Three nights a week, the exercise room of a gym in an apartment complex near Boys Town temporarily converts into a hip-hop studio.
Seven young dancers in cheetah-print leggings, denim vents, camo pants and oversized hoodies practice to music by Nicki Minaj, Drake and Beyoncé. The members take turns choreographing the routines, which are at once athletic, powerful, intricate and precise, and have elements of break dancing, free-style dance and even figure skating.
Sometimes, they have the room to themselves. Other times, they have an audience: apartment complex residents working out on elliptical machines or stationary bikes.
They've arranged their college classes and work schedules to accommodate their dance practices. They carpool in together from Council Bluffs, South Omaha, North Omaha. One drives in three nights a week from Lincoln. And they perform — spontaneously in the Old Market, in regional dance workshops, at Omaha Beef halftime shows. This year, they were invited to dance at a national hip-hop competition, and they'll travel to San Diego for it in late July. They dream of eventually moving to Los Angeles and dancing in music videos or touring with pop or hip-hop stars.
“I honestly feel in my heart that this is going to go somewhere,” said Brashaud Foard, a 22-year-old member of the group.
The seven dancers call themselves Rubix Crew, which they thought reflected the different ethnicities, backgrounds and dance styles of the group's members. All are self-taught. They're not affiliated with a studio (hence the exercise room practice space). Two members — Alicia Gonzales and Justin Bennett — are still in high school. The other five — Foard, Isiah Watkins, Blair Chambers, Angie Whaley and Ashley Nguyen — are in their late teens or early 20s. Some are in college, some work, some do both.
All are trying to figure out their futures. And all hope that dance fits in somewhere.
Watkins, of Omaha, learned how to dance when he spent an entire summer as a kid watching Michael Jackson videos. Now he treats Rubix Crew as a full-time job. Chambers, 22, Watkins' cousin (though they didn't realize that until they attended college together), is studying acting at Iowa Western Community College. He squeezes in dance practice between classes and rehearsals and performances of plays. He views dance as more of an accessory to his acting goals than a potential career.
“I'm also working on singing, too, because I want to be a triple threat,” he said.
The group has a manager, 21-year-old Lauren Hickox. She's Watkins' girlfriend and a receptionist at a nail salon. She's also studying graphic design at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and created the logo for the group's T-shirts and business cards. She films their performances and posts them to YouTube, and updates the group's Twitter and Facebook pages. She sets up many of the group's gigs, and she worked with the University of Nebraska at Omaha and the Asian Student Association there to plan a hip-hop dance workshop for April 28. The workshop will be a fundraiser for both groups.
Hickox, also of Omaha, hasn't danced in years, but she did as a kid, before high school sports took up all of her time. She still misses it sometimes. She described herself as the sort who always ends up in charge of whatever she's doing.
And someone needed to run the group.
“You can't have one of them be in charge, because then all sorts of drama starts,” she said.
The group came together last May, with Hickox already at the helm. Watkins had been in another dance group before, with Chambers and some other college friends. But that group, All New Krew, fell apart as members got busy or moved away. Watkins and Hickox wanted to start a more serious group. From the beginning, the members of Rubix Crew made dance a priority.
The group started out with six members — Watkins, Chambers, Gonzales, Bennett and twin sisters who have since moved to Los Angeles to pursue dance careers. The original members all sort of knew each other, Hickox said, either through Omaha's dance scene or through friends of friends.
Whaley joined next. The 21-year-old old grew up dancing with her sister. When they were teens, they spent nights dancing at Club Roxbury. Later, when her sister was diagnosed with stomach cancer, Whaley danced in her hospital room, trying to make it seem like they were at home, just hanging out. Her sister died in 2009, and Whaley was diagnosed with the same kind of cancer the following year. The doctors caught it early, and Whaley's OK now. After that, she said, she felt like she needed to keep dancing, because she could.
“You get older and you just do what you want to do,” she said. “I want to do this.”
In July, she was looking online for dance studios that offered hip-hop classes. She didn't find any, but she did find Rubix Crew. She messaged Watkins and screwed up the courage to audition. She made the cut, and after that, she made the time. She works with developmentally disabled adults, and changed her schedule to work nights. That way, she could attend practices with the group in the evenings and spend time with her 1-year-old son during the day. Her parents watch him when she has practices and performances.
“I make sure my schedule is lined up right,” she said. But she still struggles with how much time she puts in.
“It's hard to just leave your family at home,” she said.
Foard joined next. He's danced in clubs around Omaha for years, knew some of the members of the group and asked how he could get involved. After months of practices and performances, Foard had proved his skills in dancing and choreography, as well as his seriousness, and Hickox announced his acceptance into the group on Twitter.
Foard, a student at ITT Technical Institute, said his father wants him to pursue a more traditional career path. He and his dad have talked about what's best for him.
“I'm just trying to make everyone in my family proud,” he said.
After Foard had joined the group, Nguyen asked to audition, too. She drove up from Lincoln and floored everyone, Hickox said. Nguyen is the only member of the crew with formal training in choreography, though her background is in figure skating, not dance. The crew wasn't looking for another member, Hickox said, but Nguyen was so good that they made an exception. For now, Hickox said, the crew isn't looking for anyone else.
Once the group was assembled, Hickox started planning events for them, reaching out to venues — sometimes cold-calling — and asking if the group could perform. They've danced at halftime during Omaha Beef games. They filmed a video in which they danced to “Starships” by Nicki Minaj, then submitted it to a contest sponsored by the singer. They didn't win the grand prize — tickets to a Nicki Minaj show and a chance to meet the singer — but their video did get more than 30,000 views on YouTube. All together, the 17 videos the group has posted on YouTube have received more than 100,000 views.
Hickox thinks that's pretty good for a year-old group.
Bennett, a senior at Omaha Central, said his friends and classmates have watched the videos. They began to ask him about Rubix Crew. A few attended performances.
“It surprises me that I have this much support,” he said.
The dance group gave Bennett both confidence and a group of close friends. He and Gonzales have been friends since middle school, but attend different high schools. Rubix Crew has kept them close. His young nieces know he's a dancer, and they like it when Uncle Justin shows them his moves.
Bennett plans to study graphic design after high school. But he wants to keep dancing, too.
The group will see how things go at nationals, what kind of connections they make, Hickox said. If the right opportunity presented itself, all seven could see relocating to Los Angeles — which Hickox described as the center of the hip-hop dance industry. If not, they've talked about all sorts of things — opening a studio, teaching workshops and drop-in classes, working with local rappers and hip-hop artists, maybe going on tour.
And they'll keep dancing.
“Sometimes we'll go downtown in the summer in the Old Market and just dance around,” Hickox said.
“It's really fun.”
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