When I think about people who have influenced my own personal dance journey the most, Crystal “CHI CHI” Fong ranks near the top of the list. We first met at the University of Chicago through PhiNix Dance Crew’s weekly workshop sessions, and since then Crystal has been an older sister and mentor for me throughout dance...and food adventures! (Speaking of which, I don’t think I’ve met a bigger fan of boba than Crystal. 🥤 Seriously though, peep her boba Buzzfeed article. OR LOL. Her "Boba and Krump" Blog.)
This weekend, Crystal is coming back to the city for two reasons, both of which nicely bookend her dance journey at this point. Our home base dance crew PhiNix is hosting their 7th annual PhiNix Revival Showcase, and quite a few alumni have returned to the city to support and see old, familiar faces.
The second reason is for Prelude Midwest, hosted by CODA this weekend. Crystal, who was an artistic director for PhiNix, told me she couldn’t see herself directing another crew after college. Ironically, it’s really only been 4-5 years but here we are – Crystal currently serves as director for ARC: A Rhythm Company, and the ARC squad will also be competing at Prelude this weekend to rep New Jersey! They’re also selling some fineeee AF shirts if you wanted to cop one (peep the IG for more details):
I know that this weekend will already be one full of nostalgia seeing all the PhiNix Alumni, but let me try to jumpstart the reminiscing before all the dancing festivities start. Throw it back to the summer of 2013. I’m in New York for an internship, and it just so happens that Crystal is also in New York after graduating from college.
I fell in love with the New York/New Jersey dance scene, even if I was just there a few months. I lowkey was freaking out a little bit since I would be taking over Crystal’s position as Artistic Choreography Director of PhiNix the following school year, and I was like – YO I CANNOT SUCK WHEN I GET BACK TO CHICAGO. There were some big shoes to fill so I took a crazy number of choreography and freestyle classes...I don’t think there was a time in my life where I took more class – I’d hop into Broadway Dance Center or House of Movement on the daily, or take company class from some awesome East Coast crews – shout out to Mint, Outburst, and The Neighbors for hosting some amazing (and more college budget friendly because lol my wallet was crying that summer 😭) workshops! The freestyle scene is dope ASLLLL, and experiencing a breakdancing jam at 5POINTZ (Before The Institute of Higher Burnin’ ended up being demolished) still ranks up in my top 5 dance experiences ever.
Since graduating and moving to New York, Crystal has really immersed herself in that dance East Coast scene, where she’s known as “Chi Chi”. Along with her team ARC (formerly known as Rhythmology), Crystal is excited to bring a little slice of that Jersey back to Chicago.
The Video Spammer
Crystal was born in New York and grew up in Massachusetts. She didn’t really listen to a lot of mainstream or hip-hop music before college; her older sister used to sing Broadway in college, so Crystal ended up listening to musicals like Les Miserables or Phantom of the Opera. Actually, if you take a look at Crystal’s room in NYC today, you’ll see an entire wall tiled with different playbills from all the musicals she’s seen.
Crystal: “Yeah. It was a lot of musicals. Or I’d listen to like Yellowcard and a lot of alternative rock. Or Linkin Park. I didn’t listen to hip hop or mainstream music, and I only started when it started playing on the radio.”
When America’s Best Dance Crew premiered (Imma just start calling this the ABDC wave 🏄, since it seems to be the starting point for a lot of dancers I interview), it sparked Crystal’s interest in dance. Crystal had done some Chinese culture dancing as a child, but nothing like what she was seeing on TV. The YouTube Era was coming up quickly, and Crystal was addicted.
Crystal: “I was known as the person who would spam everyone else with dance videos. For some reason I took pride in seeing the first videos that people would post out there. Back then, there weren’t as many artists as there are now and you could actually keep track of everyone’s videos. Now it’s like – there’s just so many and you can’t keep track of all the videos and dancers out there. I even tried to learn my six-step, basic house moves, and how to wave all online.”
Crystal is still in high school at the time, but she carries this newfound fascination of dance as she was applying for college, which led her to check out Chicago as a possible dance destination city.
Crystal: “It’s funny because at the end of high school, even though I didn't have any dance training I was still in love. I was like, ‘Oh man - I gotta go to a school with dancing.’
I googled Chicago, and in my mind, I thought there was going to be a lot of dance everywhere at UChicago. And then when I went to campus it wasn’t what I thought I was getting into. Luckily, PhiNix Dance Crew was just starting but other than that, there wasn't that big of an urban dance or hip-hop dance presence where I was."
It was at UChicago where Crystal took her first class ever. It was a Trae Turner class, when Trae would come teach workshops for Rhythmic Bodies in Motion (RBIM), another dance organization at the University of Chicago. Crystal laughs and remembers that class being the hugest struggle bus for her.
