Teach us the tough stuff, we said
Over two days of dance training, a Sunday mid-day writer turned student of World Of Dance 2019 champions The Kings United, as they regaled her with the rags to riches story
We are eager to know where Jennifer Lopez's copper cord shoe is. Hurled at The Kings United as a mark of respect after their opening act to Dhakka Laga Bukka from Yuva at The World of Dance 2019 in Los Angeles, the shoe, we're told, made its way back to the American megastar's feet. Assistant choreographer Karthik Priyadarshan parted with the souvenir because he wished that The Kings come across as "gentlemen".
"We told him, are you mad? You returned JLo's shoe!" one of them cries.
The actor-singer, who was co-judge on the show, posted a video of their act on Instagram and wrote, "Shook to the core".
The 13-member hip hop troupe founded by Suresh Mukund with boys from the neighbourhoods of Vasai-Virar in 2008, brought home the cup to the world's biggest dance championship in May after they flipped, jumped, tumbled and somersaulted, dressed as Spartans going to war. Their score of 100 won them a booty of $1million. When we meet eight of them at The Kingdom of Art, a three-studio training space in Vasai, there's palpable excitement as the world champions discuss the launch of their Andheri studio. "Bahut time ho gaya Vasai mein," they roar. "It's a big step for us. We've opened one of the biggest dance companies."
For young men from lesser privileged families, the move to "Mumbai" from the outskirts seems far more precious than the championship crown. They agree instantly when we say, let's pepper the conversation with a bit of grooving. What do we want to learn, we're asked. "How about a section of your winning act," we decide. Don't ask!
We are ready, with friends from the Yellow Stripe Dance Company (Kamna Arora, Utsav Malhotra and Karishma Batra) to back us. The boys, "gentlemen" as they are, don't push us to the brink. "Simple hai," one of them announces at the onset.
The confidence has been earned. There wasn't a single dry eye in the group when they were announced winners. "We were instantly reminded of the struggle we endured to reach here," says Chandan Acharya. Most of their parents disagreed with their choice of passion, preferring if they studied and got jobs to run the home. Mukund suffered a similar fate. It's this struggle that inspired choreographer-turned-director Remo D'Souza to fashion Varun Dhawan's character in ABCD 2 around him.
Mukund says Priyadarshan was in the third year of engineering at a Pune college when he coaxed his parents to relieve him to participate in the World Hip-Hop Dance Championships in California in 2016. It was only after their win—The Kings were the first Indian act to take home a medal here—that his parents allowed him to explore the arts as a career. One of the early members, Acharya, and Sunny Chatterjee recall heading out to municipal gardens in Vasai to practice acrobatic moves. "We learnt B-Boying by watching Step Up, and decided to weave stunts into dance to entertain people," says Acharya of the 2006 American dance romance film. The pair was spotted by Vernon Monteiro, who initially formed a dance company by handpicking skilled boys. Joining hands with Mukund, Monteiro founded Fictitious Dance Group.
As Fictitious' popularity soared among Vasai locals and they gathered fans at reality shows like Boogie Woogie and India's Got Talent, then fan-boy and now member Mohan Pandey recalls sending adulatory messages to the team. "We read those messages recently, and had a good laugh," he similes. In 2012, the Fictitious Dance Group launched an ABCD dance competition, inspired by the Hindi film. It was judged by the film's star cast, and it's here that Mukund spotted Pandey. "When I got serious about dance, my parents grew concerned, but they didn't stop me. Gradually, I joined the group and after the ABCD championship, went on to star in ABCD 2. That was a big achievement," he thinks.
Neeraj Vishwakarma is the face of most of their tricks. He talks less and does more. He is too shy to share an anecdote with us, urging his friends to narrate his story. Having joined Fictitious as a student several years ago, he was appointed part of the team, close on the heels of its dismemberment. "When the Fictitious split, he didn't know if he wanted to join Suresh or Vernon. Eventually, he decided to go where his friends belonged. We formed The Kings United," says Acharya.
Mukund, who is in Los Angeles after being nominated at the Emmys in the Choreography for Variety or Reality Program category, speaks to us that night over the phone. He says Vishwakarma's father, a watchman considered World Of Dance (WOD) an eyewash, and the individual prize money of R40 lakh a joke until it reached him.
'Rubber Boy' Hardik Rawat from Rajasthan, a dance reality show regular before he joined The Kings, with Sunny Chatterjee and Chandan Acharya, who says being at WOD taught them discipline and poise
Until he earned money from dance, a school-going Charles Edward didn't tell his parents that he was associated with the troupe. Failing to afford the fees, he became the first student to avail of the scholarship programme, and would travel 90 minutes each way from Dahisar to Vasai, to train. "As students, we'd often peep through the doors and watch our mentors practice. If they'd spot us, they'd encourage us to join. That's how I got better, and joined them three years later," recalls Edwards. "He began as a student, and for the World Of Dance act, he was our centre dancer. That's his journey," says a proud Pandey, Edward's mentor.
Pratik Gujare's home had a television without a cable connection. He was ignorant of the universe of dance reality shows. His only introduction to them was when he'd spot them in parks. When they told him he could train with them for Rs 700 a month, he thought, "forget it!" But the rest were no less disadvantaged than him, and so, gave him a chance. Today, at 20, Gujare is the youngest member of the group.
For dance reality show-regular Hardik Rawat, the first brush with The Kings was when he was sharing the judge panel with Mukund. "I had been dancing since I was 10, and grew to fame as a solo dancer," he says. As the participant of a popular dance show, he earned the title of Rubber Boy from Remo D'Souza. It was that stint, apart from the 150-odd dance competitions he won back home in Rajasthan, that earned him a spot on a cultural event's judging panel. "[That's when] I got invited to be part of the crew in 2015, ahead of our participation in the Hip Hop International [HHI]." The Kings won the bronze that year.
