JabbaWockeeZ, the mask-wearing, insanely inventive first winners on the MTV hit America’s Best Dance Crew, headline the show’s inaugural live tour, which comes to Denver on Wednesday, October 8. (Click here for details.) For Rynan “Kid Rainen” Paguio, one of the original JabbaWockeeZ, the journey from the streets to the spotlight has been as unexpected as it’s been satisfying – and he tells the tale in the following Q&A.
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Paguio’s story has a Footloose feel. As he points out, he spent much of his boyhood in smallish Murrieta, California, teaching himself to breakdance in his garage with only classic videos and hip-hop movies to keep him company. He talks about early influences; meeting kindred spirits upon relocating to San Diego, which boasted a diverse scene where beefs were settled with jaw-dropping moves, not weapons of fisticuffs; balancing professional jobs and teaching assignments in Los Angeles with the more freeform stylings of JabbaWockeeZ; the various injuries he’s sustained, including a painful meniscus tear in his knee that he’s decided to ignore for the time being; the way YouTube videos helped spread their reputation; the opportunity to strut their stuff in the film Step Up 2; the initial disinterest in a Dance Crew offer by everyone other than member Gary “Gee One” Kendell, who died late last year, reportedly due to complications from pneumonia and meningitis (several online posts say Kendell died in Denver); his speculation about why audiences immediately connected with the dancers, with plenty of references to the outfit’s trademark masks and gloves; and the reason why the dancing at the upcoming showcase will be more exciting than it was on TV.
That’s hard to believe – but let Paguio try to convince you.
Westword (Michael Roberts): Where are you from originally?
Rynan Paguio: I’m originally from San Diego, California. Well, I guess I’ve spent half my life in San Diego, California and half of it in Riverside, or in Murrieta, California.
WW: Have you been dancing for as long as you can remember?
RP: Yeah, pretty much. I started dancing at a really young age. I’d say I started doing B-boying or breakdancing at around eleven years old. And then I started getting into other styles of dance, as far as hip-hop choreography, at around seventeen or eighteen years old. So I’ve been doing it for a pretty long time.
WW: Did you ever have any formal training? Or did you pick up your moves from being a part of the scene?
RP: Really just being a part of the scene. I definitely was influenced by movies that I watched, like Beat Street from back in the ‘80s, Breakin’, Wild Style. A lot of those movies really influenced the dances that I do. I started off as a B-boy, as a breakdancer, so that was my biggest influence. And from there, I just kept going at it, and I didn’t really get into choreography dancing until I was seventeen, eighteen and I got into this group called Culture Shock San Diego. I got influenced through a lot of dancers in that realm, and also other dancers like Mindtricks, which I guess you could say was the first crew before JabbaWockeeZ. I got influenced through that just from the hip-hop choreography. But no real formal training as far as learning from jazz teachers or anything like that. Everything came from the hip-hop scene, going to hip-hop events.
WW: Did you first get started in San Diego or in Riverside?
RP: I first started learning how to B-boy and breakdance when I was living in Riverside – and Murrieta, there was really nothing there. It was pretty much cows (laughs). There was nothing going on there, especially when you compare it to San Diego, which is a real city with a lot of people who did that kind of dancing: breaking and house dancing. Living in Murrieta, there wasn’t a lot for me to do except practice, and to watch videos of dancers like the Rock Steady Crew, Crazy Legs and Ken Swift. Watching people on videos like the Air Force Crew, Lil Caesar. Even dancers from Europe like Battle Squad, Storm and everybody.
That’s pretty much all I did. I watched those videos and went in my garage and practiced. And later, I went back and forth to San Diego, because a lot of my cousins lived out there – and also, a lot of them were breaking at the time. I just got affiliated with a lot of different crews in San Diego. And at that young age, I was having older people picking me up and taking me to hip-hop events in San Diego. And also, my brothers would come with me. My brothers were a lot older than me, and it’d be late, so my brothers would come with me. And pretty much after I graduated, I moved to San Diego to start my dancing career. From then on, I was in San Diego, dancing for San Diego Culture Shock, doing little jobs here and there, working for Sea World…
WW: What did you do at Sea World?
RP: I did a bunch of different dance shows.
WW: No feeding killer whales?
RP: No, no way (laughs). All I did was I got to pet Shamu. That’s about it. And after that, I started dancing professionally in L.A. – making the commute from San Diego to L.A. for about eight, nine years. And within that time as well, I got affiliated with the JabbaWockeeZ crew, which my friends Kevin Brewer and Joe Larot started. I was pretty much one of the six original members that started the crew.
WW: Was the scene there really diverse? Were people from every kind of ethnic background accepted as long as they could dance?
