The rise and rise of Parris Goebel

MICHELLE DUFF
Last updated 05:00 13/07/2014
Parris Goebel
CHRIS SKELTON / Fairfax NZ
On the floor she’s not Parris Goebel; she’s Parris, Queen of Polyswagg, head of The Royal Family.

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The Young New Zealander of the Year is tapping a bright orange nail against her cut-off jeans.

"It was pretty cool; I mean, it wasn't all magical. I liked the people. I didn't like dancing on camera that much. It's a little bit boring."

She shrugs. Next question.

Never mind that she's just made her role in the latest instalment of the multi-million-dollar Hollywood dance movie franchise Step Up sound like it was a bit-part in a televised Christmas pageant.

Really? You didn't enjoy it? 

"I mean, obviously I'm going to be doing movies one day, so it was good to be part of that."

She smiles, unapologetic. 

Meet the force that is Parris Goebel. Dancer, choreographer to Jennifer Lopez. Three-time World Hip-Hop Dance Champion with her dance crew, The Royal Family. Daughter of Brett and LeeAnn, aunt to eight wee cherubs who appear regularly on her Instagram feed - alongside Los Angeles streetscapes, magazine shoots, fan mail and a picture of her smiling with buddy Lorde.

At an age where most people are just trying to make it to work or the pub on time, Goebel is living a life that, to be honest, barely seems possible. 

It's a Thursday night at the Goebel-owned Palace dance studio in industrial Penrose, Auckland, but it feels more like a high school social. Teenagers are leaning on each other, hugging, peeling off to dance a few steps. A boy and a girl dance together, she flicks her hair extensions to one side, kicking one silver Air Jordan over the other.

"I wouldn't say it's the highlight of my career," the 22-year-old says, looking up at him coquettishly, he moving closer, until they break character and fall about laughing.

Brett "Big Poppa" Goebel, as he's affectionately known, wanders through, stopping to chat to individuals before loudly chiding the room at large that they'll never get anywhere if they don't work hard. 

Parris, who has been lying on the floor, gets up. 

Standing up the front, she begins to dance. As she does, the formerly chaotic space is transformed and without a word dancers fall into place behind her.

"Shimmy, shimmy, shimmy, freeze, bounce, nod, nod, boom," she breathes, shoving her body through the air as if daring it to push back. Sneakers squeak, baggy T-shirts billow. 

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The Royal Family, The Palace's premiere dance crew, is practising for a series of shows across Australia and the North Island. They're fundraising to go back and defend their title at the World Hip Hop Dance Championships in the United States later this month.

Dancers at The Palace can audition to be in one of the studio's 'crews' or dance teams, whose members perform and compete worldwide. Eight-year-olds can join junior crew Bubblegum, moving up through Sorority, Duchess, all-girl crew ReQuest and megacrew The Royal Family. 

It's unlike any dance rehearsal I've seen. There's barely any counting, for one. Parris busts a move, the rest of the dancers follow her, and if she likes the way it looks, it stays. Her dance style is so famous now it even has a name: Polyswagg. 

"Girls, come on," she says, snapping her fingers at a couple of dancers who are talking. They look ashamed, and run over to stand beside her.

An hour, multiple run-throughs and several changes later, and she's happy with it.

"Oh perfect, that couldn't have gone any more perfect. That was the one," she says, and the room lets out a breath. A choreographed clap, a fierce smoulder tossed at the mirror and practice is over. "Crowns up!" she says, and the dancers perform a final salute. 

Parris has always known what she wants. Home videos show an impossibly cute three-year-old in the lounge, limbs too short to cooperate with ambitious dance routines.

"No one in my family danced or anything like that, but my parents definitely brought me up on hip-hop and R&B," Parris says. "I just remember watching video clips all the time, and watching movies like You Got Served and wanting to be on them."

As the youngest of four kids growing up in Manurewa, Auckland, she tried every dance genre going before stumbling into hip-hop at age 10. Within a year she was taking classes and by 15 she'd outgrown the dance school. That's when she decided to start her own all-girl dance crew, ReQuest, with four mates.

First they trained in an aunt's garage, before moving to Dad's warehouse. Brett, who runs a promotions company, stacked mirrors against the wall for his daughter and her friends to dance.

"It was funny; we had to get a real old carpet in because the concrete was too hard to train on every day. They squeezed into whatever space, so if we had pallets or deliveries come in, they would be dancing among those," he says. "Sometimes when it was full we had to cancel practice."

ReQuest was good. After about a year of rehearsals, Brett took them to Phoenix in the US for the Monsters of Hip Hop Dance Convention. There, Parris was picked from thousands of dancers for a spot in the finale.

Monsters of Hip Hop director Andy Funk later told TVNZ's NZ Story: "I remember this very humble, appreciative, quiet person, and you step into the ballroom and then there's this beast on the dancefloor... she was about to be found, and she was not going to be stopped."

Brett, who is also Parris's manager, says it was validation enough for him and LeeAnn that their daughter was on the right track. Back in Auckland, after one particularly hairy parent-teacher interview at Auckland Girls' Grammar, they decided it would be better if she focused on her talent.

"We went to the parent interviews, and I'm sitting there and this geography teacher is just going on about my daughter and saying like: 'She's not very good at essay writing, and she's got to apply herself and put more energy into school,' and I said: 'Not to be rude, but she wants to be a dancer,'" Brett says.

"I went outside, got Parris and said, 'You can leave school tomorrow,' and that was it. I just said to her: 'Go and be a dancer.'"

In 2009, she and ReQuest won the Varsity section of the World Hip Hop Dance Championships. The next year, they won it again. The year after that, The Royal Family won the megacrew title, which they have retained for the past three years.

