Inside the MasterMinds

The Houston Press honors three local arts groups on the city's cutting edge.

This type of scene must happen a lot there. SoReal Studio is the home of SoReal Cru, the second-place finalists on the second season of MTV's America's Best Dance Crew, which is American Idol judge Randy Jackson's contribution to the reality-talent-show format. Each member of SoReal Cru must inspire similar fear in young students of hip-hop. The group, after all, remains the only one in the show's history — four seasons — to never find itself in jeopardy of being eliminated. In other words, they're badasses.

Chris Baterina started SoReal in 1998 as an alternative to the usual high school extracurricular activities. "Back then, if you didn't play sports, if you weren't a mathlete, what was there to do? So I started a dance crew," he says. At first it was just for fun, but then the Southwest Houston-based crew started entering local talent competitions...and winning. "We gained popularity throughout the Houston community from those small talent shows," says Baterina. "Then we started winning bigger competitions, college dance competitions. It was like a rollercoaster; we won five years in a row."

In an effort to keep the group young and vital, Baterina "gave" the crew to his younger brother Andrew. Andrew recruited a younger generation of dancers, guiding the crew toward bigger contests, like California's World of Dance in 2008, America's largest urban dance competition.

"That's when they were scouted by MTV," says Chris. "It was a big deal for Houston, because the dance scene is largely on the East Coast and California. A group from Houston was kind of unheard of." SoReal had also won as a crowd favorite.

The success was so overwhelming that Chris realized the young group needed a manager. He took the reins back. "All they would focus on was dance," he remembers. "They needed headshots; they needed résumés. I got all that done for them and used my background in marketing [he has a degree from the University of Houston] to start marketing them the minute they were on the show."

Chris realized that when you're on TV, you're only a star for that long. "The minute you're off that show, it depends on what you do with it. So I started gathering fans online and communicating with them and getting support, and SoReal was never in the bottom two the whole show."

What happened next, Chris can only describe as "crazy." Even though SoReal won second place, the group was booked. They were flying from city to city, state to state, performing at dance competitions, making appearances at clubs and signing autographs at stores. "It was huge that we were so big and we weren't from an industry city."

Chris started the YouTube channel SoRealTV, so as soon as they were off the show, fans had an outlet. "That hit worldwide; we got to, I think, 7 million worldwide views, and that catapulted the popularity of the group." The channel features videos of the group's travels through Europe, including one stop in Hanover, Germany, in which Andrew blows German minds with his fluid, precise and somewhat provocative moves. Another video documents the crew's opening performance for hip-hop star Drake at Warehouse Live.

Sensing the Houston dance community's need for an outlet that catered to hip-hop and youth culture, Chris developed the idea for a dance studio where the SoReal members could teach classes; it would be a home base for projects and operations. The Bellaire studio opened November 7 of last year, and already the next season of America's Best Dance Crew held its auditions there. Chris is pretty proud of that fact. "JC from 'N Sync and the producers were all here. They'll air the footage on the premiere of the next season," he says.

Located in a strip center at the corner of South Rice and Ashbrook, the studio is spacious, with dark wood floors, a long mirrored wall and a nice array of electronics and sound equipment. There's a lounge area with black leather couches and comfortable chairs for spectators. Classes range from $20 for a single class to monthly package deals. Because of the group's popularity, only two members from the MTV show's lineup teach regular classes, but now even the newer teachers are developing their own fanatical followings. Although SoReal Cru's core members are based in Houston, they're constantly booked for classes and appearances all over the world, so it's a rare event to get them all together. And Chris is just fine with that. In fact, it's what he imagined all along.

"It's a true springboard," he says, "a launching pad. That's the whole point of it. Ten years ago, I'd have never thought it would be where it is right now. We get comments and fan letters from all over the world. Some countries are just now watching season two of ABDC. In China and Portugal, they just found out about SoReal. To me, it's all in the marketing."

And now, it's all in the expansion. "We want to add a second studio for private lessons," says Chris. "We're developing contemporary classes, ballet classes. When we added ballet, it was full — and not with ballet dancers. It was hip-hop dancers who wanted the technique and discipline to be better at hip-hop."

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