RP: Oh yeah, definitely. The great thing about hip-hop dance, and dance and general, is there’s no boundaries. It doesn’t matter what your race or creed are. It just matters what your skill is. And the main thing about hip-hop and about B-boying, it’s about turning a negative into a positive. A lot of time growing up, you’d have battles that would happen and a lot of people would think, “Oh my gosh! They’re fighting! They’re fighting!” But really what we’re doing is confronting each other with different dance moves. And then at the end of the battle, it’s like, “Let’s go out to eat and chill out and talk about each other’s style.” You know what I mean? Kind of congratulate each other about the moves that we have. Like, “Oh my gosh, you did this on me. That was freakin’ awesome. Can you teach that to me?”
It’s always been like that, at every event. Ever since I started dancing, ever since I started learning how to break, the scene was very diverse. There was never any hatred going on. I guess the only type of negativity that would go on, which really isn’t that negative, is like, “Oh, that guy’s doing your move. Battle that guy.” But after a battle, it never escalated further than that. When the dancing first started, that’s what it was about. You had a lot of gangs killing each other in New York. And then a lot of the younger kids, they didn’t want to be involved in that. What they wanted to do was turn a negative into a positive and just dance.
WW: Over the years, have you sustained any major injuries? Break bones or anything like that?
RP: Definitely a lot of sore muscles, a lot of muscle pain. Pulled groins, pulled muscles. But as I got older – right now, I’m 27 years old – and I tore my meniscus on my knee and I had to get surgery on it.
WW: So you’re doing this tour after tearing your meniscus?
RP: This is what happened. A lot of dancers will get injured, but you still dance on it – and you make it seem like it’s normal. Like, for me, with my torn meniscus, I felt like my knee was still okay. And I had it for years. I had it when I was in my teen years – not knowing that I’d torn my meniscus, but just thinking that sometimes my knee gets a little sore. But as I got older, my knee would actually lock up – and once I’d straighten it out, my knee would pop back into place, and it’d feel like it was normal, even though it wasn’t. What a doctor told me was, my meniscus was torn, and when I’d dance, sometimes it would actually overlap itself so it’d get locked. When I’d stretch it out, it would go back into place, but it was still torn, and it would tear more and more and more.
I guess this was about three-and-a-half months ago: I went to this breaking event, just a local event, to have a good time. It happened with my knee again, and I thought I could straighten it out, but I couldn’t. And the doctor ended up telling me my meniscus was pretty bad, so they had to take it out. And I’m lucky it wasn’t an ACL tear. If it’d been an ACL tear, it would’ve taken six or seven months to heal. So, anyhow, the doctor told me I still need to have reconstructive surgery, but if I keep taking care of myself as far as stretching out, working my knee out, I won’t need it for a couple of years. So I try to take care of my body as much as I possibly can.
WW: So let me make sure I understand… You’re doing this tour without a meniscus in one knee?
RP: Yeah, pretty much. But that’s the way it is with a lot of dancers. A lot of dancers don’t have reconstructive surgery for years because they take care of their bodies. If I was just to dance without stretching out, without eating right, just keep on pounding my body without trying to take care of it, I’m pretty sure I’d have to have reconstructive surgery within six months. But I know a lot of people who have this who’ve been really helping me know how to take care of my body, take care of my knee.
WW: JabbaWockeeZ got together back in about 2003, right?
RP: Yeah, that’s right.
WW: Back then, did anyone think you could make a living from it? Or did you guys look at it like, we may make a few dollars here and there, but this is mostly for fun – it’s not a career?
RP: The funny thing was, we all knew each other before 2003. We all met back in 1998, 1999, through different hip-hop events, and we were in different crews. During that time, I was working as a professional dancer in L.A., and a couple of the other guys were, too. But the six members who were in the crew were Kevin and Joe, who were the first guys who started it, and Randy Bernall and Gary Kendell. They were working as professional dancers as well. And what I mean by that is, we would work as dancers, but we’d teach, too. All of us taught classes in different studios – just teaching our style of dance. And then there was Cristyles, Chris Gatdula, who wasn’t professionally dancing. He was just going to school fulltime. And then me, and I was doing the same thing as Gary and Randy, dancing professionally in L.A.
When we started the crew, we were in different crews at the time. They were in Mindtricks, I was in Culture Shock San Diego with Cristyles. And whenever we’d see each other, we’d just like the way that we danced, and we’d always vibe out with each other. Turned out they wanted to start the crew up, and I guess you could say it was just for fun. We did it mainly because we all wanted to dance together. We were in a lot of different crews before, but we wanted to blend together, make routines together, and see what would happen. And throughout that time, magic started happening. And when Gary, who’s passed away, proposed that we go out for America’s Best Dance Crew, that brought us all together. Because he was an older person. He lived in the Bay Area and always came to San Diego, and he was the bridge that brought us all together.
