Chasing After Dreams

Unlike most UCSD students, Eleanor Roosevelt College sophomore Sheng Poon has put school on the back burner. For him, majoring in psychology is secondary to establishing himself as a hip hop dancer.

His strategy seems to be working. Last summer, he appeared on national television (as a zombie and later a mime) with a dance team called Academy of Villains on the seventh season of “America’s Got Talent.” The team made it to the semifinals but not without the most grueling rehearsals that Poon has ever experienced.

Poon, a Cupertino native, is well-known among the dance community at UCSD. He currently choreographs and teaches workshops for various dance groups on campus, such as [N]Motion, Kasama Modern and Footprints. He’s also a member of UCSD’s Ascension Hip Hop — the only competing collegiate hip hop team on campus.

“[Academy of Villains was] on the show for two episodes before we got eliminated,” Poon said. “It was the most intensely brilliant month of my life. But I totally would not have been able to do it if it wasn’t summertime, when I didn’t have any classes or anything else and could dedicate my entire life to it.”

Poon auditioned for Academy of Villains — a theatrical hip hop dance group from San Francisco — immediately after his freshman year at UCSD. A month following his acceptance, the team was invited to perform on the show.

Complete dedication, Poon said, was necessary to train with the team. Gearing up for the live performances entailed upwards of nine hours of practice a day without any food breaks or sitting. The team’s directors, Christopher “Pharside” Jennings and Krystal Meraz, only allowed their dancers two water breaks per practice. Once, during an exceptionally rigorous, 13-hour-long practice, Poon recalled undergoing what seemed to him an unbearable bout of thirst. (He couldn’t stop daydreaming about getting a Gatorade, an Arizona Iced Tea and a fruit juice at the nearby 7-11 and drinking them all in succession.)

“It was intense — the last four hours of that practice,” Poon said. “I’ve never wanted to drink water more in my entire life. Never.”

Not only was training physically demanding, but it also required a tough mentality.

“The team ran on a very brash, very brutal style,” Poon said. “It was referred to as a militant style of directorship, and that is not an exaggeration at all. If you did badly, then profanities were sent your way. Profanities were just floating about, and the atmosphere was so hostile.”

Regardless of the ruthless direction that he underwent, Poon values the experience for teaching him to persevere. He has since left the Academy of Villains to return to his studies at UCSD, all the while exploring what San Diego has to offer in the realm of dance. Currently, Poon is training with Breakthrough, the youth group of Choreo Cookies based in Studio 429 — North County’s premier hip hop-only dance studio. He’s also passing along his dance expertise at Northmont Elementary School in La Mesa, where he instructs kids in hip hop every Friday as part of a program called Hip Hop 4 Health.

Poon himself didn’t begin dancing until his freshman year of high school, and he has YouTube to thank for introducing him to hip hop; he’s been hooked since the viral explosion of clown-walking — commonly abbreviated as c-walking — on YouTube in 2007. C-walking is a type of footwork that stems from a dance move created by Crip gang members (the Crip Walk), though it is not gang-affiliated.

“YouTube has been a prominent part of my life since the beginning of high school,” Poon said. “In the beginning, I would look up tutorials to learn how to dance. I still look at videos for inspiration. I still study competitions and people’s choreography. Finally, now that I’m posting stuff on YouTube, it has been completely integrated into my life.”

These days, Poon is inspired by dancers such as Daniel Jerome (his favorite YouTube dancer), Brian Puspos, Mike Song, “Pharside” and his current directors, Tracy Seiler and Carlo Darang — each of whom, he said, possess unique dance styles.

“My personal dance style is like the Grand Canyon because you can see every layer, and every layer has made the whole better than the sum of its parts,” Poon said. “Every single influence that I’ve gotten so far has added to that layer of my dance style. It’s definitely a mix between popping and hip hop. In terms of hip hop, I’d say my style is very quick, staccato and flowy at times.”

Poon practices every day, an average of four hours a day. Chances are you’ll find him in one of the studios at Rimac before you catch him sitting in a lecture hall on campus. Though he admitted that dance remains his top priority, he manages (not without struggling) to fit classes into his dance-packed schedule.

“I try to squeeze [academics] in between the training and dancing, but I’m going to class — I’m trying,” Poon said. “It’s always good to have a bachelor’s degree. No one can dance forever; their bodies just won’t let them.”

But with the resilience of youth on his side, it doesn’t look like Poon will be forgoing his dance career anytime soon.

“My future plans are to continue training, work my butt off and become amazing by the time I graduate,” Poon said. “Hopefully by then, I can have the skill and the networks to be able to move out to LA and pursue dance there. My dream career is to be able to travel and teach workshops internationally. And then, I’d really like to be able to choreograph for artists — Kpop, whatever it may be. Justin Bieber — doesn’t matter. That’s my dream.”

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