Arnel Calvario - Doctor of Occupational Therapy, Founder of Kaba Modern, President of Culture Shock International and member of Kinjaz
Arnel Calvario is a Doctor of Occupational Therapy, Founder of Kaba Modern, President of Culture Shock International and member of Kinjaz.
A Los Angeles native who grew up when hip hop, bboys, popping, and locking were just beginning, Arnel took his interest and his passion for all of that, for dance and created a life dedicated to uplifting his community. From his early days of dancing with his cousins, to his time at UCI dancing in Kababayan, to Kaba Modern and Culture Shock and Kinjaz, to becoming a Doctor in Occupational Therapy, Arnel has pursued each with love. His lifelong passion in dance brought about a movement, his desire to work with and help others brought him a career in Occupational Therapy, and he was able to mix the two together and create a life full of community, good work, and heart.
Hip Hop, Dance, and Coming of Age
Arnel grew up in Harbor City, CA around family, hip hop music, bboys, poppers and lockers. He would attend jams at the park and talent shows, supporting his cousins in their popping group. He was younger and awkward but a fan of dancing, so he'd practice in his room. During his youth he also performed traditional Filipino dances with his cousins because one of his Titas was part of Kayamanan Ng Lahi. They learned about their heritage, choreography and team work.
During high school Arnel got more involved with dance. “In the 80s there was more new movement of dance and I put together a group in high school, we started entering talent competitions and stuff. That gave me an idea on how to create a group, have a goal and work towards it.”
Then came college at the University of California, Irvine where he joined the Filipino club Kababayan right away. As the oldest of 4, this was the first time he had Kuyas and Ates. They knew his experience in Filipino cultural dancing, so he started there for Pilipino Culture Night. But an idea began to take shape.
“Filipino Americans weren't on tv, but they were at the battles. We brought the flavor and we were dominant in the underground party dance scene. In December 1991, I went to the Kababayan president, and said we should have a more modern section that represents our contributions to hip hop dance, and he said “make fliers, have auditions” as a joke, but I took him seriously. And it turned it into a beginning! I created a group to be part of PCN and they named us the “Kababayan Modern Dance Suite.” Since that seemed too long for most, Kababayan members started calling us “Kaba Modern” referring to us as the more modern aspect of the Filipino culture night vs. the more traditional Filipino dance suites.
We formed as a dance family - not a battle crew or a formal dance company. We were practicing in parking structures and outdoors next to buildings on campus at the time. It was grassroots and fun. When we performed at PCN in 1992, it was so awesome. It took people by surprise. They loved it. And then it grew to other Filipino college/university clubs.”
From that one idea, a movement began to form. A collegiate dance scene took shape, with performances at PCN and Friendship Games. Club and car show promoters began incorporating small competitions and performances into their events to push promotions, but it wasn’t produced in a way that would be conducive to these growing dance familes, so Arnel and his roommate Joseph Lising began talking about how competitions/events should have good judges, good lighting, and then Vibe dance competition came about. Dance groups and other dance events began popping up more and more at different schools and in different communities thereafter.
“As so many more competitions began to pop up, a lot of the community leaders did a call to action to really evolve the community to also cultivate community exhibition groups and produce dance showcases to ensure that we weren't cultivating only a competitive spirit, but one also of story telling, expression, education, and community building.”
Education and Finding OT
During Arnel’s time at UCI he studied to become a physician. He went on a medical mission to the Philippines with PUSO UCI, where he did procedures and surgeries, but his heart was in the recovery room. “I liked the interaction with patients. I wanted to be a physical therapist. Then I got a job as an occupational therapy/physical therapy aide at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles rehab unit were I discovered Occupational Therapy. This field is based on a bio-psychosocial model which incorporates all the subjects I love together (biology, psychology & sociology), I found my career path by taking 2 years off after graduating UCI to explore and find the right fit for me.”
Arnel then attended the University of Southern California’s OT school, where he aced the program and loved the field. He got his Masters in OT, was offered a grant to do his doctorate, and was part of the first graduating class of the OT clinical Doctorate program at USC in 2002.
“My parents have always been supportive of dance in my life, but they still wanted me to be a doctor, so I became one on my own terms, in a field that I love. I’m a big believer in the idea that no person is meant to be just one thing. We are a combination of many extraordinary parts and it is the brilliant combinations of these parts that make us each who we are. It is my belief that we live the healthiest & happiest life when we embrace all of who we are and take the time necessary to find careers that support & cultivate that.”
