The Toronto's Best High School Dance Crew finals were a celebration of movement, expression, and the life of a young dancer who inspired his peers.
Hundreds of excited high school students packed Ryerson Theatre on Saturday to take in the finals of Toronto’s Best High School Dance Crew, a hip-hop dance competition. The impressive lineup of amateur dancers from across the GTA thrilled the crowd and shook the stage. They also paid a classy and heartfelt tribute to a departed young dancer who had been training to compete with them.
Lesean Grant Dizon loved to dance, but his family didn’t realize how deeply it touched him until shortly after his death last month, when his friends began sharing videos of him online. “He didn’t want many people to know about it,” Dizon’s uncle Rhobyn James remarked outside the theatre during an intermission. Dizon performed for family members at Christmas, and had been training with a dance crew called Eksentrik Movement to compete at the finals. “He was all things you’d want your kid to be,” said James, who described the event dedicated to Dizon as “really flattering and quite an honour,” adding that “it’s bittersweet because we’re here in memoriam.”
The competition opened with a video tribute to Dizon, and the remaining members of his group, Eksentrik Movement, closed out the competition with a piece that communicated the grief of losing their young friend. The routine included a single prop, a grey cap that belonged to Lesean.
As the crew performed, a spotlight downstage exploded and sprinkled debris onto the stage. The eerily fitting mishap prompted more than one judge to reference Dizon’s “presence” and “spririt” with his four crew members, who were exempted from the competition minimum of five dancers. Eksentrik Movement stood arm in arm and accepted condolences and a prolonged ovation after the performance as one of their members, Jason, held the cap aloft. Sobs and sniffles filled the auditorium before, during, and after the piece.
Organizer Carlos Tabuga developed the competition as an extension of Ill Skillz, an initiative he started as a student ten years ago to inspire young people and help them find a voice through dance. “The goal was to keep young people as busy as possible,” Tabuga said of his initial efforts to form a dance crew at Dante Alighieri Academy in 2002. At that time, many of his peers were discovering all-ages parties, alcohol, and drugs—especially ecstasy.
“I knew I could fit into that scene, but realized that it wouldn’t be about me,” reflected Tabuga. Instead, he and his friend Philip Sagra encouraged fellow students to express themselves through movement and rhythm. “It’s all about self-expression,” Taguba said. “Not everyone can be a ball player.” He described his team, which has engaged students across North America, as “motivational speakers who use urban culture as a hook. It’s appealing because it’s proud and rebellious, but in a good way.”
Dance crews with handles like “Adrenalyn” and “Ill-infants” grooved to hip-hop, dubstep, grime and, to the delight of the young crowd, the occasional dancehall beat. The competitors’ breathless post-performance interviews had the big-stage feel of So You Think You Can Dance, although corporate logos and shout-outs were nearly non-existent.
Razor sharp, slick showcase performances by professional crews like Moon Runners and Projextz were a special treat. The judges even got into the act, as each presented his or her credentials in a quick routine before taking a seat to evaluate the acts.
A group with the cheeky name “Hi-Heyters” took home the championship trophy and the $1000 first prize with a unique routine set in an upscale cafe. The performers sported crisp shirts and bow ties, and wove swing and jazz elements into a hip hop flow that brought the house to its feet. But notions of winning and losing took a backseat to expressions of support and acknowledgement for a community of hardworking and passionate young artists.
Mark, a dancer whose crew “J La Soul” led off the competition, told us he dances “to express myself in ways words can’t.” He was excited to have set the bar for the other teams, saying, “we did it not just for ourselves, but to inspire the whole competition.”
Judge and professional dancer Leah Totten called dance “the truest language you can speak.” Totten also touched on the very personal nature of dance as an expressive form. “You’re the only person that has your body, your mind, your spirit. When you move, it’s your truth.”
Photos by Jeegar Thakker.