By Anthony Arellano, 16, Burroughs HS (Burbank)
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When Anthony and his friend danced for the workers at a CityWalk yogurt shop, they got $30 worth of free yogurt.

My friends Tai, Ica and I crouched behind the stage, hugging each other as we heard 19,000 roaring audience members at the Long Beach Arena. What did I get myself into? For a minute, I was a shaking mess. The stage was set for a hip-hop battle and we were supposed to freestyle dance. The only thing running through my mind was the fear of looking incredibly stupid in front of the biggest audience I’d ever performed for.

I like dancing because I can express a song’s rhythm, lyrics and beats through my body. It’s a way to get rid of all my worries.

I’ve loved to dance since I was in elementary school, but as I got older I started becoming afraid to freestyle in front of people. You can freestyle in any style of dance. It’s a way to represent who you are as a dancer. In freestyling you think of each step right after another without a plan. This was the most frightening part because I thought I would freeze, mess up or wouldn’t think of something new to do. I didn’t think I was good enough or quick enough or that my moves were exciting enough. I couldn’t pull off backflips, breakdance or spin on my head. What if I freestyled in the middle of a cypher (a circle of people with space in the middle for dancers to dance), did simple moves and backed away. I would be afraid that the crowd wouldn’t like my dancing because I didn’t have any exciting tricks. I didn’t want to feel like I’ve been wasting my time loving dance.

My family inspired my dancing

Photo by Elizabeth Pascual, 16, Burroughs HS (Burbank)

When I was in elementary school I’d wake up on the weekends to my dad playing Michael Jackson songs, like “Beat It,” “Bad” and “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing).” I’d get out of bed to see my parents cooking breakfast and my parents and older brother dancing. I’d feel happy. Back then I couldn’t care less whether I looked stupid wiggling on the floor or spinning around and jumping up and down. I’d dance all around the house and sometimes get in their way. We owned some of Michael Jackson’s performance videos. When I watched him dance, I wanted to become a dancer. From the videos, I learned to do the moonwalk from corner to corner in my living room.

But in fifth grade no guy would want to dance with a girl at school events and carnivals. My friends said dancing was lame. I wanted to dance but I thought that if I did, the guys would think I was weird.

In the eighth grade, I met a girl named Kayla in yearbook class who showed me dancing wasn’t lame. She told me she’d been dancing all her life. When I’d ask her to show me a dance move she wouldn’t hesitate to teach me in class. I’d never had friends who danced, let alone seen a friend feel comfortable dancing in front of someone. She would show me YouTube videos of popular choreographers teaching a routine to a hip-hop class. During free time we’d practice steps we saw in the videos, dancing in the corners of the classroom by ourselves until we had it down. I wouldn’t be nervous to dance in front of some of my friends in the class because the dance was already planned out. Even if someone didn’t like it, I would use the excuse that they weren’t my moves.

I liked to dance but I didn’t join a dance program until sophomore year. I’m Buddhist and I joined a youth performance group created by a Buddhist organization called Soka Gakkai International, whose goal is world peace. I joined the hip-hop group.

This past summer, there was a festival called Rock The Era where groups from across the West Coast would be performing at the Long Beach Arena to promote world peace and reach out to other youth. There were many practices with the different groups from around Southern California.

During one of the first practices, we broke up into groups, said our names and were asked to freestyle. I had no clue what to do. When it was my turn, I tripped on my way toward the middle of the circle. I choked and got way nervous. I threw my hands over my head like I was in a rave but it didn’t fit with the old school hip-hop beat. My spins were offbeat and I lost track of the music. I looked around and everyone was staring at me. I quickly walked back to my spot on the outside circle. It was the longest 30 seconds of my life. At that point, I was sure I sucked at freestyling.

I didn’t think I was good enough

Every practice at lunch the hip-hop group I was in started cyphers. “Hey, are you going to jump in?” my friend Ica would ask me. I’d say no and walk away. I was jealous of how much fun they were having. I felt bad for having this silly fear. It was a bummer to see my friends freestyle while I wouldn’t.

