Daniel Zhu ’04

Breaking the Mold

When Daniel Zhu ’04 graduated from UW–Madison with degrees in international business and Chinese, he didn’t expect to become the founder of a production media team 15 years later.

His company, StanceElements, showcases different art movements through a digital lens. He works with a team of 10 to film and distribute content across multiple platforms.

It all started on the UW–Madison campus with a break dancing club.

“I started dancing at UW–Madison,” Zhu says. “I was part of the Breaking Club, and just being in the dance scene, we were connected to so many talented people.”

When Zhu arrived at the UW from South Dakota, he didn’t have many friends and learned about the breaking team during a multicultural student fair. Once he joined the team, which has since disbanded, he met people from different cultures who eventually became his friends — and later influenced his filmmaking.

“Just like in the dance world, our breaking club was a mix of different cultures,” Zhu says. “Because they were my friends, I was exposed to different cultures that I wasn’t really used to, and that gave me a basis of everything I wanted to do. I liked the communication part of different people coming together to dance.”

After graduating, Zhu joined the Peace Corps and started to see the world. While traveling, he was constantly filming. It was just for fun at first, but he soon started to gain an audience. At the same time, he also started filming dance competitions he attended and noticed more people following his social channels just for the dance content. He decided to create a second channel for dance, which later grew into StanceElements.

The name “stance” refers to a foundation in dance, which was important for what Zhu wanted the company to be about. The company now creates and distributes visual content on break dancing, tricking, and other forms of movement.

In the company’s infancy, Zhu’s first gig was at Breaking the Law — an annual dance event that was organized by some of Zhu’s friends. In fact, some of the first footage on Stance’s YouTube page is from one of the annual events in Madison, which Zhu filmed. Though Breaking the Law ended three years ago, it had an 11-year run, and was influential to Zhu and his filming.

“It’s just really something fun that I like to do,” he says. “I like to show it off to the rest of the world like, ‘Hey, look, look at this. I find it amazing. Don’t you find this amazing too?’ ”

Since its inception, Stance has grown tremendously, garnering almost two million followers on social media sites like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Because of their rising popularity, Zhu and his team travel constantly to film different dance events or influencers. In December, for example, Zhu was in Taiwan, hired by Taiwan’s tourism authority to film an event that includes dancers from around the world.

Although he does travel often for work, Zhu also finds time to make it back to Madison whenever possible.

“I was just in Madison last year. I still have a few friends in Madison, and we covered an event in Milwaukee [in October],” he says. “There’s also a project in the mix with the university’s physics department about the science of dance, so that’s really cool.”

In addition to the upcoming project at UW–Madison, Zhu is on the advisory board for the introduction of break dancing in the 2024 Paris Olympics.

“We’re getting pretty big,” Zhu says. “I do a lot of the video promotions and content creation for [the Olympics]. And then because of the [break dancing] news on the Olympics, more and more companies are starting to do dance media, but they don’t know how to film it. So they hire companies like mine to film it. So we have huge projects this year.”

Through all the large projects, Zhu’s favorite part of the job remains the same: seeing Stance’s audience engage with their content and finding unexpected audiences.

“We’ve been on the Joe Rogan show a couple of times and [some celebrities] follow us and share our content,” Zhu says. “If [others] find it cool, it makes me feel good that we all enjoy the same things. It also makes me feel good that we’re bringing attention to different things in the world that [don’t] have as much attention in the mainstream.”

Though Zhu no longer breaks competitively, he still loves dancing when he can.

“Because I’m surrounded by all these dancers, and it’s such a social thing, we always get down at events and dance at parties,” he says.

Ultimately, though Zhu never thought he would be a filmmaker, he credits his journey to taking as many opportunities as he could.

“I think when you’re young, you should use that opportunity and freedom to do different things, like travel,” he says. “I found programs that paid for my travel; I discovered my interests through that. I majored in international relations and Chinese, and that was more politically based, and I never thought I would do something like filming. I think schooling doesn’t really end after you graduate. It continues.”