The Kings, the 14-member dance troupe from Mumbai, created history when they became the first Indian team to win the World Of Dance championships in Los Angeles this month, taking home a whopping $1 million (Dh3.67 million) cash prize.
Their grand finale routine in the popular American reality talent show — judged by Jennifer Lopez, Derek Hough and Ne-Yo, was an aggressive mix of Bollywood moves, gravity-defying leaps and hip-hop moves.
Suresh Mukund, the choreographer of The Kings, claims they felt like pumped-up warriors before hitting the stage.
“‘This is war’ was a line that I told everyone in my team over and over again. I knew that our finale act should reflect how badly we needed the title of world dance champions… We have struggled so much to reach here to this point in our lives,” said Mukund over phone from Mumbai.
He wanted the judges to flip out at their dance moves and sense their collective desperation to be world dance champions.
The Kings or Kings United are the quintessential underdogs who rebelled their way to the top. From tackling parental resistance to hunting for open spaces to rehearse in Mumbai, this Indian dance troupe didn’t have it easy since their inception in 2008.
“I have dancers in my team whose father is a watchman and one dancer who still lives in the slums. There’s a dancer who is being raised by a single mother… We have fought hard to reach where we are. But now our lives have changed forever now,” said Mukund.
Since their dramatic win, The Kings who are managed by Qyuki digital media, are swatting Bollywood movie offers and gearing up for a world tour with the World Of Dance team in North America and Canada. They are being sought after to judge reality dance shows and are being cherry-picked to choreograph shows.
“We have dreamt of this moment for years and years,” said Mukund, whose family is in the field of construction. Their rags-to-riches underdog story also inspired director Remo D’Souza dance film ABCD 2. But now, The Kings have become a force to reckon with worldwide.
Excerpts from our interview with Mukund, 31, as we discuss the crazy prize money, their aspirations and why Kings United will never include women in their troupe …
Q: Congratulations! Has the glorious win sunk in yet?
A: When they announced our name as the winner of World Of Dance, it was the best moment of our lives.
Just as they were about to announce the winners, they began by flashing our scores and when three 100s flashed on the screens, I was pretty sure that the title is ours … We were all crying. I was blank for a minute because I realised that my life would never be the same again once our names were announced. We will be known as the world champion of dance and treated as one of the best choreographers in the world. I will never forget that moment in our lives. From that moment on, I knew every dancer would know about us. It’s such a big achievement.
Q: In your final act, you brought a slice of India onto the dance world stage and your judge Jennifer Lopez was impressed by that element … How did you manage to blend the two?
A: We love incorporating Bollywood moves into our choreography. It worked wonderfully in 2015 when we won the Bronze medal. But we were aware that the judges aren’t used to seeing the fun element in Bollywood choreography. For them it’s new and fresh. I am very emotional when it comes to India. I was very sure that if I am representing India on a world stage, then there has to be an Indian element into it. I wanted to be known as the dancer who represented India well on a global stage. Throughout the season of World Of Dance, I chose Bollywood and Tollywood songs. There were so many thumkas and signature Bollywood moves. I knew that was going to work well and it did.
Q: Your judges were clearly impressed…
A: Jennifer Lopez is a global star who has seen the best dancers in the world perform. And for her to say that she hasn’t seen such a performance in her life is a big compliment. In the qualifying rounds, she gave us her shoe. In a dancer’s world, throwing a shoe is a mark of respect. She told us that it was the first time that she had given her shoe to anyone. We weren’t expecting such an overwhelming reactions or comments to our dance routines.
Q: Coming to the most important question: what are you guys planning to do with the $1 million prize money?
A: All my dancers harbour this dream to own their own homes in Mumbai. They are all from a middle class or lower middle-class families. So for them, buying their own home in Mumbai with their own money is their biggest dream. I have always invested in my team to grow more. So I plan to start my own academy with my share of the prize money.
Q: Your videos of your dance troupe seem to suggest that you are one big unit and your routine is dependent on trusting each other. How difficult was it to grow that bond and implicit trust?
A: This crew is a very old one. We began at a time when there were no opportunities for aspiring dancers. We formed our crew around 2007-2008 and 90 per cent of our dancers are from that crew. I was 18 back then and we have grown up together. We trust each other implicitly and we always believed that we would achieve something big together. We have struggled a lot when it came to money and gaining family support.
In 2009, there were no mobile phones and even communicating with each other about rehearsals or getting the team together was a tough task. We found it difficult to get a space to rehearse. It was difficult to make our parents understand that we wanted a career in dance. Today, there are several dance shows we can participate in. But back then, there was just one show called Boogie Woogie and there was limited scope to grow. So we all knew how important it was to win the World Of Dance competition. We knew the importance of achieving a brand name.
Q: How many hours do you rehearse in a day?
A: Initially, we had to practice at least ten or twelve hours a day. But once we got into the groove, we started doing things smartly. When we compete in a contest, we practice eight to nine hours a day. When we are not competing, we practice for two or three hours.
Q: Your teammate Hardik injured himself at a crucial point in your finals… Did you think you had lost the battle then?
A: Hardik had an ankle twist since the second round itself and we had to get on stage in 10 minutes. Our minds went blank because Hardik had a backflip in the first eight seconds of our routine. It’s a moment which we will never forget in our lives. I asked him what to do and told him we had five minutes to change our choreography. We had no other option left. But Hardik, who was crying, said that he will still go ahead because we had worked so hard for this moment in our lives. Just as he said it, our names to appear on stage got announced. We had no time to think it through. He went on stage limping and performed like never before. Once the performance got over, he just broke down.
Q: Will Kings United include women in the future? Why is it an all-males dance troupe, are you anti-women?
A: No, we are not anti-women. We are happy being Kings United. I feel that when women enter the equation, there’s a lot of distraction. Men fall easily in love and it affects their work. I had tried to bring female [dancers] into our troupe once, but the team was not able to focus properly. They were falling in love, one by one. I prefer to keep their love life away from work life.
Q: Are you saying women are mere distractions… Why don’t you just draw up a contract with a clause about not getting involved with each other?
A: When someone falls for someone, contracts don’t matter. Our crew suffered for almost a year without work. So that time we decided to keep the troupe all-male. We are happy being The Kings.