15 | Chris Chueng
Think about the last time you went to a showcase or dance competition. So like, literally this past weekend if you went to The One. 😉 Or maybe you’ve been binge watching dance videos on YouTube – Fusion XVIII 2018 videos were released on Vibrancy’s channel pretty recently.
Maybe you’ve experienced this moment while watching a team’s set, especially if you’ve been following specific dancers on that team. There’s a shift in the song mix. A formation change. And then, all of a sudden, that inner voice crawls into your ear…🤔
Wai-wai-wait! I know who choreographed this part of the set!
I love watching dancers who’ve discovered their own distinct brand of movement, like a kind of creative fingerprint. Building that fingerprint doesn’t happen right away, but over time. Second thought exercise real quick. Think back to the first time you got inspired to create something. Were you inspired by someone else’s creation? As a dancer, were you moved by someone else’s movement? When we first start exploring dance, our style often resembles the movement of those we look up to. Over time, if we continually expose our bodies and minds to new perspectives, and listen to ourselves – what feels natural, what we seek in movement – creative fingerprints of our own can take shape.
Anyway, didn’t mean to wax poetic about all of that 😅, but I think Dream Team’s Chris Chueng is a creative who has developed exactly that kind of distinct movement that becomes easily identifiable as his own. Being able to sit down with this math-teacher-by-day and dancer-by-night revealed that Chris is acutely (inserting math references already 😂) self-aware about his entire creation process too.
Chris – or Mr. Chueng, as he’s known as from that 7am to 3:30pm life - is still looking to evolve and progress further into his craft. Yet, a look back already reveals quite an extensive dance journey so far!
Lesson #1: Learning your fundamentals
Chris’ older siblings were his gateway into dance. When Chris’ older brother was in middle school, he would invite all his friends to the house and lay down some cardboard in the living room. When there are a bunch of middle schoolers breakdancing in your living room, it’s hard not to notice.
Chris: “I’m like – this looks really cool. When my brother wasn’t looking, I’d go in my room and start busting moves too. I looked up videos on YouTube to learn the fundamentals. The 6-step. The 3-step. The coffee grinder."
Naturally, other dance videos came across Chris’ radar on Youtube. One channel in particular, EKETC, posted regular videos. Urban choreography. Lyle Beniga. Chris teaches himself dance through these videos.
Chris: “I learned everything from YouTube. I was like, this is fun. My brother took this dance class in middle school. When I took the same class in 6th grade, my dance teacher also was like, ‘Chris, you’re going to dance like your brother, right?’ I ended up performing for the first time in 6th grade…and then every year after that in middle school during our winter and spring concerts.”
Chris and his brother weren’t the only dancers in the family. In 2007, Chris’ older sister Allison discovered clown walking (C-Walking). Our budding Chris is in the middle of the 7th grade at this point. He caught his sister’s enthusiasm and asked her to teach him a couple moves. Chris got REALLY into it, and he continues to teach himself fundamentals watching videos on YouTube. After a friend, Anna Do, introduced him to a few C-Walkers on YouTube, Chris decided to start making videos of his own starting in early 2009.
Chris: “I borrowed my cousin’s cheap digital camera. Just went to my elementary school, placed it on the ground, and made a really crappy video. 😅 I choreographed my very first C-Walk video, and that was my first time exposing myself to the positive and negative feedback online. But I was like screw it – I love this and I want to put myself out there. So yeah, I was C-Walking from 2007 to August 2016, making videos since 2009.”
Even though Chris officially "retired" from C-Walking his senior year of college, you can still catch all his C-Walking videos online!
Lesson #2: Joining a dance team
But whoa – before we jump into Chris’ run in the collegiate scene, let’s take a closer look at these high school years. At this point, Chris is super invested in dance, mainly using YouTube as a platform to learn as much as possible. Popping. Waving. Tutting. Just exposing himself to as many styles as possible. It was an intense first year of high school.
As a student at Niles North High School, Chris continued to find opportunities to flex his performance muscles. The school itself housed around 2000 kids with over 100 languages spoken, and to promote diversity, Niles North holds an international day full of performances each year.
