LocationAlhambra , CA United States
Every time they caught a glimpse of themselves on national television, the members of the Mark Keppel High School all-male hip-hop dance team would cheer wildly.
They were gathered in their high school auditorium on a recent Sunday evening, watching themselves on a big screen competing in the qualifying rounds on NBC’s “World of Dance,” surrounded by parents and friends. With matching green hair and shiny purple jackets displaying their team name on the back, MKAM members moved sharply and uniformly through a rapid series of hip-hop dance moves to an upbeat Lil’ Jon song.
“World of Dance” celebrity judges Ne-Yo, Jennifer Lopez and Derek Hough effusively praised how skillfully and precisely MKAM executed their dance routine. “That was just mathematical — it really was — that was like mathography,” Hough said, emphasizing every word, as the teams listened with huge smiles on their faces, barely able to stand still. “The transitions that you did were so creative, so thoughtful, and your execution was on point.”
Every April, Alhambra Unified students who are in 8th to 11th grade are eligible to audition for MKAM. For “World of Dance,” current team members had to audition in-house for MKAM’s teacher, Activate Arroyo. Regardless of whether they were chosen to compete on the show, MKAM members commit to hours of practice after school and on weekends, while juggling homework and family responsibilities.
To the 15 members of MKAM who competed, out of the 32 who are part of the team, this moment was a culmination of all their hard work.
“It’s crazy that we were on that stage,” said Paul Im, MKAM’s team captain and a senior at Mark Keppel High School. “Because we’ve been watching for like the past two seasons and finally seeing the judges react to what we can do, that was the best moment for me.”
The boys were also surprised to have done so well, with an average score of 89.7 from all three judges, out of 100 points. This score will allow MKAM to move on to the next round, which will air Sunday at 8 p.m. on NBC.
“We did not expect to get that high of a score,” said Erick Moreno, a Mark Keppel junior and “lieutenant” for MKAM, in charge of planning team fundraisers and encouraging good team conduct. “We underestimate ourselves sometimes, because we do not think we’re as great as other teams.”
“World of Dance” is just the latest achievement for MKAM, who several years ago were the underdogs of the high school dance competition circuit. With many of the members from working-class immigrant families, as well as lacking formal dance training before joining MKAM, they have displayed a special determination that has allowed them to arrive at this point.
Activate Arroyo started providing MKAM dancers with formal instruction when he joined Mark Keppel at the end of 2011 as an after-school coach. He started his career by training as a dancer at the EDGE Performing Arts Center in Hollywood and other Los Angeles-area dance studios from 1999 to 2008. He taught dance for two years in the Los Angeles Unified School District before joining Mark Keppel. In Spring 2012, Arroyo took MKAM to a small regional competition, and then after becoming a full-time teacher in the fall of 2015, led MKAM to their first national high school dance competition title the following year, where they won in the Large Male Hip-Hop category.
In 2017, MKAM won the U.S. Grand National Championship, the biggest prize at the U.S. National and World Championships, organized by the largest dance competition organization in the country, Miss Dance Drill Team USA. MKAM scored higher than 650 acts comprising all different dance genres. Last weekend, MKAM won multiple titles at the West Coast Elite Nationals, including top scoring champion out of 700 acts.
Last year, a talent scout for “World of Dance” got in touch with Arroyo after seeing an MKAM performance on YouTube. The scout invited the team to audition, news that Arroyo sat on for 10 days before surprising the team and their supporters by announcing it at their spring concert. Now MKAM is competing for a $1 million prize on the show, their biggest platform yet. If they win, some of the team members plan to use the money to pay for college, while others want to start small businesses or invest in property.
The fact that MKAM now has a national platform is not lost on the rest of the school “When they’re at the rallies, that’s what everybody looks forward to,” said Vanessa Aguirre, a senior at Mark Keppel. “But now that they’re on the show, it just made them a lot more visible.”
