Building a Hip-Hop Legacy

Dance Elements studio in Kalispell continues to grow as one student hits it big on stage with Justin Bieber

By Molly Priddy
Cody Bingham poses with instructor Amy Arriaga at Dance Elements on March 16, 2016. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

At a mere 10 years old, Cody Bingham has achieved the dream of many teenagers, and frankly, adults: To be on stage, surrounded by thousands of screaming fans, performing with one of the biggest pop idols in the world.

On March 13, Bingham went on stage in Portland with Justin Bieber to dance during the pop star’s Purpose World Tour. He was the youngest dancer on stage by far, and definitely the only one from Montana.

His status as a 10-year-old, along with the fact that he trains maybe 10 hours a week compared to the 36-hour weeks the teenage dancers on stage with him experience, made Bingham a bit of a wonder backstage.

“It was an experience for both of us,” Tawnya Bingham, Cody’s mother, said. “All of the other kids were industry kids, with agents and connections and classes six hours a day. Their parents kept saying, ‘Where are you from?’”

Dancing has pulled at Cody since he developed a sense of coordination. His parents were both collegiate athletes and were excited their son wanted to pursue a physically challenging hobby, but they quickly realized they were out of their league when it came to teaching him.

But when Cody started working with Amy Arriaga at Dance Elements, a dance studio in the Glacier Business Center on U.S. Highway 93 north of Kalispell, the Binghams knew it was a match made in hip-hop dance heaven.

Arriaga began teaching dance, specifically hip-hop, about 15 years ago, shortly after moving here from the Bay Area in California. She’d been dancing since 6, professionally since 15, and had been teaching since 18.

When she and her then-boyfriend, now-husband Joe Arriaga first moved to the Flathead, hip-hop dance offerings were nonexistent. She worked at a couple of studios, but soon realized the kind of dancing she wanted to teach kids in the Flathead would have to come from herself.

“Kind of on a whim, I thought ‘Maybe I can do this on my own,’” Arriaga said in her studio last week.

It was a challenge at first, she said, because there was some pushback against the idea of hip-hop in rural Montana. Even 15 years after she began teaching, she still gets asked when her students are going to perform a country number.

“It’s been a long road,” Arriaga said. “I think I have tried to push limits. That’s my goal every year.”

Several locations and years later, Arriaga is now the sole dance teacher to 200 students, of which Bingham is just one of the standouts. At a recent competition in Coeur D’Alene, Idaho, the Dance Elements team sent 51 kids to dance, and brought home 52 trophies. The kids danced in hip-hop, jazz, lyrical, and tap styles, and Arriaga choreographed 49 of the 51 numbers.

In the studio at Dance Elements, Arriaga works to give her students structure and build a solid work ethic.

“It’s so intricate and challenging,” she said of hip-hop. “These kids work their tails off. I feel like I’m giving those kids confidence.”

And when her students start filtering in for the first post-school class of the day, it’s easy to see they are eager and enthusiastic, especially when Arriaga and Bingham start freestyle dancing in the studio.

The Dance Elements spring show, taking place April 14-16 at the Whitefish Performing Arts Center, has sold out for the last few years due to its popularity.

Arriaga also takes her students to dance conventions around the country, where they have the opportunity to learn from an array of accomplished teachers, which is an important aspect of having a well-rounded dance education.

But in the Flathead, her studio is experiencing some growing pains. With so many kids seeking out her classes, Arriaga said she’s looking at building a new facility with more space, and plans on adding new programs to her dance classes as well.

The Dance Elements squad goes to Monsters Dance Conventions – Cody’s first one was at age 8 in Seattle – which also happens to be the Facebook page on which Tawnya Bingham saw the opportunity for her son to dance with Bieber.

In a video on Facebook, Bieber’s choreographer Nick Demoura challenged anyone who wanted to dance on stage during the world tour to submit a video of themselves dancing to the choreography. Dancers could only enter for one stop on the tour, and only four kids would be chosen for each concert.

She brought it up with Cody, who then spent six hours in his room on a Saturday night learning the dance. The next day, he and his mom met up with Arriaga to polish it up, then recorded just three takes before calling it good.

Bingham said she learned how to use YouTube to post Cody’s video, and then received a message that out of thousands of entries, Cody’s was one of the winners.

“He was the last one to show up (at the concert) and the other three kids said ‘We knew it would be you,’” Tawnya Bingham said.

Being on stage was exciting, Cody said, and he spoke briefly with the Biebs himself. But what really gets Cody chatting is the other dancers he met, who taught him new moves and gave him pointers on break dancing and learning to pop and lock more effectively.

“I want to learn how to pick up choreography like so, so, so fast and hit moves harder,” he said.

His drive to succeed is clear. When his mom discusses his future, and the chats she had with other parents at the concert, she says he could pursue dance as a career right now, to which he immediately responded, “I want to!”

The talent is also there, and Tawnya Bingham said having Arriaga to shape and direct her son has brought it to the fore. Cody is also a confident dancer, willing to throw it down in front of any crowd, an important aspect for a budding performer.

When asked if he was even a little bit nervous to dance on stage with Bieber, Cody didn’t laugh or equivocate.

“I belong on stage,” he said.