Eleven students from Layla’s Dance and Drum worked throughout the school year to perfect their hip-hop routine and learn back handsprings for Hip-Hop International’s World Hip-Hop Competition, which took place in Phoenix Aug. 2-12.
“This is a tough competition,” said Anayo Michel, the founder of the Valley Stream-based dance studio. “It’s like the Olympics for hip-hop.”
The teams came from more than 50 countries, and each presented a different style of hip-hop. Some even paid homage to hip-hop’s 1970s New York origins, Anayo said. An international team of judges presided over the event, with individuals from Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Hungary, Israel, and Trinidad and Tobago.
The teams’ performances were judged on formation, costumes, skill level, choreography and facial expressions. “You need to have at least three or five ‘wow’ moments where you do something off the beaten path,” Michel said.
To meet those criteria, one team had 8-year-olds spinning on their heads and another team “spun kids like helicopters,” she said. Some of the international teams also practiced outside in 107-degree heat.
“It was inspiring, because you could see all of the other dancers practice for, like, six hours a day,” said Layla Michel, Anayo’s daughter, for whom the dance school is named.
Anayo agreed. “They’ve seen the kids defy gravity, and now they know they can, too,” she said.
Layla’s was the only team from New York, which presented some difficulties. First, it was more expensive for the team to travel to Arizona than for teams from the West Coast. “We’re paying as much as the international teams,” she said. To participate in the competition, the dance school had to fundraise throughout the school year.
Second, East Coast teams have more difficulty incorporating acrobatics into their dance routines, Anayo said, because many dance schools on the East Coast have low ceilings, which prevent dancers from being thrown into the air. When the team competed last year, they did not do acrobatics and received a lower skill score.
To rectify that, this year several dance students performed back handsprings. One of those students was 10-year-old Kiah Bernard, who had taken gymnastics for five years and was featured on Hip-Hop International’s Instagram page.
“I was very excited, and I was very proud, because I never thought I’d be able to fit into the video, and I was surprised that they captured me for my back handsprings,” Bernard said.
The team fared better than last year, placing 12th in the U.S. competition, up from 15th. Their score did not qualify them to represent the U.S. at an international level, though. “It humbles you, but it definitely makes you try harder,” Anayo said.
She said that the team was a crowd favorite but did not have the acrobatic tricks to score higher. She added that if the group from Layla’s had performed its routine in an East Coast competition, “they easily would’ve placed in the top three.”
Boston-based Funk Phenom won the U.S. competition with a dance choreographed by Charles Smith, one of the teachers at Layla’s. Although the routine did not include many acrobatics, it did use several break dance moves.
“There are other things you could do” besides acrobatics, Anayo said. “But you have to compensate.” She added that Layla’s would “use our Boston friends as an example.”
Anayo plans to bring dancers back to the competition next year. She said she wants all of her students tumbling in next year’s routine and would like to have a mega crew, which comprises between 40 to 50 students of all ages.
But she said, “It’s just an honor to be on stage with all of the dancers here.”