Chris: “I was a part of the Chinese club freshman year, and they already had something for the Chinese cultural dance for International Day. I was asked to do a hip-hop section to add to the segment. This was my first time ever choreographing for that show. I was a little overwhelmed, to be honest. The Filipino group went right before (including dancers like Dream Team’s Christian Donayre). They were really good so we were like – man, we gotta match up! I had never performed in front of that many people before, but it went well. I got a lot of positive feedback, so I was like – I like what I’m doing. I really enjoy this!
From there, I made the decision to join my high school dance company, Auroris. (Alumni from this group include Mi Lee, Mateo del Rosario, Johnny Woo, Christian Donayre, and Saadat Maksat, Anna Do – this list goes on and on.) I ended up dancing with Auroris for my junior and senior year of high school.”
Actually – Chris initially joined Auroris as a sophomore, but for a very special reason he dropped during that year to prioritize one other group. I mean, dancing didn’t stop with the school day (Oh ho ho and it still doesn’t Chris, amirite? 😂😑).
The crew that Chris ended up prioritizing sophomore year still garners a lot of nostalgia among it’s alumni. Introducing INsight Crew.
So in May of his freshman year, Chris’ cousin brings him to temple for a celebration – and as with most celebrations Chris seems to attend, people are singing and dancing. 😂. It’s here that Chris first sees two guys performing on stage doing isolations and tutting. Although he doesn’t get a chance to connect with them formally at that celebration, they would eventually find each other on Facebook and watch each other’s videos.
Chris: “I remember watching this guy’s videos after connecting on Facebook and I was like, ‘Yo -you are so dope. Like omg he’s so cool – he’s better than me!’”
Finally. They officially meet at a mutual friend’s birthday party not too long after that. Chris sees the same two guys again – Daniel Dinh, and Mikey Nguyen. Daniel shoots a question to Chris:
“You know what, are you doing anything over the summer?”
Momma we made it! A formal invite to Chris and his sister to join Daniel’s group, INsight Crew. It’s a nice full circle moment, since Mikey, Daniel, and Chris are all now dancing together again on Dream Team.
Chris: “And I was LIKE WHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAT. An invite to a dance crew. Let’s do it! And then from there, a couple weeks later we had practices and performances coming up in August for like a charity fundraiser, and I performed for the first time with insight at that concert. And that’s what I love. You get to inspire people and show people how good you are.”
Lesson #3: Building a dance team
So yeah. All this happens before college. 😱
However, the first time I actually saw Chris was when he performed with Urban Movement, a group he co-founded out of Illinois State University.
John: “The first time I personally saw you perform was…Urbanite Chicago. 2014. The Bugatti performance. So let’s talk Urban Movement!”
Chris goes off to college at ISU, in central Illinois. He doesn’t really know anyone going there, but he was feeling himself a bit with all the confidence that had been fostered through dancing in high school.
Chris: “When I got in college – not going to lie. I was super cocky. I was like, I’m probably the best dancer here. 😂 I’m going to join a dance group. I found one during a student organization fair during the beginning of the year – Absolute Deviation. During an Absolute Deviation info session, I meet Lindsey Antman, who had done Fusion Dance Company in Chicago prior to coming to ISU, and we decided to go together.” Side note: Other notable alumni from Absolute Deviation include Bri Madden (CODA), and Kenya Sherrill (Puzzle League).
The audition day comes, and Lindsey and Chris both show up. Chris noticed this one guy who walks in 20 minutes late into the audition.
Chris had seen this guy before. There had been a day he was heading back to his room from the cafeteria and came across the same dude. He had the earphones in, wearing Chachimommas and grooving to himself. Chris was hella intimidated by this guy and doesn’t even approach him.
The guy that comes in 20 minutes late to this audition.
Chachi Pants Guy.
Chris: “I’m like – who is this guy? They finish teaching the piece and we get into groups. Lindsey and I were in one group, but the guy in Chachi pants was by himself. So we added him. He introduced himself.
Darnell Payne. He said he was from Minnesota and had been dancing for the last two years.
We all run auditions. Darnell? Nails it. Lindsey? Nails it.