Arroyo credits MKAM’s meteoric rise to the boys’ hard work. “The boys have always been special,” he said. “The work ethic has always been reflective of the immigrant community they come from.” Students in the Alhambra Unified School District speak 13 different languages at home, said Alhambra Unified School District spokesperson Toby Gilbert. MKAM members speak eight of those — Mandarin, Cantonese, Spanish, Tagalog, Korean, Vietnamese, Japanese and English.
Mark Keppel High School serves a largely working class and immigrant population, with a student body that’s 73 percent Asian Pacific Islander and 23 percent Latino. Around 62 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch. This reality touches MKAM as well, with one student having to leave the team after shooting “World of Dance” to work in his parents’ shop after school. Another student left due to other family obligations.
Mark Keppel High School provides bus transportation to competitions, but the team has to raise money for costumes and registration fees themselves. With the help of the MKHS Dance Company Boosters, the team does fundraising through an annual spring dance concert, a 4th of July booth and an upcoming community night market. For World of Dance, MKAM sold pizza, candy apples and boba, while also partnering with local restaurants like Chipotle and Ono’s Hawaiian BBQ.
“They have always viewed themselves as underdogs on the high school competition circuit because there are a couple of teams that frequently give us a run for our money so to speak,” Arroyo said, adding that these teams are usually affiliated with a dance studio. “When we don’t win, it’s usually because we barely got edged out by a team that may have more resources.”
But MKAM makes up for that by working hard, to the point where the long hours they put in would worry their parents, many of them who were also concerned that the boys would neglect their schoolwork in the process. That hasn’t turned out to be the case.
Two Mark Keppel valedictorians have danced with MKAM and Paul Im, the team captain, has a 4.2 GPA and is also the Speaker of the House for Mark Keppel’s student government.
Im was also known as MKAM’s worst dancer during his freshman year at Mark Keppel, but pushed himself to get better until he became one of the best by sophomore year. Now he not only works out the choreography as captain, but leads MKAM through practice under Arroyo’s supervision.
Im credits MKAM’s previous student leaders with creating a supportive environment for him to grow as a dancer. “I think their belief in me, knowing I can do something better, that’s what ultimately pushed me,” he said, adding that everything started clicking during his sophomore year. “I knew how capable my body was and I felt a lot more comfortable with my body.”
Mark Keppel senior and MKAM team member Nathan Cao also credits the team with teaching him other essential skills that also enabled his skeptical parents to get on board with all the time he was devoting to practice. “It took a little bit longer for [my parents] to realize I actually like dancing, not just because it was fun, because it taught me a lot of life lessons,” he said.
Cao assists Im and Arroyo with choreography and cleaning up routines as MKAM co-captain. “Being in this team isn’t only improving as a dancer but also as a person and being able to manage time, school, fun and practice,” he said.
As an immigrant of Chinese descent who grew up in Honduras, Cao credits coming to Mark Keppel High School and joining MKAM for allowing him the choice to find what he likes to do. “I was mostly just at home, just doing nothing, playing games, the usual,” he said about Honduras. “Being able to come here, and not knowing there was this many after-school activities to do, made me realize how important it was for me to come to such an area.”
As well as they did during their first episode on “World of Dance,” the judges did have one piece of criticism, to make the choreography “a little more next level,” as Lopez put it. “It’s going to be stepping up the ideas and the concepts and the choreography, the actual steps,” she said.
“Right when they said that, I was like, ‘Oh I have to do a much better job for the next round or else we were going to go home,’ ” Im said. “I myself tried to implement new things and more creative stuff into our next routine and then try to get these guys’ ideas and see what they want to do with it, with our director.”
Choreography is often taken on by the team members themselves, sometimes in partnership with professional choreographers and always under the artistic direction of Arroyo. He said that the new routine would showcase each student better, and that the costumes would be more creative too. And of course, MKAM will try out more complicated flips, jumps and other tricks.
“We upped our level of tricks from level six to level 10,” Arroyo said about their next performance on Sunday.“That was the plan. I can’t say anything more than that.”
Watch MKAM’s “World of Dance” qualifying performance below. MKAM will compete in the “World of Dance” “duel” round on Sunday, March 24 at 8 p.m.