Her Brilliant Career
I'm a control person. -- Suzy Stone
Suzy Stone thinks we should start with the video.
I think we should start with the video, she says in her disarmingly girlish voice. This will really give you a great overview of what we're all about here.
Here is the modest world headquarters of the Hip Hop Kidz dance program: two small offices near the Falls shopping center in South Miami-Dade, a few filing cabinets, a computer or two, and telephones that never seem to stop ringing. We is the phenomenally popular local dance troupe she founded nearly nine years ago. What we're all about is not quite clear. So roll the tape, please.
Lights flash. Very young girls and boys appear onscreen, dancing in a frenetic suggestive manner typically seen in music videos. They all sport Dr. Martens and brightly grafittied denim overalls. On the overalls, which are the trademark of Stone's enterprise, 2 FUNKY is spray-painted down the left leg in rainbow colors. Down the right: Hip Hop Kidz.
The scene shifts to personal affirmations.
It pushes me to the limit to where I can succeed in life, one girl testifies stiffly.
It is a way to get fit and a way to be strong and have fun. It's a time to shine, intones another.
Then Suzy herself comes on camera. She has a pretty face. Her frosted brown hair is impeccably trimmed. Her eyes are big and brown, and her broad smile reveals the whitest, straightest teeth imaginable. We have made an impact on millions of people, she says. Whenever we perform in the community or nationwide, our office phones ring off the hook.
Stone watches her performance uneasily, fidgeting with the tracking so the picture will be clearer, or closing the blinds so the screen will be easier to see. The five-minute video took more than 100 hours to produce, she notes. The slogan espoused onscreen -- No drugs, no violence, just dance! -- is a message Stone hopes to parlay into success beyond her already enviable achievements. This video, she truly believes, is going to secure for her what she's always dreamed of having: her own television show, stardom for her and her kids.
In a little more than five years, Stone has expanded her after-school modern-dance program from one studio in Kendall to sixteen studios spread over three counties. What began as an ad-hoc dance class based out of her home is now a highly structured system catering to nearly 900 kids in Pinecrest, Weston, Boca Raton, and elsewhere. The elite all-star team cultivated from this wide base of young dancers (no one is older than age fifteen; most are younger than age ten) has showed up on national stages such as the Orange Bowl Parade and Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade and made appearances with the Backstreet Boys, among other musical groups.
In addition to a nationally syndicated television show, Stone predicts breakout stardom for her most talented performers. Soon enough there will be a Hip Hop Kidz franchise in every suburb in America. But while she marches toward this glorious future, Stone must battle a contingent of parents who insist she drives her young charges too hard and that she's using them to pursue her own fame.
Stone acknowledges she's tough. I'm going to do things my way, she declares. I think people get jealous of my success, but I've had to work for everything I've ever had. Every little thing. And she is utterly unapologetic about expecting the same from her dancers.
INEZ, Ky. (AP) -- A massive spill of gooey coal sludge into eastern Kentucky streams forced officials Monday to close car washes, coin laundries, and classrooms to conserve the clean water that's left.
-- Recent lead story in the Williamson Daily News
Suzy Stone grew up in Williamson, West Virginia, a gray Appalachian town staring across the Tug River at the wooded hills of Kentucky. Lucrative seams of coal are central to Williamson's identity, and the mining and transporting of it is the town's sole purpose. Every day impossibly long trains of coal stop downtown traffic for fifteen minutes at a time. The chamber of commerce meets in a building covered in a black façade composed of 65 tons of the fossil fuel. With a population of 4000 residents, Williamson is the seat of Mingo County. The county honors its most famous citizens every summer with the Hatfield and McCoy bluegrass festival.
It was a town, seriously, where if you were bored you watched the grocery trucks loading and unloading, Stone recalls. I knew from an early age I wanted to get out.
When Stone showed an early aptitude for dance and gymnastics, her family committed to her career. Three days a week her mother drove her two hours each way to the state capital, Charleston, for advanced instruction. On Saturdays Stone took more lessons with another teacher. She put her lessons to use in the talent competitions of several beauty pageants, including Miss West Virginia 1976. She was a runner-up in that one. The title of Miss Tug River Valley is hers alone.
