India is a dancing nation. Home to a number of intricate and native dance forms and styles, anyone who has grown up in 90s India would remember the now legendary Boogie Woogie, hosted by Javed Jaffrey, that would bring together fabulous dancers of all ages from across the country to perform at a national stage. Subsequent reality shows helped cement the space for dancers in the country, helping many from the streets to perform on stage in front of large and appreciative audiences.
Kings United is one such dance crew that was born in 2008 that harnessed the power of reality television to propel themselves to stardom. And today, they are representing India at an international stage.
The crew that started from the streets of Mumbai has been setting the stage on fire on NBC's wildly popular dance reality show 'World of Dance'. The 14-member crew wowed judges including Jennifer Lopez, Ne-Yo, and Derek Hough and audiences alike, recently made it to the finals.
On the last episode that aired on April 28, the group performed on a Bollywood number, 'Yeh Raat'.
But it wasn't always this glamorous for the dancers, as founding member Suresh Mukund told News18.
"In 2008, we formed our first crew which went on to participate in local competitions. We used to win just Rs 500 as prize money, but it encouraged us to pursue professional competitive dancing and reality shows gave us the break we needed," Mukund said.
From there, the crew went on to perform on the famed Boogie Woogie, which gave them the first taste of television.
"That show was actually one of our greatest inspirations. When we performed on the show, the judges said we had it in us to achieve international acclaim. That stuck," Mukund recalled.
From there on, it was an upward journey. The crew's big break came in 2011 when they won first place in India's Got Talent Season 3. They went on to win third place at World Hip-Hop Dance Championship 2015. In fact, their popularity was so much that the crew even inspired a Bollywood film, Any Body Can Dance 2.
"The journey has been really wonderful and we feel very proud to be the only team from India to be at this position," Mukund said.
The crew specialises in "Bolly-hip-hop" a style that is characterized by hip-hop dance techniques fused with Bollywood dancing. With the popularity of films like ABCD and Gully Boy, it is evident that Bolly-hip-hop is not just limited to dance. Influences of hip-hop are spilling over to other genres of entertainment including music and wardrobes. According to crew-member Karthik Priyadarshan, there has been a massive surge in the hip-hop's popularity in India in the past decade. The recent success of films like ABCD and Gully boy has proved to marketers that the hip-hop is a viable option in the entertainment world.
But is it difficult for dancers to resit Bollywoodisation? Priyadarsahan said that instead of fighting it, they chose to selectively adopt the best of Bollywood.
"Choreography in films requires a different vision. Today, many budding artists infuse two different dance forms together to create something new. This is what we did in World of Dance by fusing Hip-hop with our very own, Bollywood," crew-member told News18.
And it worked. Their performances have a special zing, bringing in an element of desi to otherwise complicated hip-hop moves. They have maintained high scores throughout the show's run and have impressed the judges on several counts.
But the crew has not forgotten its roots. Shijin Ramesh, another member of Kings United, thanked Bollywood choreographer and performer Remo D'Souza, whose mentorship helped them to achieve their dreams. "A lot of what we have achieved today is because of Remo sir. He who found our journey very inspiring and believed in us by dedicating an entire film to our journey. We are blessed to have him in our lives," Ramesh said, adding that the choreographer has supported them throughout their journey.
Even as the world celebrated World Dance Day on Monday, the crew has already begun preparing for the final, million-dollar round of World of Dance. The crew has immense popularity and following on social media. Their YouTube channel has 644,792 subscribers and their recent videos have millions of views each. Their Facebook page has over 600,000 followers as well.
Ramesh reflected that social media had a big role to play in the crew's success too. Digital platforms are extremely important today, especially social media sites like Facebook, YouTube and Instagram and more recently, Tik Tok. "These outlets have provided a platform to several talented aspiring performers from rural, semi rural as well as urban India," Ramesh said. "Social media is all pervasive. And sites like Facebook, YouTube and Instagram help connect artists to their audiences in real time".
Another important benefit of social media was that it easily connected performers to people who actually recruit talent. "You keep putting out videos. If your work is good, someone is bound to notice. And they do. So many dancers and performers today have benefited from digital content sharing outlets," Karthik Priyadarshan asserted.
As the crew waits for the final battle, fans back home have been cheering hard for the desi boys. a fan recently asserted on their Twitter page, "From last few months we wait for Monday's mornings, that's just because of GOT and your performance". Yet another wrote "You guys go above and beyond to push the envelope every time you're on stage and that's what makes you incredibly unique but I really hope everyone is safe. India is so proud of you. Take care guys".
Would Kings United manage to bring home the gold, becoming the first Indian dance troop to win an internationally acclaimed US reality show? Only time can tell. In the eyes of fans, though, it seems the dancers are already what their stage-name proclaims - Kings.