By Vinna Yip
FOR nine years, he was trained in Latin and ballroom dancing.
Then last year, China scholar Zeng Jiayi, 18, decided to take up hip-hop dance lessons.
He had developed an interest in the genre from two years of watching hip-hop videos and mimicking the moves.
Earlier this month, the first-year Victoria Junior College (VJC) student took part in his first hip-hop dance competition and came out tops.
He was first in the hip-hop solo open category at the Lecco Danza International Dance Competition 2010 in Italy, beating older and more seasoned competitors.
His prize? A month of free lessons at the renowned Broadway Dance Centre in New York.
The Fujian-born student, who came here three years ago and is part of VJC's dance ensemble, has been taking part in Latin and ballroom dancing competitions since he took up dancing at the age of 9.
A few years ago, he started watching hip-hop videos on the Internet.
"I'd follow the popping and locking moves and try to copy the style, but I was neither here nor there," he recalled.
"I liked that I could automatically start doing small moves every time there was music playing."
Popping involves contracting and relaxing muscles to cause a jerk in the dancer's body. Locking involves freezing your body in a certain position.
Jiayi began attending proper lessons at a local dance school about a year ago.
"I realised I needed to have real foundation if I wanted to learn how to pop and lock properly," he said.
He was so intent on perfecting the moves that he would spend his holidays back in his home country practising at dance studios there.
But in Singapore, balancing his passion and studies was not easy.
"As a scholar, you can't just dance all the time. You have to maintain your grades or you'll lose your scholarship," he said.
Thankfully, his grades have not suffered.
Apart from the solo hip-hop category, he also took part in the group categories of contemporary dance and hip-hop with his VJC dance ensemble.
Rehearsals - six times a week and at least four hours daily after school - began only in mid-January, giving the team very little time to prepare for the event.
Jiayi was the only one in the ensemble who took part in three events.
He said: "I put in a lot of effort to choreograph the piece. Editing the music itself took 11/2 weeks."
One week before the competition, he was so stressed he almost pulled out.
He was pleasantly surprised with his win.
"I went in with no expectations; I just wanted to try my best," he said.
"I probably won because of my creativity, showmanship and a lot of luck."
His ensemble, which consists of 26 students, also did well. It emerged as overall champions at the competition.
The students won the first prize for a contemporary group piece and were first runner-up for a hip-hop group piece.
This is the second international dance competition the VJC dance ensemble has taken part in and their best showing so far.
The ensemble also obtained a gold award in last year's Singapore Youth Festival.
This article was first published in The New Paper.