10 | Ping Quach, Founder of PNG
Ping Quach has his hands full nowadays.
Just days away from launching Intensive.PNG_Ver2, Ping and the rest of the “PNG Team” are busy coordinating transportation, logistics, and probably the biggest surprise of this second intensive – figuring how to ship out a LOT of shirts. Seems like the latest design to come out of PNG’s design department caught on with dancers all over the nation.
The duo had already created Intensive.PNG’s first shirt in late 2017 with PNG's intention to utilize shirt sales as a way to help support the overhead costs of hosting their intensives. Ping and the team figured selling even 60 shirts would be an appreciated boost towards improving future intensives. So the team launches the pre-order form on March 5th and 48 hours later, over 200 pre-orders were already confirmed. Ping half-jokingly stated that the next benchmark should be 400 shirts sold.
During the 3 day pre-sale period, PNG received almost 500 preorders in 18 different states – including California, New York, and the greater Midwest. People who weren’t necessarily in dance communities were buying the shirts, too. Taking a look at the shirt, it’s no surprise that it sells due to its design, but I think that .PNG’s motto along the back – “Passion Nurtures Growth” – also resonates with people. Not to mention the fact that Ping was at his laptop non stop promoting the shirt to everyone and their mama. 😂
It's so surreal - it's really cool to see something you've created take off like that. For many, .PNG already can feel like a crowning achievement or piece de resistance in a litany of projects that Ping has put together throughout his dance career. Yet if you ask Ping, there's no question that there's much more possible. With the unexpected boost from shirt sales and Intensive.PNG_Ver2, Ping has sights on expanding PNG's already ambitious role in the dance community. Yeah, you read that right, expanding.
*teacher voice* Ahem - if you look on page 49 of your textbooks, you'll see that this is a classic case of how Ping creates. One thing I've learned from Ping is that he doesn't ask whether or not something is possible. For him, possibility is a given. The real question is how do we make this work?
...did I mention he's in medical school? 😱 WTH.
YOU EITHER WIN, OR YOU LEARN.
So how did Ping make his way up to creating an organization like PNG? Ping found his start in the dance world during middle school. Growing up in California, he caught interest in *C-walking, krump, waving, tutting, and other foundational styles. It wasn’t until 12th grade when he saw America's Best Dance Crew that he caught on to the choreography scene. Ping cites Brian Puspos and Jackie Lautchang of SoReal, along with Mike Song, as early influences. Driven to create, he started a dance group that year known as “Static” with a few classmates.
Ping: “It was more of a session group. We would create small routines, but it was more bboying and toprocking...maybe some choreography.”
Moving from SoCal to the Bay Area, attending UC Berkeley for undergrad. Ping remembers auditioning for every dance team on campus and getting rejected by all of them. Actually…he got rejected by all of them throughout the first two years of college.
So ehh. Not too much luck there, but Ping also happened to join the Asian American Association at Berkeley, and took up a board postition in the organization. When “Triple A” would participate in or host smaller talent shows, Ping would choreograph little routines for members to perform.
It wasn’t until the summer before his junior year that Ping would join a dance team in college. That first team was known as Summer Sriracha. The person who directed that team at the time? None other than Andy Tran, who would later play a role in Ping continuing his dance journey in Chicago (and also happens to be a member of the Dream Team) 😉.
Ping: “Andy took everyone, haha. 40 to 50 people. And this was the first choreo dance experience that got my mind thinking, hey – I could possibly start something like this myself.”
So after that summer, Ping gets to work. He creates a smaller team called “The Paradox” with both freestyle and choreo elements. Even here, Ping remembers always auditioning for shows and getting consistently rejected.
By now you should see a pattern. Try, learn, rebuild, and create. In the fall of his junior year at Berkeley, Ping goes for another attempt at building a dance organization. This time, he strikes gold.
Aspirations, Family, Experience.
Enter AFX. Before reading further, just a heads up – Ping is a huge fan of creating organizations and projects with three letter names. 😅
It’s 2011, and Ping forms a small core group of dancers along with co-founders Geoffrey Chen and Rosemary Hua within the larger AAA organization. Much like Summer Sriracha, AFX made its debut as an open-level dance organization where dancers of any level could join.
Ping: “The biggest motivation for AFX was that everyone should have the opportunity to get experience on the team. If you never have the first step, then you’re never going to improve. One of AAA's things was being all-inclusive, which is why for AFX we also didn’t reject anyone. The idea is let’s take everyone, so it’ll expand quickly and every four years, the senior class leaves, so the group would be capped at max like 600-700 people.”
John: So already you were thinking of creating groups on that scale.
