Nine years after dancing for fun with middle school friends, Eric Payan is still playing around.
But he’s far beyond busting sick moves at Literacy First Charter School in El Cajon.
Payan’s San Diego-based hip-hop unit was one of 16 chosen from around the world to compete in the Upper Team division (18-and-older) of Season 3 at Universal Studios in the L.A. suburb of Universal City. (Other crews come from South Korea, India, Norway and France.)
If Fuego wins the division, which also includes groups from Arizona, Florida, San Mateo and L.A., it competes against the best urban dance crews in three other categories.
Fuego — Spanish for “fire” but also meaning “cool” and “sexy” — has competed on the older “World of Dance” circuit for several years. The crew is known for its hundreds of videos, many on YouTube, with original music and themes such as football and video games.
They’ve toured dozens of area high schools and Payan even dances in an upcoming movie: “Simple Twist.”
“Now the main goal is to make the music move us,” Payan said before practice Wednesday at a Rolando apartment gym. “We literally make our own style — dance in ways that you can’t expect us to dance.”
Like recess at Literacy First, “we go in the studio with a mind-set of: Let’s just create and have a good time and see what we can get out of ourselves.”
Fuego’s 3- to 5-minute sets on the World of Dance tour include styles from popping and locking to robotic moves, krump and flips. But on TV, they’ll be limited to 90-second routines.
“There’s always ways to improve,” Payan said. “So even if we’re really, really, really solid to the regular human eye. … till the day of [competition], we’re making stuff better, perfecting everything.”
That means practicing four or five times a week, often after 9 p.m. because of work obligations. Fuego has about 15 dancers overall — including some in Mexico — but its top five will carry the brand on NBC (9 p.m.).
Payan says Fuego tried out for Season 2 of “World of Dance” but “kind of bombed” in the tryout.
But last July — after finding an invitation routed to his junk mail — Fuego went to a Season 3 tryout in the Burbank area, where producers said: “We love you guys — you’re going to the next stage.”
That led to an August and September of “talking and paperwork” and “a lot of phone calls,” and help from some parents on legal matters (since they have no formal manager).
Ranging in age from 18 to 23, the group poised for national fame Tuesday includes Paul Lopez, Andretty Lucatero, Lewis Torres and Shawn Jones Nguyen. (All are single except Lucatero.)
And all are mainly self-taught except Jones Nguyen, trained in ballet, jazz and modern dance at the School of Creative and Performing Arts in San Diego. He earlier attended the Creative, Performing and Media Arts Middle School in Clairemont.
The crew’s name originally had a religious bent: “Fire for God.” But Fuego — coined by Payan pal Richard Mendoza — “kind of stuck and it’s a catchy name — one word.” Fans would say of a routine: “That was fire, that was heat.”
Fuego has performed at more than 40 high schools, where girls started saying: “We have the Fuego fever.” Some began calling the crew a boy band — which even led to a formal offer that they be turned into a musical group.
Fuego turned it down.
“We didn’t come into this crew with any set style. We kind of watched people — and got to the point where we stopped watching everybody and just focused on ourselves,” Payan says.
In 2017, Fuego took third place in World of Dance San Diego, trailing much larger dance groups.
At first, the San Diegans were angered by some judge’s scores.
“Over time, we realized that everyone has their own opinion, and it’s a lot of politics involved, too,” said one member. “Sometimes we actually do screw up on stage. Sometimes we aren’t as clean.”
Fuego once found it a challenge to beat the big groups.
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“But then over the years we figured out how to just do our thing better than what they do. And now we compete with them and take on all of them,” the crew says.
Their advantage: “Pretty much everything you see in a performance is exclusively ours. No one has that exact mix. The moves are created toward the music.”
Payan says Fuego spends most of its time making sure that “every single part of the routine … goes to the music exactly 100 percent. If it’s off, or doesn’t agree with the song, we’ll … go back and fix it.”
They don’t have a coach, so they assure synchronization several ways. They watch tapes of their rehearsals, have one member dancing for the other four, or let one member critique how the other four perform a routine.
Ideas for moves also come from other San Diego dance crews — Payan takes his troupe to locations where freestyle dancers show off.
But Payan is the main choreographer, with others chipping in ideas. It’s “all from our own heads” since middle school, he said. “I’ll literally mix stuff together.”
Even without a dance studio to call its own, Fuego has evolved into a tightknit family, which expects to stay together for years.
Their newest star, Jones Nguyen, “came out of nowhere,” Payan said.
While observing Fuego at the Rolando gym, Jones Nguyen said: “‘Hey, I want to freestyle.’ And we said: ‘Yeah, cool. Do your thing.’ And he was pretty good. He was younger, but he was quicker than some of my other guys,” Payan said.
At the July tryout, “we were all sweating superhard,” he said. “We really killed the tryout. That’s when I realized — yeah, this five can make it work.”
Fuego is forbidden from saying how they did on the show, taping for several months. But Payan says the advantage his crew has over others is its “creativity and cleanliness” — coordination.
“We also want to get to the point where we can expand our horizon and do crazy flips and stuff,” he said. “There are routines we see people just have tricks, tricks, tricks. And it’s really strong. But after a while you kind of [get] lost in that.”
Payan’s longterm dream is turning Fuego into what he calls the first multigenerational dance crew — with spinoff groups such as Fuego Dance Crew Canada and Fuego Dance Crew Peru.
If Fuego keeps the attitude that “what we’re doing is bigger than our problems,” he said, “I think we’ll go further than we ever thought. I think it’ll go for a long time.”
Eric Payan, 23
Born in: San Diego
Joined crew in: 2010
Graduated: West Hills High School (Santee) in 2015
Lives in: Santee
Recent jobs: Dance studio teacher, chimney sweep, Uber driver
Paul Lopez, 20
Born in: *San Diego
Joined crew in: 2012
Graduated: Chula Vista High School in 2016
Lives in: Chula Vista
Recent job: Dance studio teacher
Andretty Lucatero, 23
Born in: *San Diego
Joined crew in: 2015
Graduated: Grossmont High School (El Cajon) in 2015
Lives in: El Cajon
Recent job: Sushi chef
Lewis Torres, 23
Born in: Chula Vista
Joined crew in: 2017
Graduated: El Capitan High School (Lakeside) in 2013
Lives in: Murrieta, Riverside County
Shawn Jones Nguyen, 18
Born in: San Diego
Joined crew in: 2018
Graduating: School of Creative and Performing Arts (San Diego) in 2019
Lives in: Poway
Updated at 2 p.m. Feb. 23, 2019
*Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported place of birth.