A Conversation With Hip Hop Dance Champion Lil O On His Formula For Success

Get to know the footwork master that’s making waves around the world.

(AllHipHop Features) On July 20, Virgil "Lil O" Gadson walked off the dancefloor inside the historic Howard Theatre as the Red Bull Dance Your Style: Washington, DC champion. The Philadelphian ran the gauntlet to win the 16-person tournament. Lil O is now headed to Las Vegas for the US National Final in September, and he could potentially represent America in the Red Bull Dance Your Style World Final in Paris on October 12.

Prior to winning over the DC crowd to take the DYS regional crown, the 32-year-old movement savant showcased his god-given abilities on several television programs as well as a Tony-winning Broadway production. Gadson was the Street Runner-Up on Season 12 of Fox’s So You Think You Can Dance, and he earned a 2014 Fred Astaire Award nomination for his work in the After Midnight musical.

R&B/Pop fans and TV viewers may have also seen Lil O in a Janet Jackson music video or a commercial for Target. I caught up with the talented performer backstage right before the Red Bull Dance Your Style event to discuss his already fruitful career in showbiz. We also chatted about his innate competitive nature when it comes to the art form he fell in love with before he was even old enough to attend kindergarten.

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AllHipHop: How did you first discover your dance talent?

Lil O: I noticed my dance talent when I was three years old. I was dancing at barbecues and family cookouts. My first stage was my patio.

AllHipHop: At what point did you turn it into a career?

Lil O: Because I’ve been dancing my whole life, I always saw it as a career. But I didn’t know in a way, I’m 32 now, but around that time I was just dancing for fun. I’ve been teaching dance since I was like 12 years old, being in dance crews with friends, and watching music videos.

AllHipHop: Who were some of the people that you studied?

Lil O: Michael Jackson, MC Hammer, Kid 'n Play.

AllHipHop: Hammer doesn’t get enough credit.

Lil O: He doesn’t, but he was going in as an artist and a dancer. And he hired 100 dancers with him. Yeah, Hammer was going in around that time. Later on, I started watching Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Nicholas Brothers, and Sammy Davis Jr. Just getting my history.

AllHipHop: Are you formally trained?

Lil O: I am formally trained. I graduated from the University of the Arts in Philly. I went to a theater school in Philly called Freedom Theatre, so I’m pretty well-rounded.

AllHipHop: How does that formal training translate to when you’re doing [Hip Hop] competitions? Do you feel like that gives you an advantage?

Lil O: I think it definitely gives me an advantage. I think it helps me understand my body. With that training, it helps me understand how to perform, relate to people, and be an overall artist.

AllHipHop: You teach dance. You’ve done commercials. Why do you still compete?

Lil O: It’s that hunger. It’s another challenge. It’s something that I grew up doing. When I was younger, in my crews, they would make us battle each other. We would go out to the clubs and battle people there. We’d go out of town to see who had the best moves.

AllHipHop: I was thinking about how when Hip Hop first started, dance was more of the focal point than even the emcee. At a certain point, the emcee became the focal point. But is that just here in America? What is the appreciation for dance around the world as compared to here?

Lil O: I think around the world they appreciate dance a lot more. They take it to heart. I think here in the U.S., it’s up and down. Sometimes it’s over-saturated, sometimes there's not enough of it. I think in other Hip Hop genres besides dance, they’ve figured out how to make money off it. With dancers, we were kind of looked at as not as big or not playing a big role in it.

AllHipHop: Do you think that’s changing?

Lil O: I think it’s changing with movies, with YouTube, with social media. And even music now. For instance, like with Drake, [“In My Feelings”] would have never blown up if a dancer didn’t record it. Now we’re starting to recognize our gifts and talents as dancers.

AllHipHop: Can you talk about what else you’ve done professionally?

