Farmington High alum will compete on NBC-TV's 'World of Dance'
FARMINGTON — As an adolescent boy attending his first dance at Tibbetts Middle School in the late 1990s, John Austin found the experience as awkward as most of his classmates.
The boys were lined up at one end of the gym, and the girls were lined up at the other. As the music blared, there were lots of nervous chuckles, fidgeting feet and surreptitious glances at the members of the opposite sex standing across that yawning chasm of the basketball floor.
"I thought, 'What do we do? What are we supposed to be doing?'" Austin said, laughing.
Then, something happened to break the ice, he recalled. Two boys strolled out to the tipoff circle at center court and began break dancing. Entranced by what he was seeing, Austin doesn't remember much else about his first experience with that stale preteen courting ritual, but he certainly remembers that night serving as his introduction to dance — a pursuit that would come to define him in adulthood.
Now a veteran dancer and dance instructor living in Los Angeles, Austin will try to capitalize on his talents as a competitor on the new season of the NBC-TV reality series "World of Dance," starring Jennifer Lopez. The show opens its new season on Tuesday, Feb. 26.
"I was automatically inspired," Austin said about his introduction to breakdancing and explaining how he came home from the dance and immediately started working on his first move, the Worm. By the time of the next dance two months later, he had perfected it and didn't hesitate to join those two dancers at midcourt when they began to show off their moves.
"They said, 'Oh, cool, now there's three of us,'" Austin said today during a telephone interview from his home in Los Angeles. "I completely got hooked. From there, I never stopped. I never took a break."
One of those dancers, Nathan June, would become a major influence on Austin as he continued to hone his dancing skills throughout his school years. Austin had other interests as well — he was a varsity wrestler at Farmington High School — but dancing was what he loved.
Austin had plenty of company in following his passion. He recalled how groups of 15 to 20 teen dancers formed separate crews in Farmington, Aztec and Bloomfield, and they would meet at local Boys & Girls Clubs of America or at a local skating rink to compete against each other.
"It was awesome," he said. "That sparked my career."
By the time Austin graduated high school in 2003, he knew he wanted to build a career in dance, though he acknowledged it wasn't easy making that dream a reality.
"I had no clue what that might look like," he said. "But if I could find anything to do to dance as much as possible or make some kind of business, that's what I did. I just knew that's what I wanted to do. I didn't have a grand plan. I just went for it."
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To generate income, Austin began organizing his own dance competition events, performing on the street, performing in theater shows and teaching classes, experiencing moderate success. But when he began posting his dance videos on YouTube in 2005, his found his exposure — and his career — suddenly took off.
Adopting the stage name Poppin John, Austin left Farmington in 2006 to advance his dream. A year later, thanks to the exposure generated by his YouTube videos, he received an invitation to serve as a judge for a dance competition in the Netherlands.
"That really sparked my desire to travel," he said.
Over the last 10-plus years, Austin, 34, has traveled extensively through Europe, Australia, China, India, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan and Argentina. Sometimes he judges competitions, sometimes he performs in shows and sometimes he's an attraction at corporate events or promotions.
Austin recently appeared on a popular Indian television program called "Dance Plus," explaining that the style of dance he has embraced — popping animation — is very popular there. He said he only occasionally is recognized by people in Los Angeles who have seen his online videos, but in India, Austin said he was embraced as a celebrity.
Austin is only at the beginning of what could turn out to be a season-long pursuit of stardom and riches on "World of Dance," which features a $1 million grand prize. But he already has found himself inspired by the pluck of another Farmington native, 16-year-old Chevel Shepherd, who recently won season 15 of another NBC-TV reality series, "The Voice."
Austin was shooting an appearance on "World of Dance" last fall when Shepherd was winding her way through the various stages of competition on "The Voice," and he happened to run into Shepherd and her mother in the lobby of their Los Angeles hotel shortly after he became aware of her.
He laughed when he described how he rushed up to the mother-and-daughter pair and began babbling about being from Farmington and how happy he was to meet her. Shepherd and her mother understandably seemed a little taken aback, and Austin realized he might have come on a little strong.
"I think they thought, 'Weirdo alert,'" he said, laughing.
Austin took a step back, composed himself and started again, explaining calmly that he, too, was competing on an NBC talent show and hoped he could make as good a showing as Shepherd had. That approach worked better, and he said he and Shepherd wound up having their picture taken together, which the young singer posted on her Instagram account.
Austin doesn't know if he'll be able to duplicate Shepherd's success, but he believes he's got the tools to go far.
"This is going to be a good introduction (to a national TV audience)," he said. "I'm on the show as a soloist, and I'll be doing my own choreography, so I'm really excited for that fact. … I feel like it's perfect timing for me to bring my skill level and experience to a stage that's huge. It's going to be awesome to see what their take is on my experience and talent."
Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610.