World champion dancer ‘Big Chocolate’ goes from big stage to BYU classroom

The Fall 2018 urban dance styles class poses at BYU. Marc Cameron teaches urban dance styles every semester at BYU. (Ty Mullen)

Walking around campus in a durag and snapback, with tattoos peeking out from under his sleeves, Marc Cameron doesn’t look like a typical BYU instructor. Not many instructors go by the nickname “Big Chocolate” either.

But Cameron fits his nickname well. At 6 feet 4 inches he is big but is undeniably smooth when he dances. At least Cameron said that was the reason his dance crew gave him the nickname.

Cameron is proficient in most hip-hop dance forms but has earned the most fame through popping, a street style dance where dancers flex their muscles in time with the music to create a popping effect.

Cameron teaches urban dance forms at BYU, the only hip-hop class that can be taken for credit. The two-time world champion popper teaches students about hip-hop dance forms and the culture surrounding them.

Cameron said he first fell in love with dance when he was 4 when he watched Michael Jackson’s performance of “Billie Jean” during the Motown Awards when he was 4 years old.

“My grandma had a VHS player, and I just remember rewinding and replaying the moonwalk over and over again,” Cameron said. “I wasn’t necessarily dancing per se, but I was moonwalking everywhere.”

Living an hour from London without a car in the 80s, Cameron’s only access to dance was through music videos, especially Michael Jackson’s videos like “Beat It.”

Camero’s love for dancing was cemented at his first school disco, when he was 8. It was one of his first times performing in front of a large crowd, and their reception was positive.

“I remember the music coming on and me just doing what I had seen in the videos,” Cameron said. “The whole school crowded around. Afterward, the DJ gave me the vinyl, and everyone there carried me on their shoulders throughout the school.” 

These feeling were short-lived for Cameron. During adolescence, he gradually danced less and less often in front of others due to peer pressure. However, he kept practicing at home and would dance with his uncles and family.

The 1990s involved a great expansion of hip-hop with artists such as Vanilla Ice and MC Hammer, who prominently featured dancing in their music videos. Isolated from the culture, Cameron would watch these videos and figure out the dances on his own.

BYU hip-hop instructor Marc Cameron has been one of the premier dancers in Utah. He is the owner and director of the Dance Project SLC and gives presentations and classes to at-risk children. (Marc Cameron)

Turning 18 was a turning point for Cameron. As an adult, he could finally work and make his own money, buy his own clothes and ditch his welfare clothes. He went to clubs looking how he wanted, and those feelings he first got as an 8-year-old at the disco returned.

Despite being a popular local dancer at the club scene, Cameron did not walk into a dance studio until he was 21. He found himself there because his girlfriend at the time was taking a jazz dance class. The teacher told him he either had to dance or leave, so he danced.

The teacher of the class liked his style, according to Cameron, and invited him to start teaching some of his moves to the class. According to Cameron, the teacher thought he had a knack for teaching, and Cameron got his certificate to teach dance.

He was officially a jazz teacher, but Cameron taught his students his style of dance. He would eventually create one of the premier dance academies for hip-hop in the U.K.

“Even though it was the start of something great, I wasn’t teaching authentic hip-hop,” Cameron said. “I had a bit of a slump because I did not know how I could get to my next level.”

Cameron said he was hungry for the next level and started to get more involved in the hip-hop scene, joining his first crew “Nemesis.” He left the crew after some time, shortly before the crew would become the first hip-hop crew on “Britain’s Got Talent” that made it to the finals.

BYU hip-hop instructor Marc Cameron was a member of the hip-hop crew “Nemesis” when this picture was taken in 2007. (Marc Cameron)

The year before, Cameron had failed to make the finals of the U.K. hip-hop championships, and he said he was convinced his chance had already come and gone. He was not planning to compete and was only there for his students competing, but he was convinced he needed to be an example for his students.

Cameron ended up winning the U.K. championships and then went on to the European championships. The U.K. did not have a popping representative, so the role fell to “Big Chocolate.” He ended up not only winning the European championship but the world championship too.

“It was the most surreal thing because I didn’t know what I was actually doing or how I was winning,” Cameron said. “It was because of my freedom to do it my own way rather than having too much of a structure.”

After winning his first title, Cameron realized how big the world was and how little he knew about hip-hop. During that year, he immersed himself in the culture and dance of hip-hop and came back to win the popping world championships the next year.

Meanwhile, at BYU, the chair of the dance department expressed a desire for a hip-hop class to be taught.

“I jumped on right away to do it to make sure that we did it right,” said Graham Brown, a former BYU dance teacher. “It’s easy to teach quote-unquote ‘hip-hop,’ but I wanted to connect to the true form.”

Originally, Brown intended to teach the urban dance class by attending workshops and using his basic appreciation of hip-hop. However, Brown’s acquaintance at Arizona State University gave him the idea that would make the class possible: invite guest teachers from the local community who truly embodied hip-hop culture.

Brown found the Bboy Federation, a local organization for break dancers and other hip-hop dancers, during the summer before Fall 2015. By that time, Cameron had moved to Utah after his baptism into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and began putting down roots into the Utah hip-hop scene. That was how he first found himself inside a BYU classroom teaching popping.

Brown said he felt the original organization of the class was unsustainable with him being the instructor in name only and wanted to bring on someone more permanent who could teach the techniques and culture with authenticity.

“Marc was such a great teacher, an all-styles dancer, was LDS and had the credentials,” Brown said. “He was the perfect candidate.”

During his interview to teach the BYU class, Cameron said he realized he needed to reassess how he taught his class. He made sure his class was factual, addressed misconceptions of hip-hop and was relatable to the students’ lives.

Cameron said he hopes his class helps students along their own path of self-discovery, much like how hip-hop culture helped himself.

During his very first semester teaching, a student in his class was hung up on doing everything correctly and copying moves exactly like “Big Chocolate.” However, at the end of the class, he grew to the point where he would throw himself across the floor and do things Cameron said he would have never expected from him at the beginning of the semester.

“At the end of the course, he came up to me and gave me a big hug and said, ‘Marc, thank you so much for this. You helped me realize a lot about myself and how I need to let things go,'” Cameron said. “He didn’t mention anything about dancing.”

BYU industrial design major Jayden Lauti has taken the class twice now. He signed up for the class as soon as he learned about it and decided to take it again because of how much he grew during the class.

“This class has given me more confidence,” Lauti said. “Although I may not be the best at one thing, I can strive to do what I can with confidence and trust that it is enough.”

Lauti said he appreciates how it is an opportunity to relieve his stress physically by dancing with other people who share his interest. The class provides him with an opportunity to increase his vocabulary and techniques.

Cameron said he understands his gift for dancing is from Heavenly Father to teach a class based in hip-hop in a way that reflects gospel principles.

“In the Bronx, where there was no church. There were drugs and killings, and these guys had to go through all that pain and hurt to find some form of truth and something to stand by as a moral code,” Cameron said. “They had to find their own rod to hold on to.”

BYU provides a space to explore how to teach hip-hop in a safe and encouraging way, according to Cameron. He finds the best parts of hip-hop and tries to separate them from some of the negative parts that can come with the culture.

The best parts of hip-hop allow people to come together and grow in confidence, according to Cameron. Lauti said he has seen how dance has united people through the class and truly brought people together.

“Dance has the power to unite, uplift and encourage positivity, growth and confidence. Dance is a universal language that can break down walls and barriers that no other method could,” Lauti said. “Dance is a way of life that fosters love, growth, social interaction and confidence in an individual’s as well as others’ abilities.”

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