Strength In Numbers: Meet the Kinjaz

Kinjaz Dance Crew UCI Profile Orange Coast Magazine Mike Song Anthony Lee
The Kinjaz co-founders, Mike Song and Anthony Lee.

Photograph by Emily J. Davis.

In 2O1O, UC Irvine alums Mike Song and Anthony Lee founded The Kinjaz, a hip-hop dance crew that has accumulated more than 146 million views on YouTube and appeared on Season 8 of “America’s Best Dance Crew.” With 45 members combining new-style urban dance choreography with Asian cultural influences, The Kinjaz is one of the most prominent dance crews in the industry today, even launching a line of noodles. We spoke to Song and Lee about their growing empire.

How did you two meet?

Song: We met at freshman orientation, in a dance circle at the Social Science Plaza. We reconnected during Welcome Week at UCI because we were like, “Hey, you’re that guy that I (dance) battled.” Then we joined forces just like a “Step Up” movie.

When did you first start dancing?

Song: I started dancing in middle school. High school is when it became more serious for me. My main inspirations were Michael Jackson, Mr. Wiggles, and early K-pop groups.

Lee: I started dancing in college after I saw a bunch of dance teams and met people like Mike. Mike was actually one of my first teachers. Similarly, I was inspired by b-boy culture and Michael Jackson and wanted to practice my glides and moonwalks in my living room. I didn’t have any training.

Can you tell us more about your time dancing in college? What dance groups were you in?

Song: I actually chose to go to UC Irvine because there’s such a heavy dance community, and I knew that KABA Modern, the dance team that I (later) was in, was at the school.

Lee: I was on the Chinese Association dance crew and also in the UCI B-Boy Club. I was a film major, but at the end of the day, I have much fonder memories of dance at UCI than I do academics. My dance team culture, having a family or something to even belong to was my entire experience. Putting together three months of work to have a five-minute show, those really extreme experiences that gave you high-level bonding—that really was the best part. We would practice in parking structures until the sun came out. I just remember meeting most of my best friends, even to this day. We’re all going to each other’s weddings, and people are having kids.

When did you know that dance was something you wanted to commit to pursuing?

Song: I would say it’s been like an ever-evolving journey. The Kinjaz used to be called ANBU Black Ops, which is this super-nerdy anime reference. When we created the group, it was for a one-time performance. There was no foresight into what it would become. It was a “group of homies’ passion project.” I would say 2014 was a really big year for us in understanding like, “Hey, all of us are pursuing dance as a career, as individuals. What would happen if we actually put all of our energy toward the same goal?” Once we focused on doing it full time—not just as individuals, but as a group, something larger than ourselves—that’s when things really started to snowball.

Lee: We were at this unique time where a handful of choreographers and teachers were roaming around to countries like Slovenia or Croatia trying to share our culture. Many of us happened to be Asian Americans. We started building bonds and recognizing that there was more we might be able to stand for, represent, or even do for our culture and our community. So I think at that exact moment in 2014 is when we started pulling people together and galvanizing the energy. It wasn’t about the individual anymore, you know, it was just about something bigger.

Kinjaz Dance Crew UCI Profile Orange Coast Magazine

Where did the name Kinjaz come from?

Lee: The word “ninjas” is in there, but also the root word “kin,” which stands for family. We look at each other as kin, and that’s one of the foundational bases for how somebody can even become a member; they need to separate from themselves. To become Kinjaz, you have to be like family. We’re a family of dancers that move (like) ninjas.

Tell us more about your noodle brand. Why did you choose to go in that direction?

Song: We always had this interest, but it got shot up to the top of our priority list because of the challenges that we had to face (during the pandemic). We joined forces with our friend Alex Cotraviwat, who specializes in consumer-packaged goods. (We had) flirted with the idea of collaborating for a couple of years. We are noodle lovers—Anthony loves pho; I love ramen. It was always a dream bucket-list (item) to do something, whether it was like a noodle shop or whatever it was. Honestly, we never even imagined that packaged goods were in our wheelhouse of possibilities, but we got hit really hard (last year): All of the major engines of Kinjaz—such as live performances, running dance studios, and producing live events—were shut down. We also had to think about a way to sustain our organization, so this shot up our priority list as an aggressive retaliation to our studios closing and basically everything that we had that had supported Kinjaz from a business perspective. Our biggest goal was Costco. Through the grace of good fortune, we are in select Costco locations right now, in Texas and the Midwest. It’s excitement mixed with some anxiousness, because the goal is to go nationwide.

How has the pandemic affected dance as an art?

Lee: Coming from a teacher’s perspective, I remember the feeling of it being slightly taboo to go the digital education route (pre-pandemic) because you weren’t connecting with students and you didn’t have a very peer-to-peer way to give suggestions or advice. But during the pandemic, the taboo was gone. Immediately, the priority was to adapt and figure out what was going to work. Once everybody’s in lockdown, it’s a lot easier to be like, what else is there to do? … The virality of TikTok dance challenges where everybody does the same thing to the same song was born from this melting pot concoction of that time in the pandemic. Everybody has a kind of global understanding of dance vocabulary or just overall movement because they participated in a bunch of random challenges. … People’s knowledge of the culture and the craft is overall heightening in hive mentality, but the actual clarity of artists and unique characters con- tribute to the culture and community. This is a very powerful shift.

How has dance evolved for this new generation of dancers?

Song: The landscape of dance is so different now. There have been shifts in dance in the past 20 years. The pinnacle of dance as a career was dancing behind someone, attaching yourself to an artist, being Janet Jackson’s dancer, being Michael Jackson, etc. We grew up in an era where it started to change. There were YouTube and social media and dance TV shows, where you could be your own artist and share your work directly. But now we’re in another new era where it’s more about connecting, like on TikTok and this era of shareability. It’s way more focused on how you can invite everybody to be a part of what you’re doing.

Do you have a favorite performance you’ve done?

Song: There is no favorite! But in terms of our recent work, we actually produced a concept video for Nike that isn’t available to the public yet; we’re really excited about that one. In terms of popular opinion though, our “Fear None” arena performance and our “Kinjaz Dojo” performances on “America’s Best Dance Crew” and “World of Dance” are definitely fan favorites.

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