What Is Urban Dance?

Dance Culture

What Is Urban Dance?

Charise Roberts
January 23, 2024
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NOTE: Since the initial release of this article, we're no longer using the term "Urban Dance" at all! Read about why here.

At this point, we all kinda get what the terms urban dance and urban dance choreography refer to.

But, if someone asked you to describe it you probably wouldn't really know what to say.

When someone asks me what kind of dancing I do, I sometimes just say “hip hop," because I want to save time...

But that’s not an accurate label!

Hip hop dance originally referred to either social / party dancing or breakin’ (breakdancing).

Read about it: What Is Hip Hop Dance?

Urban Dance is not Hip Hop or street styles

Hip Hop doesn't include, but is associated with street dance styles like Popping, Waacking, Locking, House, and Krump.

Choreographing and performing pieces is clearly a departure from the freestyle circles at clubs and battles that most Hip Hop and street dancers are used to.

As a result of this, and many other distinctions, we started to separate it as “Urban Dance.”

urban dance

The Urban Dance scene did evolve, in certain aspects, from Hip Hop dance roots. Several moves and grooves and concepts were inspired by Hip Hop and street styles.

But in the past 2 decades or so, the Urban Dance culture and Urban Dance choreography developed its own identity.

From competitions like Body Rock and VIBE, teams like GRV, Choreo Cookies, and huge dance workshops taught by traveling choreographers and concept videos and social events...

There are a lot of moving parts that make up the Urban Dance culture and lifestyle.

Let’s go back a few decades to better understand what Urban Dance means to us.

What is Urban Dance?

Urban Dance is a style of dance, community, and lifestyle revolving around choreographed pieces and performances by a dancer or groups of dancers.

Choreography is influenced by several different dance styles, but is ultimately based on the choreographer's own interpretation of the music.

A big part of the modern Urban Dance culture stemmed from collegiate dance teams and competitions.

How collegiate and competitive dance teams started

Dance teams in Southern California

(*Other dancers and events around NorCal, the east coast, across the nation/world contributed to the community’s inception, but this section focuses on SoCal's story. It’s not the only part, but it is a big part of the dance community’s development!)

Most great things in the world started with a few friends just wanting to have fun. The Urban Dance community is no different.

Arnel Calvario and his friends used to make their own routines to perform in the “Hip Hop suite” at Pilipino Culture Night (PCN).

The event was hosted by Kababayan, UCI's Pilipino cultural club.

But outside of that event (which was only held once a year) these dancers did not have a group to dance with, nor a stage to perform on.

So he formed Kaba Modern in 1992 so he and his friends could continue to dance and perform.

In '94, CADC was formed through the Chinese American Association at UCI, and Danny Batimana founded "Culture" (later known as Team Millennia) in Fullerton.

In ’95 PAC Modern was formed at CSU Long Beach, then Samahang Modern at UCLA.

For a more comprehensive account, see The Evolution Of Our Global Dance Community

How the dance teams started competing

“All these different groups popped up in different areas. But we never had a chance to compete together… until car show promoters noticed the appeal in hip hop crew performances and created dance competitions at their events.Car shows were a great way to meet other dancers from other areas and watch them dance, but the setting wasn’t very relevant to us or to dance.We were just a marketing tool for the car community – a buzz for promoters to capitalize on.”

– Arnel Calvario

Arnel’s roommate suggested hosting their own competition to give these newly formed, aspiring groups to showcase to each other in a more authentic way.

The inception of VIBE Dance Competition created a domino effect in competitions. Soon, we saw Prelude, Maxt Out, Ultimate Brawl, and Fusion, to name a few.

urban dance

Flyer from "The Vibe" – year 1. Photo courtesy of Arnel Calvario

More about VIBE: What You Should Know About VIBE Dance Competition

Culture Shock San Diego goes International

While this was happening in the OC/LA area, the Hip Hop dance scene in San Diego was still very much “underground.”

Then in 1993, Nike sponsored Angie Bunch to start a Hip Hop dance company. She called it Culture Shock San Diego.

The next year, Culture Shock Los Angeles was formed.

Currently, Culture Shock International is represented in Chicago, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Oakland, Ottawa, San Diego, Toronto, and Washington DC.

