Taking Dance from One Generation to the Next
From dancing as a hobby to performing on the big stage in dance crews, Ben Chung has made a name and a place for himself in the dance world. Chung started out practicing and performing with friends in local competitions around 2000 to 2001. Several years later in 2007, Chung joined the Jabbawockeez dance crew and shined on the stage and screen when the Jabbawockeez won the America’s Best Dance Crew T.V. competition in 2008 and 2010. His successes did not stop with those victories though, as he later moved on to the Kinjaz dance crew and helped bring them to prominence when the crew made it to the finals in Season 8 of America’s Best Dance Crew. With Kinjaz, Chung has traveled around the world teaching and learning about dance moves from dancers of other cultures. Back home in the United States, he works on developing and maintaining the Kinjaz dance studio where he hopes to pass on his techniques and experiences to a new generation of dancers. Chung still dances himself, but he looks ahead to a future where he can more strategically help Kinjaz make its mark on the dancing world just as the Jabbawockeez did years before. If anything, he wants Kinjaz to be even bigger than his old dance crew to the point where Kinjaz dazzles audiences across the globe with fantastically choreographed moves. Seoul Journal Executive Editor Anthony Al-Jamie spoke with Ben Chung about Chung’s origins in dance, his transition from the Jabbawockeez to Kinjaz and how he wants to make dance a positive creative force that benefits future generations of dancers.
SJ: Can you tell me about Jabbawockeez, Kinjaz and how this got started?
CHUNG : Jabbawockeez started in 2003. I joined the crew in 2007 and then danced with them up to about 2014, so it was for almost eight years. We won America’s Best Dance Crew 2008 and then 2010. We went to Vegas, had our show out there, and I was running with those guys for a big chunk of my dance career. Around 2014 was where I felt like I had to get back to my roots back home in LA. I thought about it for a good while and then talked to the guys in the crew, and they totally supported it. I made the decision in 2014 to move back to LA. Coming back to LA, I wasn’t sure what my dance career was going to amount to or if it was going to kick me. I was in a space where I wanted to start over; it was one of those soul-searching type of things where you see what’s moving your heart and what your passion is for. I connected with Mike Song and Anthony Lee who are the founders of Kinjaz and longtime friends of mine from back in college. In connecting with them I realized thatI still had a huge passion for dance. Talking with those guys, I saw that they were really inspired to do a lot of things to positively impact our media world. Now there’s actually over 30 [members], but at the time there were only 20. There’s mutual support of each other’s dreams and aspirations, and everybody is very united in the sense of brotherly effort. That really appealed to me, and I found out the types of things that the group was involved in: doing a lot of community outreach, like youth outreach, and building the dance community that we all started in. Now that’s something I found to be really inspiring, and Mike and Anthony themselves were an inspiration to me even though I was older than they were and in the dance community back when they were starting. They were looking up things I was doing as a young choreographer, but now, coming round full circle where I look at what they’re doing. I’m inspired by them on a dance level as well as on just a complete life level. From 2014 to present day I’ve been running with the Kinjaz. It’s been really exciting. We got back on to Season 8 of America’s Best Dance Crew which ended almost a year ago now. We were finalists in that show, and we didn’t win, but it gave us a lot of opportunities and exposure. One of the main things that it afforded us the chance to run an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign to raise funds to open up our dance studio, which we call the Kinjaz Dojo. That’s opening July 5th, so we’re really excited; that’s when we’re going to roll out our full teaching daily curriculum, and we’re going to have Kinjaz instructors as well as other very reputable choreographers and teachers who are going to be teaching here regularly. So that’s another project we’re passionate about. It’s been quite the journey and one that’s constantly growing and changing every single day.
SJ: How did you first get involved with dance?
CHUNG: I was one of those high school kids who was watching MTV and was like, hey, that looks really cool and fun; I want to do that someday. In the privacy of my own room I was just practicing these moves in front of the mirror until they started to look somewhat cool. Then your eyes tend to wander, and you think, “I wonder if anyone is into this.” You start seeing kids at school, and some are kind of into it. I met somebody at my church who was also getting into it at the same time as I was. He and I would practice together, and then we got together with this one other guy, and we entered in this Create American Talent competition in San Fernando Valley. That opened up the whole world to us, like, “Wow, there’s a whole scene out there where people are dancing in these showcases. Let’s keep digging down in this hole.”From there I really got into the dance community, and I was fortunate and blessed to be a part of a lot of groups that have made a huge impact on the dance community, like Kaba Modern, the Jabbawockeez and now Kinjaz. [Dancing]was something that was fun and turned into a passion that I really would like to make into something more than just fun. I want to actually impact the world in a positive way. Whether that’s on a micro or macro level, doesn’t really matter. If there’s just one kid I could inspire by what I do, then it’s all worth it.
SJ: Did you have any formal training?
