Story by Liz Lopez
As the eyes of the entertainment industry take notice, hip-hop dancer Mateo Escobedo, 14, begins his freshman year of high school having already performed across the Bay Area and on some of the world’s biggest stages.
In 2021, he appeared in front of Simon Cowell and Heidi Klum on “America’s Got Talent” and made it to the semi-finals as part of the Chapkidz team. He also spent one season dancing for the Golden State Warriors children’s hip-hop dance team, called the Junior Jam Squad, and earned a championship ring as a result. To top it off, he recently won a silver medal at Hip Hop International, which is considered the Olympics of hip-hop dance.
“When I was a kid it was a thing I did in my free time, but now it’s pretty much my entire life,” he said.
With back-to-back training, competitions, performances and school, he credits his parents for a work ethic that his teachers and mentors say is remarkable.
Mateo’s parents, Victor Escobedo and Jodi Hernandez, opened Papalote, a Mexican restaurant located at 24th and Valencia Street, 24 years ago. At that time, they each worked day jobs and worked at the restaurant, with no days off for years, in order to make it happen.
Victor and Jodi are proud that both their children cherish their culture, are bilingual, and represent the Latino and Mexican-American hip-hop dance community with pride.
José Escobedo, Mateo’s first dance teacher and older brother by four years, started taking hip-hop dance classes at 5-years-old.
One-year-old Mateo set his sights on dance as well. Not one to sit on the sidelines, he would get up and mimic his older brother’s dance moves and hip-hop fashion style. Even at a young age, his mother remembers just how quickly he picked up dance and choreography.
“He just has something special about him that stands out. You can see the joy on his face and the spark in his eyes,” says Jodi. “He’s got this cute dimple, curly hair that bounces up and down … he just uses it all.”
Mateo is quick to show appreciation for his teachers and mentors who have played a critical role on his dance journey: Greg Chapkis, Kelli Forman, Coach Precise, and Kathleen Dizon. “Each one of them is completely unique and has helped me in different ways to grow as a dancer. All of them are more friends than just teachers at this point,” he says.
Chapkis’ family were prolific dancers in Ukraine, where his father used to judge “Dancing with the Stars Ukraine.” Greg currently heads Chapkis Dance in Fairfield, where top dancers from across the country go to train. He is a world-famous dancer, judge, director, and choreographer, who just finished choreographing Daddy Yankee’s world tour.
“It’s tough to be a choreographer and dancer . . . only the top 5 percent really makes it; everyone else has to have a second job. The ones that make it are the ones that persevere through all the obstacles. Mateo has the drive. He definitely has a future in this industry,” says Chapkis.
This year there were 33 countries participating at Hip Hop International. Each country brings their top three teams — all of whom are hip-hop champions of their respective country. Team USA has never placed at the top three for the MegaCrew [highest level] division, in the history of the competition, until this year.
“It was like our entire summer was compressed into those four minutes, so getting that second place was really emotional for all of us,” Mateo says. “Like all the hard work actually paid off.”
“I love seeing them succeed,” says Chapkis. “I love seeing them grow into the dancers they are. That’s the best part of my work, you know, to see dancers like Mateo come from jumping around, clapping hands with the little kids to standing on a podium of Hip Hop International representing the country. It’s the best part of my job.”
Creating Community and Connection Through Dance
Chicago Footwork is another of Mateo’s dance specializations. His instructor, Kelli Forman, teaches this style of dance that originated in Chicago about 40 years ago as a dance battle. Originally a ballet dancer, Forman is now part of the crew, Creation Global, and the protégé of the crew’s leader, King Charles, who danced with Madonna.
“When you train you are dancing 160 bpm (beats per minute). You are doing very difficult footwork movements repetitively. I think the dance gave him [Mateo] a lot of confidence in quick movements. That’s what the dance gives you, because it’s more of a space of resilience from the African-American community in Chicago,” says Forman.
She credits his choreography to being better than many adult choreographers.
“I just called up my agent and was like, ‘you got to meet this guy’ . . . and then he got signed with the agency, so yeah, I’m really excited for where his career goes.”
Mateo’s breakdance instructor is Coach Precise — of Breaking with Precise — the captain of the Golden State Breakers, the NBA Golden State Warriors breakdance team. Mateo was on the Junior Jam Squad for one season when the Warriors were in Oakland and has been breakdancing since he was 8-years-old.
“His work ethic is second to none and it shows every time I see him perform,” says Precise. “I can see that there’s always been a constant elevation in his thought process and his work ethic; the final product shows that this kid is remarkable and the things that he does are just amazing to me.”
Kathleen Dizon, Mateo’s mentor, remembers training Mateo when he was half her size. “Now he’s taller than me and I’m looking up to him. Ever since he was a kid, he was such a welcoming, smiling person; just very positive,” she says.
“I feel honored to be part of the mentors he has in his life because I’ve been working with him when he was more of an underdog, and now, he’s shining and giving everyone goosebumps when they watch him.”
The Future Looks Bright for Mateo and for Hip Hop
When performing on stage Mateo says he can feel the vibration of the music going through his body. “My adrenaline … pushes me to dance even harder on stage. But when I’m on stage, everything is in slow motion, which is kind of crazy, and if I mess up, I can fix it right away because everything is in slow motion,” he says.
Armed with a fierce work ethic and raw talent, Mateo is pushing his boundaries yet again by enrolling in ballet, jazz, and musical theater this year. He would like to be in commercials, tour with musical artists, and use his new acting skills to star in movies.
“I’m just very devoted to what I do and I appreciate the foundation and the origins of every style of dance and I want to learn things the right way,” says Mateo. Even at such a young age he already knows that at the end of his career he’d like to teach the next generation of dancers and continue to pass down the history, knowledge and lineage of hip-hop dance.
Breakdancing will become an official Olympic sport at the 2024 Paris Olympics. Mateo believes that dance is a language, in and of itself, that can transcend cultural barriers to create bonds between people all over the world.
Right now, Mateo is just focused on high school and broadening his dance skills. He is excited for his future and isn’t taking a single moment for granted.
To find out more about the dancers mentioned in this story:
Mateo Escobedo: @mateo_escobedo
Greg Chapkis : @gregchapkis
Kathleen Dizon: @katuhleen