Dancer Malik wins talent show and hearts after long struggle

Summary

Kenyan-born Antwerpenaar Malik Mohammed, 22, took the crown in the latest series of VTM’s So You Think You Can Dance, performing from the heart and giving viewers an insight into the journey that brought him here

Lighting up the stage

While his contestants tended to stick to the genres they knew inside-out, Malik Mohammed dabbled in different styles, wardrobes and eras in his 30-second solos on the most recent season of the TV competition show So You Think You Can Dance.

There was some throwback ’90s hip-hop, an electrifying hotchpotch African routine, a funky Michael Jackson homage and a more contemporary piece that moved one judge to tears.

At times, it felt like the young Antwerpenaar needn’t have bothered. He probably could have done a simple two-step, and the audience, judges and half a million Flemish viewers would have still loved it.

“No matter what song, no matter what style he’s doing, he just lights up the stage, and I don’t think anyone on the show has had that as much as he does,” says Dan Karaty, who joined the show’s judging panel in 2009. “When you say somebody dances from their heart, from their soul, he has that. He has that ability to just feel the music and make you as a viewer feel it, too.”

Those communicative powers helped win the hip-hop dancer the sixth season of the Flemish-Dutch reality show and a prize package that includes €25,000 and a dance training of his choice.

“This is just who I am,” says Mohammed, still nominally a student in AP University College’s sports-teacher training programme. “I always walk around very happy, and I think that’s just what you see in my dance.”

One of the longest-running talent shows on Flemish television, So You Think pairs dancers of wildly different backgrounds and gives them a week to master short choreographies across a spectrum of styles – from ballroom to Bollywood – to be performed during live shows. At the end of each episode, the dancer with the fewest audience votes is sent home.

The past 13 weeks have centred on the dancers, their personalities and backgrounds to an extent that none of the previous seasons did. And Flemish viewers fell hard for the Mohammed they got to know better with each episode, hearing more about the grievances behind his million-dollar smile.

Confident calm

Born in Nairobi, Mohammed lived with various relatives as a child because his mother was unable to take care of him full-time. When he was eight, they moved to Belgium after his mother fell in love with a Belgian, who died from heart problems when Mohammed was 17. He was never close to his biological father, who still lives in Kenya, and they only speak on the phone every couple of years.

Mohammed, 22, who is easy-going in person and exudes a quiet, confident calm, says he didn’t plan to tell Flanders all about his childhood. “At first, I hesitated,” he says during an interview at the VTM studios in Vilvoorde. “I didn’t want there to be a sort of compassion, or that it would be something that would help me make it to the next episode of the show. I wanted to get there purely by virtue of my dance skills.” 

He has that ability to just feel the music and make you as a viewer feel it too

- “Diamond” Dan Karaty

But he did a 180 as the live shows progressed and other candidates began making sobering on-camera confessions about absent fathers, broken homes, terminally ill relatives and feelings of not belonging.

“I kind of also wanted people to know who I am and what I stand for,” he says. Explaining that he was worried spectators wouldn’t understand his solos if he kept mum on his past, he says: “It wasn’t just executing steps; it was really my story.”

No solo encapsulated his story better than the one he delivered in the final episode. In a sober, modern-inflected performance to a bare-bones violin and piano song, he repeatedly tried to make his way to the front of the stage, his arm stretched out and upward in a grabbing motion. No matter whether he calmly walked, lunged forward or bided his time, on each attempt, his hand, his arm, his body violently flailed back, jolted by an invisible force. Until, finally, he reached the edge of the stage, looked down and jumped off it.

In interviews, Mohammed has tiptoed around who or what the obstacles were that got between him and his ambitions. He has talked vaguely about people who didn’t want him to thrive and how difficult it was when he and his mother arrived here, speaking English and Swahili. But he dismisses the suggestion that he doesn’t want to talk about racism.

“I just look at it differently,” he says, pointing out that he chooses not to dwell on the topic – in interviews and in life. “I still experience it sometimes, and it is what it is. I leave it at that, and I’m going to continue doing my thing.”

Different dreams

After Mohammed and his mother emigrated from Kenya, they settled in Boom, a sleepy, migrant Antwerp municipality of 17,000 people. He stumbled his way through high school and graduated with a degree as a CNC (computer numerical control) machine operator from the professional stream of PTS Boom. “I can’t even remember what CNC stands for,” he says, “That’s how interested I was.”

I kind of wanted people to know who I am and what I stand for

- Malik Mohammed

His real passion was football, and he spent every free period on the pitch of third division club K Rupel Boom, where he played as an attacker for six years, determined to one day play professionally. But when Sihame El Kaouakibi, his best friend’s sister, founded the Let’s Go Urban dance school in Antwerp, he started skipping football practice for dance rehearsal and ultimately shelved that early dream.

He was 17, and soon, he confesses, dancing was the first thing he thought about when he woke up in the morning, and the last thing he thought about when he went to sleep at night. He took countless lessons at Let’s Go Urban and eventually started teaching hip-hop and house dance classes there and at another Antwerp dance school. In later years, he performed at Night of the Proms and the Flemish Opera as part of large, glossy Let’s Go Urban productions.

At the same time, he paid his dues in the underground battle scene, with the all-male dance crew Young Kingz he founded with eight other Let’s Go Urban alumni two years ago. Together with Youssef, he made it to the semi-finals of Juste Debout, one of the world’s biggest street dance competitions, in the house dance category in 2013. 

Won’t let go

Mohammed straddles two very different worlds –choreographic, dance-school style hip-hop and the freestyle battle scene, and it’s a factor that appears to have allowed him to hold his own in styles outside his comfort zone.

Pointing out that many hip-hop contestants on the show have struggled to shed the hip-hop side of themselves and inhabit a different character in, for instance, a modern routine, Karaty says: “He was able to shed that raw, tough kind of vibe he has when he does hip-hop and show a different side of himself.”

True to his stubborn personality, Mohammed had tried to get on So You Think twice before, though he never made it past the pre-selection phase. After he recovered from two operations to fix a torn meniscus and ligaments (both sustained while dancing), he started plotting his third bid.

“I really want to live off dance, and I know that it’s by being seen that you can open certain doors,” he says. “That’s what I was really looking for – meeting people, finding certain paths, getting opportunities.”

“Malik is a lion. He’s the kind of person who, from the moment they set their teeth into something, they won’t let go,” says his friend Youssef El Kaouakibi, who’s known him since he was eight and is himself an accomplished house dancer. “He was already very professional and disciplined but So You Think gave him that extra push that proved he could push himself even further.”