“In addition to Culture Shock, Formality and high school all-male teams started to turn the San Diego dance scene more serious.A parallel surge was happening in the collegiate scene in Irvine, with Arnel.It was around then that our underground dance community blew up, a lot of it thanks to the internet and social media.”

– Angie Bunch

YouTube and social media's effect on Urban Dance culture

“YouTube wasn't created until 2005, more than 10 years after our dance community started.Other developments in technology provided a way for dancers to connect socially and artistically.”

– Arnel Calvario

YouTube took something that was previously only experienced in person and made it easily sharable and discoverable from a screen.

In fact, a lot of newer dancers can pinpoint a specific video, choreographer, or performance on YouTube that made them want to start dancing in the first place.

Communities in different regions sprang up, drawing inspiration from other dancers and teams from YouTube videos.

And interaction between dancers was always dependent on region. Dancers could only meet and mingle at events.

For years, Boogiezone’s forum on their website was the one of the only ways dancers could to talk to each other online.

But in late 2006, we saw Twitter, then Facebook, and Instagram in 2010.

Now, dance videos saturate our social media feeds and a dancer across the country is just one DM slide away.

Technology connected dancers in ways we've never been able to before – which helped build a stronger, more involved community.

But with this abundance and accessibility also rose the danger of styles becoming homogenized, our passion becoming a trend, and voices getting lost in the noise.

Choreography and concepts reach new levels

Dance choreography, as all art does, evolved over time.

“Movement has gotten more intricate. Grooving to whole counts evolved to hitting high hats and striking heavy beats.And we are also starting to do a lot more storytelling with our movement, which is an artistic direction I really love. Choreographers are pushing the boundaries beyond dance.”

– Keone Madrid

One form of this storytelling is “concept videos”.

Instead of recording choreography with a point-and-shoot from the front of the studio, dancers are pushing the artistic envelope with high-production videos in 4K resolution, shot from different angles, in new settings, with costumes, lighting, acting, comedy, props, motion graphics...

Anything to deliver a more comprehensive message.

Dance videos are not just about dance anymore.

“Concept videos encouraged more originality. And that sense of competition shifted more toward being authentic.It pushed artists to think outside of the box again.”

– Arnel Calvario

Commercial "Hip Hop"

Labels are always going to be tricky – people are bound to have differing interpretations of what a certain word means.

There was a time when Urban Dance was called "Commercial Hip Hop" – because of its influences from backup dancers and music videos.

Dancers were influenced by artists like Michael Jackson, Justin Timberlake...

Or, more accurately, their choreographers at the time.

Marty Kudelka is a choreographer who's worked with music artists like Justin Timberlake, Mariah Carey, JLO,  Janet Jackson, and more.

He also choreographed for films and commercial ad campaigns for Coke, Tommy Hilfiger, Old Navy, and McDonald’s.

He's been recognized as MTV Video Award Nominee for Best Choreography in a Music Video 5 times and has appeared on shows such as Dancing With The Stars and So You Think You Can Dance.

Marty Kudelka Choreography:

His work is so widely celebrated in the "Industry" side of dance – but he is also a big role in the "Urban Dance community" as well. This is how labels get tricky.

Because they're all moving parts in the same story.

Urban Dance was influenced by popular dance movies, as well.

Every girl who saw Honey (2003) wanted to be Jessica Alba.

urban dance

Do you guys remember... You Got Served (2004)?

Though not the most accurate depictions of dance and dance culture, these movies helped introduce the idea of dance as its own art form into the public stream of consciousness.

Step Up (2006 - forever)

The Urban Dance community culture

Class taking / teaching culture

urban dance

A huge part of the Urban Dance choreography scene is, of course, learning choreography.

Learning Urban Dance isn't as straightforward as it is with another dance styles.

Ballet, tap, or jazz, have classes and programs at dance studios specifically design for your level of experience.

With Urban Dance choreography, each class is treated like a standalone workshop.

It is based on a piece of choreography rather than training a particular set of skills.

You'll pick up on certain techniques on the way, but most classes revolve around learning a piece of choreography.

STEEZY is aiming to clean up this process.

We know how daunting it can feel to watch class killers just get the piece while you're struggling to digest the first 8-count.

So we broke down the learning and training process for complete beginners to become advanced dancers.