Ping: “I was trying to figure out – okay, how am I going to make 600-700 people work in one organization? We can’t just have one team…but that’s what we started with. One team. But then we expanded it so that AFX had multiple teams based on experience – you would get placed into different tiers. The top tier was the competitive team, the middle tier was the project team – doing shows and projects in the community, and then the training team.”
The strategy was a success. When AFX first started, Ping would front the costs for everything, including flyers, speakers, and other general equipment. Today, AFX now is set up with around 700 people, around 9 training teams, 2-3 project teams and 1 competitive team. 1,000 auditionees come in each year, and a sizable operating budget that has been developed over the years allows AFX to host summer intensive programs and other events.
The Creation-Execution Gap
AFX is also the first time Ping really delved into directing a large crew, and according to him...he sucked. But with time, he got “more okay” and his choreography evolved a lot through this role. But there seemed to be a disconnect. Even while creating and directing AFX, Ping would join other competitive teams in the community, but often saw himself chilling in the back corner during blocking for sets.
Ping: "I always thought my choreography level was here (raises hand high), and my ability as a dancer is like...here (lowers his other hand). I felt like my creativity level was stronger than how I was able to do other people's dances. I didn't know my fundamentals. I didn't even know how to pop (laughs)."
This gap between his creation level and his ability as a dancer was discouraging, to say the least. Even though Ping started practicing more fundamentals towards the end of college, the AFX founder made up his mind that after graduation, he would be done with dancing.
(Note: Oh how many times have we said that...“Okay for real this is my last time dancing I'm not joking." Riiiiiiiiight. 😂)
The GPA Gods weren't kind to pre-med Ping, so Ping moves to Chicago for the first time to complete a Masters in Medical Science at Loyola University with the intention of improving his application for med school.
Even if he wasn’t planning on dancing on a team or performing anymore, Ping had gotten into the groove of teaching regularly in the California dance community. He wanted to continue teaching in Chicago, and so he started just messaging a bunch of people in Chicago asking to teach. The first person he messaged was Rowan Quinain, who was with Kapwa Modern at the time.
Ironically, another dancer had moved to Chicago. Andy Tran (waaahhwow throwback to Summer Sriracha) was in the city for law school, and he encouraged Ping to continue dancing. Not just to teach workshops for Kapwa, but hey, maybe join Kapwa modern and continue performing.
Ping: (laughs) "I was like…what the hell? No. Andy danced with GRV and stuff, and he was super intimidating. I got rejected from crews that Andy directed. So I was like nah I'm not going to audition.”
So we know how this goes. Ping ended up auditioning with Andy. It turned out to be the boost Ping needed to jumpstart his dance endeavors in Chicago. Through the encouragement of Kapwa, Ping started choreographing a lot more and solidifying his own style as a dancer. As is the case with so many of us who try to tell ourselves we are done with dancing, Ping ended up continuing after his Kapwa days and joined Dream Team as well as Ascension Performing Arts. Being invited to choreograph for APA during their first set was also a huge motivation:
Ping: “Mary Vo and Justin were directing the first set, and they trusted me to choreograph something. And I was like - what?! They were legends in dance, so it was a huge motivation.”
The File Format Family (.JPG, .PDF, .PNG)
Fast forward a little bit. Ping finishes his masters successfully and moves back to California as he’s applying to med school. He knocks out his applications early on during the application cycle, and is able to commit the rest of the year to just train and dance.
It’s here where we begin the formation of the File Format Family of dance projects. Each of these dance projects is cleverly named after – you guessed it – a three letter file format – and the whole trilogy culminated with .PNG performing Mercy.PNG, and the creation of .PNG as a formal organization that now hosts Intensive.PNG.
.JPG | [J]ae Min & [P]in[G] | "AFX.JPG"
Ping moves back in the Bay Area in early 2017 where he creates and directs .JPG alongside Jae Min Kim (AFX) as part of a project within AFX. The name .JPG came from the fusion of Jae Min and Ping’s names. Ping decides to use this opportunity to expand on storytelling through dance, and so .JPG was created to portray the effects of societal pressures.
Ping: "The huge thing was .JPG's topic. During the summer, Charles Nyugen was staying at my place for like five days, and he was like teaching class. I ended up talking to him about .JPG, and Charles really connected with the idea of the set. He told me about his own life journey and hardships, and pushed me to understand greater issues like depression and anxiety for the first time. I didn't really understand too much about it before then, but talking to Charles really made an impact on me.
Talking to Charles wasn't the only big impact on Ping at the time. Ping had friends who were deeply affected by depression and other mental health issues, and so Ping wanted to expand .JPG, examining not just societal pressures, but other potentially related issues in future projects. These would later materialize as .PDF and .PNG.
