Picture this: You're onstage about to perform, but you don't have any choreography prepared, and you have no idea what the music will be. For most dancers, this is their literal worst nightmare.
But for the 16 dancers at the Red Bull Dance Your Style U.S. finals in Las Vegas, NV, last weekend, that's exactly what happened.
Representing various street styles from popping to waacking, the series of one-on-one battles found competitors facing off against different disciplines to music that was chosen at random by DJ Mike Murdah. Adding even more unpredictability was the fact that the winners were determined by the audience, rather than the usual set of expertly trained judges.
Only one dancer will move on to the world finals in Paris later this month: B-boy Neguin. But all the competitors put in serious work training for their battles. Three shared how they prepped for the unexpected.
Lily Frias, Waacking/Popping
"There's so much importance on the entertainment aspect because we are being judged by the crowd," says Lily Frias, who was chosen by Red Bull as a wildcard competitor. "I've been battling for quite a while with the traditional way of having a few judges voting, but I really like this. The competition is serious, but you get to have fun and be an entertainer. It's really exciting when you don't know the song and you have to play with it and be in the moment—that adrenaline is the cool thing about being freestyle."
Part of feeling that freedom on the floor comes from putting in the work, which Frias is diligent about. "A day of training for me is working out, stretching and working on certain styles. If I want to focus on a certain concept, I'll only work on that, or musicality, or stamina. I'll take class if I feel like I need to change my energy, but I train by myself, too."
Even as she walks on to the floor, Frias is still prepping for her two-minute battle. "I try to make eye contact with the people watching. You're the show, so you have to break that wall and be like, 'I'm here with you, let's have fun together.' "
Virgil "Lil O" Gadson, Hip hop/All style
Having appeared on TV competition shows like "So You Think You Can Dance" and "America's Best Dance Crew," Virgil 'Lil O' Gadson is a seasoned pro when it comes to battling. "I check out the competitors on YouTube and Instagram because you get inspired—you get to see what they can do that you can't and it helps you see where you can get an edge in the competition," he says, adding, "Plus, we all become friends and travel together, so it's good to know who your opponent is."
Gadson, who focuses on hip hop but is trained in modern, jazz, ballet and tap, puts in some serious studio time. "For this, I would have my friend time me for two minutes dancing to random music, just like how the competition is set up, and I would just keep doing that to work on my stamina and see what moves I can do while getting a feel for timing."
Gadson also lets the music influence which technique to break out. "Being a versatile dancer allows me to adjust my movement to the music. Whether it's jazz or classical, to hip-hop, I've learned those techniques so that I can switch up my style."
"Spider" Alexander, Memphis Jookin
Jordan Nicholson, Courtesy Red Bull
"I like to be surprised by my competitors because I feel like that brings the best out of me," says 'Spider' Alexander, who won his spot in the Vegas finals after his very first competition with Red Bull in New Orleans this summer.
For him, musicality plays as big a part of his training as prepping physically and mentally. "If they start playing classical music or '80s rock, you have to be prepared for it and keep up a good rhythm while entertaining the crowd," he explains.
He trains with several different types of music so he can give it his all no matter what genre the DJ plays. "Practicing with blues, classical and vaporwave in particular have really helped me a lot with different rhythms and to be able to hit the bass drum or the snare drum, or even one of the melodies of the song," he says. "I'm used to going into competitions and either winning or losing. But for me, it's about continuing to push your talent."