Behind the Mask: The Jabbawockeez, America

By Marie-Lorraine Mallare

October 1, 2008, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

Originally published in the July 11-17, 2008 issue of AsianWeek

Proclaimed America’s best dance crew on the first season of MTV’s Randy Jackson Presents: America’s Best Dance Crew, the Jabbawockeez are now touring through the United States and Asia, doing what they do best—dancing.

Since winning the show in March, the dance crew has been booked solid to perform all over North America and Asia. Even with upcoming performances in New Jersey, Canada, Hawai’i, Reno, Guam and Malaysia, stardom has not changed these young performers at all. In fact, performing to an audience of millions was not too different from performing to their local fans at showcases in San Diego and Los Angeles, they say.

“Competing in America’s Best Dance Crew was just another performance,” Jeff “Phi” Nguyen said. “It didn’t really hit us until we saw our clips on YouTube. It was surreal, but it feels good and it’s a blessing.”

Now they have more requests to perform, and they’re performing to standing room-only crowds. Approximately 1,400 fans showed up at Vivid Nightclub in San Jose to see them perform on July 4 with San Jose DJ group FingerBangerz. “The Jabbawockeez and the FingerBangerz are family, and since July 4 is about family get-togethers, this is the best way to celebrate,” said Nick Ngo, a member of the FingerBangerz.

Kevin Brewer and Joe Larot formed the Jabbawockeez in 2003 by reaching out to their friends within the dance community that had the same outlook on dance and life. The crew grew over the next few years to be 11 members strong, with Phil Tayag, Gary Kendell, Rynan Paguio, Randy Bernal, Eddie Gutierrez, Saso Jimenez, Ben Chung, Chris Gatdula and Jeff Nguyen.

Their name was inspired by Lewis Carroll’s poem, “Jabberwocky.”

“A Jabberwocky is a mystical, dragon-like creature who roams the king’s forest, and that’s what the Jabbawockeez are, mystical and free,” Paguio said.

Kendell, the eldest of the crew, passed away in 2007 from meningitis. Today, the crew attributes their success and style to him.

“We were just representing Gary,” said Nguyen of their performances on America’s Best Dance Crew.

The crew credits Kendell as their inspiration and the force that drives each member. “The Jabbawockeez are 10 members, and one is spiritual,” Paguio said. “He was the glue that really held us together in the beginning, making sure we didn’t lose sight of this unique thing we were creating.”

Members of the crew are scattered across California and Nevada, but because of their close ties to one another, they are able to intuit and work in choreography changes easily. Nguyen said they meet only a few days before a performance to practice all together.

There is no team leader; every member has a vision of the Jabbawockeez and expresses it during rehearsals. Each member taught dance classes and workshops before, so each brings a unique flair to the choreography, which is hip-hop with styles of B-boying, popping, locking and freestyling.

“We call it ‘Beat Kundo,’ an art form derived from Bruce Lee’s philosophy with movement and interceptive beats,” Paguio said.

Each performs wearing a white mask. “The idea of the mask is to remove all ethnic and social barriers when we perform” Gutierrez said.

“Those who watch us will see us for the dance moves and the style we put out there,” Bernal added.

Masks aside, the crew embraces their ethnic backgrounds (seven members are Asian American, including Filipino American, Korean American and Vietnamese American; one is African American and two are Mexican American).

“The fact that the guys still speak their ethnic languages is a testament that they haven’t lost their heritage,” said the crew’s manager, Audie Vergara.

Chris Gatdula explained that growing up Asian American meant their parents expected them to follow the traditional route of higher education and professional careers. “A lot of our parents expected us to get a college degree, make $50K, get a traditional career, like become a doctor, a nurse, an engineer,” he said. “But young Asian Americans like us look at the world differently. Dancing, once viewed as a past-time activity, is actually an artistic form of expression and is a career.”

Gatdula hopes that by winning the show the crew has shown “all parents across America that it is an accomplishment, and they may be inclined to push their kids to do something artistic.”

Nguyen said it’s also a matter of representing a different, more creative side of Asian Americans. “There is an artistic side to us — we’re Americanized, and we’re fourth and fifth generations in America,” he said.

Fans of the Jabbawockeez are not only Asian American, but include people of all walks of life and ages, from elder professionals to the young, urban hip-hopper. “It really amazes me when I see how many different types of people can relate to us,” Paguio said. “We’re so thankful that they are seeing us perform.”

For more information on the Jabbawockeez, go to

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This article appeared in the October 2008 issue of In Dance.

Marie-Lorraine Mallare, J.D., LL.M. is former news anchor of Filipino-American Report, a local news program in the bay area. She is a contributing writer for AsianWeek. Currently, a professor with the Yuchengco Philippine Studies and Asian American Studies Program, teaching Asian Americans and the Law, Knowledge Activism, Philippine History and Tagalog language courses at University of San Francisco.