CHUNG: No, not formal training. I think hip-hop is considered a dance that was kind of born in the streets, so to speak. Of course, there are foundational styles of popping, breaking and stuff like that, so there are definite fundamental foundation elements to it. But I myself didn’t come up training under any of those foundational styles. I kind of grew up watching things and gravitated towards certain types of movements that I liked and enjoyed doing. And then as you learn to do things your own way, you realize that foundational training is actually very helpful in terms of fine-tuning your actual movements, to be able to develop your own personal style, too. I got into learning a little bit more about foundation later on, years into my dance career. And I started to learn some actual technique from popping, little bit of breaking, foundation, little bit of locking, foundation. A lot of my personal sense of style and career was just on my own and learning from friends, andfrom choreography classes I took at dance studios in Hollywood. Being exposed to a lot of different styles that I was able to develop my own style.
SJ: Are all of the members of Kinjaz Korean American?
CHUNG: No, no, not at all. There are four members, me and Mike Song, Nick Kim and JD McElroy. The crew is pretty diverse. It’s not even all Asian American. We have a Caucasian member, an African American member; it’s not a requirement to be Asian to be a Kinjaz [laughs], contrary to popular belief.
SJ: Did you enter Korean American contests?
CHUNG: Yeah, back in high school, there was a local talent competition at a Korean festival at Cal State Northridge. It was not by any means a formal dance competition. It was a talent show because there were singers and comedians and other talents. But there was like a dance element in terms of the talent. And so, I entered my group for the dance portion of it, and we ended up getting third place, which was cool for us because that was the first time we ever really performed. I thought, “Wow, first time performing and we got third place; that’s cool. Maybe we can keep doing this.”
SJ: Have you performed in Korea?
CHUNG: We have not performed in Korea. We’ve been out there to teach. We have some friends out there that we’ve gone to visit and shoot video content, but haven’t actually performed. Yet. We plan to for sure though.
SJ: Why are there so many Koreans into dancing and b-boys?
CHUNG: I don’t know if it’s centered in Korea. I think entertainment is just like a big stage, not just in Asia. It’s huge everywhere. Everybody loves music; it’s a universal language, and dance goes hand in hand with that. In Korea, culturally speaking, there’s a level of pride in one’s self on being extreme in terms of learning anything. Whether it is dancing, singing, or any sort of trade, people who are living in Korean culture are very about dedicating yourself to a craft. When you translate that sort of work ethic, you’re going to find extremities of optimists. The Korean b-boy culture is huge with the crazy acrobatic and athletic things that you would never imagine is humanly possible. A lot of the Korean crews and other crews from all over the world are well known for that. They’re just constantly evolving the clap, which is why dance is like any art form. It’s always going to find itself growing up in different regions and always breaking boundaries. It’s like when you see somebody do an air flair, then you’re going to see someone doing five air flairs next week. It’s always constantly evolving to get more athletic, more dynamic. In Korea, I think it is something ingrained within the culture, in entertainment; that scene is very big and starts with the youth. If you convince the youth that something is cool and popular, then that’s when things turn into full-blown trends.
SJ: How would you compare Jabbawockeez and Kinjaz? What are the major differences between them?
CHUNG: There really is no comparison. I mean, Jabbawockeez definitely were, and still are, pioneers and trendsetters in the dance community. A lot of those guys come from different crews and dance teams and have made a huge impact in the dance community. They paved the way for many crews to do what they do, and I would say they definitely influenced Kinjaz. When you spend time with any group of individuals for an extended period of time, there’s no way that you’re not going to be influenced and could influence that group of people as well. So, I would say Jabbawockeez have definitely taken the dance industry and what dance crews are capable of doing to a level which crews now aspire to do. Jabbawockeez unlocked Vegas and headlining shows; that’s amazing. That’s never been done before. It shows that boundaries are always meant to be pushed. I think Jabbawockeez are continuing to do that to this day, which is great for the dance industry because it just shows there’s always room to progress. Where Kinjaz is at, we find ourselves in a different space in terms of the things that we would like to accomplish. Dance is something that we do because we love it. It’s fun and entertaining, so we want to continue to put out content, whether it be through media, online or even through our live shows. We’re constantly digging to find different ways to reach the masses and where we can do community outreach and youth outreach. We understand that the youth, the kids are the future. When we started dancing, we were young junior high, high school kids. Now, I look at these kids who come into our studio and our dojo thinking, “Hey that was my age when I started dancing.” When I first started, I would have never thought I would still be dancing to this day and to this scale. I want to inspire and encourage the youth to be able to shoot for their dreams. This was a dream of mine, and I’m still going for it. I’m just trying to enrich people’s minds to not think of [dancing] purely in just a physical form. Dance is very physical, but there’s a huge aspect of it that’s a mental thing and being able to think a certain way, being smart and having an entrepreneurial mind frame in looking at dance is a good thing. Every sport, every athlete has a shelf life. You’re going to be able to perform at your physical peak to a certain point before your body says, “Hey, it’s time to relax a little bit on the physical side.” When you’re at that peak of your physical ability, your mind is also at its peak, but your mind is going to continue to progress after the physical side isn’t going as hard anymore. It’s a matter of building this empire, so to speak, as you’re able to physically produce your product. That’s something that Kinjaz is trying to do, to create longevity and sustainability for our current crew as well as the newer generation to fill them with wisdom and to keep this thing going because we do see this continue on even beyond our years of doing it. We just want to create a platform for the dance community.
