NBC’s “World of Dance” kicked up outrage online last week with the elimination of the Jabbawockeez, the masked hip-hop team that had been considered a lock for the finals. But in the coming weeks, the most intriguing storyline may be in Luka & Jenalyn, the daredevils who specialize in the fast, athletic style of ballroom cabaret.
With five groups left in the Upper division, the category has broken down into a battle of urban versus ballroom. There are two hip-hop acts (Fik-Shun and Les Twins) plus one “urban” group Keone & Mari. On the ballroom side there is the flamenco group Pasión plus Luka & Jenalyn, who also performed during the first stop of the “World of Dance” live tour in Pasadena.
Ballroom cabaret is far lesser known than anything related to hip-hop or traditional flamenco. Which means Luka Milacic-Perusina, age 20, and Jenalyn Saraza-Pacheco, age 16 are not only fighting for points: Is their little-known style enough of a ratings draw for the show to keep them?
Judge Jennifer Lopez has certainly seemed encouraging, commenting during The Qualifiers that they bring a transformative and youthful quality to their performances.
And they come by it naturally. Hailing from Toronto, Canada, they are the youngest professional cabaret duo in North America. Their championship titles include the youth division North American Imperial Show Dance Championships in 2014, followed by the 2015 adult division; then the 2016 Michigan Dance Challenge for professional cabaret. Last year, they were also Blackpool Exhibition Invitational Finalists.
Milacic-Perusina, who began dancing at age 10 after years of playing sports, came to ballroom cabaret after observing Canadian cabaret champion Carlos Zapata.
“It is such a great harmony between athletic tricks and lifts, etc., [and] artistically you have the freedom to be able to express yourself with…any choreography,” said Milacic-Perusina. “It’s a limitless dance style.”
His desire to learn it triggered a meeting with Saraza-Pacheco, who was already a salsa champion. She had begun dancing ballet at age 2. By age 5 she was dancing salsa and winning competitions such as the International Hustle & Salsa Competition in Florida with her brother, Raymond. After Raymond broke his foot, she was introduced to Milacic-Perusina through Zapata, who became their coach in 2013.
The first time they tried ballroom cabaret was with each other.
“It was sort of like an arranged marriage,” says Saraza-Pacheco. “We didn’t really know each other going into this interview and meeting. I had to trust he was going to lift me and catch me. It was pretty fun for a first try out—seeing what he could really do. With his athleticism he was able to throw me around like a rag doll, but now he’s learned technique to it!”
They began training 12 to 15 hours a week, choreographing and progressing through the more complicated performance tricks and making the style their own. A year and a half later they were able to beat their coach at the world championships, a feat completed again this year.
They attribute their quick growth to learning more about each other and using each other’s strengths to create better choreography. Over time, they have incorporated a more street-based style into their performances, by choosing popular music first and presenting themselves in more casual costumes than what is typical for flashy cabaret.
Milacic-Perusina feels the ballroom style is perfect for “World of Dance” because of its speed and originality. But will it be enough to win out over well-known traditions, be it flamenco or hop-hop?
“It doesn’t matter what style you’re from,” says Milacic-Perusina. “You do the best possible piece and that’s what’s being marked.”