of the current members were looking down on me at all and judging me.” Team captain Andy Del Valle ensures that practices include working hard, “but we don’t want to make it just a working environment.” When new members join, the team breaks down into smaller groups called families that mix the three levels Common Ground consists of: the alumni or OG, current members of Common Ground (CG), and members who have not entered college yet or Under Ground (UG). Team camaraderie holds the team through practices, competitions and everything in between.

This performance in particular featured a post-apocalyptic theme involving a young girl who adapts to a strange new world after being taken from her father. In keeping with the dark and savage theme, every member’s costume was black and torn in several places. Their choice of music for the performance also contained a chaotic theme in terms of variety. Common Ground prides themselves on choosing music and dancing styles that are outside of the hip-hop genre as a way to show their versatility. For this piece they combined hip-hop, contemporary and various other types of dance with hard-hitting rock bands, Disturbed and Limp Bizkit and conventional hip-hop artists, Lil Wayne and Chris Brown. But the most surprising was the infusion of hip-hop beats with the rhythmic chanting and vigorous movements of the haka, a traditional dance performed by the Maori people of New Zealand.

“TEAM MILLENNIA!!” Screams erupt from the crowd and backstage as Team Millennia rushes the stage.

The collective heart of Common Ground sinks. To them, third place would have been equal to winning first place Vibe because they had never placed before. This venue was special to Common Ground. First, it is hosted as UCI, their home field of sorts. And second, they would be competing against well-known teams such as Kaba Modern or Team Millennia. Just placing, not getting first place, would be mean everything; but so far, room in the winner’s circle was already shrinking.

While teams like Kaba Modern, founded in 1992, Chinese Association Dance Crew (CADC), founded in 1994, and Team Millennia, founded in 1998, have a long history of competitions behind them, Common Ground was formed in 2004 and had the task of setting themselves apart from these established teams. One disadvantage the team already had was not being affiliated with UCI meaning the task of fundraising, advertising and recruiting fell on the shoulders of the members. Normally teams emerged from different ethnic clubs affiliated with UCI and thus could receive funding from the school. Kaba Modern emerged from the Filipino Cultural Club and CADC emerged from the Chinese Association. Since Common Ground is not affiliated with any club or group on campus fundraising typically came from holding clubbing events and partnering with restaurants to receive a percentage of profit. Advertising and recruiting took place at club fairs put on by UCI along with members devoting their Facebook profiles to promoting Common Ground auditions and events. But Common Ground knows that being relatively unknown can work to their advantage and disadvantage.

Sabrina remembers that because the team was not very well known that she was actually drawn away from trying out for the team and opted to try out for MCIA (Modern Completely Insane Anteaters) instead. When she didn’t make MCIA, she attended workshops hosted by Common Ground, “I really liked the atmosphere of it…the vibe I got from it…it just felt different to me.”

This is only Sabrina’s second dance competition and as she stood surrounded by her teammates she knew full well that nothing else could be done now, except hope to hear their name called for first or second place or not at all. A week before Vibe, Sabrina devoted her life to Common Ground.

The week before Vibe is appropriately named Hell Week. This consisted of longer practices and constant cleaning of pieces to ensure perfection. Normal practices last from 8 to midnight, but during Hell Week, practices start around 7 and try to finish around midnight. “But we just have to make sure it’s [the performance] clean and it usually lasts a little bit longer,” said Sabrina. Longer actually meaning practicing until around 4 in the morning with classes the following day. “I actually like Hell Week because it helps the team bond a lot” because they’re all going through the same thing. They’ve all had to learn the piece. They’ve all had to practice it. They’ve all had to clean it. They’ve all been practicing for at least 12 hours a week. They all know what the goal is, first place at Vibe.

“In terms of myself, Vibe has really been the competition for me, it was the biggest competition. It was the only competition I knew of [when] I was a newbie,” said Andy Del Valle, co-captain of Common Ground. He had been to Vibe previously as just a dancer, but now as a captain the perspective had changed completely. He now had the task of motivating the crew through practices, through Hell Week and now at Vibe. Although he was captain, Andy was not responsible for choreographing the entire piece himself. Members of Common Ground are able to submit their own pieces to be included to the captains and artistic directors who then decide what will be in the final performance.

Team Millennia takes their trophy and gathers on the right side of the stage, members displaying a wide smile of victory. “In second place,” host Mookie continues. Common Ground once again stands as one unit, holding each other tightly. Heavy, nervous heartbeats reverberate through their intertwined hands. Mookie instructs the audience to yell “Vibe” when he counts to three. This only adds to the suspense as the crowd yells Vibe and Mookie follows with, “Make some noise for Common Ground!” All 35 members storm the stage, jumping wildly, flailing their arms in the air, and screaming out of pure happiness. They lift the trophy above their heads. A large group of Common Ground supporters rush to the stage in celebration and security steps in to make them leave. Their celebration lasts longer than the celebration of first place winners, Choreo Cookies. Even as Mookie tried to build more suspense before announcing the winners, Common Ground continued to celebrate, some hugging each other tightly to make sure they actually had one and weren’t just dreaming.

I interviewed Andy a few days after it had set in that they had placed second at Vibe XV. “Common Ground is not usually known for placing at competitions. The judges usually judge based on technique and all that stuff. So we really believed in this set…we just wanted our work to be recognized and to be appreciated.” He admits that when they announced third place, part of him believed that they were not going to place at all and did not feel quite as nervous as they started to announce second place. “I would say that out of all the teams that placed…we overdid our celebration on stage. We were a little bit too wild.”

Four weeks after Vibe, I attended Common Ground’s mid-year auditions where, in one night, the Common Ground hopefuls were expected to learn a set quickly and perform it well. The parking structure echoed with the sound of over 100 voices of people trying out for Common Ground. I spoke with Ruby Nguyen who had travelled from Fullerton why she decided to audition to be a part of Common Ground. She replied that she had seen the past performances of Common Ground and fell in love with the stories and music in the pieces and, like Sabrina, thought the team had something different about them that made them more appealing. Mid year auditions worked in Common Ground’s favor because prior to Vibe they lost members for various reasons, but after the auditions they expect to have a full team to continue through the rest of the year’s competitions.

Before Vibe, I asked Sabrina what Common Ground would bring to Vibe that no other team could. “CG has always been known to be a crowd pleaser…we have characters and costumes and we really tell the story with the dance moves and the music’s lyrics so it’s really something someone can watch over and over again and every time they watch it, they find something new.” Common Ground prides itself on being a crowd pleaser and if Vibe is any indication, they can now pride themselves on pleasing the judges too.

Common Ground's second place performance at Vibe XV
(Please watch in full screen)

Reporting Notes
-Interviews with Sabrina Torres, Andy Del Valle and Ruby Nguyen
-4 observations of practices and 1 observation of mid-year observations in February
-Common Ground myspace provided team background and roster
-Vibe XV website provided event information, format, list of teams competing
-Vibe XV footage provided by thatsfresh.com
-Photos by Wes Koseki, Canon Rebel XSi, Canon 18-55mm lens, Opteka .35x Wide Angle Panoramic Macro Fisheye lens
-Interview with Sabrina Torres

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