LAS VEGAS—Matt Nguyen's career options once amounted to hair cutting or maybe military service. But the 21-year-old dancer nicknamed "Dumbo" now makes $4,000 a month cutting up dance floors and battling fellow hip-hop crews.
And after propelling to fame through a cable TV reality competition, Nguyen and his buddies from Southern California think their new career could last longer than the latest two-step.
"We used to just dance for fun," said Nguyen, the frontman for Poreotics, a hip-hop troupe featured in Justin Bieber's latest music video as well as all over YouTube.
"We didn't think it was going to be that big, but it's our life now," he said, as he waited to rehearse at the recent World Hip-Hop Dance Championships in Las Vegas.
Poreotics represented the United States as back-to-back national champions. Nearly 200 crews from 28 countries went toe-to-toe across three divisions, with an all-women crew from New Zealand taking top honors and Poreotics placing second overall. More than 4,000 fans and ousted competitors watched the finals.
Dancers ranging from ages 5 to 45 convened at the Red Rock Resort waiting to bust a move in front of their global colleagues during the preliminaries. Crews in red football jerseys, blue space suits and custom-made T-shirts hyped each other up and held impromptu rehearsals in the hotel's halls.
The market for professional hip-hop dance crews has evolved in recent years, with films like "Step Up 3D," reality television and amateur videos online fueling demand for showcases of popping, locking, and other signature styles of the once-underground pastime.
But earning a living through hip-hop dance is still a difficult leap at best -- even for crews like Poreotics, who have gained mainstream fame for their moves.
And veterans who have been break dancing since "Soul Train" say the quality of would-be dancers has dropped amid its growing popularity.
Nguyen and Poreotics scored reputations as top boogie men earlier this year on "America's Best Dance Crew," where the two-time U.S. hip-hop dance champs used their stationary, robotic style and stage humor to win the MTV show.
That meant more work yet some hefty raises. The shades-donning showmen now charge $8,500 per gig -- 17 times their old asking rate of $500 -- and earn a full-time income from performances, merchandise sales and dance workshops.
"It becomes work that we love to do, but at the same time we try to have fun with it, joke around and be ourselves," said crew member Justin "Jet Li" Valles, 23, of Los Angeles. "That's what got us here."
Valles said Poreotics started in 2005 with three friends before expanding to a six-man crew. The group's name blends popping -- a style that involves suddenly jerking certain muscles -- choreography and robotics.
Each member attended some college but dropped out to pursue dance. They each live with their parents or families.
Cam Nguyen, 19, of Garden Grove, Calif., who is not related to his teammate, took graphic arts classes after high school and said he's content designing the squad's T-shirts as their careers take shape.
"These kids would have never been able to make a living off their passion if it wasn't for the commercialization," said Barbara Adler, 49, a break dancer with Momz-N-Da Hood, a Long Island, N.Y.-based crew of mothers who hip-hop dance who was blogging at the championships.
Adler, a former developmental specialist at a hospital, said she and her fellow crew-moms left steady incomes to pursue dancing, despite economic tension it created in their households.
"But it's true -- when mom is happy, the whole house is happy," said Adler, who has three sons and a husband who supports the family.
"Motherhood is our hood, we have angst too," she said.
Hip-hop dance, a part of hip-hop culture that includes rapping, deejaying and graffiti that originated in East and West Coast neighborhoods, has morphed into its own performance genre and gone global. Freestyling soloists have given way to tightly choreographed teams that synchronize head spins, fancy footwork and gymnastics-heavy stunts.
It's an alternative to ballet or ballroom -- with YouTube serving as today's most accessible stage where dancers battle and one-up each other online.
Some think would-be dancers mimic amateurs too much, instead of attending organized events and seeking out experts.
"It's like a telephone game and you don't get the right message in the end," said Natasha Jean-Bart, a professional dancer for Cirque du Soleil in Las Vegas and the competition's head judge.
But the setbacks for hip-hop's dance culture may be small compared to new job opportunities for top crews.
The Jabbawockeez, a San Diego troupe recognizable by their signature white masks and gloves, are proving hip-hop dance can entertain solo.
The first-season "America's Best Dance Crew" winners have had two successful live performance runs on the Las Vegas Strip. A third stint this month was added after their first 20 shows at the
"We're proving to people that we're not just background dancers. It's an art," said troupe-member Jeff "Phi" Nguyen, who is not related to either of the Poreotics members with the same name, in a phone interview from Los Angeles. "The floor is the canvas and our body is a paint brush."
The Jabbawockeez, named for the similar-sounding Lewis Carroll poem in "Through the Looking Glass," recently launched a private company, JBWKZ, LLC, to market themselves and sell merchandise.
But William Lett, a musical theater instructor at California State University, Fullerton, said he doesn't consider hip-hop a realistic career option.
"It hasn't reached academic status yet like ballet or jazz or tap," he said in a phone interview.
Lett said self-trained hip-hop wannabes should learn more dance forms before stomping to the scene.
Matt Nguyen and Cam Nguyen said they might return to hair styling and graphic design in the future. But for now, hip-hop trumps all else.
"We're going to dance 'til our bodies can't do it anymore," Cam Nguyen said.