By Christina Fuoco-Karasinski

Higley High School graduate Phoenix Banuelos has his eye on the prize. When he and Mesa resident Max Thompson founded the dance crew Outlawz three years ago, they knew they were going to be successful.

Since then, they’ve won the USA Hip Hop Dance Championships and appeared on the TV show “America’s Got Talent.”

“We decided that we were going to win USA,” Banuelos said frankly. “When we were training for our first competition, our whole goal was to win USA without anyone knowing who we were. That’s why we decided to call ourselves the Outlawz.”

Outlawz will compete once again against the best street dancers and dance crews from 50 countries during the USA and World Hip Hop Dance Championships held in the Valley Aug. 4-12. The World Hip Hop Dance Championship finals start at 6:30 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 12, at GCU Arena. All USA Championship events (Aug. 4 to Aug. 6), World Preliminary Championship events and World Battles (Aug. 7 to Aug. 11) will be held at the Arizona Grand Resort and Spa.

Outlawz have their sights set on being the first USA crew to win the worlds.

The competitions are the flagship events developed and organized by Hip Hop International and its founders, Howard and Karen Schwartz. They also created the Emmy Award-winning TV series “America’s Best Dance Crew.”

“We’ve been such big fans of HHI since we were little kids,” said Banuelos, 20. “To compete is such a big dream for us. For us, it’s crazy to be at that level of the crews we used to look up to.”

The Hawaii native looks up to his cousins who were dancing already when he moved to Gilbert at age 9.

“Max and I were students under my cousins,” he said. “From there, we built the whole crew.”

Outlawz are the 2016 USA Hip Hop Dance Champions and World bronze medalists, adult division. In the group, Banuelos is joined by Dominic LaRovere of Chandler; Marcus Pope of Peoria; Tam Rapp of Los Angeles and Josh Ulep and A.J. Pak, both of Hawaii.

And Banuelos feels blessed about the opportunities he’s received thanks to HHI. Outlawz went to China to promote HHI there and had the opportunity to dance atop the Great Wall of China.

“It was one of the better experiences,” he said. “It was just crazy to be that far away, seeing a whole different world, a whole different culture, just because of dancing.

“It’s very satisfying. We’re very confident in what we do. When we end up pulling off these plans, it’s super satisfying.”

The HHI championships have earned the respect of dancers and choreographers worldwide. Many competitors discovered by Hip Hop International have launched careers working with the likes of Justin Bieber, Jennifer Lopez and Rihanna. Hip-hop dance is represented routinely in countless awards shows and can be seen promoting respected brands including the Grammys, Emmys, Oscars, NBA, NFL and Cirque Du Soleil among many others.

“In today’s world, where travel bans and proposed walls to separate peoples are prompting concern, the longstanding mission of Hip Hop International to unite the world of hip hop through dance is more relevant than ever,” Howard Schwartz said.

“The worlds are definitely going to be the most difficult thing we’ve had to do,” Banuelos said. “The competition at this level is absolutely insane. We’re ready to take on that challenge because we’ve been chasing this for a couple years. It’s not just one year of trying to do something. “We have the last three years of momentum behind us and we’re going to use that and all we can to make a big statement this summer.”

All events are open to the public. Tickets for the family-friendly events start at $20. Complete event schedules, ticket information, championship videos and more can be found at