WW: Prior to America’s Best Dance Crew, did you guys participate in any events or projects where it became clear you were moving beyond it just being a for-fun thing? Where you thought this could really catch on?
RP: It wasn’t really television that brought us out. It was more YouTube. It was something that shocked us, because we started doing these dance showcases at different events in San Diego and the Bay Area, and people started posting our shows on YouTube. It wasn’t even us who were posting them. It was other people. And people were wondering who we were, and just getting into the mysteriousness of what a Jabbawockee was. And when we looked, there were all these JabbaWockeeZ views, over 100,000 views on the majority of our stuff. We were like, “Wow, people are really looking at what we do.” And through that, people started calling us up for different gigs and we’d do different local underground showcases.
And not only that, but people were actually biting what we were doing. And what biting means is, they were copying what we were doing. There were actually groups in the Philippines that were doing routines with our actual music – I don’t know how they got the music; maybe they just dubbed it over from YouTube or whatever. But they were doing our exact routines.
WW: And then they’d post these routines and you’d see them on YouTube?
RP: Yeah. And we had a lot of fans who knew who the actual JabbaWockeeZ were, and they’d tell them, “That’s wack. You guys shouldn’t be doing that.” But at the same time, they were just inspired – so there’s nothing wrong with that. Well, the only thing that’s wrong with that is if you’re saying, “I made up this routine,” when you really didn’t. And then things started happening really quickly last summer. That’s when we heard from a friend of ours named Jon Chu. We didn’t know at the time that he was directing Step Up 2, but he told us one of the big inspirations for making Step Up 2 was the JabbaWockeeZ. We inspired him a lot because of what we did. He was really involved in the dance scene as far as going to different showcases and stuff in San Diego and watching what we do.
So he called us up and wanted us to do the movie, do Step Up 2 – to go out there and dance and do a clip. And through that movie, we started getting a lot more work – doing different industrials and things. And then we found out about America’s Best Dance Crew from a showcase. Every showcase we do, people come up to us, and at this one showcase, one of the casting directors came up to us and said, “We really want you guys to audition for the show.” So we found out what the show was about, and we did it for fun, and didn’t really think how far it would get us. And look where we are now.
WW: Given that it was on MTV and that Randy Jackson was involved, did you realize how much of a launching pad it could be? Or did that take you by surprise?
RP: It took us by surprise in a way. The person who really knew it was going to really do something was our boy Gary. He was the one person who said, “This is going to be a great show.” A lot of us were in the underground scene, and we were thinking to ourselves, “We don’t want the media to make us look bad.” Being in the underground scene as far as hip-hop and hip-hop dancing, you don’t want people to water down what you do. But Gary was like, “As long as we stay in there and hold our ground as far as what we do and show them what we do, they’re not going to water down anything. Because they’re going to love what we do. So we’re going to go in there and do it, and it’s going to be a great opportunity.”
Some of us weren’t going to do it, but the honest truth was, our friend Gary got really sick at the time we were going to do auditions. So were like, “You know what, man? Let’s do this for Gary.” Not realizing what opportunity was going to come from it. It was more, “Let’s do this live audition for Gary and perform to the best of our ability, and if we end up getting it, we get it, and if we don’t, we don’t.” Well, we ended up getting on the live audition show, and we were like, “Let’s do it for Gary.” Every single time, man. Like, “Let’s do it for Gee, man. He really wanted us to do our best.” And it just kept on escalating.
He ended up passing away after the live audition show – when we were going into the show. After that, everything was just for him – not really thinking about the win, but honestly just thinking about doing our best. That’s all we could really do – just think about doing our best, because we were with a bunch of other amazing dancers. It was like, God helped us out, and Gee was with us the whole time, even though he’d passed away. We felt him there a lot, and he helped us get through the show. We were just blessed through that. But there wasn’t an expectation of, if we do this show, we’re going to make millions or get great exposure. It was more about let’s go over here and rip it and have a good show – and do it for Gary. And the experience turned into us performing everywhere in the world, performing around the U.S., doing commercials, music videos. It’s crazy.
WW: Do you think the theatricality that you guys have – the costumes, the masks, the storytelling – was what really connected with the audience?
RP: Yeah, definitely. I definitely think a lot of people in the audience looked at what we did as art. And that’s how we look at ourselves – as artists. Not just as dancers, but the way we put our shows together. And the masks really help to bring out a different side of what we do as dancers. It’s kind of like an alter ego when you put it on. We’re very humble guys, but when we put on the masks, it builds a different character. And I think that’s what a lot of people grasped onto when they saw us perform with the masks on. Like, I’m a really shy person, I really don’t like dancing in front of people, but when I put on the mask, I feel like I can go out there and do whatever I want to do. MySpacers or e-mailers would tell us that. And that’s why we wore the masks and the gloves. It changes you in a way – in a positive way. It helps you to open up.
