03 | Rowan Quinain
So I think I met Rowan sometime in 2013. I was still dancing with the University of Chicago’s PhiNix Dance Crew at the time. Every Spring, PhiNix has a showcase in Hyde Park. It’s traditionally been a space where collegiate crews have a chance to showcase and bond with each other, and it was the first year we invited both Kapwa Modern at Loyola and FIA Modern from UIC to dance with us. Super super dope event.
Anyway, Kapwa and PhiNix really hit it off that year, and we started attending each other’s events and hanging out with each other. (Mostly at parties tbh. 😅) As I was with most people outside of UChicago’s dance community, I was hella intimidated by everyone in Kapwa because they were so illlll. Rowan included – which is now kind of amusing now that we know each other pretty well.
Anyway, fast forward to today. We’ve danced on a few teams together: first FIAPWA, then Reversion Crew, and now Dream Team. I wanted to reach out to Rowan not only because he’s dance with quite a few groups in our community, but also because he’s just recently come back from training for the Army Reserves. He’s really evolved a lot since I first met him. It was awesome to catch up with this guy, especially in 2018 as he is preparing one of his biggest and most exciting dance projects to date this year! (Yes, it is military related).
John: So how did you get started with dance?
Rowan: So I started cultural dancing in high school. Ironically, I never did Filipino dance, but I did Polish dancing and Indian dancing and Korean dancing. That was like my first time dancing in general. But hip-hop was something I was always interested in because of INsight Crew but I was super intimidated to even attempt to start. Everyone was so good.
John: Ah – was INsight at your high school also? Haha. I actually don’t know too much about INsight. 😅
Rowan: INsight – I had always seen them in the community. It was started by Daniel Dinh. I don’t know if he was the only one but leadership was Daniel, Chris Chueng, and Mikey Nyugen. If I had to compare it to something today, it was something like Dream Team. They had a super devoted fanbase, and they were really popular. They were at the first WOD Chicago – or either WOD Chicago or Prelude. Something like 2010, 2011. They were pretty well known, especially in the Asian-American community.
I would always see them at K-Fest, and I would always be like “wow they’re really cool.” I always wanted to start dancing, but like I said, I just didn’t have the confidence. James Pasalo invited me to try out for Hypnotik which was our like high school hip-hop crew, but I even rejected James’ invite to try out. So I didn’t really do anything about it until college.
I always wanted to join Kapwa Modern which was the Filipino group at Loyola, but then I found out they had a modern dance group. I remember in my head I said, “Screw it – I’m in college now. This is all new to me, so I’m going to try out." That was Fall 2011.
I tried out, and I worked really hard but I didn’t make it. But that’s how I met Gabby and Liz and Vanessa. They invited everyone that got rejected to come and learn the pieces anyway – it was kind of the beginning of their training program but it was all still informal at that point.
John: Were they all directors at the time?
Rowan: Gabby and Nessa were the directors, Liz was a sub-director. They invited all the dancers who didn't make the cut. I didn't learn this until later, but according to Gabby I was the only one that ever showed up to learn dances. 😂 The next semester I tried out and made it as one of the first official trainees of Kapwa Modern, and it was just three of us. That was my first time being involved in hip-hop urban dance formally: Spring 2012. I then competed at Prelude with them and from there I was very much devoted to Kapwa Modern for years.
Beyond the collegiate scene
Rowan: I had auditioned for Puzzle League and CODA (Chicago Onyx Dance Alliance) a few times since joining Kapwa, but it was Spring 2015 when I I finally made it in CODA. That was my first time out in the community outside of college. I was a trainee on CODA initially but eventually, I got to be a regular competitor and I’ve been on CODA ever since.
John: Is there a reason you ended up sticking with CODA?
Rowan: CODA was the first group I got into after Kapwa Modern, and although I made PieceMakers as well, I guess it was the vibe and the atmosphere I really liked in CODA. so that’s been really fun. Of course, in Fall 2015 I was invited to join Dream Team. I joined Ascension Performing Arts I think in 2015 for a period of time as well.
John: Yeah you’ve been around, man. Looking back at everything, is there any particular team or experience that had a meaningful impact on you dance wise or in your general development?