Crystal: "Hahahahaha - I had a friend that I used to train with in high school for dance. Right after that class I called him and I was so disappointed in myself. I was like, ‘That class was the hardest thing ever. I SUCK AT DIS WHAT HAPPENED TO MREHH.” 😭😭😭
Luckily for Crystal, PhiNix was really growing its roots that year, primarily started that year by students Kevin Lee and Alex Sippel at the university (It's 2009, btw 😉). Through a mutual friend, Crystal gets introduced to Kevin. They actually first meet during a fire drill, and Kevin introduces himself to Crystal while all the students were waiting to go back inside. It was a “oh you do the dancing, I do the dancing, and we both do the dancing” kind of moment. 😅 Crystal pretty much latched onto PhiNix after that.
Although PhiNix has evolved to include both freestyle and choreography divisions, PhiNix dance crew really just started out as a freestyle session crew. For the first part of the year, PhiNix only hosted open sessions – super lowkey. During the year Crystal joined, it was really just the founders who would show up and session and show each other moves or techniques they were working on. They focused on the basics like the toprock, 6-step, waving, and isolations.
Crystal: “Aside from the founders, I pretty much was the one who went most often. PhiNix is probably where I met all my friends. 😅 I think over time the dance community got bigger for PhiNix, and the group who came to the sessions to dance got larger.”
So how does PhiNix eventually add choreography and performance to its repertoire? It actually starts with a performance by YoMama Crew, which members included Victor Kim from Quest Crew, along with Anthony Lee and Mike Song, who are now both in Kinjaz. You can actually still see the video of the performance on the Kinjaz YouTube channel:
We’ve already introduced two organizations at the University of Chicago – PhiNix Dance Crew and RBIM, but let’s throw in a third, which ended up catalyzing big changes for PhiNix. PanAsia, which focuses on political advocacy centered on Asian/Asian-American identity. For one of their events, PanAsia decides to bring in YoMama Crew as a headliner. PhiNix was invited to open for them.
*Cue the second “oh you do the dancing, I do the dancing, and we both do the dancing” moment in this story*
Crystal: “We were like, “Oh man this is our chance! Let’s open for them. So before PhiNix even did official choreography, at the time it was more like – oh let’s just put this together for the show. It was the first time ever we made a set. We had different music choices which was cool to me - like I remember we even used Linkin Park, which I was so excited about because I love when people choreography to alternative rock or rock.
YoMama Crew were like idols to us lol. So it was a dream to be able to open for them. That's how we actually established PhiNix as a crew that does both choreography and freestyle, we made a roster and everything and that’s how we started!”
Since PhiNix was so young, Crystal was able to take on a leadership role in PhiNix early on during her second year of college. Even as a young crew, it seems like there was already a lot of interest in PhiNix, and the ranks grew quickly (including yours truly). The crew eventually got big enough that freestyle and choreography divisions were established in 2012. The year after, 4th-year Crystal becomes PhiNix’s Artistic Director of Choreography.
Crystal: “It’s an interesting situation. Honestly, if I had ended up in California for college there's no way I would ever have become a director. I probably would have grown in dance differently. Because PhiNix was so young, I was able to serve in that director role which is kind of crazy because I was still a very young student of dance back then.
Our school didn’t have a huge urban dance or hip-hop presence. Although there were some people who joined PhiNix who had some prior experience, there were a lot of people who joined who were very new to dance, so I was still able to help the next group of dancers. We were relatively smaller too, so everyone knew each other and were willing to help each other out."
Choreography (and vs. or) Freestyle?
Crystal: "I think before we would encourage dancers to come in and session for an hour and then learn choreography for the second hour, but as we got larger, there started to be a split between choreography and freestyle. I don't know if that was a good thing or bad thing, but I think it was kind of inevitable when a group becomes much bigger. I think people tended to lean one way or the other when it came to freestyle or choreography. There are people that would do both like us, but it definitely was a challenge to keep everything cohesive.”
John: “Yeah, that's for sure. I think it goes beyond just PhiNix and UChicago. I know that there’s sometimes an intimidation factor that prevented people from pushing themselves. A lot of our choreography-based dancers would feel super nervous trying to get into a cypher and you just kind of hang on the outside of that circle. Or, as a freestyler, sometimes learning a section of choreography caused a lot of anxiety.
I think personally I am seeing more efforts in our community to push the exposure and dialogue between dancers who are in the freestyle scene and choreography scene. With studios like The Puzzle Box open we have a place - not that we didn't before, but I think the availability of like house classes and you know waacking classes and foundational classes are becoming more accessible.