SJ: What’s the biggest challenge that you face as a group?
CHUNG: The biggest challenge is sometimes availability [laughs]. We have such a big group, and there are various projects that comes on our table. There’s so many of us trying to coordinate everything together so that it makes sense for a given project. People’s schedules are always varying, and the thing with Kinjaz is that there’s over 30 guys, not all of which who are full-time Kinjaz. A lot of the guys actually have regular jobs as well as other guys who are in school and have other careers going. Kinjaz is just an outlet for them; for some of the guys, it’s a purely just show up maybe once a week, dance for a little bit and then get on with the rest of their week. For a handful of us, myself included, it’s our full-time gig. This is something that we do on a day-to-day [basis]; a lot of times we have a lot of the projects taking on a certain coordinated type. And then there are other projects where we can get more guys involved, and we try to do that. I would say coordinating logistics is a little tough. But the great thing about it is that everybody is very cooperative in the sense that they’re very down for one another and very sacrificial with their time, their efforts and their resources. Knowing that, whenever there’s something going on, we know there’s a rapport system that’s driving this thing. That’s actually one of our tenants:“strong brotherhood at all costs.”We make sure that we implement that mentality with everything that we do. So the support system is always strong here.
SJ: Do you create your own original content as well as research what’s going on in the dance world?
CHUNG: We have our eyes on the streets. When something comes across our radar we pay attention, but, a part of what makes Kinjaz unique is that we do a lot of things that are kind of authentic what naturally inspires us. A lot of the things that inspire us don’t have to be dance-related, to be honest. We’re actually inspired by Japanese anime and comic books and martial arts movies as well. A lot of us travel and get to see a lot of cool things around the world. When we’re in nature, a desert, or a really cool mountainside, all sorts of things inspire us. We’re trying to create art that we feel is authentic to us, and hopefully we can get people to see it through our eyes and vibe with the things that are cool with us. One of our goals is to change the way people perceive dance by showing our dances.
SJ: Do you have to work out a lot to stay in shape?
CHUNG: Yeah, we stay focused on physical fitness and eating well. I go to the gym regularly. Dance is a very physical art form, so in order to be physically fit to do it, there’s a lot of other elements of physical upkeep that support that. Physical fitness and health are very key to that.
SJ: What is your diet like?
CHUNG: I try to eat healthy. I’ve been trying to cut out red meat since the beginning of the year. It’s actually been really good; overall energy levels are way better. I’ve also been eating lots of veggies, lean meat and fruits. At the end of the day I’m a huge lover of food. I love to treat myself to a bowl of ramen or ice cream. I have a big sweet tooth. But in general I try to have a clean eating lifestyle [laughs].
SJ: Do you do a lot of travel in order to work?
CHUNG: We do a lot of travel from dance camps to workshops to performances. Traveling is a big element of what we do.
SJ: Where have you traveled to?
CHUNG: Various parts of Asia. We actually just got back from China about two weeks ago, and we’ve been to South America and Japan. I’ve been to Korea too, but not to perform. I went out there to teach.
SJ: Did you perform in Japan?
CHUNG: No, we went out there to teach.
SJ: What kind of music do you prefer to dance to?
CHUNG: I dance to all sorts of music, but lately I’ve been really into a lot of the electric, electro, and trap style of songs. I grew up around hip-hop; I’m always going to be a fan of hip-hop music. There’s always progressive sounds, like a lot of mixture of electro, R&B, smooth, trap, etc. There are a lot of genres that have a really cool sound. Those are the kinds of genres I tend to be drawn towards.
SJ: What is the ultimate goal for Kinjaz? Is it getting a gig in Las Vegas?
CHUNG: To be honest, I don’t think there is a top. There’s no threshold. That’s what’s great. When you see something like a Las Vegas show as being possible, then that opens one’s mind to think, “Ah, then anything is possible.” When you see that it’s possible to be done, then the next question, for any aspiring artist, is “What else can be done?” We definitely want to have a production stage show eventually. But that’s not the pinnacle, that’s not the end-all. That’s just one of the elements we want to create. I have aspirations for Kinjaz to be able to achieve what the Disney Company has achieved. You would have never thought that a cartoon mouse would be able to have a global presence and become a household name, but it has. Disney is just associated with kids; there’s a family element to the Disney name. But to me it’s an idea, it’s what encapsulates creativity and imagination. We would like to think of Kinjaz in that way. We want to change people’s minds about what dance is and what the capabilities of dance are. We’re dreamers, but bigger than being dreamers, we have to be executors and people who take the steps to achieve one goal at a time. We don’t want to rest. We want to be in that constant state of achieving our goals and dreams.