Rowan: I remember 2015 – that year was crazy because I was finally leaving Kapwa behind. I would say leaving Kapwa was the first phase of my dance experience and then 2015 was the next phase because I joined CODA and I did the BoomCrack! Intensive and that’s when I did Gigi Torres’ Establish Your Empire Program as well. I was bombarding myself with new dance experiences outside of Kapwa and it was so new. I think that year culminated with the BoomCrack! intensive. It completely changed my mentality as a dancer. I wanted the experience but I was super intimidated because I mean it’s BoomCrack! 😅. Even though I got accepted into their intensive I was scared and it showed. I was not comfortable or confident. But Trae Turner has a certain way of empowering dancers and he did the same with me. The main thing I learned from BoomCrack! was confidence. Trae ended up putting me as a lead in a section in a set, and that was like wow – I had never been center for anything before that.
John: I definitely hear that from a lot of people who in BoomCrack! - where confidence was a huge thing they struggled with, but joining BoomCrack! helped them overcome or start to overcome that obstacle. Obviously, it’s not just BoomCrack! that helps dancers get over that hump, but tackling self-consciousness seems to be a distinct feature for them.
Rowan: Yeah, I think with Trae, he’s very good at recognizing the potential in people, and even though he had a company of around…40 people? He still gave everyone the attention that they needed. But that’s the thing – you get out as much as you put in. So Trae took the time to help me grow, but he also had to see that I was giving my all. It was a circle of motivation.
John: So he motivated you to try harder, and you fed off that energy and tried even more, so he pushed you even more and… *makes circle of life motion with hands*
Rowan: Yeah. That’s why it was such a good experience for me.
John: Looking back now, would you do anything differently? I know that’s sometimes cliché, but if you met Rowan in 2010, or a similar dancer who was new to the game and didn’t know what he was going to be getting into, what you would say?
Rowan: Especially if it was 2010 Rowan who was still in high school, I would say join hypnotic, like just try out. I remember my feelings back then, and I was just so self-conscious because I had never moved like that or whatever. James told me there would have to be a freestyle for the audition and I was like, “what the hell? No.” 😂
But now that doesn’t scare me. Now I’ll audition for groups like Puzzle or CODA and it’s nothing in the sense that I don't let my nerves get the best of me. It’s not so much like “oh I’m going to kill this piece,” but now it’s like I’m collected and calm. I don’t really let the nerves get to me anymore.
John: You just came back recently from military training! I know all your military brothers found your YouTube Channel. When you go through an experience like that where you’re immersing yourself in an entirely new setting, you’re meeting people that don’t know who you are or who you’ve been. I know you’ve been dancing a lot the past few years, but did you come in having an identity as a dancer going in?
You know what I’m saying? When people ask who you are, you say, “I’m Rowan from Chicago,” but did you ever identify as a dancer from Chicago with your military teammates?
Rowan: I never ever made it a point that I was a dancer unless someone asked me or if the topic came up because at first when I came in I was like, “man this sucks.” I didn’t really want to get to know anyone initially since I was still very much anchored back home, but then in basic training we had some team bonding. Pretty generic stuff where we just shared things about ourselves. So I said, “oh I’m a hip-hop dancer” and everyone just remembered that. We also had to write letters to our drill sergeants and explain who we were, and that was really the only time I was truly honest about who I was and I wrote that I was a dancer so they all eventually knew.
In advanced training it was different. We all had our phones so my teammates were able to actually look me up and see videos of me dancing. People usually have an idea of dancing – like they always picture that it’s a certain way but for my friend in advanced training to actually see what I do and the styles of what I do they were like, “man, that’s really good.” 😁
John: Did you feel a type of way when you saw that they were all looking you up?
Rowan: I was super embarrassed. 😅 Well actually – when it came to just my friends, I was like “Hey subscribe to my Youtube and watch all my videos”…but then they started telling the sergeants about me and I was like oh my god – I didn’t mean for everyone to know.
John: Did you have an underlying reason on why you wanted to join the military in the first place?
Rowan: It all started in 2014. It kind of leads into what happened with my development in 2015. 2014 was just a shitty year for me and it was the first time I had been a place where I was more restricted with dancing. So a thought comes in that…if I went away, I thought that all my problems would disappear. I originally wanted to join the air force and I was looking into that but after some soul searching I decided that I shouldn’t join just to get away from my problems. I realized that I wasn’t mentally and emotionally stable at the time. So joining then would have been terrible and probably would have made me feel worse. So I shelved the idea of going into the military but it kept coming back. I would have small moments, where I would think oh maybe I should join after all, but I would just keep shutting it down.
John: ...Because it was such a crazy idea to you?
Rowan: Yeah. My routine here was so set, and I couldn’t imagine leaving even for just a few months just to train. But it was the end of last year where I was getting into beef with people, and I wanted to prove to myself that I was above it. Even though that was just a small part of the motivation, it was like the spark that caused me to resurge into the military.