So Swift and Electric Funketeers have sessions. The presence of freestyle classes makes it a lot easier to be exposed to that movement. Whereas I think back the day we just didn't know what exactly was out there, right? Like I learned my 6-step in a PhiNix workshop from Don and Preetham. Or I would ask Kevin or Andrew about tutting or popping, but there wasn't as big of an established presence on campus, and as a college student I just didn’t know what resources were out there in the city.”
Outside of increasing that exposure to freestyle and foundations, Crystal notes the general anonymity that can mask a dance community, something that many of us in the Chicago community have talked about as well. Especially for the urban dance scene, we tend to look towards the West Coast for inspiration. Urban Dance as we know it has a lot of its foundations in the Cali. (Jessie Ma wrote a dope article on this history).
Crystal: “It’s crazy because there are dancers all over the nation. I remember I asked someone from SF what the big names they knew from the East Coast, and they really couldn't name anyone even though New York and Jersey has had an urban dance scene that's been here for like years, reason like people just don't know about it. (Note: Not to mention the volumes of history of hip hop dance and culture that finds its roots in New York and the East Coast. DJ Kool Herc anyone?) There's been talk in the East Coast forums: people are like, not to downplay Cali because the talent there is amazing, but yo, we also have homegrown talent that is just as good.”
Wait...there's dancing after college?
I remember personally struggling with the fact that I might not dance after college. After that four-year dance high, I saw friends and old teammates fade away from dance or struggle to find that new balance, and during college not dancing was the scariest thing to me. 😭 I think for Crystal, her mindset played out a little differently after graduation.
Crystal: “Yeah, I don't know if I was fortunate to say this but I knew after graduation, I've never thought that I would stop dancing. I never really had a point where I wanted to stop or thought I would stop. During college summers, I would go to New York and I always would take a lot of classes. I got to know people through those classes, so when I went back to NYC after graduating, I had some familiarity with the dance scene already.
The very first audition which I saw is for a team called Outburst. (The Dream Team also ran into them at Elements!) I auditioned and had no doubt that I was going to join a team in New York – no question. My mindset was like, I grew a lot in Chicago and got to bring PhiNix pretty far - from our very first competition which was Hype at DePaul, to helping establish PhiNix’s first Revival Showcase in 2012."
Crystal: "But when I came to New York I was like okay – I’m going to start at the bottom and just soak up everything. What did surprise me is that when I joined the teams after dancing in college, I found out like in New York all the teams were MAD YOUNG. But yeah, I joined and then I kind of threw myself into the community. I got to meet a lot of people that way. I got my nickname “Chi Chi” from Outburst! I was really shy, but the crew was wanted to include me so it was like, ‘Yo you’re Chinese, and from Chicago so like – Chi Chi! I was like, ‘oh ho ho so funny.’ I did not think the name was going to stick but every time they introduced me after that I always would say, ‘Hi! My name is Crystal’ and they would be like ‘NO. YOU ARE CHICHI.’ 😶
The funny thing is like at least in the East Coast community everyone calls me Chi Chi. If anyone calls me Crystal it’s weird actually."
Crystal continues to really, realllllly throw herself into the East Coast dance community, dancing for crews including RiSE Dance Company and anoNYmous. On a whim, Crystal also tries out for ARC (A Rhythm Company) out in Jersey, which at the time was called Rhythmology. (Note: Rhythmology had to change their name because of copywriting despite being more than 10 years old).
Crystal: “I remember having to take a long bus ride to New Jersey for the auditions so I was like – this is a long commute. I wasn’t seriously thinking about joining at the time, but I was just curious. I remember coming to practice and the vibe was super nice. People were all working on choreography projects, and one of the members came up to me to start teaching me basic foundations. ARC was more about teaching each other and learning. That was cool for me because the members had plenty of knowledge about foundations, which I've always wanted to be better at.”
So yeah. Crystal was dancing with A. LOT. OF. TEAMS. There was a season where she was on three teams simultaneously. 😵
Crystal: “That was just really hard. I remember thinking - I don't know why I'm on 3 teams because back in Chicago, I was really just on PhiNix and I preferred it just being on the one team. Every day I had practice which I didn't mind, but I found that I ended up neglecting all my non-dance friends like at work. It was hard to take classes too because practices were every day between all the teams. I started getting uninspired because when you’re learning sets, you're pretty much learning the same moves for like a couple months, but that’s all I was doing. I didn’t get to learn as much new movement because I was always working on the different sets.
More importantly, team bonding was really big for me. Even though I did manage to get close to some of the teams I was on, but when I was on three teams it was hard for me to commit wholeheartedly to any of them. I didn't really get to know some my newer team members that well because I was always heading off to another practice.”
