The Jabbawockeez didn’t expect to win the first season of MTV’s “America’s Best Dance Crew” in 2008. When the then-San Diego-based group entered the reality competition show, they had done so partly in in memory of a recently deceased member, Gary “Gee One” Kendell.
Then again, they didn’t expect to lose either. Their unique dance style, which combines multiple styles including b-boying and popping and performed while each member dons the crew’s signature white mask, made them the judges’ favorite.
“Our main focus wasn’t about winning. Our main focus was just about sharing, with the world, our artistry,” founding member Jeff “Phi” Nguyen, who has been with the group since 2004, told NBC News.
Eight years later, the 11-member group are now taking center stage at their third Las Vegas residency. “JREAMZ: Journey Within” at the MGM Grand Hotel & Casino might be the crew’s most immersive show to date, complete with 3-D video mapping inside the newly renovated Jabbawockeez Theater, where they perform up to 10 shows a week. They are the first hip-hop dance crew to have a residency in the city and previously held regular performances at the Monte Carlo Resort and at the Luxor before settling into a six-year contract at MGM last November.
“The name speaks for itself. It’s about us following our dreams and what we want to do, how we’ve evolved into being the first dance company to hit the mainstream,” Rynan “Kid Rainen” Paguio told NBC News.
That evolution — from self-proclaimed “garage kids” riffing on ‘90s hip-hop moves to finessed Vegas showmen — extends into both their professional and personal lives. The crew is now a full-fledged business that includes a 65-person staff — or “tribe,” as they call it — made up of cast members, production personnel and management. The growth has happened in their personal lives, too: Four out of the five founding members who spoke with NBC News have started families of their own. It’s not uncommon to see younger Wockeez running around backstage before a show or joining them on the road.
“We’re not boys anymore. It’s pretty dope to see the next generation of Jabbawockeez being raised up. We’re in a place right now where, from a business standpoint, family is our company culture,” Kevin “KB” Brewer said.
It’s a definitively more settled vibe than the interim years between their “ABDC” win and their first Vegas stint in 2010, during which they toured all over the world, collaborated with everyone from the New Kids on the Block to Shaquille O’Neal, and danced in movies and major campaigns for brands like Coca-Cola and Ford.
In the process, they also learned to transition from choreographing one-to-two minute pieces — like they did while on the show — to directing more complex, stamina-testing performances at 30 to 60 minutes in length, sometimes longer.
“So when Vegas hit and it was an hourlong show, we were prepped for it. We kind of got our flow,” founding member Joe “Punkee” Larot said.
Diversity is endemic to the Jabbawockeez flow, too, whether it be in their eclectic dance style or within their cast, which includes Filipino-, Vietnamese-, and African-American members. According to the group, both have contributed to their popularity overseas, particularly in the Philippines.
“We all came from very diverse upbringings and communities. This is really just normal to us,” Phil “Swagger Boy” Tayag said. “What’s awesome is you see the Jabbawockeez crew, and you see the masks and the people under the masks. We transcended the color lines and barriers. It really helped to break that stigma of anyone thinking that a certain kind of people can or can’t dance.”
They are also looking beyond the masks toward the future, which includes artistic endeavors outside of dance.
“Dance is the foundation of how we got into this space as artists, but what we’re realizing is that it’s just one extension of who we are,” Tayag, who choreographed and danced in Beyonce’s and Bruno Mars’s performance at the 2016 Super Bowl Halftime Show, said.
There’s talk of possibly producing a reality or animated show and expanding their clothing line and record label, JBWKZ Clothing and JBWKZ Records, respectively.
“I think, at the end of the day, the main goal is still being able to stay as a crew and as a unit,” said Paguio, who has performed with founding members Brewer, Larot, and Tayag since 1999. “We’re married at the hip. We’re men married at the hip through dance.”