At that point I was searching for all my reasons to go and honestly I felt called to do it at that point. I wanted to get practical benefits, make connections, and I also really wasn’t doing anything with my life. Yeah, I was dancing and had part-time jobs and stuff, but I wasn’t making anything with my college degree. I know it might have seemed to people like I had my life together and I was stable, but I felt like a ticking time bomb where I was about to explode at any moment.
John: Yeah I feel you. And I think it’s easier to think about smaller problems and deal with things in the short term than make bigger more impactful decisions like joining the military. Sometimes it takes larger motivations or something built up inside of us to make those bigger moves. Or maybe you always wanted to go, but you needed a big enough reason to validate you to commit.
Rowan: It was me realizing how complacent I was with where I was at. Like – I was doing good stuff, but at the same time I wasn’t really going anywhere forward with my life.
John: So the structure and the overall mission of the military was kind of attractive.
Rowan: Yeah. I talked to my friend’s boyfriend about my thought process which was really helpful. I didn’t even know that the Army Reserves was an option. But he was like, “yeah you’ll get some training and then go back home and that’s it. You might get deployed but in the meantime, you get to stay at home.”
That sounded good. I wanted to develop myself in the military but didn’t want to leave home just yet. So I enlisted for the reserves in February.
John: Was there anything from the military that you find to utilize in civilian life or artistic life?
Rowan: So one thing we did every single day in training was ceremony drills, especially like the art of marching and all the commands and stuff. It was the closest thing I ever got to dance while in training, but it was still very different. It was a lot simpler than dance here in Chicago, but the precision and training that kind of control in your arms and legs was something I liked. Even in the piece I’m teaching at a workshop at Dovetail, I want to incorporate some of that movement.
In terms of lessons, I definitely benefitted from just sheer discipline. Even at Intensive.PNG, I could physically feel a change in my movement. Especially as a result of the training because I gained a lot of muscle and lost weight. 💪😈
John: Dude I’m telling you! Like Rowan 2.0. I know the guys at Dream Team, we were always joking about how ripped and serious you would be after coming back from training. 😂
But what’s next for you now? You’ve come back from training. What are you looking to do in dance, or outside of dance?
Rowan: Dance...I’m still trying to figure out how dance will continue to fit in my life moving forward. Dream Team is for sure still there, but my first days back into dance after training felt weird. I think it’s going to take a while to get back into the groove of things.
It’s weird because when I was in the military, I missed Chicago and my community and missed dancing, but now that I’m back I kind of miss the army life.
John: Yeah you always miss what you don’t have. 🙃
Rowan: Yeah, yeah. That’s why any chance I get I run or do pushups, even though I’m not at training camp anymore. I don’t know. I think I just have to figure out the balance between that military discipline and being a regular guy, because I am a regular guy right now. But yeah – figuring out that balance will help me figure out what I want to do with dance and with my career.
But other than that, since the army’s paying for it I want to try to get my masters, so I want to take advantage of that. I just don’t know what yet.
John: Anything else you want to share?
Rowan: I feel like if anything, this is a promotion and personal plug, but I am excited to bring a new side to the dance community. I could be wrong, but I’m pretty sure I’m the first one in the Chicago dance community that’s like still actively involved that’s in the military.
I want to tell new stories. I have a project this next year and I’m meeting with Katie Moffit to figure stuff out details. What I have in mind is something that I’ve never seen before.
I really love to tell stories and the project that I have planned is not my story specifically. I mean it’s completely fictional, but it’s something that any military personnel could go through. I don’t mind when people are like “oh you’re in the military like…yes sir no sir.” I honestly don’t mind but it’s so much more than that. When people think of the military they just assume we are super cool and super bad ass, but people in the military still go through a lot of shit. My drill sergeants got super real sometimes. We were getting smoked one time when we were doing pushups and one of our drill sergeants was yelling at us saying “would you let your buddies get blown up by this bomb in the middle of combat?” I feel like that actually happened to him. Like he actually experienced that.
But at the same time all of the sergeants that I’ve had also have not showed weakness. They’ve said that we’ve all seen people die and lost friends and family, and I think that’s something that regular people don’t understand - the kind of mental fortitude it takes to be in the army, or the military in general.
To some extent even I’m the same way. Like I haven’t done anything yet. So that’s why I’m excited to explore that military mindset and express to the community the experiences that could happen. I’m excited for that. ⬛