At the University of Miami, she cheered the football team while majoring in physical education (and minoring in drama). After a sojourn in Michigan to secure a master's degree in exercise physiology, Stone returned to Miami in the mid-Eighties and set up shop as a personal trainer. She was a pioneer in the field, one of the first to hustle together a roster of clients for private workouts. As an aerobics instructor, she became a marquee draw. Work was steady but she thirsted for more.
I was known in Miami but I was thinking, How can I be known nationwide, you know? she asks. I was restless. Back then I had something to prove. I'd look through magazines and see the different instructors and think about how I could join them. I saw [fitness personality] Denise Austin on TV. In her case in particular, I was like, Darn it, I can do that! How can I achieve that?'
She took a major step toward her dream by sharing first place in a national aerobics competition sponsored by Crystal Light drink mix. Stone successfully leveraged that title into a gig teaching aerobics around the world. She was the spokeswoman for a chain of Japanese health clubs. For three years she lived out her dream by dancing on a cable television workout program alongside Buns of Steel goddess Tamilee Webb.
Stone tried to market her own aerobics tape, with moderate success. Her video pushed a new kind of aerobics program, which she called cardio-funk. She had hoped to ride this workout into a boom as big as step aerobics or spinning. Although cardio-funk never caught on, she found in it the genesis of her current gig.
It was about nine years ago when I was asked if I could get a couple of kids to dance at a birthday party, she remembers. So I got a few of them together, taught them a few steps, and we all had so much fun that I decided to teach a regular class for kids. That's pretty much when it was born.
At the time hip-hop music was starting to infiltrate the nation's dance studios. Teachers in New York City and Philadelphia began forming their own hip-hop dance companies. Stone soon followed suit, though in a manner that made the music palatable to the privileged white girls who dominate her program.
Hip-hop is the hottest, phat (awesome), dank (top of the line) phenomena in music today, and its popularity is seeping beyond the boundaries of its Urban American roots, she cheers in her promotional literature. Suburban kids all over the nation are trading in their tutus and tap shoes for graffiti-covered overalls, Doc Martens, positive messages, funky beats, and the fast and fractured movements hip-hop inspires.
Stone registered the name of her troupe, first as the Hip Hop Kids and then, to differentiate herself from competitors in Los Angeles and elsewhere, as the Hip Hop Kidz. The overalls and shoes followed shortly thereafter. Her business expanded so quickly she moved it out of her kitchen counter and into private offices.
The program grew initially by word of mouth, but Stone soon learned to market herself to the community. She took out ads in the Miami Herald. Full-color brochures were printed advertising the FUNKIEST childrens' dance class in town. Skittish suburban parents were assured that the gritty story lines of much rap music would be avoided in favor of family-friendly lyricists such as Will Smith. Stone pitched the program as a healthy alternative and a healthy outlet for ... emotions and self-expression.
Business boomed. Stone now employs three people full-time, as well as twelve part-time dance instructors. Revenues exceed $300,000 per year, she says, admitting her estimate is conservative. That figure doesn't include the ten-percent cut she takes from her growing side business managing her dancers' commercial careers.
None of this came about by accident. Stone works hard to grow her brand, advertising constantly, seeking out performance opportunities, and talking care of the little things, such as scanning the Web in search of competitors, like a class in England daring to call itself the Hip Hop Kidz -- same spelling and everything. That proprietor can expect a letter from Stone's attorney any day now. She's also threatened a lawsuit against a dance instructor in Los Angeles who put out a videotape five years ago with the too-similar title of Hip Hop Kids.
I cannot help it, she says of her work habits. I'm definitely type A. People always tell me: Suzy, relax.' But I'm like this, she explains, holding a jittery hand in front of her. My heart is pounding all the time. It's not that I'm not satisfied. It's just that I'm always striving to reach some other level.
The next level, the level to which she's always strived, is television. In her Hip Hop Kidz she sees a chance to break into the medium in a way she never was able to with aerobics.
She began working toward television almost immediately after founding the program. Inspired by the success of the Power Rangers toys, she registered as a trademark with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office a crude drawing of a superhero with a lightning bolt streaking down his chest. High Voltage was to be the leader of a dance troupe of urban overall-clad youth.
She has since given up on High Voltage, but she hasn't abandoned her TV dream. She envisions something airing on Nickelodeon, perhaps, a new Zoom, only less dorky. Somewhere between Barney and MTV, she says. A Mickey Mouse Club for the 21st Century. The new promotional video is in the can. A publicist hired by Stone is shopping around the concept. At this point, though, there aren't a lot of specifics to discuss.