Culture Shock, ABDC, The Debut, Kinjaz, The Philippines
“After graduating UCI in 1997, I auditioned for and became part of a professional, non-profit dance organization called Culture Shock Los Angeles in1998. I was attracted to this organization not only because of its dope artistry, but its education and outreach mission. I grew up participating in Boy Scouts and Key Club, so it made sense that I would be drawn to a group like CSLA that is rooted in community service. Through CSLA I did a lot of events with programing that incorporated the history of hip hop and ‘urban’ dance. I became a community leader that was committed to paying it forward, education, community enrichment, and investing in other new leaders who were also developing their own identity.”
Arnel participated in America’s Best Dance Crew as part of Kaba Modern. He worked with the show’s producers to showcase the talent that was out there, suggesting other dance crews like the Jabbawockeez be part of the show. “We represented this hidden community in California. Although at this point, we had a large community with so many dance events happening, none of this was televised or known nationwide. I wanted to help make Asian Americans more inclusive in the face of hip hop.” Through that experience, Kaba Modern, Jabbawockeez and many other prominent dance crews became household names and were able to travel internationally for several years teaching workshops, performing and encouraging other dances across the globe to build up their community.
“I remember the time we were touring, newspapers mentioned something like ‘where did all the Asians come from?’ and my thinking was ‘We have always been here, but now you see us.’ I’m grateful to be part of a community of many forces that pushed Filipino American representation out there globally.”
Arnel was also part of the Filipino American film, “The Debut”. He was in the scene where 4 girls and 4 guys are in a dance battle.
“I’m very proud of the Filipino American community of Southern California, there were so many people that made time for The Debut and ABDC and rallied around us. We are so visible now.
Kinjaz is a brotherhood of dance leaders created by Mike Song and Anthony Lee in 2010. They believe in making a positive difference in the dance world "through media, movement, & positive mentality." “We are all leaders of different teams and we’re all homies. There are 38 of us total and the root of who we are is the respect and "KINship" between us. Some of us have full-time jobs outside of dance and some of us have dance as our full-time careers.” Kinjaz performed on ABDC and World of Dance both of which amplified their visibility. They’re still pushing the envelope to what’s possible, creating their own industry and bringing as many people with them. Kinjaz want to add respect and value to urban and hip hop dance and make a positive difference in the world along the way.
Arnel’s involvement in dance also reaches the Philippines. “It has always been a dream of mine to eventually go back to the Philippines and give back to the dance community of our homeland. Thus, in 2016, I was able to work with La Salle University to launch their annual Hip Hop Dance Convention which was a weekend long intensive focusing on Hip Hop and urban dance education through workshops, discussion forums, and battles. I also worked with one of the prominent dance companies there "The A Team" to bring one of the most prestigious urban dance competitions here in the US to the Philippines in October 2016 - VIBE urban dance competition. I now typically go to the Philippines twice a year to teach workshops and support these events.”
Doctor in OT and Giving Back
Arnel is a full time Occupational Therapist for Long Beach Unified School District. “I cover the occupational therapy clinics at 2 elementary schools and 1 middle school, so I have summers off and have spring and winter break when I have the opportunities to do a lot of my dance projects. I still travel internationally to judge competitions and teach workshops. I love my job as an occupational therapist and love working for that district. It is the combination of these two careers that makes me feel happy & fulfilled.”
Arnel launched "Awesome Shock" in 2014 as an extension of Culture Shock LA's dance education programs where they offer free, grant-funded after-school programs for at-risk youth. The Awesome Shock program is unique in that it is a dance therapy program that combines occupational therapy and dance to serve kids with special needs. It’s a true testament to Arnel’s love for the work he does and for giving back to his community.
Looking Back, Looking Forward and the Dance Community
Arnel was part of spearheading a cultural movement. Kaba Modern celebrated their 25th anniversary and it’s been a journey. “All 25 years flashed before my eyes. See inter-generational connections from the beginning to now. There is a common thread that ties everyone together. I feel honored to be a part of it since the beginning. I also feel a sense of responsibility. I’m still using my heart and voice to keep us progressing in a positive ways.”
The dance community is so family driven, with a commitment to one another where everyone helps each other out. They have the same goal, expression, and outreach.
There’s push to help with the future. “We need amazing leaders. I teach a workshop called Leadership Tools for Dance Leaders. Really working in encouraging leaders.”
And there is plenty happening now.
“Right now it’s super global because of social media because it’s so accessible to everyone though instagram and youtube and tv. I think we’re taking a step back and there’s lots of talks about community building, we are starting to lack a personal connections. There’s a lot of dialogue about needing to push for new events and new people to meet.
What’s trending right now is more story telling. I love story telling pieces, too. Because people are going through so much. There’s more mixed media, too. They’re creating media backgrounds, they have full on media backgrounds while dancing. It’s more creativity: special effects to short vids.
Dance is best experienced in person. Come out, show up. I see it continuing to improve, it’s an exciting time.”
Photos courtesy of Arnel Calvario. Cover photo by Jon Shih