Dancing Their Way From The Slums Of Mumbai To 'America's Got Talent' Trophy
The dance troupe that won America's Got Talent: The Champions this year is taking a break from rehearsal – not to celebrate but because of coronavirus – and the lockdown imposed till May 3 in India, where they live and where our India producer interviewed them.
Inside a spare room within a Hindu temple complex in Mumbai, some two dozen youngsters typically gather to dance every evening. They're dressed in colorful sneakers and hoodies. They do backflips and somersaults, twist midair and propel themselves across the dance floor.
But what may be more incredible than their stunts is their backstory: They come from Mumbai's slums where people live in cramped quarters along narrow alleys, and in February, they won America's Got Talent: The Champions.
"I couldn't believe it when my son called from America to tell me that they had won," says Sunita Chauhan, 35, whose teenage son is part of the group. Her family of five lives in a small windowless, one-room home with a tin roof. Lines of clothes crisscross the dark room, and plastic and metal containers are arranged haphazardly on a shelf.
The dance group consists of more than two dozen members ranging in age from 12 to 28 years old. It's always been male-dominated: just two of them are girls. All of them come from slums in Naigaon and Mira-Bhayander — northern suburbs of Mumbai. Most of their parents work minimum wage jobs in factories, or as house maids, and they live in crowded shanties where water and sanitation are scarce.
Now, their victory could help them get out of poverty. In addition to a prize of $25,000 (before taxes) and a giant trophy that's stuck in customs, they're finding that their newfound fame is opening doors to other opportunities.
"I know that my son will be very successful," Chauhan says. "I hope one day to shift into a house in a building and buy a big TV."
But the group's journey is tinged with struggle and tragedy.
The group's leader 28-year-old Om Prakash Chauhan (no relation to Sunita Chauhan) ran away from his home in a small village in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh to come to Mumbai to work in a factory when he was 14. Chauhan says he used to see kids doing dance practice in a park near his factory and would try to copy their moves.
Then he met Vikas Gupta who was also passionate about dancing and together, in 2012, they formed their own group. They trained themselves by watching videos. They became so good at it, Chauhan says, that no one could beat them during dance battles with other amateur groups in their neighborhood. So they decided to call themselves "Unbeatable."
But many of the dancers' parents had misgivings.
Vishal Yadav's family threatened to throw him out of the house if he continued dancing. "But I didn't stop. I used to sneak out to go to rehearsals," the 17-year-old dancer says.
Many of the kids attend school and work part-time to support their families. One of them delivers newspapers, another sells flowers. Their parents didn't think dancing would be a realistic profession for a slum kid.
"Parents would get suspicious about what we were doing because sometimes our rehearsals would continue past midnight," says the group's leader Chauhan "I used to get angry phone calls," he says.
Then, in 2015, they were rehearsing for an outdoor event when something horrible happened. Vikas was practicing a complicated stunt when he fell from the top of a human pyramid and hurt his spinal cord. He remained in hospital for a month, paralyzed, before dying from his injuries.
"We were devastated," says Devansh Shirkane, 24, another group member.
The tragic loss of their leader could've ended the group right there. But instead, it propelled them. They were determined to carry his legacy forward, says Shirkane. The group honors Vikas every time they perform. Their costumes have 'Vikas' written on the back and they renamed the group 'V Unbeatable.'
"We wanted to do something for Vikas," says Shirkane. "When we see his name, it automatically gives us motivation."
Sometimes they use a mat that can cushion a fall. But mostly they perform without any safety gear, says 28-year-old Swapnil Bhoir, one of the group's choreographers. Members of the group say whenever a dancer goes up in the air, others gather below and make a human safety net with their arms to catch him or her. They admit it's risky. All the dancers have medical insurance, says Bhoir. When they perform at an event, the members sign waivers taking full responsibility in case of an accident.
The group first rose to fame when it placed fourth in an Indian TV dance competition in 2018. Seeing their children perform on TV was an emotional turning point for many families, says Chauhan. The performance helped them earn their families' support. It changed the way they operate: at first, anyone could join the group but in the last few years, they've been conducting auditions to recruit new members.
It also got them an invitation to audition for America's Got Talent in 2019.
"We used to watch videos of America's Got Talent on YouTube and try to emulate the moves," says Bhoir. "When we first got the email from the show, we thought it was a scam. We couldn't believe it."
To go to the United States to audition, they had to get passports for all the dancers — and shell out money for visas and flight tickets to fly them to California. The show paid for roughly half of the expenses, Bhoir says. Chauhan and Bhoir borrowed from family and a former boss to scrape together the rest of the money, he adds.
The group placed fourth but was invited to compete again this year in a spin-off called America's Got Talent: The Champions. One performance earned them the coveted Golden Buzzer from judge Howie Mandel, propelling them directly to the finals.
"I've seen thousands of acts. A lot of those acts just fall by the wayside and I forget," Mandel said. "I saw V Unbeatable and I went 'Oh my god!' This is the most exciting moment I've had in my ten-year history."
In the finals, the group performed to a popular Bollywood song, accompanied by Blink 182's drummer Travis Barker. At the end of the routine, Barker holds up his drumstick and the youngest dancer somersaults from behind, snatches the stick and lands on top of the other dancers at the front of the stage. The audience goes wild.
When they're declared winners, the dancers jump up with joy, crying and hugging each other. Some sit down on the stage, weak-kneed with disbelief.
This victory will change their lives, says Bhoir, the choreographer. People recognize them now, he says. They're getting more offers to perform at awards shows and sporting events in India, he says. The money they earn from those events – the equivalent of about $130 per dancer — could help their families finally afford bigger, permanent homes and move out of the slum, Bhoir says. Some of them hope to eventually open their own dance studios. A Bollywood movie about them is in the works.
"It still feels like a dream," Bhoir says.
But it is a dream temporarily deferred because of the coronavirus crisis. Confined to their houses under India's lockdown, the dancers continue to practice solo. They send updates to their choreographer Bhoir about what moves they're working on. The group doesn't know when they'll resume regular rehearsals.
"Only when all this goes back to normal," Bhoir says.
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