Beyond Viral

How husband-and-wife team Keone and Mari Madrid found choreographic fame via YouTube

Photo by Little Shao, Courtesy Go 2 Talent Agency

Boy meets girl. Boy and girl start dancing together. They fall in love, create epic dance collaborations, go viral on YouTube, get married and perform together on Times Square billboards.

Though it’s not the most common love and success story, it’s the story of Keone and Mariel (Mari) Madrid. Often compared to commercial choreographers (and fellow husband-and-wife team) Tabitha and Napoleon D’umo for their sweet lyrical, hip-hop style, Keone, 26, and Mari, 29, have grown a worldwide fan base and become darlings of the urban choreography industry. Their YouTube videos have garnered several million views, capturing the attention of people like Ellen DeGeneres, who invited them to perform on her show.

It all began when Keone’s students at San Diego’s Culture Shock Dance Center filmed his combinations and posted them on YouTube. “I thought YouTube was just for comedy videos and cute kittens,” Keone says. “Neither Mari nor I uploaded our first video.” It was essentially because of those early videos that Keone and Mari finally met. After seeing their work online, the dance workshop Urban Legends invited both of them to teach in Temecula, California. Afterwards, Keone asked Mari to teach for Future Shock San Diego, a competitive crew he had danced in, and the pair eventually began dating. But it wasn’t until six months into their relationship that they began collaborating. “Our styles meshed surprisingly well,” Keone says.

Keone and Mari’s popularity surged when videos of them teaching together were posted on Movement Lifestyle’s YouTube channel (which serves to bring additional exposure to working choreographers). In May 2010, they conceptualized, choreographed and professionally shot their first video, “Smooth Operator,” which utilizes large-frame shooting in lieu of quick cuts and fancy angles. The zoomed-out camera lets viewers see the whole picture as they would during a stage production—Keone and Mari passing a single rose back and forth as they alternate between intricate footwork and seductive slow dancing.

Soon, Keone and Mari started posting more videos on their shared channel, and their popularity steadily progressed over the next few years. In 2013, their video to Michael Jackson’s “Dangerous” quickly went viral after it was posted on Urban Dance Camp’s channel. “Getting a million views at the time was unreal,” Keone says. It prompted an e-mail from—and eventual live performance on—“The Ellen DeGeneres Show.” “That was when we realized our viral reach,” Keone says. “From there, the jobs kept coming.”

At first, they were mostly booking teaching gigs. The duo teaches each summer at Urban Dance Camp and also gets calls from conventions and studio owners who want the pair to choreograph their family-friendly material on their students. “People call us and reference our videos,” Keone says. “Our work online is like our resumé.” They’ve also booked Korean pop videos and a Hyundai commercial and choreographed for “So You Think You Can Dance.”

“Their style was very smooth, very lyrical, with hard-hitting movements and creative storytelling,” says “SYTYCD” executive producer Jeff Thacker, who hired them after seeing the pair online. “But Keone and Mari had no egos, no drama. They created something that was still uniquely them and was right for the show.”

It’s easy to see why the world is drawn to their videos: Watching their choreography is often like watching two people fall in love over and over again. In their “Is This Love” routine, they portray an old couple, linking arms as they transition from basic step-touches to perky, interlocked or mirrored partner work. “We’re not just dancing together—we have a life outside, too,” Mari says. “A general person will be like, ‘Oh yeah, the married couple that dances!’ “ says Keone. “It’s an easy thing for people to connect with.”

Keone and Mari’s choreography became a hit in an industry where partnering is often basic and predictable—and rare. “Many partner pieces in the urban dance realm were very traditional,” Keone says. “The dancers would just do opposite choreography facing each other. We wanted to try and do something different with the technicalities and intricacies in our choreography.

Yet that partnering remains wholesome and all-age-appropriate, in part because of their shared faith. “We’re both Christian, and there are certain things we don’t want to do,” Mari says. “This is genuinely who we are.”

Keone and Mari’s next venture takes their videos to a more personal level: They just opened a private studio called Building Block in San Diego. The goal is to offer private intensives to individuals or small groups. “Like personal training for dancers,” Keone says.

In the future, Keone and Mari say they would love to get into theater and film projects, or work with a musical artist. And they don’t plan to stop dancing anytime soon. “We’re going to be dancers as long as we can—as long as our bodies allow,” says Keone. “Even if that just means dancing together in our living room,” Mari says.

Alison Feller is a freelance writer in New York


Keone and Mari’s Video Success Secrets

Use your resources. “We’re not film experts,” says Keone. “But we have a lot of friends who are.”

Keep it simple. Two of Keone and Mari’s inspirations are Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. “We looked at how things were shot during those days,” Keone says. “It’s all very basic. We’re not into lots of slow-motion shots and quick cuts. We want viewers to see the dancing.”

Be passionate. One of Keone and Mari’s most popular videos is their chilling eight-minute piece about youth homelessness for the Choreo Cookies crew. It won first place at VIBE Dance Competition earlier this year, and the routine was an immediate viral sensation, garnering more than 2 million YouTube views. —AF