But anyway - back to .JPG. With medical school interviews coming up, it was going to be difficult for Ping to fully throw himself into directing the project.
Ping: "I couldn't do it all anymore. So I asked the team - okay do you want to continue doing this, knowing that I probably won't be there for some practices? And that you guys have to keep yourselves accountable? And they stepped up. A lot of dancers came through, like Michael Chen. That was the coolest part. .JPG was largely intermediate and beginning dancers, some with no dance experience whatsoever, and you had amazing individuals step up and really take ownership of the team. 5 or 6 people stepped up and became the core, and this changed my perception of directing. It wasn't about me anymore - it's not about what I make, it's about what everyone adds to it. And its very easy to make the whole team make the set, versus just individuals. That's how Mercy.PNG was too. I choreographed some of the set, but then collaborated with dancers with a range of experiences."
John: "So you were like empowering your dancers by giving them that autonomy and opportunity to take leadership."
Ping: "Yeah and that was the changing point of how I directed, and it made dancers more committed. And we went crazy. We built the props, we bought a door and nailed in wood to make this portable door thing for the set. We actually had to put 20+ hours outside of practice just to make these things. It showed how much they wanted this to happen."
.PDF | [P]ing and Bene[D]ict [F]amily | "Foundations.PDF"
Next stop on Ping's glide year tour came in Spring 2017, just a few months after .JPG. With .JPG completed, Ping moves to SoCal and starts training like crazzzzy. He trains with Culture Shock San Diego, directed by Anna Sarao, the founder of Body Rock.
(Side note here: Steezy has this dope piece with Anna Sarao and Body Rock origins here! Anna Sarao is also just a personal inspiration for me, creating awesome videos in her Boba Talk series which is not unlike the work I'm trying to accomplish with Chicago Dynamic! Definitely check her videos out.)
Ping: "Everything Anna said was just so wise, and I was only training with them for like a month with a two and a half hour commute each way, and in that month I learned so much. We didn't even learn choreo - we learned choreo for maybe half of one practice. Everything else was house, popping, like every single style - not choreo. It was just a lot of fundamentals. She would point out my weaknesses. My choreo pickup was too slow. And she told me to take as many classes as I could, send her a video, and she would critique it. So like January-February, I took maybe 100 classes.
Snowglobe would have 4-5 classes a day. I would go 4-5 days a week, and go to Culture Shock and take classes and I straight up just sent videos to her, and she'll say certain things that I still say to others now.I know my first critique was that my elbows are too close to my body which was making me dance smaller, instead of having them out from my body.
At the same time I was on Natural St8, which is a competitive team in SoCal. They had walk-on auditions, so I just joined them. Everyone was super talented. (laughs) It felt like I was the worst one on the team. It was just on a different level to me.
At that time, Ben Dungca (remember this guy from ReFresh and PNG's shirts? 😜) moves to SoCal too, and Ping convinces him to join Natural St8. The two had a mutual connect (Nelson Chen, who had done both ReFresh and AFX) and had met each other during Ping's time in Chicago. Now that both Ben and Ping are in the same location, Ping thinks it's time to strike while the iron is hot. Project number 2. Together with Emily Carter and Allan Qin, .PDF is born.
Ping: "So Ben and I direct .PDF - [P]ing, and bene[D]ict [F]amily. PDF. 😅 We wanted to keep it in line with the whole file format thing. And a soon as we called it .PDF, I was like awww I gotta do a .PNG project for sure.
But dancers from .JPG would come down to .PDF to collab so it was like this family atmosphere - the file format family. And .PDF's set was all about self-doubt, overcoming your fears and creating mental illusions."
.PNG | [P]i[N][G] | "Mercy.PNG"
Ping: "I got into med school at Loyola, but then before I moved to Chicago, I trained like crazy because I knew Dream Team was killing it. And I was like - okay when I got back, I cannot suck." 😅
Ping in 2017 completely threw out that whole idea of leaving dance behind in college. When he moved to Chicago, Ping did Puzzle League, and CODA, even though the original intent was just to perform with Dream Team.
Ping: "That was a crazy semester. There was a month in November I had practice every day. I made it out alive, and it also was my best semester ever. I was more efficient with time because I had so many things I had to do."
John: "And now we arrive full circle when .PNG begins."
Ping: "So I knew I wanted to do .PNG as soon as I got back to Chicago. The initial plan was to just do a set at Carnival with the dopest dancers. During the early planning stages, I didn't know what it the concept for .PNG was going to be yet. But for the first half of 2017, I was going through a lot of anxiety. When I really realized what anxiety was, I knew I wanted to do a set about it."