I always wanted to be on TV, Stone admits. It's just been one of my goals for the longest time. I minored in drama at UM; I always wanted the spotlight. I see myself as a Katie Couric type. I'd love to be on TV. So with the Hip Hop Kidz, I don't know if I would be the star or if the kids will be the stars, but I think we have something here.
A lot of people in the child business shouldn't be there. They are in it only for the money or for their own glorification or for what they can get out of it. Suzy is definitely in it because she loves working with kids.
-- Michael Ratigan, Stone's husband
Friday, after school. An aerobics studio inside Zone Fitness in South Miami. Stone leads her top dancers through a grueling workout, humorlessly ensuring that each of the preternaturally cheerful kids in front of her moves his or her feet, arms, and legs in exact harmony with the collective. She does not smile as she glances from one dancer to the next. She is focused. This is work. There is a show coming up next weekend, Footy's Wing Ding, a charity concert sponsored by Y-100 (WHYI-FM). This is the second year in a row we're going to be performing at the Wing Ding. It's an honor to be chosen again, she notes. There is only one week left to get the show just right.
Her all-star youth team, the Production Company, is on the floor, twenty young girls and boys working through elaborately choreographed dance steps. In rehearsal they wear tank tops and baggy shorts. A song by Will Smith loops over the studio speakers. Big big bump bump, Stone barks -- and her students know what she means. 1234 ... 5678 and boom! She is in total control.
Stone sports nylon sweatpants and a snug Gap T-shirt. When she first broke on to the Miami aerobics scene twenty years ago, she was famous for her rock-solid physique. Motherhood has softened her frame and filled out her face. Like many professional dancers, she asks that her age not be revealed. (She asks a half-dozen times, in fact.) When the kids inquire, she tells them she's 21 years old.
Excuse me! she shouts. I'm in the middle.... Kick in front of me.... You guys always go back to the center.... Hey! Everyone.... Kick it out!
It takes a lot of work to be in this elite group, here on this floor. Dancers start out in Hip Hop I, an entry-level class. If they show aptitude, they might rise a level to Hip Hop II. If they are extremely skilled, Suzy might personally pluck them from the class and place them in the Performance Troupe, 30 or so youngsters who dance in the Orange Bowl Parade and such. The select few -- those practicing today -- are members of the Production Company. These dedicated dancers perform the smaller, generally choicer gigs, from spots on the Jenny Jones show in Chicago to dancing at a private party in Miami to celebrate Madonna's birthday. This is the group to be in.
To retain Production Company membership, it is not enough to be talented, outgoing, and expressive. You also must be on time for practices. Attendance, of course, is mandatory. At this highest level, there must be a commitment from parents, who often have to schedule family vacations around performances and pay airfare and lodging to most of the national appearances.
I push them, Stone say. And because I do, I'm not going to win a popularity contest. Parents have to realize and the kids have to realize that to be the best, you have to pay your dues. You can't be in the top level unless you are willing to work hard. It's the entertainment business.
One little girl who didn't make it into the top group cried at a performance. I said, Don't cry. You're here. You're doing great. So you can't be in that one part. You're here; be professional. You're a little professional.' And a parent might get mad at me for saying it, but that's the truth.
The sacrifices beget rewards. Not only are the kids allowed to perform for a national audience, they also get opportunities to dance in commercials or music videos. Many of the kids in the Production Company have cashed in. Nine-year-old Tommy danced in a commercial for Kmart, taking home a $6000 paycheck. Young hip-hoppers Mel, Sport, and Matthew danced with Sammie Bush, the soulful young Miamian who filmed his first video in Bayfront Park. Stone's office is littered with headshots of her dancers.
Casting directors call us directly, Stone says. They tell me they are so tired of seeing beautiful kids who can't dance. We train our kids to be in front of the camera. We have budding stars in the troupe. I would love to see some of our kids launch their musical careers. Four or five of them in here have what it takes to be signed by the time they are fourteen or fifteen years old.
