By Ken Stone
San Diego’s Fuego Dance Crew had a good weekend, starting Friday night when the group performed before 19,000 at halftime of the NBA Lakers-Bucks game at The Staples Center in Los Angeles.
But Sunday night, their audience was a bit larger.
“We were trying to make San Diego proud, just doing what we love and having a good time,” Fuego leader and co-founder Eric Payan said after the two-hour “Qualifiers” episode — taped months ago.The Lakers lost to the Milwaukee Bucks 131-120 Friday, but Fuego had the highest score in its Upper Team division — 93.7. That’s the average of judges Jennifer Lopez (95), Derek Hough (94) and Ne-Yo (92).
The mostly Hispanic hip-hop group thus advanced to the duels round in about two weeks — a process that eventually will award one entry $1 million.
Dancing second on Sunday night’s show, Fuego wowed the crowd and judges when 5-foot-7, 130-pound Shawn Jones Nguyen, 18, leaped into the air and was caught one-handed by Paul Lopez, 20, a former three-sport athlete at Chula Vista High School.
“At first we tried to do a two-arm lift, but Paul was saying, ‘I think we can do one-arm,'” Payan said in phone interview. “And Shawn was saying, ‘Yeah, I’m down to try with you.'”
After a couple hundred practices, they perfected the move “to where they don’t have to think about it,” Payan said.
“The hard part was keeping the arm stiff and not, like, jiggly,” said Payan, 23, who watched the show with about a dozen other Fuego members at a friend’s home in Chula Vista.
Lewis Torres, 23, a fourth Fuego dancer, was among those present, but not Andretty Lucatero, 23, a sushi chef who had to work Sunday night.
Payan said Bad Bunny’s music was chosen because he’s one of the most popular artists in the Latin community, and Fuego wanted to share “a vibe that was Hispanic” but also something hip-hop fans would like.
“We didn’t even know that they knew each other till we were on the show,” Payan said.
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“We wanted to look tough … like we came to do some damage,” Payan said. (It was Paul Lopez’s idea.)
After their routine, executive producer Lopez gave Fuego a mostly positive review. But she found a “little piece in the middle where it kind of flat-lined.”
Payan said the group knew its flaws even before that, but “we weren’t really stressing over that too much.” They’ll take the judges’ critiques to heart, but mainly listen to the group’s “own advice.”
They’ll also probably return to their lucky barber. Three Fuego members had their hair cut by “Barber Gio” at Clipper Crew Barber Shop in El Cajon.At midnight, the YouTube clip showing Fuego’s set was nearing 50,000 views, with close to 100 comments, including from former classmates.
“It’s crazy to say that I met Paul in middle school & had him as my classmate in high school,” said one. “A lot of people looked up to him and so did I. Congrats man you deserve it.”
Payan said his phone “blew up” after the East Coast airing of the show, and again during the West Coast showing. He heard from people in New York, Texas and Arizona.
Fuego has already taped at least one more show — the duels stage that pits Upper Team division groups (over age 18 with at least five members) against each other. The three judges also will pick the best entries in the other divisions — Junior (under-18), Junior Team (under-18 groups of five-plus) and Upper (over-18).
The four division winners then compete for the $1 million prize.
On YouTube, some commenters are fired up for Fuego.
“Very subtle, but very very good,” said a commenter with the handle Panda Parade. “Like that teacher at school who can speak quietly but still command the whole classroom. Totally looking forward to these guys in the future.”
Said Darren S: “If they get robbed at any point this season, I’m quitting everything.”
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