"No formal training. No dance studio. No mentor," says Erik Saradpon about his beginnings in hip hop.
"I think that's why I'm especially tough on these guys, because I don't take the relationship for granted," he says, referring to his students. "I'm like a dad to them. I had a shortage of role models in my life. I wanted that so badly. I project that onto my kids."
Saradpon has carved out a formidable career teaching, choreographing and heading the hip-hop program of the Temecula Dance Company in the Los Angeles area, and as the founder/director of the hip-hop troupe FORMALITY. He was a second runner-up for the Capezio A.C.E. Awards, winner of Best Hip Hop at the Industry Dance Awards and second-place awardee at the 2018 Palm Desert Choreography Festival. And he's an in-demand teacher studio owners turn to when they desperately need to learn hip-hop instruction—or to find, hire and nurture their hip-hop teachers.
In his hour-long hip-hop classes, Saradpon gives at least 15 minutes of warm-up. "I get the blood moving, the hips alive, get the shoulders activated, get them feeling funky," he says. He then moves on to progressions across the floor. In all levels, from beginners (no younger than 8) to advanced, he teaches fundamentals—basics of weight shift, placement, grooves, freestyle and mechanics. "With the older guys, I do way more style and performance, and later I introduce textures and dynamics," he says. "If they can do technique well, they can do anyone's choreography. I want to train them beyond the competition studio—to succeed outside."
"Sometimes I see clean dancers with no essence of what makes it cool"
Observing a trend in hip-hop studios across the country, Saradpon notes a certain hollowness in the training—teaching the moves without the style or wit of the streets where it started. "Sometimes I just see clean dancers with no essence of what makes it cool," he says. "Some teachers can't touch on what makes it cool or don't have a student who can show how to do it. I have an abundance of guys who know how to show it."
And the frequent lack of structure, discipline and studio etiquette in hip-hop classes make him crazy. "There's too much freedom, so kids don't know how to take a good class," he says. "I can't fathom why hip-hop teachers don't embrace that enough. I feel they reserve that only for ballet or other technique classes. Discipline is great in everything—sports, relationships or hip-hop class. The kids succeed here [in Temecula] because they are disciplined."
"My savior was music"
Saradpon grew up in San Diego in a Filipino-American family with three brothers. "There was lots of testosterone in the house, and I didn't have an outlet like soccer or martial arts," he says. "My savior was music, and music for me is so related to dance. Eighties music—Duran Duran, Madonna, Prince, Bobby Brown—became the soundtrack to my life." In junior high, he joined the show choir, singing show tunes without really knowing what "Broadway" meant.
It was the hip-hop crew he started in his backyard that led, in 1996, to the formation of FORMALITY, the troupe he still directs today. "We would perform at everything from school talent shows to assemblies, street competitions, car import shows," he says. "Through that crew I learned how to teach people to become teachers. And they became teachers in studios all over Southern California."
In 2006, when the artistic director of Temecula Dance Company, Jimmy Peters, invited him to teach, Saradpon was initially reluctant. But, he says, "it turned into the best time of my life. [Jimmy] said, 'Do what you do with FORMALITY here within these studio walls.' He taught me a lot about seeing the best in kids, that when a boy walks into the studio, as terrible as he may be at that moment, he's defeating the odds already by being here. We take every boy who comes through those doors very seriously."
Saradpon has coached and choreographed for The Boys of Temecula, the ensemble from Temecula Dance Company that wowed viewers on NBC's "World of Dance." Photo by Trae Patton/NBC, courtesy of Saradpon
"It's your class—education is education"
Last year, Saradpon gave his first hip-hop conference for teachers at the DanceLife Teacher Conference in Phoenix. He was stunned to see more than 100 eager teachers in the audience. "They wanted to know where they could find teachers like me, how to build a discipline in the hip-hop genre," he says. "They're fighting hard to stay relevant, not dated or hokey. They ask if it's cool to do a warm-up, progressions and choreography. I say, 'It's your class—education is education.'" He advises them on how to cultivate teachers within the studio, shares kid-friendly playlists and recommends where to find proper hip-hop-class attire. "Sometimes on my social media, I'll get a message from a teacher in her 50s or 60s, wearing her warm-up suit and doing my progressions," he says. "I'm always tickled by that. You need to know who you're reaching."
An example of his practical instructional sequence for teachers uses familiar music: "Step in Time" from Mary Poppins, with hip-hop beats. "It shows them how to formulate it, where the accents are and what kind of big moves and weight shifts look good within the phrasing of the choreography," he says. "Good choreography is good storytelling—there's an intro, content, buildup and conclusion."
"I don't think anyone was aware of how popular it was going to become"
Some dance industry professionals have suggested that hip hop needs a syllabus like ballet or jazz to establish a universal hip-hop vocabulary and curriculum. "That's an uphill battle," says Saradpon. "I don't know what the solution is." In ballet, despite the disparate schools, a tendu and a pas de bourrée are globally recognized. Hip hop's freestyle, improvisational moves differ from the Bronx to the West Coast to Memphis. Beginning with its origins on urban blocks, he says, "I don't think any of them created it to become a dance artform to be consumed by dance studios."
Despite his successes, Saradpon has faced insecurities about his own career. So reputable as a men's teacher, he's often felt less capable of teaching and choreographing for women. Watching commercial choreographer Rhapsody James (Dance Teacher, April 2010) has inspired him to calibrate his eye toward making a visual impact, using women's anatomical differences and movement quality to their advantage. Watching him work with intermediate girls in the studio, though, you'd never detect a problem. The girls match the boys on nearly every level.
Teaching at The Pulse. Photo courtesy of Saradpon
"Love on hip hop the way you would ballet"
For those studio owners who know that they need to strengthen and honor their hip-hop programs, Saradpon shares advice: Don't treat the training like a poor, distant cousin. "Love on the hip-hop program the way you would love on ballet technique or tap or jazz," he says. He asks studio directors to value those teachers like anyone on their staff, but to still demand a lot, and let them know what they demand.
"Don't be afraid to think outside the box when looking for a hip-hop teacher," he says. He counsels teachers to search within their own studios for an instructor or an advanced student who might teach hip hop—even students from 20 years ago. "Don't be afraid to be vulnerable and announce what you're looking for in a great hip-hop teacher," he adds.
He stresses serious professionalism in every aspect of the work: the integrity of the instruction and the choreography; prompt, clear responses to e-mails; and rational, emotionally restrained interactions with students' parents with concerns.
Hip-hop instructors also need committed support. "Value yourself and don't ever settle," he says "Don't allow yourself to feel like you're on a remote island. Trust in your voice and the structure of your class. Be authentically yourself. That's been my strength here in the studio."