Until recently a Hip Hop kid who hit age twelve or so had to begin thinking about retirement. So Stone formed a new teen group to give these older dancers a home. She recruited a roster of older male black and Hispanic break dancers with names like Boo and Exzooberant to give the team a grittier street edge, along with some marketable ethnic diversity. With the Production Company class ending, the Hip Hop Teenz take to the floor, ready for their workout. The younger Production Company members sit against the studio's mirrored walls, eyeing the older dancers with awe.
We've got our own Britney Spears, Stone exclaims, indicating a blond teenager dancing in the front row of the older troupe. She has an amazing voice. There is no doubt in my mind that she's going to be a star someday.
Nine-year-old Anna Guinea stands to the side of the gym, near a mirrored wall. She is not a dancer but the daughter of one younger performer's nanny, a reflection of troupe's general economic makeup. They are beautiful, Anna observes, eyes wide. It's amazing how they dance so well, in formation like that.
Stone sees Anna talking. She did not expect this. She does not know what Anna is saying. Quickly she walks over to the young girl and places both hands on Anna's slender shoulders. She asks Anna what she said. When she hears that the response meshes with her vision, she smiles theatrically. Nodding, she lets the girl know she said the right thing.
I refuse to let Stone talk to my daughter the way she talks to those kids. I am not okay with it. But I guess that's the price to be paid for -- what? This vague dream of fame, I guess. And there are parents who are willing to pay the price.
-- A former Hip Hop Kidz parent
Coral Reef High School. Two years ago. Stone despises the dance-academy standard practice of holding one big recital at the end of the year. Perhaps the best thing about the Hip Hop Kidz, she boasts, is their frequent public performances. But that's for the Performance Troupe and the Production Company. There still are hundreds of kids in the program, all with the overalls and the shoes, who never get called to dance at Heat games or at Madonna's parties. For them, regrettably, there is the recital.
Just because they aren't all-stars or natural talents, though, doesn't mean Stone isn't holding these recreation-level dancers to her same high standards. Backstage one group of girls lines up for their performance. One child, just eight years old, announces she has to go to the bathroom. That's simply unacceptable, she is told by a parent supervising the troupe at Stone's request. Professional dancers go to the bathroom well before their performance. Request denied.
But she really has to go.
Perhaps it was too much to ask of an extremely young amateur dancer. Perhaps there really wasn't enough time. All that is known -- all that has been verified by Stone and by other dancers in that specific performance class -- is that the girl proceeds to urinate onstage, in front of everyone, a dark wet spot spreading across her denim overalls.
Same night, same place: Before any of the kids take the stage, Stone spells out the ground rules for her audience. Videotaping and/or photography will not be allowed. If anyone wants a record of their daughter or son onstage, they can buy the official video from Stone after the show. Many of the parents already are familiar with these rules. At a recital held at Palmetto Middle School, Stone had volunteers roam the auditorium during the performance, tapping the shoulders of anyone caught violating protocol.
Yet in this room, after she had made herself perfectly clear, someone has dared to tape his daughter's performance. Stone can see the camera's glowing red light just as plain as day. So she stops the music. Midroutine. Stomping to the center of the stage, she calls out to the scofflaw. I see you! she shouts. I told you: No videotaping!
The rest of us sat there in shock, recalls one parent who was in the audience. My husband walked out right then. He told me never to drag him to one of these things ever again.
Another parent, a grade-school teacher, pulled her two daughters out of Hip Hop immediately following the recital. We are talking about seven- and eight-year-old kids, the parent explains. There is a certain way to talk to children and motivate them without cutting them down and without being nasty and without being disrespectful. Suzy makes kids cry and hurts their feelings. She says things that are inappropriate. And that's really not necessary to get good work product out of children.
Stone is familiar with both incidents. She points out that the girl who urinated on herself received numerous apologies, a new pair of overalls, and free tuition for four sessions. The girl stayed in the program and has worked her way up to the Performance Troupe. So there's a happy ending, Stone says. As for the draconian videotaping rules? Those are designed to protect the dancers from possible exploitation on the Internet, she points out. And all those blinking red lights out in the crowd can be distracting.
The commitment Stone requires grates on many of the parents she deals with, those whose daughter narrowly missed the cut, or those who think such demands are inappropriate for girls and boys as young as seven years old. Others don't like the idea of pushing their children toward the Hollywood career Stone insists is obtainable. Sometimes, Stone says, it seems all she does is field calls from these parents, answering their questions, calming them down. I spend most of my day doing this, she reveals, smoothing the hair on her forearm to indicate pacification.