All you need to do is follow along. Try out the program on STEEZY Studio to go from 0-100!

Whether your dream is to get chosen for select group, keep up with an advanced class, or become a world-traveling choreographer, taking beginner classes is the best way to start.

Dance team structure

In addition to the teams that we mentioned above, the number of dance teams has also grown tremendously, nation- and world-wide.

Several are college campus-based, as teams like Kaba Modern and Team Millennia initially were.

But a significant portion of dance teams are not (or are no longer) affiliated with a college.

For example – Choreo Cookies, The Company, 220, Chapkis, GRV, are not college-affiliated teams.

Joining a dance team can be so fulfilling, but it is no ordinary commitment.

Most teams rehearse several times a week, depending on what show or competition they are preparing for.

Dance teams are founded and run by a director or group of directors. Some even organize their leadership into committees.

But it's less of a co-working environment, as it is a social environment.

The sense of camaraderie and a shared passion/mission makes being on a team more like having an extended family.

Every dance team is different in style, personality, and purpose.

urban dance

GRV at Body Rock 2016

Competing teams tend to be more demanding and intense. Exhibition teams or projects can be a little more lax and experimental.

Wanna join a dance team? Check out our guide on How To Make Your Dream Dance Team

Major dance competitions

urban dance

Host Ricky Cole at VIBE 2015

The birth of VIBE over 2 decades ago started a domino effect of of other competitions in Southern California.

Bust-A-Groove (AKA Body Rock) and Fusion in San Diego were expanding in parallel, year after year.

At first, only the local dance community participated in these intimate, talent-show-esque events.

Then, they started to expand to other dancers and regions across the state, nation, and eventually the world.

Read about the communities in California: Origin Stories Of The Norcal And Socal Dance Communities

So it grew, and grew..

And now major competitions invite competing teams from all over the world, have vendors that make merchandise specific to the Urban Dance culture, host freestyle battles and pre-shows, hire world-renowned dancers as judges, employ full-blown marketing and media teams and stage crews running the behind the scenes work... and it all continues to grow.

urban dance

Vendors at Body Rock 2016

The professionalism and production value of dance competitions grew to match the professionalism and performance value of the dancers.

Choreographers who travel and teach their own pieces for a living

Speaking of professions...

Imagine getting on a flight that was fully paid for, landing in a beautiful foreign country, meeting new dancers, teaching them your piece that you made, being shown around the area by your hosts… and earning a living from this.

Sounds like a dream, no? Ok ok, in actuality, being a “traveling choreographer” is not all fun and games.

We at STEEZY work with these choreographers, and as much as they love what they do, the job comes with its own set of very difficult challenges and unexpected roadblocks.

But the dreamiest part about being a choreographer is the fact that, in this age of free sharing (thank you, internet) dancers are able to create their own work and get paid for it.

Having a successful YouTube channel or Instagram account means that you're making content that people care about.

In dance, this means you're choreographing pieces that people want to learn.

As a result, choreographers get "booked" (and blessed) to teach workshops all around the world.

urban dance

Bam Martin, David Lee, and Tony Tran at STEEZY Workshops in New Jersey, 2016

Basically, you can be an independent artist with your own style, brand, mission, and schedule. And a lot of fans.

Urban Dance "celebrities"

The digital age has bred a culture of “dance celebrities.” Not quite Jay-Z and Beyonce famous, but niche famous.

Like how the majority of dancers would recognize Keone and Mari, but my mom doesn’t know who they are. Like that. Oh, hey Keone!

“Now it’s about taking a mix of our experiences from the older days and teaching younger generations to love dance in a way that’s more than a fad.”

– Keone Madrid

You see, all the shoe-throwing and Instagram views are nice, but traveling choreographers have something that’s so much more important because they get to produce their own work.

They have a voice. And they are giving us, the community a voice.

““Dance celebrities” have such a huge following, so it’s important for them to share knowledge of the art forms they perform, and be positive role models for the dancers who follow and support them."

– Arnel Calvario

urban dance

Scott Forsyth & Brotherhood for STEEZY Studio, 2017

Totally, completely, absolutely.

And we’re so happy to work with choreographers who are not only amazing artists, but people who genuinely want to use their skills and knowledge to help dancers all over the world.