And also, the way we think when we put together shows. Honestly, a lot of it is based on just goofing off and having fun. Like Kevin or someone will do something funny and we’re like, “Dude, put that in the show!” And the audience grasped on to that. Luckily, they understood what we were doing.
WW: You performed in masks, but there were also scenes on the show where you weren’t in masks. Did people start recognizing you on the street – and did that kind of catch you off-guard?
RP: It really did. When we first started out as the JabbaWockeeZ, we would walk into a venue and would go change somewhere in a spot where nobody was at into our mask and our gloves and everything. And we’d come out for our show and people would look at us, not know who it is – and we’d do the show, rip it, get a standing ovation, the crowd goes crazy, go back to the spot, change, and then we’d be standing next to people who were like, “Oh my gosh! Did you see the JabbaWockeeZ? They were freakin’ amazing!” They’d even talk to us. They’d be like, “Did you see that group with the masks?” It was like Superman, you know? It would be like Superman would go save somebody and then he’d come back as Clark Kent, and people would be like, “Clark, you missed it! Superman was just here!”
I don’t know if you’ve heard of the Lewis Carroll poem “Jabberwocky,” but basically it’s about a mysterious dragon, and knights would try to kill him, and he’d kill the knights and mysteriously vanish, and nobody could really find him. And that was kind of like what we portrayed in hip-hop. We’d go out there, kill the dance floor, and then leave, and nobody would know who we are. But what ended up happening was, they started showing us on TV – they started showing who we were. And at first, we were like, “We don’t want to show our faces.” But it kind of helped things out, because fans who did know us before the show were like, “I finally get to know who you guys really are.” It’s kind of like Kiss (laughs).
WW: So showing your faces didn’t make the masks any less effective onstage?
RP: Oh no. I think it actually helped for people to know the JabbaWockeeZ are normal guys who have fun and goof off – but once we put on the masks, it’s go time. It kind of helped.
WW: On the TV show, there are overhead shots and lots of different camera angles. Is that a problem for the live tour?
RP: To keep it real? I think all the overhead shots and different shots they show on TV kind of takes away from what the actual show could be when it’s actually straight up front. To me, a live show is way better than watching it on TV, because you actually get to feel the action, you get to feel the music, and you get to see it up front and up-close, and see what people are actually doing. A lot of times when you see something on TV, you don’t know if it’s edited or not – if they messed up when they did that and they had to re-do it. But when you see a live show, you get to actually see it for what it’s truly all about. It’s like seeing any singer or artist on tour. Like when you hear a song that’s been recorded, you might like it, but when you see that artist live, you get to see the emotion they put into it.
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Everybody always says when you see it live, it’s ten times better. And that’s what this tour is: It’s ten times better than seeing it on TV. Because you get to feel the action everyone is actually putting out. Plus there’s a lot of new numbers, collaborative numbers with all the different crews. So if you’re a big fan, or if you’re not a big fan of America’s Best Dance Crew and what we do, going to this will inspire you to want to dance. Definitely.
WW: Do you guys see yourselves as ambassadors of this style of dancing in terms of popularizing it? And how mainstream would you like it to get? You mentioned earlier how you came from the underground. Do you feel comfortable with the idea of this being on every street corner in America?
RP: You know what? I think it’s cool if it gets mainstreamed. But you’ve got to make sure that people are doing it for the right reasons. People like us who are mentoring it, who are putting it out there, need to do it right, make sure we’re doing it for positive reasons. We need to do it for the reasons we started out doing it. We can’t say we were the first persons who started out mainstreaming it and inspiring people about it, because I got inspired through the [Electric] Boogaloos and the Rock Steady Crew – and at what point, they were very mainstream, too. But back then, a lot of them were younger kids, and they couldn’t really speak their minds about how they felt about the dance and teach the history of the dance. Their managers were the ones who were speaking for them.
That’s something the originators have told me about. When they find out that a lot of dancers are getting more mainstream, Crazy Legs told me, “Make sure you speak about what this dance is truly about. Make sure you let people know about its history, about its positive, about turning a negative into a positive. Let people know it’s not just about dancing to make money.” Because, you know, a lot of us were doing this dead broke (laughs). We were doing it just for love – because we love doing it. A lot of guys even on this tour had fulltime jobs and were dancing after they got off work. That shows you it’s a positive thing, and that’s what we’re trying to push.