A lot of time my clientele -- I don't want this to come out wrong -- I try to tell parents: You're doing your children a disservice if you let them slide. Nobody is going to be standing over their shoulder at a job interview or in college.' Parents who get it, their kids do well in my program.
When I get down, she continues, I pull out a file of letters that I've saved. One mother, she said, You have given my daughter the tools so that when I am not around, and she's in college, she will utilize them.' That's what I hope to teach in this program: If you baby the kids too much, it's really doing them a disservice when they become young adults.
This is such a passionate point with me. If you want your kids to be in the Production Company, it comes with the territory. If you don't, then keep her back in Hip Hop I, where she won't be treated like that. She'll be treated like it's a fun kind of recreational class. But they want everything. They want to be at the Heat game. They want to be dancing with the Backstreet Boys. But at the same time, they don't want me to push them. That's what bothers me. If you're going to be in the Olympics, you gotta pay the dues. If you don't want to pay the dues, then don't complain.
Even those paying the dues, though, sometimes blanch at the way Stone keeps parents in line. Suzy terrifies me in the respect that she can make your life a living hell, says a mother whose daughter was a member of the Production Company for two years, until she was booted out. Suzy felt we couldn't put the time and energy in, so she kicked us out. What bothers me is I was paying for this time, and she still kicks us out.
This mother does not want to be named, for her daughter's sake. She notes there were many positive aspects to the Hip Hop Kidz program. Stone, she says, provides a wonderful opportunity for kids to dance and perform. She teaches great choreography. The talented few who reach the top level radiate with a sense of accomplishment that, for a young child, is invaluable. The trouble is in the means to the end.
I don't think Suzy loves these kids, the mother continues. I think she uses the kids for her own spotlight. She told the parents blatantly, flat out, that she puts people where she wants them because it's her name out there. It's not Hip Hop Kidz; it's Suzy Stone's Hip Hop Kidz. It made me realize she's doing this for herself. She wants to be on TV. She wants to be known for creating phenomenal dancers.
Stone acknowledges her desire to develop the talents each of her kids is born with. She claims, though, that everything she does is in their best interests. With her most promising dancers, she is the one commissioning the headshots, she is the one sending them to commercial auditions, sometimes over a parent's protest. I push the parents into doing it, she admits. Often they don't see the vision. Sometimes I run into a situation where Mom is supportive but Dad isn't. When that happens I bring the parents into the office and say, Look, this kid has potential, and we have to nurture it. If not I feel a diamond in the rough is being ignored.'
I have some kids who are so talented, I'm pushing them but they don't respond. Those I just let go. I want to shake them. I say, I wish I was in your shoes. You can be in Hollywood now. You could be in New York.' But they don't want it. They want to play Nintendo.
When I was little, there wasn't a lot of opportunity for me in West Virginia, she adds. There just wasn't. I would daydream a lot about opportunities. I feel if I can be the one who can direct kids to opportunities, I would love to do it. People might perceive me as living through my kids. I don't think that's my case. I've had such wonderful experiences, but I also wished somebody would have helped me when I was younger. That's why I step in and say, How can I help?'
One former Hip-Hop parent, Stacy Heller, recently broke away from Stone's program. Heller, a dancer herself, promptly leased space at a Falls-area gymnasium and has begun leading her own dance classes. She calls her program Hip Hop Starz and has registered the name with the state. Heller declined to be interviewed for this story, stating only that she's afraid of repercussions from Stone.
In a nutshell this is what it boils down to, and my daughter knows it: If she wants to continue, she can continue. If at any point she says, Dad, it's too tough, it's too demanding, I want to get out, she's out. It's as simple as that.
-- Steve Allen, father of a dancer named Mel
Sunday morning, 9:45. The Hip Hop Kidz Production Company and their parents have assembled outside a Publix supermarket in Hollywood. The meeting place stands right across U.S. 1 from Young's Circle and the stage where Footy's Wing Ding is about to begin its second and final day of live music. The Kidz will be one of the opening acts at the festival. Stone always makes sure everyone arrives early on performance days, and today is no exception. The Kidz aren't scheduled to perform for at least two hours.
