When Ruben Dorame’s UA class got an assignment to set up a hypothetical business, other students imagined opening up Blockbuster video stores and places like that.
It was 2010, and Dorame, a Desert View High School grad, instead explored what he had long dreamed of: a dance studio. He looked up properties for rent, and found one back in the last row of a set of warehouses near I-10 and South Park Avenue.
It was just an assignment, Dorame told me last week, but he was taking it seriously.
“It was a white warehouse. No mirror, no floors, just concrete floors and white. I could see how it would function,” Dorame said. “It seemed very feasible, and I had the resources. I just went for it.”
Less than a year later, he left school and opened his studio in that space. Seven years later, Dorame, 29, has doubled the space, turning the warehouse next door into a bright studio, and has forged a hip-hop juggernaut that put Tucson on the map in international competitions.
This weekend, the Drop Fam, as his dance “megacrew” is known, is one of just 10 teams selected to compete at the Arena Dance Competition. Previously held only in China and Singapore, the competition is taking place in Los Angeles this year, for the first time in the United States.
It’s not so surprising the Drop Fam would be invited: They’ve won the gold medal among American “megacrew” teams at the Hip Hop International competition twice in the last three years. They’ve got it.
But what is it? It’s a mixture of creativity, enthusiasm and humility that has turned a high school dance habit into a successful business and young people’s gathering place in a semi-industrial strip on the south side.
Dorame first got interested in dancing, he told me at the studio last week, when he was going to Chapparal Middle School and was planning to attend a school dance.
“I thought you needed to know how to dance to go,” he said.
So he asked a neighborhood friend for lessons.
At Desert View, Dorame and friends used to get together to practice dance moves, he said. School officials associated hip-hop dances with gangs and were suspicious. They resisted giving his group time in the school’s dance studio, he said, but eventually backed off after discovering how popular the group was.
Dance seemed to change Dorame, his mother, Luz Dorame Leon, told me in Spanish.
“He surprised us because before he was shy, nothing like how he is now,” she said.
Dorame had found what made him happy. In fact, at age 17, he described his feelings about hip-hop dancing, and teaching it, in answer to an Arizona Daily Star question to young Tucsonans, “What makes you happy?” His answer, in 2006:
“I don’t think many people would say working makes them happy, but for me it does. I work in a small dance studio where I teach middle school kids hip-hop dancing. I make money doing something I’m good at, and I can help keep kids out of trouble. These classes can keep kids out of the streets and from being bored at their homes. We meet every week and each week they are very eager to come and dance. The kids tell me that they have a lot of fun dancing and learning new moves, and it makes me happy to hear them say that.”
Now the students are older but no less eager. By Dorame’s way of organizing his business, students can pay $10 per class to learn a variety of urban dance genres, or buy a package of five or 10 classes for less per class. They can learn locking, popping, breaking, waacking, house, freestyling — all different styles of “urban dance” as the category is called.
Ezequiel Mendoza, 19 and a Sunnyside graduate, told me, “I just did it for myself, just to express myself more. Like, if you’re a guy you’re supposed to be very macho. This lets me express myself.”
Mendoza, an astronomy and physics major at the UA, said “It’s exhilarating. It’s like pure joy having the crowds of people watch you bring the music to life.”
I was speaking with Mendoza at about 10 p.m. Tuesday. There was still an hour to go in the four-hour, nightly rehearsals the group was doing for a week before heading to Los Angeles Friday. Some people were starting to yawn, but the beat went on.
“When you do that ‘1...2...3...4...’ hold that a millisecond longer, then stick it,” Dorame instructed his crew as they danced to a 1995 song by Coolio.
“This is the hardest but also the best part,” 25-year-old Jayme Wong told me. “Hard on your body, low sleep, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
“Dance is so much fun, but what’s great is doing it with a team and seeing it come together,” added Wong, a UA grad student.
One of the things that makes Dorame’s studio unusual is that Dorame runs both the business as well as the choreography of the dance teams, also participating in the competitions, Chris Rosales told me. Rosales, 25, used to be artistic director at a different studio but gradually moved over to the Drop Fam.
Dorame’s mother told me he may have gotten some of his business sense from his upbringing. His parents, immigrants from Nogales, Sonora, have long owned L&L Landscaping and have helped him out as needed with running the studio. They also encouraged their kids to be their own bosses, she said.
Dorame’s studio has nine teachers, experts in the individual styles of urban dance who teach classes as independent contractors. There are eight classes a day when it’s not a “championship week,” the week before a competition like last week. He takes pride in being faithful to those old-school styles and choreographing them into the routines for competitions like Arena.
“With him it’s not about impressing everybody else,” team member Jasmine Sanchez, 20, told me. “That comes naturally.”
Kind of like building a hip-hop studio out of an irrepressible teenage urge to dance.
“It’s all about giving people the opportunity that I didn’t have back in the day,” Dorame said. “It still makes me happy.”