I feel like a lot of us have gone through this period where we see ALL THE DANCE and end up overcommitting, and for Crystal it got to a point where she needed to make a decision to cut down and focus on quality over quantity. Interestingly, she stuck with ARC, even though the practices were the furthest out from her. But what drew her in was the similar familial vibe that she once experienced with PhiNix.
Crystal: “I wanted a crew that had that family. When I was there, PhiNix had that super family vibe. Honestly…PhiNix was like my favorite thing about college."
John: "SAMEEEE" 😭
Crystal: "That was the thing I was going to miss the most when I graduated, and I wasn’t sure if I was going to find that family vibe again with a different crew. It's weird because for me at least because I'm shy like it's really nerve-wracking to make new friends.
John: "SAMEEEEEEEEEEEEEUHHHHHHHH X 9000" 😭😭😭😭😭
Crystal: "Thank god the East Coast dance community is so well connected because it helped me meet a lot of people. Like to be honest, I hate meeting new people, like omigod it's so awkward but I still want to know people. When I moved to New York there were people that had grown up with each other since they were like little kids so they all knew each other and I felt really awkward stepping into that space. But I think getting comfortable in those new environments for me takes time, and with time I found my space!
DEVELOPING AS A DIRECTOR
John: “So now you’ve directed PhiNix as well as ARC. Do you have any advice for people that also are taking on leadership roles in dance crews or other organizations?”
Crystal: “The biggest thing that I've learned is that your job as director is to put your team ahead of you."
When it came to directing a younger crew like PhiNix, Crystal found that her role was really to push dancers to take class together and help individuals as they created choreography or worked on movement execution. It was a lot of holding dancers accountable to choreography deadlines and giving feedback to growing dancers.
With ARC, Crystal was pretty nervous stepping into that leadership space, since the crew has been around for more than 10 years. As opposed to directing a crew that was mostly composed of younger dancers, ARC was full of people with really different backgrounds and different ages.
Crystal: “It’s really not about your skill level, it’s really how you manage and support people. Some of your dancers are older; some people are a little bit younger. Some people are really confident, and others are really shy. You have to somehow manage all of them and like make them all feel like they are included and growing.”
John: “It's like being a good dancer doesn't make you a good choreographer or a good teacher - and none of those three things necessarily make you a good director.”
Crystal: “I used to think Like, Oh, man. If you're the director you must be the best dancer on the team, but you can have really talented dancers in a crew that aren’t in formal leadership positions. With directing, there is a level of sacrifice. Instead of just focusing on your own growth you have to make sure that your team grows with you. It’s like give and take, but as a director, it’s a little more give than take.”
Directing is tough work, y’all. Derrick Apigo talked about this in the last blog, too. Crystal remembers one instance where people were mentally invested at different levels, and communication was less than ideal.
Crystal: “It was difficult because I think we as directors would try to do different things, but we weren’t getting as much feedback from our members. We were preparing for a set and we just had the whole team sit down since everyone wasn’t on the same page mentally and we had to just open up those lines of communication. Everyone was bawling. Haha – like I hate crying in public, but everyone was just bawling because people do really care about the team. I think that was necessary and we grew a lot because of that!”
The Family Set
John: "So as ARC is preparing for Prelude Midwest, I have to bring it back to one of my favorite sets by ARC – you performed it at Boston Elements in 2016.
Crystal: “Yeah that was one of my favorites. I know before this set, PhiNix did a set where we explored hardships too, so it was interesting how ARC ended up doing something in a similar space. I think this was a set that pushed us as a team because not everyone was used to being vulnerable. Sometimes the dances can hit a really personal place, and it can be hard to open up to that. You just have to keep digging deep and bring it out of you from a genuine place. It's exhausting. LOL I know we were just talking about teams crying lol. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much emotion any team I’ve been on leading up to that set.” 😅
Fostering the next generation
As Crystal looks forward in her dance career, nothing is set in stone timeline wise. However, she is seeking to build and mentor the next round of leadership for the dance team, whoever they might be.
Crystal: “You have to make sure whoever decides to take on leadership is doing it for the right reasons. I think ideally our leadership would be someone equally comfortable with freestyle and choreography. It can’t just be someone who takes up the role because no one else was there to take it. The person has to be committed to making the team better.”
Of course, that doesn’t mean dancing is ending for Crystal – she’s going for longevity. During her time in Chicago, she fell in love with house, and now that she’s in New York, she’s trying to train more consistently in house and get involved with more jams in the city! Maybe we’ll see her throw down a few rounds this weekend at a few cyphers! ⭐