The focus of the set changed, too. Reflecting on his past experiences, Ping knew he didn't want just high-level dancers, he wanted to create a space for dancers with a lot of potential. It really became an extension of his work all the way from AFX to .PDF - that open-level approach to give dancers the tools and opportunity to grow.
Ping: "I just remember hearing 'Mercy' on the radio or something. That was my biggest inspiration for .PNG. I knew that was the song, and for .PNG I had two priorities:
1) Storytelling - something to follow beyond a medley of songs with a theme.
2) I wanted to perform on the WOD stage. I felt like it was a good platform to launch. I wanted to enter Mercy.PNG as a competition set, mostly for the exposure. The competition videos are usually out first, and I wanted to use that platform to raise exposure about mental health issues."
Putting together Mercy.PNG was an awesome experience, and you can learn more about Mercy.PNG and PNG in this previous post. With .PNG completing their performance at World of Dance Chicago in 2017, Ping decided to formalize .PNG into a greater platform for sharing and creating art.
Passion Nurtures Growth
I actually remember this moment. It was a few days after performing Mercy.PNG at WOD, and Ping was in my kitchen talking about how he saw .PNG becoming a bigger movement than just a project team. He wanted to host a series of intensives and bridge Chicago's dance community with other dance communities in California and throughout the United States. I remember asking Ping why he wanted to do so much, and I was shocked at his answer: a mix of "I don't know" and "because I have the resources to make it happen." 😮 Simple. Sweet.
Huh. Turns out that reason was enough for Ping, and I guess in a way it was enough for me and plenty of other people. For simplicity, .PNG officially dropped the ".", and officially becomes PNG. Enoch Kim (Boston University's Fusion, Dream Team) and I tagged along to help Ping set up the first Intensive.PNG, and it was a blast. It's definitely a huge learning experience putting something like that together for the first time. When I interviewed Ping a few weeks after that first intensive, I thought I'd pitch the initial question again:
John: "I remember that you couldn't really articulate why you wanted to start Intensive.PNG when we started, but now here we are approaching Intensive.PNG_Ver2. In retrospect, is it clearer to see why you expanded PNG and created something beyond just a dance team?
Ping: "I started the AFX Summer Intensive in California - so I already had the knowledge and experience of how to organize it. Logistically, I was pretty confident it would pan out well. I guess the thing that I needed to think about is why does it matter?
I was talking to Jason Rillera about this. The thing is that it's very clear what community dance is in Cali, and what industry dance is - there's not a mesh. You see The Company perform, and you know it isn't industry - it's straight up community. But Millenium is industry.
And now, you have people who began in the community and are now stepping into the industry but keeping their community vibe (think Keone and Mari, the Kinjaz) their style is their community style that they developed in the community.
I think industry dance in general is less focused on the individual - you have to look a certain way for an artist you work for or have to have a certain aesthetic. Community is more about the product you put out there, engaging conversation between dancers. Especially in California, the community vibe is linked and connected through a lot of the competition culture - so think like Vibe and Body Rock."
Note: The history of community dance in California is a whoooooole story of its own, and grew from early pioneers such as Kaba Modern and PAC Modern. Just a little teaser - get ready for Intensive.PNG_Ver3 Dance Camp, which will have a special treat for attendees to learn more about those origins. 😉
Here in Chicago - there isn't as much of a distinction between community and industry. So I wanted to create a "community" intensive similar to TMSI in California - where it's not so much about killing it, but also lot of exchange. You know, meeting dancers who may be around the same age as you. Or dancers who might still be in college or recently graduated. Somewhere where you can exchange ideas outside of a competition setting.
Reflecting on past intensives I've been to - honestly, those intensives always catapulted where I was in dance. You see people around you change. People who were next to you at one point becoming teachers. You see this as an evolution of your community.
I also wanted to bring out people from the West Coast because 1) their movement is distinctly community to me and very different from a lot of the movement we pick up in Chicago and I wanted to introduce a new perspective.
That's what I hope for people to gain from experiencing Intensive.PNG. To learn from new movement that they might not experience here at home, and even pick up on the way that movement is taught by other choreographers. Jason Rillera had fundamental glides in his piece in the last intensive which are pretty common in Cali, but it was also something a lot of our attendees were less familiar with. Markus pe Beinto spent an hour just teaching mindfulness in movement, and encouraging exploration - it's those more abstract features of instruction that I also want attendees to learn from."
And beyond just what these choreographers and dancers from other communities are sharing with us, it's also cool to see what messages and movements Chicago's community imparts to visiting dancers. It comes down to that mutual respect and exchange, and one that we hope PNG will continue to foster moving forward in 2018. After all...Growth is not by mere chance; it is the result of forces working together." ⭐