"We're like the Knights of the Round Table: Everyone puts their two cents in, and the decisions are based on what the majority wants," says Jeff Nguyen, the Jabbawockeez member known as "Phi" (pronounced "fee"). "The name comes from my Vietnamese grandmother, who had trouble pronouncing my name, Jeffrey, when I was little," he says. "She said 'Jeff-fee.' So when I started dancing and my friends said I needed to have a cool b-boy name, I picked Phi."
Nguyen was born and raised in Arizona, and after establishing himself as a hip-hop dancer in Phoenix, he moved to Los Angeles when he was 19 to pursue professional dance work. "The Jabbawockeez had formed as a dance crew in 2003, and I met them at a choreographers' carnival in L.A. They asked me to join them, but in order to do so I had to 'battle' one of the members." Nguyen was successful in his freestyle battle against company member Kevin Brewer and joined the crew in 2004.
After winning the MTV hip-hop dance reality series "Randy Jackson Presents America's Best Dance Crew" in March 2008, Jabbawockeez went from being a street dance crew to a professional dance company. "We upped it a notch in terms of the business side of what we were doing," says Nguyen. "We started to become businessmen, as opposed to just kids who got together and spun on our heads in a garage." The national television exposure and acclaim from winning the competition immediately boosted the company's fame and bookings. Since then, Jabbawockeez has toured with pop-music sensations New Kids on the Block and Jesse McCartney, opened for the NBA All-Star Game, and been featured in a Gatorade commercial that premiered during the Super Bowl.
Leaderless and Loving It
Nguyen attributes much of the group's success to its lack of a single director: "There's not one guy who makes all the calls." However, he emphasizes that such a collaborative enterprise works only if the people involved are open-minded, not egotistical, and committed to a similar artistic vision. "Yeah, we bump heads sometimes," he says, "but at the end of the day we're all brothers, we're all headed in the same direction, and we're all interested in making the best decisions for the group."
While the troupe has brought in directors to advise and to help put together its big productions, all of its musical and design choices are made as a group, and all of its choreography is created jointly by its members. "There's a beat that's laid out, and then one guy will bring in his eight bars, and then another guy will do the next eight bars, and it continues like that until we have the whole song done," Nguyen explains. "And that's for the group sections. When we do solos, they're usually not even choreographed; they're just freestyle."
The aesthetic elements that have come to characterize the company also reflect its commitment to a group sensibility. For example, the reason they cover their faces with masks when they perform is that they originally did not want people to know who they were as individuals.
"In one of the first shows we did, we wore ninja masks," says Nguyen. "And then we changed to silver, futuristic, robotic-looking masks. We finally ended up with the plain white ones simply because they fit better on our faces. They're just basic plastic masks that you can buy in any Halloween shop. It was less about the look than about the idea of covering our faces. We want you to experience Jabbawockeez as a group and not just follow or be fans of one individual person. There's no lead dancer in our crew. Our philosophy is that when you watch us perform, you have to watch us as a whole."
Jabbawockeez includes dancers of various ethnic backgrounds, including Vietnamese, Filipino, Korean, and African-American. "But that's the beauty of the mask," Nguyen says. "When we put it on, it's not about who we are or where we came from. We're all one."
Jabbawockeez will be performing in mid-August at the MGM Grand Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas. For further information, visit www.jbwkz.com.