Lil O: I’ve done things for Target, Chase Bank, Crown Royal. I’ve done TV shows like So You Think You Can Dance, America’s Best Dance Crew, America’s Got Talent. I just want to explore everything I possibly can through dance. There’s a stigma that you can’t make money off of dance or be successful. They say you got to find a “real job.” But dance is a real job.

AllHipHop: Have you heard that a lot?

Lil O: Growing up, yeah. But not in my family or where I came from because my family and the people around me were very supportive. But I’ve heard it through other people. There are things that you can do all from dance whether you're choreographing, whether you’re with an agency, whether you’re doing commercial gigs, or even helping musical artists to bring their vision together like Missy Elliott. She hires a bunch of dancers for her videos. We play a major part and we just have to know our worth.

AllHipHop: For Dance Your Style, the crowd votes for the winner, but some events have judges. Do you change your approach knowing how the competition is going to be judged?

Lil O: Definitely. I’ve been battling over 10, 15 years. The differences are, with judges, you have to know your judges, their background, where they’re coming from, and how they judge. Most of them will be professional dancers and they understand what’s going on. With a crowd, it’s more so how can you attract them, how can you win their vote with your performance and personality. With the battle, you’re usually facing each other, but with a crowd vote, sometimes you have to play towards them so they can feel what you’re feeling. They want to feel like they’re involved in the battle.

AllHipHop: So you kind of got a piece of both of those [scenarios] at the same time when you were on So You Think You Can Dance?

Lil O: Exactly. [laughs]

AllHipHop: Have you done Broadway or stage plays?

Lil O: Yeah, I grew up in the theater in Philly. I’ve done a lot of Off-Broadway shows. I’ve done a Broadway show called After Midnight in New York. That was like the best experience of my life. That’s why I moved to New York. It’s a Jazz musical based in the 1920s. It was an all-black cast. It was amazing.

AllHipHop: That play was focused on Jazz, but I do find it interesting how Broadway has become more accepting of Hip Hop. Do you have an idea why such a “traditional” medium finally allowed the genre in?

Lil O: It’s tough to explain that. I think they’re just starting to realize and understand Hip Hop is a big market. It’s one of the top-selling markets. To have it in the theater is where it should be. It can be everywhere. I think in that realm, they’re starting to see that. It’s a little watered down [laughs], but I feel like eventually, it’s going to be a lot better. They’re going to take baby steps with it.

AllHipHop: Who are some of the artists that you listen to?

Lil O: Right now I listen to a lot of instrumentals. I listen to a lot of Soulection music. There’s this thing I listen to now called Lofi Hip Hop. They have this animated girl that’s there the whole time. She's not doing anything, but it’s just a bunch of instrumentals playing. I’ve been listening to that recently. Not too much of the radio music because sometimes lyrics play a part in how you think. There are some artists I listen to like Drake, J. Cole, and Kendrick Lamar.

AllHipHop: Do you have a preference for when you’re dancing?

Lil O: It depends on the music. If it’s bouncy, if it’s Hip Hop, I’ll do old-school 90s style. I like to intertwine the styles and make it look seamless. I might throw in a lock here-and-there or start animating and popping. Or I’ll throw in a Krump move or B-Boy move. I studied all these styles years at a time and I was able to incorporate them all into one. I study the language of the dance, not just fake it, in order to really embody the movement.

AllHipHop: What’s next for you in the coming months?

Lil O: There are other battles happening that I was invited to do. I’m in the theater world doing a festival in Scotland, and I’m throwing my own battles. I have a battle right now called Soul Power that’s happening in New York once a month. I have my brand called Move A Little. That inspires people to move a little, whatever it is they want to do. All it takes is just a little bit to get started.

AllHipHop: Is that important to you, sharing this idea of the importance of health to the people that follow you?

Lil O: For sure. Health, mental health, eating right, taking care of your body, and just moving forward with your dreams and goals - all it takes is just a little push from yourself mentally or others around you.

Lil O Outdanced OPM At The Red Bull DYS DC Event (Colin Kerrigan / Red Bull Content Pool)

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