I screwed up, but nailed the choreo auditions. All three of us make the cut. But actually Darnell said that he only wanted to take the auditions as a workshop, so he didn’t end up joining. I stayed on the team with Lindsey for a good week before leaving myself; Lindsey stayed for the semester. When I dropped, I wasn’t sure if I really wanted to dance anymore. It was tough. I felt like I peaked in high school.”
Before Chris drops dance entirely, he decides to rally and enter the ISU’s Got Talent competition on campus. He submits a piece, and whaddya know? Chris scores first place! At this point, Chris and Darnell had been talking back and forth – along with Lindsey, they had floated the idea of making their own group before, but Chris had always avoided making any commitments to a dance group after he dropped the last one.
Chris: “At first, I was like. I don’t know if I wanted to. I was still feeling iffy. But I think ISU’s Got Talent was the push I needed to keep dancing. Actually that night that I won, Darnell sends me a message, like ‘Yo - this group is going to happen. I’m going to make it happen.’”
Next semester rolls along and Darnell reaches out to Chris because he needed a minimum of 5 people to start a student organization on campus, and Chris would be the ticket that would help the group become official. The group – Urban Movement – became a reality.
Chris: “I was like, you know what? Let’s freaking do it! From there, it was just me, Darnell, Lindsey, and Kaitlin Collins (Hip Hop ConnXion). We had our first performance in February with just the four of us.
Darnell was teaching us choreography and I’m like. I SUCK. (laughs) He put me in my place. He was so fluid and I was so stiff. I’m very tick-tick-tick, tuttings and iso. But he was just so fluid.
Sophomore year it was like, let’s build a team. I think we had 50 people that auditioned, and I think we took roughly 18-20 something. And that was it! We applied to WOD and Urbanite, then got into Prelude.”
John: *lightbulb* “Which brings us to the Bugatti piece.”
Chris: “So at Prelude, we didn’t see it coming we were only sophomores –but we ended up placing third and I was like - what! No way. I loved it. We had a really strong team.”
After Chris graduated, he returned to Chicago, dancing with CODA and most recently, The Dream Team. Urban Movement, in it’s own right continues to bring high energy sets to the Chicago dance community, and many UM alum continue to dance in the Chicago Dance Community, including Kayla Simon, Holly Peterson, Amber Lofton, and Walter Maybell.
Lesson #4: Student to Teacher
At last – we’re back to the present day. On top of tutoring math at Stevenson High School, Chris keeps himself active in the dance community, most recently working with a few dance programs in a handful of high schools – Downers Grove North, Buffalo Grove, Evanston High School, Niles North, as well as Stevenson. To say that Chris continued dancing after college would be an understatement.
Chris: “I was working with all their dance companies and setting pieces. I was working with four of them in October at once. It felt like I was on Urban Movement again. Because UM kept me accountable to keep creating. Having those high schools to teach for was like being a director again. I created 16 pieces that month.”
John: “Is there a reason that you chose high school teaching as an avenue through which you pursue dance? Given that you’ve done so much else in dance?”
Chris: “Getting my name out there in the teaching world. Not just teaching dance but just teaching. I think the youth is where the juice is at. They have so much potential but are always overlooked. People tend to hype good people. But not as many people hype up those that have the potential or raw energy. I want to help the youth level up so that they can play in the big league. It’s also another outlet for me as well to keep creating.”
To stay this busy with dance isn’t without its share of anxiety, and we’ve all faced moments where we might have taken on way too much at once, or where we just don’t have the energy we need to get through the week, month, semester, or year. Chris notes that you have to be willing to reach out and ask for help during those difficult moments.
John: "Talking about gigs, live by a teacher by day, dancer by night. It can be difficult balancing all of that, especially now with a full-time job. Was there a time where your schedule just became too overwhelming? How did you overcome those moments?"
Chris: "In my entire life, there were two semesters where I literally just broke down. It’s stressful. Balancing work, balancing dance at the same time. It’s so hard.
College, junior year. I was taking 4 classes, but on top of that, I was working 2 jobs – I was a tutor and a TA. I was directing Urban Movement. I had clinicals that year for teaching. Running back and forth, I ended up failing a course. I got a 69 percent and I needed a 70. I put too much on myself. When you’re a teacher as well, you’re always on. Planning, grading. You can’t shut off.
