While most of his routines are choreographed, B-boy Ralph Escamillan definitely dances to his own beat.
From his start as a breakdancer in Vancouver at age 14 — when he worked at a studio in exchange for classes, cleaning floors, bathrooms and throwing out the garbage — to his development into a confident dancer who mixes styles not often seen in competition, Escamillan has done it his way.
“I do dances that are specific to the gay community, like waacking and vogue, so sometimes I get weird looks when I’m battling,” he says. “But I don’t really care because I’m an ‘I don’t give a shit’ kind of person. I just do what I do. I just do me.”
Escamillan will be bringing his personal flair to the stage at the end of November when he stars in Klorofyl, one of two urban dance shows running at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre starting Nov 24.
At 18, Escamillan is “the baby of the company,” he says, but he’s no amateur. He’s been obsessed with dancing since a YouTube video of a Filipino troupe inspired him to dive into the dance world and take in as much as he could, from breakdance to ballet.
As the son of a single mother who had post-secondary hopes for her son and worried that dancing was a waste of his money, Escamillan had to be determined. For several years he worked two jobs, went to school five days a week and commuted to dance rehearsals an hour from his home.
Throw in his coming out at age 17, a move to the “big city,” offers from dance companies, his mother’s change of heart, and one crazy night at a downtown vogue ball, and his life’s path starts to sound like a movie starring Jessica Alba.
“I love that my dancing is running with my actual life now,” he says. “I have a connection with it emotionally and physically that I can’t find anywhere else.” But he by no means feels on top of his game. “My love of dance always changes every few months because I’m always learning. I think every dancer should be a learner; you should never know everything, because then you plateau and you don’t have anything to work for.”
Escamillan says he considers himself a contemporary dancer, not necessarily a B-boy. The “purists” devote 100 percent of their time to their genre, he says, instead of dabbling in many, which he likes to do: popping, house, waacking, voguing, you name it. But titles, whether describing a genre or a sexual orientation, just aren’t for him. Nevertheless, he says, there are people in the industry who want to categorize dancers.
Despite the stereotype that most male dancers are gay (Escamillan says it’s more like 50-50), homophobia still exists in the industry, he says.
“For commercial work, if you’re going to be on TV, it’s about your face — what you can bring to the TV screen. If you look gay, maybe three times out of 10 they will hire you,” he says.
“I’m still going to be me, ’cause I know hard work pays off. I worked my butt off when I was younger, and I’m still working my ass off now. So I think if you work hard and don’t really care, you’ll still get far.”
The upcoming Klorofyl show, which was inspired by the Kurosawa film Seven Samurai, will see Escamillan, fittingly, play a warrior. “It’s almost like an action movie in a sense,” he says.
The show combines several genres, including house, hip hop and jazz, and the characters “struggle to challenge established dance formats.”
“My character is kind of different and is okay with change,” Escamillan says. “For the tribal part, I will be different-looking than everyone else, but it’s all part of the piece.”