Whiling away the pregame time, girls inspect the colorful ribbons in their respective hairstyles. Three of the new break dancers Stone recruited are here for their first performance. Collectively they balk at the modified overalls they've been assigned, expressing a strong preference for their own street clothes. One blond-haired young dancer buys six cupcakes frosted with sugary orange icing. When Stone learns of the purchase, the color drains from her face. She lets the girl keep the treats, but later, when she sees a boy sharing a sack of sunflower seeds, she puts her foot down.
Seizing the bag, she warns that the seeds will cause them to bloat and be unable to perform.
The parents huddle casually, in their polo shirts and shorts, looking like any collection of Little League moms and dads. Another mother hands out fruit, as if she were at a soccer game. There's plenty of time to talk about their involvement with Stone. One mother raves about the balance the dance program provides in her son's life. She adds that his love for the Hip Hop Kidz has given her a great disciplinary tool: All I have to do is threaten to not let him go to practice, and he usually falls right back in line, she explains with a laugh.
Bruce Gusman, scion of the prominent Miami family, is Zack's father. Gusman is wearing a white Hip Hop Kidz polo shirt, an accouterment he picked up during his four years with Stone's program. He says dance has been good for Zack. He was running for class secretary, Gusman says. During the speech he had to give, when he said he was in the Hip Hop Kidz, the whole class sort of went, Ooooh.'
Steve Allen wears the sleepy look of a man who woke up this morning far earlier than he wishes he had. He admits he doesn't particularly care for 7:30 wake-up calls to chauffeur his daughter Mel to yet another performance. But he's aware that he'd likely be driving Mel around no matter what activity she pursued -- soccer, martial arts, whatever. He's satisfied with her hip-hop experience. It's a phenomenal program for someone willing to pursue an acting career, Allen remarks. This opens doors to the dancing industry, or the casting or modeling industry, because of the exposure they get on the commercial venues. It's pretty phenomenal. Average kids are not going to get the opportunities these kids are. They are involved in so many things, it's hard to keep track of it.
When the time finally comes, the Kidz gather for a cheer. Together they cross the street into the talent area. They are the second scheduled act, following a local singer who has toured with Britney Spears. Although it is very early in a long day of concerts, a sizable crowd of mostly teenage girls has already filled the lawn in front of the stage. The sun is so hot that an aura of negativity already has set in.
The Kidz dance on to the stage and take their positions, generating a mixed response from the sweltering audience. Oh my gosh, they look so cute! shouts one girl of about fourteen, mesmerized by the overalls. A preteen black boy nearby is less receptive. This is supposed to be hip-hop? he asks before the music even starts. If they don't dance [real] hip-hop, I want my money back.
A year ago at the Wing Ding, the CD player skipped several times as the Kidz bounded across the stage. Stone stopped the performance and, before allowing her troupe to continue, demanded that it be fixed. One girl in the audience remembers the incident. These are the guys who stood around forever last year, she says to her friend.
Today the music doesn't skip. (Stone recorded the music on digital audio tape, just to be safe.) The Production Company hips and hops through a three-song medley of slightly aging standards. It's all about the Benjamins, Puff Daddy chants. Stone stands to the south of the stage, watching critically.
The performance seems to go well. When it concludes honest applause rises from the crowd, the approval registering with at least as much force for the singer who opened for the Kidz. They're good, offers a young girl. The young black skeptic has changed his expression from disgust to something noncommittal. He does not demand his money back.
The stage is surrendered to the next act, Sammie Bush. The troupe gathers under a tree, near the food stands selling the chicken wings for which the festival is named. Hugging one another first, they crowd around to watch their performance on a small hand-held video camera. Zack and two other boys, Sam and Sport, spray their heads with a silver paint to mimic the dye worn by Sisqó, Zack's favorite singer. Stone walks around embracing parents and children, beaming with pride.
I think things really went well, she assesses, smiling. I am really proud of them all. Everything looked really good. A producer from MTV Latino who saw the Kidz onstage approaches her and asks if they could perform at the company's holiday party. This invitation pleases Stone to no end. I've always wanted to work with MTV, she reveals. This is MTV Latino, but still. We are the ones getting the calls now. After all the blood and sweat and tears, it seems things are finally starting to go our way.
Someday someone from our troupe is going to become a national star, she promises. Then I'll feel we've really made it.
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