Gotta Catch ‘Em Brawl

Vincent Ta/HIGHLANDER
Vincent Ta/HIGHLANDER

Saturday, May 2 is most notably acknowledged as the day of Spring Splash and the too-anticipated “fight of the century” between Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather. However, at Riverside’s Fox Theatre, another battle of distinction was unraveling: The body-jolting bass that echoed and pounded through the sizable venue could only be that of the 15th annual Ultimate Brawl dance competition, hosted by 909 Hip Hop Dance Troupe, a UCR staple in the dance community since 1997.

For this one night, the Fox Theatre took up a Pokemon theme to house over two dozen dance teams that gathered from all over Southern California to share their passion for dance and get the chance to take home the over-five-foot-tall trophy. “Charm the judges!” read a poster with a Charmander drawing; “My body is regi,” read another. Pokemon pun posters decorated the entire backstage, as 909 never fails to keep the tradition of themed competitions going.

For those in 909 and the dance community, Ultimate Brawl is a 15-year tradition that had its humble beginnings in the Student Recreation Center (SRC) at UCR. According to 909’s manager Victoria Nguyen, “Ultimate Brawl started as a multi-recreational competition that consisted of not just dancing, but sports competitions like basketball and football because the dance community wasn’t big at the time.” In 2005, Ultimate Brawl evolved into a full-fledged, themed dance competition. To this day, Ultimate Brawl remains the cornerstone dance competition in the Inland Empire, serving as host to approximately 25 combined competitive and exhibitionist teams annually.

As we hung out backstage and marveled at PAC Modern’s intricate Coachella-themed props and festival-esque costumes, Dominic Balino, public relations chair and third-year 909 team member, provided words of encouragement for teams moments away from taking the stage. “One, two, three … PAC Modern!” they chanted one last time in unison before heading to the wings.

In addition to the dance competition that Ultimate Brawl highlights, there were also a couple of vendors present such as Beniga and Crownthreads, which sold clothing and other merchandise. Teams were involved in a scavenger hunt in which they had to search for multiple Pokemon across the premises and audience members were invited to purchase raffle tickets for $2 for a chance to win one ticket to Disneyland.

As we entered the auditorium through grand double doors, we were immediately greeted by the upbeat and theatrical performance of exhibition team The G.O.O.D. Project’s open mic night-themed performance. The dancers moved in tandem along with the spoken word piece and nearly gave the illusion of a moving stage with their synchronized body rolls as the eager crowd cheered them on.

Despite the massive number of teammates that characterized multiple teams, the teams managed to flawlessly execute each move, which the crowd enjoyed thoroughly. You can only imagine the hard hours of work they had put into the execution of the sets by each team, and according to them and their past experiences, oftentimes practices would go up to 4 a.m. or longer. “I’m running on like four hours of sleep right now, man,” 909’s artistic director Ryan Morris meekly stated, with his eyes half-shut as he lay facedown on a sofa, echoing the sentiment of 909 as a whole.

NSU Modern had taken the stage in a black, white and red Las Vegas burlesque theme with white masks and gloves. Each piece reflected a show that had been displayed in Vegas such as Jersey Boys, or Criss Angel’s show, and even the prominent Cirque Du Soleil as the crowd went wild for the illusions and great execution.

A couple of other teams pleased the crowd such as Team Millenia, who performed an extremely cute set centered around a couple on a date and featured a live band in the corner; Ill-ite, who illustrated a theme of a girl dreaming; Cast Members Only, who ironically narrated the story of Disney cast members auditioning; and Kings & Queens, who took on a showy theme to the appropriate song “All That Jazz,” featuring two girls in flapper attire.

However, none of the teams could compare to the massive crowd appeal that ACA from UCLA received within the brief duration of their stage presence. As soon as they stepped out in their ACA black shirts, black visors and metallic blue lipstick, the entire auditorium roared with screams and applause, clearly highlighting the most anticipated team of the night. Through their flawless illusions and near-perfect execution of synchronized movement, they never failed to leave the crowd in jaw-dropping awe and with the finish of their set, an uproar ensued, and they most definitely captured our attention for the full six minutes of their routine. The judges also found themselves in concurrence with the audience, awarding ACA first-place honors.

Vincent Ta/HIGHLANDER
Vincent Ta/HIGHLANDER

CADC, The Escntrcs and Common Ground were next before 909 Hip Hop Dance Troupe closed off the dance portion of the show. With a video game-themed soundtrack that accompanied them, the dancers pushed through to the end, not letting the weariness and exhaustion take over.

Aside from being a dance competition, 909 serves as a bastion for growth and keeping the spirit of the dance community alive. According to Nguyen, “hosting UB is different from just attending a dance competition, it allows us the ability to connect with other dancers on a personal level. I get the opportunity to see how much dance means to other people and I hope this competition allows us to foster that passion within them.”

According to Balino, “even though (Ultimate Brawl) was on a day with a fight that was described as “the fight of the century,” people still show their love for dance and they missed the fight … it shows how much dancers really enjoy what they do and how much they love this competition.

As the audience emptied out and the theater lights glowed back to life, revealing the intricate woodworks and grandiose design of the historic Fox Theater, the members of 909 were finally able to take a step back and realize the scope of organizing an event so massive and impactful for the dance community. Past the drapery of the numerous late nights, early mornings, blood, sweat and tears in the lead-up to Ultimate Brawl is also a sense of pride, reflection and the maintenance of a decade and a half of tradition that transcends dance itself.

Vincent Ta/HIGHLANDER
Vincent Ta/HIGHLANDER

Disclosure: Tiffany Liaw is a former member of 909 Hip-Hop Dance Troupe. Cody Nguyen is in a relationship with a current member of 909 Hip-Hop Dance Troupe.

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