A part of Rock the Era was for everyone to set goals they wanted to accomplish. My goal was to learn new moves and have the confidence to freestyle. At the last practice before the performance, I decided to conquer my fear since it was the last day and if I didn’t, I would probably regret it for a long time. Our hip-hop group took breaks often, and we meditated. During the meditations that day, I thought to myself, “I just need to try my hardest. I will get rid of my fear of freestyling. The best possible outcome will occur.” This helped calm me and give me confidence.

During lunch that day, I asked Tai and Ica if they wanted to start a cypher. We walked to the middle of the lunch area, and I tried my hardest not to panic. “Do I have the courage to jump in? Will I choke like last time?” I pushed those doubts away. My friends danced one at a time. Soon enough, people started noticing and a crowd formed around us. Then came my turn. I cleared my mind and jumped in. The moves started coming out effortlessly. Pop. Spin. Warp. Boogie with it. I was consumed by the beats. If I changed direction, I’d still see people facing me. About 50 pairs of eyes were on me for a minute that seemed to go on forever. Everyone was cheering for everyone’s freestyle, including mine. It was a small victory. I finally showed people how I dance. I realized that I just needed to jump in and focus on having fun and not what others thought of me.

Anthony shows off some of his moves. Photos by Elizabeth Pascual, 16, Burroughs HS

I was confident enough to ask one of the hip-hop leaders if Ica and I could join Tai and the others in the freestyle battle before the choreography that everyone would do. They said yes. I was still nervous about what I had gotten myself into.

It was time to perform, and as all the dancers were in line to get into the arena, I started to freak out. The only thing in my mind was 19,000 people, a stage and me in the middle. “Stop doubting yourself,” I thought.

Someone cued us backstage, and as we walked through the curtains we were looking out at 19,000 people standing up and cheering for the drum performance that had gone before us.

When the drums were coming to a stop, we were told to sit down with the 20 other freestylers. That was when my body began to feel like an unstable mess while my two friends and I hugged each other. “We got this guys. This is our time,” Tai said. “Every one of those practices comes to now.” I felt more confident.

A DJ scratch echoed across the arena, and a Jay-Z song blasted. This was our moment. We were told to run on stage and I remember looking out at so many people cheering. The cypher formed into two crews dressed in different colors: yellow and blue. Tai, Ica and I were blue. When it came to my freestyle with Ica, I forgot everything around me. Hit the beats. Lock it. Slow down. Speed up. Hit a pose. Back it up. It felt as if the music was for just the two of us.

I showed what I could do

After the cypher was finished, “I Got Colors” by The Cool Kids blasted for the start of the choreography. We jumped up and purple, gold and white lights flashed. We performed the choreography for a couple more songs, then Janet Jackson’s “Rock With You” played and my friends and I ran to each other. The arena darkened, the music stopped and the crowd’s cheers were the only sounds. We walked out of the arena and into the sunlight. Sweat was pouring down my face. It felt like victory. When I looked around, I saw other dancers crying tears of joy. Everyone was jumping, cheering and hugging each other. I was thinking, “We did it. We kicked butt.” I couldn’t believe it.

Rock the Era helped give me confidence. I’m getting better at freestyling, even though I still have more to learn. The performance showed me not to be afraid to do what I love. Since then, I’ve embraced dancing a lot more. Recently, my friends Madison, Tai and I roamed the streets of Studio City recording freestyle sessions on crosswalks, parking lots, dumpsters and rooftops of empty houses. We posted the video on YouTube. We dance for hours at each other’s houses. Ica and I created choreography to “Little Bit” by Drake featuring Lykke Li and then went to Universal CityWalk to record it with people walking around us. Whenever I go places with them, I carry mini speakers just in case we want to dance. Songs last a couple minutes, but the beats are still inside me.