By Evan Ross Katz
“If someone had told me that this was going to happen, I would immediately think they were lying,” Angyil McNeal tells MTV News in the night leading up to Red Bull Dance Your Style, a mixed gender, all-styles-allowed battle competition featuring dancers from all over the globe. The Kansas City-born and Bronx-raised dancer is in Paris, France, where she represents the United States in the competition that includes challengers from Belgium to South Africa. She's one of 16 dancers vying for the title of World Champion. If she’s at all nervous, you'd never know it.
Exactly what street style is depends on who you ask. Some dancers perform improvised choreography; others hype up the crowd with pops, locks, breakdancing, turfing, voguing, and more. In the end, it’s the audience who judges, holding up their wristbands after each round and flashing a blue or red light depending on which competitor they deem the winner. The result is a surreal spectacle: After each mini-battle a viewer might look out at the crowd and, in some cases, know immediately who won and, other times, witness just how neck-and-neck these battles can be. For McNeal, street style isn't defined by its fluidity but rather by its emotion. “Street style, in my mind, is anything that comes from the streets, but it’s also an artistic self-expression which is really raw,” she says. “Sometimes it’s not pretty, but it’s always real.”
These days, the 27-year-old dancer is on the go constantly — in a given week she’s traveled to Paris, Japan, and Brazil — no longer in pursuit of her dream, but living it. It’s a long way to come for the performer, who began battling in the streets of New York City and was, at one point, arrested for dancing on the subway. But her passion persisted, and her family encouraged her from the get-go, unable to ignore her innate talents. “It’s part of my culture,” McNeal says, noting that she can’t remember a time when she did not dance. “It was one of those situations where somebody would put on music and you can be three years old coming out of the bathroom and you just start dancing.”
At 16, she traveled to Paris for her first professional gig. “They were really happy for me; they always are,” McNeal says of her parents, who cheered her on from the States. The name of the battle was called “Juste Debout,” and McNeal spent her last 20 dollars to enter. She competed in three separate categories, winning the solo battle. “I went home hungry but with a full heart," she says, recalling how she left the competition to perform on the street for quick cash.
Within months, while her peers were studying for final exams, she became the youngest person signed to her agency, Bloc. Soon after, she crashed an audition looking for dancers for a Rachel Roy fashion campaign and ended up booking the job. “I was actually getting into the underground clubs in New York,” she recalls. “My friends knew people and would tell the bouncers, ‘Let her in. She’s just coming to dance. She doesn’t want to do nothing else. This young lady just wants to dance.’ And they’d let me in.” She’d stay there until the club closed, entranced by nothing but the beats.
Perhaps one of the most unique characteristics of street dancing is that it’s a sport without gendered categories; anyone can compete against anyone. The only requirement is passion. “Honestly, I’ve never seen myself as less than a man anyway, so I think it’s beautiful that other people can understand that concept, too. I feel like the men in these competitions know that the women are just as powerful as them. They don’t even try to intimidate us because they know it’s not going to work at this point.”
This culture of acceptance has been an integral part of her relationship with street dance since 2012, when she began participating in New York competitions. However, it is not found everywhere, and McNeal, as a woman of color, has at times faced discrimination. And the more McNeal brings her particular style of dance to cities around the world, the more she realizes that "dance takes on the culture."
"You’ll still go to some countries and the women are not valued as much as the men," she says, "so the women will start their own cypher or won’t even feel empowered to dance because they feel intimidated or unwelcomed by the men.” And occasionally, she's subjected to sexist comments from her peers. “I remember asking for advice about how I could grow, and someone told me that if I get a perm I would get more jobs,” she recalls.
For McNeal, it’s not a challenge to endure so much as an opportunity to open people's minds. “I feel maybe they aren’t used to women dancing a certain way,” she explains. So, she sees it as somewhat of a responsibility to convince the crowd of her viability.
But here in Paris, McNeal is respected for her skills. She managed to advance past the quarter finals, past the semi, and into the finals, where she battled 17-year-old Shinshan who had previously won Holland's Got Talent. The two squared off in an epic final battle that gave them each an opportunity to freestyle for 60 seconds to two different songs. Shinshan got the crowd revved up with his flips and twirls, while McNeal methodically undulated her body to the hypnotic beats.
Though she did not end up taking home the top prize, her impact and positive attitude within the art form transcends any trophy. “I’m ready for the next one,” she says. “I just want to keep doing what I love. I just want to keep dancing.”