From streetlights to spotlights: Hip-hop dancing gains respect

It’s the closest hip-hop dancers can get to the Olympics. With a gold medal being the ultimate prize and competitive dance crews converging from 43 countries, the 12th Annual World Hip Hop Dance Championship is missing only a Wheaties endorsement.

Close to 3,000 hip-hop and street dancers will compete Sunday at the Orleans Arena, where crews from Japan and New Zealand will defend their titles. But not before going through a series of elimination rounds this week at Red Rock Resort. America’s champions were decided this past weekend , also at Red Rock.

“The most amazing thing of all is getting here,” says founder and Hip Hop International President Howard Schwartz.

Before descending on Las Vegas, these crews already faced stiff competition in their home countries, where their two-minute routines topped out as the best of the best against a very strict judging process.

The competition started as a way of showing the positive side of hip-hop. After world travels in which he and his wife, Karen Schwartz, couldn’t escape the ubiquity of hip-hop dance, they noticed that perceptions didn’t align with what they were seeing.

“So many people had the wrong concept of hip-hop as it related to dance,” he says. “You’d say hip-hop and people were sent in a different direction of what it was.”

The only way he and his wife saw to improve the reputation of a dance form that started in the streets would be to take it out of the streets. And so the event began. They had already operated the World Aerobic Championships for 13 years, so they weren’t in completely foreign territory.

Their next global effort, the World Hip Hop Dance Championship, originated in South Beach, Fla., where it stayed for two years. It moved to Los Angeles for four years and has been in Las Vegas the past six.

The competition has accomplished what the Schwartzes set out to do. Opening day, he says, is a reflection of the expression so many hip-hoppers use, “one love.”

“It doesn’t matter what language you speak or what country you’re from,” he says. “Everyone realizes there’s a commonality that comes from hip-hop.”

Six years ago, the founders took note of the lack of professional opportunities there were for this brand of dancers. In hopes of changing that, they started MTV’s “America’s Best Dance Crew.” The aim was to create exposure and popularize the dance form.

Today, competitors from the championship are scouted by Cirque du Soleil. In fact, both “Love” and “Michael Jackson One” feature dancers who were picked up after coming to compete for the championship. This year, Cirque, which is a sponsor of the event, will hold auditions on-site.

The event couldn’t have come so far without structure, Schwartz says. The judging is a big part of that.

Ian Levia of Trinidad & Tobago helped develop the rules and guidelines and had them translated into 20 languages. He still acts as a head judge over eight other judges, four who focus on performance and four who focus on skill.

The most difficult part of his job, he says, is staying current with each country.

“You have to be able to recognize every style being performed regardless of the country performing it,” he says. “Every country has new styles that are being brought under the hip-hop umbrella.”

Tickets for the World Hip Hop Dance Championship Finals can be purchased at Orleans Box Office, online at or at 702-284-7777.

Contact Xazmin Garza at or 702-383-0477. Follow her on Twitter @startswithanx.

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