Special: V Unbeatable share their journey from the slums of Mumbai to becoming world dance champions
INDIA HAS BEEN known to produce stalwarts in fields such as math, medicine, space studies and even spelling bee championships. And more often than not, the achievers aren’t just credited for acing their respective fields, but for doing so despite difficult circumstances such as lack of high-end equipment, training or money. Adding themselves to the list of talents who have taken the country’s name to a world stage, Mumbai-based acrobatic dance group V Unbeatable emerged victorious in the 15th season of America’s Got Talent: The Champions, one of the world’s biggest dance competitions.
“It means a lot to us, to be the world champions. It was our collective dream to be something in this world, and to make our parents and the country proud. But mostly, we wanted to fulfil (co-founder) Vikas’ dream,” says Om Prakash Chauhan, leader of the dance group (with members aged 12 to 27) as he begins the story of the troupe’s journey from the slums of Mumbai. Humble beginnings At the mere age of 13, Om Prakash left his hometown in Uttar Pradesh in search for a job. After reaching Mumbai, he landed himself a job in a glass factory, where he would notice a bunch of kids in a nearby garden, coming for their b-boying sessions. “I loved dancing, so I started rehearsing with them and learning their moves. I didn’t have the money to join a dance school. So I would learn from whatever I saw, and from whoever was willing to teach me,” begins Om.
It was during that time that he met Vikas Gupta, one of the dancers in the group who helped him master the dance moves. And together, they came up with the idea of starting a dance troupe called Unbeatable— a group with kids from the slums of Naigaon and Bhayandar in Mumbai. “Vikas and I created the troupe, so that we could train the slum kids during our free time. However, things took a hard turn for us six years back, when Vikas met with an accident while performing a stunt during one of our dance sessions. As a result, he was paralysed from the neck down and succumbed to his injuries a few weeks later.” After this huge setback, the group that had initially disintegrated, got back together with a new name — V Unbeatable, in Vikas’ honour.
“He left us with an unfulfilled dream. The group split up as the parents were scared for their kids. But Vikas’ parents gave us the strength to move forward and requested us to complete their son’s wishes. That’s when we decided to get back together with the original team, to form V Unbeatable.” shared Om, adding that till date, the team pays homage to the late crew member during every performance by wearing a jersey with his name on it.
From Bombay to LA
The group began touring locally and eventually went on to be part of competitions like India Banega Manch (2017) and Dance Plus (2018), where they finished in fourth place. The 35-member group received international attention after they took part in Season 14 of America’s Got Talent (AGT) and received a ‘golden buzzer’ from guest judge Dwayne Wade. Their intense acrobatic routine to Rajinikanth’s hot song, Marana Mass — a tribute to their fallen founder — went viral on social media for its nerve-wracking stunts. Their act stunned all the Om Prakash Chauhan judges including Howie Mandel, Gabrielle Union, Julianne Hough, Simon Cowell and as a result, they were sent directly to the quarterfinals with that one act. However, the team could only finish in the fourth spot. But they didn’t want to stop there.
“After losing AGT 14, all of us were so depressed. But we realised that in life, there is always hope. And for us, that hope came with the show’s next season,” adds Om. After returning to America’s Got Talent: The Champions 2020, (a spin-off show of AGT), their first performance itself received a ‘golden buzzer’ from judge Howie Mandel, sending the group straight to the finals. After an exhilarating final performance that featured drummer Travis Barker (of Blink 182), V Unbeatable lived up to their name by winning the coveted title.
Of spins & somersaults
It’s hard for one to watch them perform without bated breath. Everything from their spins and somersaults to multiple backflips, perfect landings and their synchronised freestyle moves are unmatchable, to say the least. “All of us are full-time professional dancers. We do about 10 to 12 hours of rehearsals every day. Our boys can do all styles of dance. There are some who are good with popping, some like urban hip-hop, locking crump and many other styles. But mostly, the group sticks to hip-hop.”
Speaking about their thrilling stunts, Om explains, it comes out perfectly, it’s all a result of their commitment. “We always make it a point to give our best on stage. Our complicated moves come out clean and successful only because of the long hours that we put in every day for rehearsals,” shares Om, adding that they try to prevent injuries by using safety mats on the floor during rehearsals.
Big-ticket, big dreams
Before AGT, most members of the crew hadn’t even travelled outside of Mumbai, and weren’t aware of such a show. When the invite to participate came along, they didn’t just have to rush to get passports and necessary papers, but they also had to sit down and watch what the show was like. “When we were part of Dance Plus, we were working under choreographer Dharmesh (Yelande) Sir. After we got the invite for AGT, we wanted the help of someone who has already been to the US and has an idea about the show. It was Dharmesh Sir who suggested that we work with Rohit Jadav, his assistant, and ever since, he has been taking care of everything including choreography and song selections for our acts.”
When asked about their experience in the US, Om says, “America is an incredible country and the people there are very nice and full of positive vibes. We consider it a great experience to have met all the AGT judges. We could also interact with other artistes who were there to perform. During AGT 14, we got a chance to perform with Julianne Hough (American actor/dancer) and another incredible opportunity was to perform alongside a great musician such as Travis Barker. ” Back in India after the victory, a biopic is in the works for the team, which will trace their journey from the slums of Mumbai to the world stage. And what else do they think the future holds? Om shares, “Now, the group has just one dream, to start a dance studio with our name. Each one of us wants to settle down and buy our own houses for our parents.”
Rohit Jadhav, the choreographer of V Unbeatable, shares a few insights about the team’s success mantras
Props & techniques
"The acts that the team performed are mostly hip-hop routines, but we did add a lot of tricks. This competition was a big platform for us. So, we wanted to show something that was connected to our culture, and where we come from. That’s the reason why we brought in props like cycles and carts in our act. Since we were representing India there, we wanted to create an impression of the things we have here rather than doing something they’re already familiar with.”
Stick to the plan
“Before every act, we had to get the songs and props approved by the officials. It was tough for us to explain it, so we would make a reference video to show them. We would plan one prop, but also keep three other options. We also demonstrated the tricks that we could perform with each item. Once they approve, we’d go ahead with our rehearsals.”
Bollywood numbers only
“The style we perform always demands high-energy songs. So we chose the songs that could add more power to our performances. It was our decision to only work with Indian songs. The Bollywood industry is so big that even people abroad enjoy it as we do. We also realised that using Bollywood songs would make us stand out from the rest.”
A master trainer for a mirror
“We made it a point that even if there are 40 of us on stage, it should look like one person dancing. That level of synchronisation only comes with lots of practice. We didn’t have a studio with mirrors and all that to rehearse. For them, I was the mirror. I would stand in front of them as they practice and explain each step in detail. As for the stunts, we would not go ahead unless we were 100 per cent sure, and the kids were confident of pulling it off
— Fathima Ashraf
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