I needed people to help me out. If I had too much on my plate, I’d ask a friend. Even something as small as creating an event. Having friends to lighten up the load helps a lot. Especially in college when, you’re always studying, you know? Have a study buddy or something to keep you accountable is so key. Honestly – I got through those stressful times because of my friends. Even now, that’s how I’ve been able to get through a lot of my most difficult moments.”
Lesson #5: Refining the Creation Process
When it comes down to the creating process, Chris is a planner. He notes that a lot of his confidence and performance on stage come down to planning, planning, planning. (Probably a good trait to have as a teacher as well). When it comes to performing with emotion, he recalls practicing mouthing his vowels sounds – like his O’s and I’s – so that his face projects as much as possible.
John: “Can you articulate what your biggest influences in style have been, and how your style has evolved?”
Chris: “My biggest influence currently? Patrick Fernandez from the Canada community. He’s very quick and powerful. I feel like a lot of his movements are translated into mine – every move is so committed.
During my Urban Movement days in college, I still wasn’t sure what my style was. But Walter Maybell (Yonko Steez, Urban Movement, Dream Team) introduced me to Melvin TimTim and his style last year. He was probably the base of a lot of my movements for sure. After looking at his videos, I saw the swag that he held, and I was like – whoa. He has that stiffness that makes it seem so effortless. I studied him for a good three, four months. Almost too much. To the point where everyone was seeing Melvin’s movements in mine. I was like – this is good but at the same time I don’t like it because now I’m becoming someone that I’m not. I had to step away and reanalyze my movement, but Melvin helped me to pick, choose, and identify what elements I wanted in my style.
The moves I end up liking tend to be a lot of my recycled moves. Sometimes when my friends watch my pieces, they can tell a piece is mine based on those iconic moves.
Formations, too. I’m a huge advocate of those triangle formations. I love playing with levels, and that’s also a part that goes into my creative process: how am I going to block it for the stage. I tend to think of both the choreography and formations together when I create a piece.
John: Speaking of creating those pieces, can you talk about your method of creating “moments” in a piece?
Chris: “The biggest thing when I choreograph is that I look for those “moments”. Moments in the song. When you listen to a song, there’s a certain part in the song where there’s a build-up, and a drop. That drop is the moment.
The moment is that point that I think the audience will react to. It’s the climax. When I build up to that moment –maybe an 8 count before the drop, I actually choreograph the moment first. Then, I choreograph the build up to that moment.”
John: “Ah, I see. That reminds me of something Andrew “Rozbot” Rozner (Electric Funkateers, PhiNix Dance Crew, GL&M Productions) used to tell me. When you’re in a cypher, you can sit on the beat, ride the beat, or freak the beat. You have to play with those energy levels and move in between them. Like a movie. If the movie is climax all the time, then it gets tiring to watch. It’s hard to remember key moments from a movie that is all climax. You need time to build up a story or build interest, let it grow, and then when you do freak the beat, it becomes that moment.”
Chris: “Yes – you have to have that roller coaster.”
Chris also recognizes that even though he’s an effective planner, he does have some areas that he wants to continue working on:
Chris: “I’m not good on the spot. I don’t consider myself witty. Mostly with dance and especially teaching, I have to plan way ahead. With teaching dance, I gotta know my counts. I’ll listen to it the day before. I want to make sure I’m providing enough resources and enough ways to teach dancers. Because some people can work with counts. Others prefer beats and sounds, and I gotta be prepared for those questions that dancers may have while they are learning.
Especially when I’m choreographing a piece I’ll teach later, I’ll take note as to what parts that I have trouble with. If I’m messing up on a section that I’ve choreographed myself, how will I be able to accommodate students and help them understand my movement so that they don’t have as much of a hard time as I will?”
My biggest struggle right now as a dancer would be retention. Straight up retention. I have the foundation for the most part, but retention is what kills me. I’d love to pay more attention to detail while learning a piece, so I don’t have to always think about what the next move is.”
It’s that 20/20 vision that Chris has that allows him to continue evolving. Fresh off the end of the Spring dance season for Dream Team, Chris is seeking to push out more content, create, and teach as much as possible in the next coming months! ⭐