Check out our lineup of choreographers and read their bios to get up close and personal!

Community dancers on TV

These dancers that have, for the most part, made their own names.

They choreographed for their teams, taught local classes, grew their followings, produced their own concept videos, and more or less self-produced their careers.

But when you reach that level of success, you get offered opportunities from other people.

People like TV producers.

It's strange how there used to be this dichotomy of "Industry" and "Community" dancers – and now the "Community" dancers are invited to the same platforms in the industry.

But our approach is completely different. It's still based on the values of the Urban Dance community.

World of Dance, which premiered on NBC just this past year, is the perfect example of that.

We can talk about it more here: How We Really Feel About NBC's World of Dance

Dance organizations and companies

There are several other dance-related entities that are involved with the Urban Dance scene.

Dance productions

World Of Dance started in 2008 as a single dance show.

Now, they host events in more than 25 countries, connect dancers all over the world, and operates a multi-channel network on YouTube with more than 300 channels and 20,000 videos.

Their new show on NBC with Jennifer Lopez was a 10-episode competition with a grand prize of $1 million for the season's winners, Les Twins.

Hip Hop International was founded in 2000 in Los Angeles.

HHI produces live and televised dance competitions, including USA Hip Hop Dance Championship, the World Hip Hop Dance Championship, Urban Moves Dance Workshops and World Battles, which feature world-renowned B-boys, Lockers, Poppers, and other dancers.

MTV’s America’s Best Dance Crew was extremely influential to our community, as it gave dancers the opportunity to showcase their talents on TV as the talent, not as backup dancers to a vocal artist.

Crews would be given a challenge each week, work on their routine, then perform it for a panel of judges and a national audience.

One crew was eliminated each week, losing their chance to win the $100,000 grand prize. The show first aired in 2008 and ran for 7 seasons.

After a 3-year hiatus, ABDC came back in 2015, where we saw many familiar faces from the community make their national debut – like the Kinjaz.

Dance organizations

Cinematographer Gerald Nonato started recording competitions for dancers.

He wanted to provide a way to watch and keep footage of their performance (that wasn’t shaky and pixelated).

“Because I was a dancer myself, I know how much hard work goes into each set. I wanted to be able to do each performance justice and make sure it is documented in the best way possible.”

– Gerald Nonato

Now, Vibrvncy (where Gerald is the Director of Photography / Cinematographer) provides media coverage for several dance events and produces professional videos and photos for artists.

Movement Lifestyle represents dancers and dance culture in a number of ways.

Founder Shaun Evaristo moved to and started teaching in LA, where he found opportunities to work with the Korean music industry in artist development.

He soon ventured out to the European and Japanese industries as well.

In addition, traveled and worked alongside Keone and Mari Madrid, Lyle Beniga, and other international artists.

“[This] started to blur the industry / community boundary. As a result, I made mL, a cross between those.A welcoming of all movers.”
urban dance
“Dance is more powerful than we use it for. As long as we keep our focus on collaboration, rather than competition, the positive impact it can have for humanity is endless.”

– Shaun Evaristo

STEEZY (Who dat?! Jk, it’s us.) Our mission is to make dance accessible to everyone. Originally, in April of 2014, we started as a blog and social media platform.

Now, we offer online dance classes from world-class choreographers on STEEZY.CO.

Our blog continues to be a resource that dancers all over the world can count on for helpful advice, history lessons, inspiration / motivation (and of course, a hearty laugh).

Get to know the STEEZY team better!

"Urban Dance" as a label

It's annoying for OG b-boys to hear the media use "breakdancing," but that label still helped give universal visibility to their art form.

It gave the general public something easier to understand and refer to.

In a similar manner, there are a lot of technical failings to the label.

We can get political, socio-political, literal, pull out a Webster's, etc. and in all those ways, it's not ideal.

However, all of what I outlined in this post somehow did, whether we like it or not, become known as "Urban Dance" to a worldwide audience.

Therefore, that's what we used in reference for this article. Whatever you call it, this thing that we're a part of has grown so much – and continues to grow.

We’re so proud of how far the community’s come and thankful to be part of it all.

And of course, we’re happy to be sharing the ride with YOU!

Did this article give you a better idea of what urban dance is? Comment below and share your thoughts!

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