Then in 2012, Jennifer Lopez - that's right, J-Lo, Jenny from the block - saw a clip Parris had put on YouTube and asked her to choreograph for her. 

That, Parris admits, was exciting. "I definitely cried. I sobbed like a two-year-old child; it was really emotional," she says. "I really like her. She just works so hard, and it's really cool to be around an older woman who is successful and doesn't settle for anything less. She just keeps pushing."

The ball hadn't just started rolling, it was hurtling down the hill. After choreographing Lopez's Dance Again World Tour, Goebel went on to perform with Lopez on the season 11 finale of American Idol and danced with ReQuest in Lopez's music video 'Goin' In'. 

She has since helped to choreograph Cirque du Soleil's tribute to Michael Jackson's life and music, One, and been approached by rap superstars like Missy Elliott. 

American dance film Step Up: All In, due for international release on August 8, features Parris in the role of Violet, an exchange student from New Zealand. 

She also choreographed parts of the movie.

And her success isn't exclusive to the States - a dance she choreographed for K-pop (Korean Pop) singer Taeyang last year currently has more than 20 million views on YouTube. ReQuest and The Royal Family are in demand from Japan to Brazil.

If it all sounds exhausting, that's because it is. When Parris isn't working out, touring, filming, doing promotional work or taking workshops, she's teaching. "If I'm at home, I like to try to be normal, so I go out to dinner or something and be with my family. 

I feel like my life is so insane, so when I have free time I just normalise my life. If I go to a movie it's a miracle," 

she says. "But I always fall asleep because I'm so tired."

This also means romance isn't really on the agenda.

"I'm so single it's not even funny. I mean, if I want to go on a date with someone I will. But the only guys I do meet are dancers, and they're kind of sleazy anyway," she laughs. 

Not that she's complaining about the work. Dance for her is an outlet. On the floor she's not Parris Goebel; she's Parris, Queen of Polyswagg, head of The Royal Family. She is a beast.

"I feel really, really different. I feel the complete opposite. I feel really free and indestructible, like nothing can stop me and hurt me. I just get really confident and fierce... I'm kind of intimidating and mean. People get quite scared of me. 

"For me, the story I tell when I'm dancing is being the underdog, and telling people it hasn't been easy, but I'm a confident, successful young woman who has made it and is following my dreams."

Just how successful is she, then? Does she have any idea how much money she makes?

"No I don't - my dad doesn't tell me. It's a lot though," she says. "It's like a lot of money. Maybe for a big job I can get, like, $30,000 for two weeks' work. I don't think I live anything differently - even if I get paid well I don't spend my money."

From the car where he's driving to a Royal Family gig later that week, Brett's laugh crackles down the speaker phone. "Yeah, she has no idea what she earns. It's irrelevant to her. All she's interested in is what the job is, and how she's going to make it amazing. She knows she has money, but the bigger thing for her is that she's able to live her dream and get paid for it."

To be honest, they no longer need to keep The Palace open, he says. To take an external dance workshop, 

Parris's daily rate is now around NZ$2900. 

"We could close The Palace tomorrow," he says, "but she says, 'Dad, I can't talk about people following their dreams and not have a place in this country where they can come to.' It's rewarding for her coming into the studio and seeing the kids believing in themselves."

Auckland University education lecturer Marian Pearce moved from Whangarei five years ago with her husband and two girls Kaea, now 17, and Ruthy, 13, so her daughters could dance with Parris. "Coming from Whangarei, I thought for them to make a career out of it we needed to move to the city.

We just took a gamble, really, to see if it would work."

The girls have now danced their way into The Palace's crews, and have both travelled to the World Hip Hop Dance Championships. Kaea is home-schooled, so her studies can fit around her full-time dance commitments. 

Pearce sometimes thinks she was crazy to move cities, but that changes when she watches her daughters dance. 

"When they're dancing they're like different people - I can't put my finger on it. They're just excelling; they're excelling in an area that isn't seen as sustainable but Parris has shown that it can be. My family sometimes look at me sideways because I'm an academic, but the girls are living the dream. 

"We didn't move to Auckland to muck around - this is what I wanted my children to do and I knew she would provide results."

Parris is proud of both being Polynesian (LeeAnn is Samoan) and from South Auckland. Actually, she can get quite angry about it. In a 2010 interview with the New Zealand Herald, she voiced her annoyance at the "lack of recognition and support" when ReQuest got back from the World Champs: "No one even showed at the airport."

"Yeah, I feel like Polynesian youth are just overlooked sometimes; that's how I feel," she says. "It's always a surprise to [other people] when Polynesians do well, for some reason. I feel like people don't expect big things from Polynesians.

"I'm really inspired by black women. I really, really like Oprah [Winfrey]. Growing up, my mum was obsessed with Oprah, and I think I actually learnt a lot of life lessons from Oprah. I hope I meet her one day because I'm really inspired by her."

Right now, Parris is preparing for The Royal Family's  sold-out Gold Mynd dance shows, in which she is re-imagined as a 13-year-old who gives herself 11 pieces of advice for the future. 

She's just held rehearsals for New Zealand's first hip-hop feature film Born to Dance, written by playwright Hone Kouka, directed by Tammy Davis and supported by the Film Commission.

But this is really just the beginning, obviously. She hasn't even worked with Beyoncé or Madonna yet. 

"I want to do shows - more shows. Films, shows, producing, dancing; all that stuff. I really want to create things that don't exist yet."

She leans forward, grabbing a lolly from a bowl on the table. "I don't like talking too much, I like showing an example in my actions. I grew up in Manurewa and I ended up choreographing for J-Lo. I feel like I don't need to tell people that. If they just know it, that's enough to know they can chase their dreams." 

- Sunday Magazine

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