Poignant, yes, but none of their stories evoke sympathy. For the most part, The Kings bond over ample laughter, and their common love to entertain. Living out of suitcase since their win, they cherish the reactions of inquisitive officials at visa offices, enquiring about the reason for their application. "'You are The Kings!' they exclaim when we tell them. It's nice that people across the world know us," says Acharya.
The group has travelled to Dubai, Las Vegas, Bali and Singapore, among sundry places. Neeraj jokes, "We're only not available for India." In September, they took off to America for a two-month long tour, travelling across 36 cities and performing at 40 shows. The tours are now the money spinner instead of the earlier ad films, corporate shows, product launches and reality shows.
But it's a possible film project that's leaving them nervous with excitement "We're in a discussion for an international dance film based on this competition. It's called No Dance, No Life, and will feature other participants from the show. This is exciting, because first, we would watch international dance films, and now we'll be starring in one. There is one more film we are considering, based on our journey," Pandey says.
It's time to dance.
Pandey takes us through a slow-motion sequence that suspends the use of counts while dancing. It isn't merely a bar or two, but a full 40-minute chunk of anticipating when the next move must be made. "Hear the music properly," he announces when asked what can guide our the next move, making it amply clear that the traditional rote-learning of choreography, based on counting, 5,6,7,8, is not the method they take to. "One last time," he announces for the fifth time, possibly not persuaded with our act, just yet. "One more," he says again, then breaks into a smile.
Pandey is a man who wears his smile proudly. But on the dance floor, he means business. After having us execute two bars of choreography about 10 times, he is still unhappy with the harmless faces we're carrying. It doesn't matter that we are not performing on stage, and that this is only for a newspaper article. If we are executing a choreography, he needs us to be performers. He demands of us an attitude for the energetic act; the kind that he carries when executing it for us, over and over again. Despite the fact that they must have performed it amply, the rest of the crew, seated in the studio's corner, mark the act with hand gestures. They've done this sequence a hundred times over, but when they come on the floor to assist, they skip a beat, dance too fast, lose sight of their co-dancers, and then, laugh it all off. But, when put together to give us a performance, the group—now in denims and shirts—are every bit the warriors we saw on screen.
How did they do it, we are eager to know—battle the finest dancers with decades of professional training behind them, in a style that's not rooted in India. "We always add Indian flavour to our dance and music. I recall, after one of the acts, a judge came on stage and performed the desi steps with us," Acharya says. "Two of our dances that went viral; one on Robot, and the other on Baahubali. The World of Dance team spotted these videos and invited us for the competition. So, we knew that our strength lay in the Indian elements of choreography. We use both, Bollywood and Tollywood songs."
Neeraj Vishwakarma's (pink) father who is employed as security guard considered World Of Dance an eyewash, and the individual prize money of R40 lakh a joke until it reached him. To his left is Charles Edward, who couldn't afford the group’s fees but went on to become the centre dancer at WOD
Mukund says that having built this team over several years means he knows exactly where each member's strength lies. "In one competition, I employed a crew member who could do only flips. He couldn't dance. But because he could do the flips brilliantly, he added to the choreography beautifully."
It's not hard to decipher that as the team goes about fulfilling their, and their head choreographer's dream, Mukund watches over them. He has nurtured the group for years, well aware that taking the responsibility for every member means he is often at the receiving end. "Keeping a team together is a task because everyone has his own dream and opinion. Initially, I spent everything that I earned on them. I knew that if they didn't get the money in their hands, their parents would object. So, whatever I earned, I'd give to them. I'd help them when a family member was unwell. I had to give them the confidence that they could depend on me during tough times. Showing them that dance could meet monetary [requirements], was important."
Interestingly, although it's WOD that changed their fortunes, they mention HHI often enough. This is surprising because Mukund admits that despite winning HHI, there was no buzz. They didn't get work and business was low. "HHI was special because unlike WOD, it was an old competition. The vibe there is reminiscent of the Olympics. We had a flag ceremony, and were represented as the team from India. That was a high," recalls Pandey.
AT WOD, they admit, they learnt discipline and poise. Acharya says, "Every dancer there would practice, stretch and warm up. Some of us would be lying on the floor, or playing cards, or eating. When the coordinator would tell us to warm-up because we were to perform within minutes, we'd lazily sit up and stretch. But, once on stage, we were different people."
We'd love to see that firsthand, we say. So, we clear the floor and have them perform what they've taught us over the last two hours. They are happy to.
As the sequence draws to a close, nearing a concluding clap, we notice that they had scaled down the routine for us, replacing with the clap, what was actually meant to be a back saulto. "Hey!" we complain, both, offended and relieved. "You didn't teach us the tough stuff."
The Big 13
Pratik Gujare, 21
Specialty: Flips and tricks
Mohan Pandey, 23
Charles Edwards, 24
Specialty: Urban hip-hop
Hardik Rawat, 21
Sunny Chatterjee, 25
Specialty: B-boying and free-style
Ritik Gupta, 21
Chandan Acharya, 24
Aryan Sharma, 22
Specialty: Popping, urban new-school
Aniket Sawant, 23
Specialty: Crumping, locking
Prem Bhawar, 24
Specialty: B-boying, urban hip hop
Raja Das, 21
Specialty: B-boying, urban hip hop
Neeraj Vishwakarma, 22
Specialty: Flips and tricks
Shijin Ramesh, 27
Specialty: House dance, locking
The WOD prize money that was allotted to each member
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