ONE. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven. Eight.
Standing before a wall lined with seven large mirror panels, Fil-Am Van Jovi Wong, 21, counts out loud while demonstrating a dance move called the wave./breaking down the moves involved in the wave.
On the first count, he moves his wrist. At two, he lifts his elbow. At three, he accents his shoulder.
Wong’s movement is choppy, resembling that of a robot, as he repeats the steps at a slow tempo.
Then he speeds it up. One, two, three, four.
This time, his wave is smooth with no interruptions.
Behind Wong, eight other Fil-Am youth are quickly able to imitate the motion of his wave with a striking degree of precision.
It’s the start of a dance class on a Wednesday afternoon at the Search to Involve Pilipino Americans (SIPA) building on Temple Street in Historic Filipinotown. Wong was teaching for the day as the group, called SIPA Crew, was in the process of looking for an instructor to lead its Wednesday sessions. Now, Culture Shock LA, a non-profit Hip-Hop dance organization, is providing instructors for those classes: YouTuber David Lee and Lila Frias, who was recently on America’s Got Talent, are teaching members of the SIPA dance group.
SIPA Crew came to life in March 2013, with its first class held at the beginning of that month. Prior to that, SIPA’s former executive director, Joel Jacinto, was in talks with Bryan East, a dance instructor with Culture Shock LA, about how great it would be for SIPA to have Hip-Hop classes for youth.
Jacinto then approached Joan Maranan, a long-time participant of SIPA programs, who helped in recruiting other youth into the program and is the group’s administrative captain.
“Thus, SIPA provided the space, Bryan (via Culture Shock LA) provided the instruction, and Joan brought the youth,” Stephanie Van, counseling coordinator at SIPA, told the Asian Journal.
The group has classes twice a week – Wednesday and Friday – at no charge to participants. The majority of its current members are young Fil-Am adults, but it is open to all ages and ethnic groups.
Depending on the time of the year, SIPA Crew is home to up to 30 members. But consistently, it has about 10 to 15 dancers.
Since it was established, the group has performed at the Festival of Philippine Arts and Culture (FPAC) twice, a Los Angeles Clipper game halftime show, the Lotus Festival in LA and a Tuesday Night Cafe – a free arts and performance series in Downtown Los Angeles. It participated in recent community events, such as the Larry Itliong Day/20th Anniversary Mural Event at Unidad Park and the Festival of Philippine Arts & Culture (FPAC).
As a young group, SIPA Crew is still in the process of spreading the word of its existence.
But fortune and fame are not among its aims.
“Our goal is to just let people know we’re here and you guys can be proud of us and we can be the people that can represent you guys if you guys need us,” Maranan said.
As a community-based dance group, the long-term goal is to stay alive, and retain and gain more members.
“There’s not [many] organizations like [SIPA], so, therefore, there’s not a lot of opportunities,” Wong said. “Paying for classes is pretty expensive now and as the years go it’s going to get more expensive. So knowing we have something like this around the community, this is very beneficial for everybody.”
SIPA Crew is able to provide free classes to youth through partial funding from the Verizon Foundation, API Prevention and Aftercare Services, and its own fundraising efforts through performance stipends and special fundraising dance workshops.
Some of these efforts have taken place at SIPA anniversary awards and benefits dinners. At this year’s dinner, the group received more than $3,000 from attendees who agreed to “sponsor a step” worth $250 each.
“All proceeds of the Sponsor-a-Step go directly to the program, which gives us the capacity to increase instructional time, and add more components, such as empowerment sessions [and] leadership team planning,” said Tina Salonga-Bulchand, director of programs and services at SIPA.
The crew has managed to expand in the past few months to offer Visual Media Arts classes, where youth can learn photography and video skills by documenting their dance classes.
While the focus of SIPA Crew is on dance, it provides a safe space that facilitates the growth of new friendships.
“The best thing is we’re all close with each other and vibe off each other,” said Nicole Salimbangon, 17, who has been a member of the crew for eight months. “I feel everyone’s energy.”
As the group continues in its third year of dance classes, community performances and a growing program, Wong says he has one main hope for the long-term future: “As long as [SIPA Crew] is strong, healthy and consistent for many, many years, that’s all I can ask for.”