It was Saturday afternoon in Riverside and the Fox Performing Arts Center was abuzz for Ultimate Brawl: Battle of Distinction, an annual collegiate hip-hop competition hosted by UC Riverside’s hip-hop dance team, 909.
Away from the queue forming at the entrance, the theater’s backstage area was packed with 26 teams from all over Southern California. This year’s Ultimate Brawl theme was based off the insanely popular and beloved cartoon, Pokemon. There were dancers putting finishing touches on their stage makeup, napping on their teammates’ backpacks, practicing their tilts on the wall and eating a last minute snack.
Some teams used the center floor to run their sets. It even seemed like the music was in competition mode with each team’s song fighting to be heard over the others.
It didn’t matter if the team was competing for a prize or just performing for the audience, each one put forth countless hours of training and preparation to set foot on that stage.
“During hell week, we went from 8 to 9 at night to 4 or 5 in the morning,” said JC Ilar, a member of Common Ground. “It’s a lot of work in terms of cleanliness and we didn’t want to perform a set that didn’t live up to what we were trying to get out of it.”
Like most collegiate hip hop teams, Common Ground underwent “hell week,” longer, more frequent and more intense training sessions during the week before a competition. These practices combined with school, work and family commitments can be a lot for a student dancer to bear.
“You need to know what sacrifice you’re willing to make for your dance,” Ilar said. “Because I have so many things to do, like school, work and dance, it’s hard to see my friends.”
Contrary to what most may think, Common Ground, along with other collegiate hip hop teams, practice outdoors without mirrors to show them what they need to improve.
“Since we practice outside all throughout the night, it’s kind of hard not to get sick,” Ilar said. “What a lot of people don’t understand is that although you exercise a lot you have to maintain your health.”
For Ilar, however, as cliche as it sounds, the relationship he had with his CG teammates resembled that of a family and gave him the endurance to power through those taxing rehearsals.
“When we go into hell week, you realize you’re in for a treat; you’re going into an atmosphere that’s filled with love and support because you’re friends but mainly because they’re your family,” Ilar said. “The bond that we make between the team is not a brotherhood or a sisterhood or anything like that; you see them at night and it’s like coming home.”
A typical season for a competitive Southern California collegiate hip hop team consists of auditions, a few months of team bonding and training, and competitions. Some teams, like Anaheim-based Team Millennia, perform the same set for a few competitions before working on a completely different one.
Team Millennia’s Ultimate Brawl set proved to be particularly challenging not only because it featured a live band onstage with them, but also because their turnaround time was shorter than usual.
“We usually have a month, but we only had two weeks this time and we all had to buckle down,” Team Millennia member Antonette Hernandez said. “We make jokes here and there, but we always had to be really professional and really serious the whole entire time.”
TM pushed themselves to their limits to show the UB audience the fruits of their labor. However, during the award ceremony at the end of the competition, it was revealed that two of the four judges did not return to watch their performance. The team was given a chance to perform again but the band they had performed with had already left for another gig.
“We had to withdraw from being a competing team and had to perform as an exhibition,” TM member Heidi Schneider said. “ It was a very unfortunate experience given our hard work two weeks prior to the competition.”
In the midst of this mishap, however, TM responded with a wave of positive social media posts, expressing their love for their teammates. The team even received support from those they competed against.
“When everyone found out what had happened, they felt for us. They were so positive and acknowledged our hard work,” Schneider said. “It was so refreshing to hear all the support from the dance community, and the feeling that gave us exceeded any other feeling a trophy would have given us.”
Ultimate Brawl may have been a Battle of Distinction but the backstage huddles to watch the Pacquiao/Mayweather fight, the deafening cheers while their competitors performed, and the overall support and unity among the teams proved that collegiate hip hop was an actual dance community.
Each team that performed left it all out on the Fox Performing Art Center’s stage floor, but they’d be back to battle before they knew it.