Hip-hop finds a home in California’s Central Valley
By David Favrot
A warehouse-like building in the suburbs east of Sacramento, California, wouldn’t be most people’s first stop in the quest for primo hip-hop dance classes. Most of the site on Folsom Boulevard is devoted to a family fitness center; the entrance to Studio T Urban Dance Academy is tucked away from the street side. But once inside, you’re in Coach Tee’s world.
That’s “Tee” as in Tamaira Sandifer, the studio’s founder and owner. While hip-hop is the school’s mainstay, there’s a lot more than cool moves on Sandifer’s agenda. It’s also a place to learn deeper skills and habits—hard work, self-respect, persistence, and teamwork.
Studio T has 85 students in summer and 140 to 145 in winter, all taught by six full-time teachers, two part-timers, and three interns. The studio specializes in hip-hop in its many forms—old school, popping and locking, new school, tricking, high energy, and more. One reason for the school’s hip-hop focus was Sandifer’s desire to reach at-risk kids with a dance form that was attractive and familiar to them. But another reason, she says, was that “hip-hop was evolving and it was starting to be recognized as an art form, and a lot of people were teaching what they said was hip-hop but was actually jazz.”
The school also teaches Horton-based modern. “That form is starting to merge with some of the urban styles,” Sandifer says. Then there are West African dance, belly dance, and Latin funk (a mixture of salsa, merengue, and hip-hop). “A lot of couples come in to learn [Latin funk] so they can do it at their wedding.” Competitive dance is offered as a class; Sandifer says they train students in “what judges are looking for.” Club dance styles and hip-hop aerobics (popular with the hip-hop students’ moms) round out the curriculum.
Three of Sandifer’s teachers are former students; she found the others through word of mouth. Dance expertise isn’t her top criterion in hiring teachers, she says: “I’m looking for people who are focused outside the studio.” To develop hip-hop teachers, she says, “find the kids in your studio who are loyal and committed and send them to workshops. The best way for a person to grow in a dance form is to teach it.”
Sandifer wears another hat as well, as founder and director of 3 Point 0, Inc., a nonprofit organization separate from Studio T. It provides dance classes, volunteer tutoring, mentoring—and sometimes free clothing and school and art supplies—as a way to instill self-esteem in Sacramento-area youths, with the proviso that they keep their grade-point averages at 3.0 or higher. It currently serves about 1,300 at-risk youths between the ages of 5 and 18, she says, providing dance lessons in conjunction with local community centers.
A benefit performance for 3 Point 0 students, the “Dream Big Dance Showcase,” will be held the evenings of December 10 and 11 at Sacramento’s Kennedy High School. Proceeds from donations and ticket sales ($10 in advance, $15 at the door) will go to pay for full, one-year scholarships for 10 needy students at one of nearly 30 dance schools in the Sacramento and San Francisco Bay regions and as far away as Nevada. The recipients can study the genre of their choice, Sandifer says; it doesn’t have to be hip-hop.
Recipients will be chosen, in part, on their performance at a dance workshop to be held at the high school from 9:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. December 11, before the second benefit show. All the material will be taught to attendees on the spot, Sandifer says, so no student will have an unfair advantage. About 200 kids are expected to compete—and about 80 percent of them will also take part in one (or both) of the evening performances, she says.
Sandifer knows the life-molding power of dance. Money was tight when she was a child—born in Sacramento, raised in the San Francisco Bay Area—so she studied dance in community center programs, where she gravitated to cheer and African dance. Then in the late 1980s, she encountered Charlotte Spangler, her high school cheer instructor in Vacaville, California.
“She saw something in me that no one else saw,” Sandifer recalls. “She made sure I had the money for my studies. In senior year she got me into Paula Abdul’s dance camp in Los Angeles.” That was in 1992—a weeklong milestone that opened her eyes to the wider possibilities of dance.
After attending Sacramento City College, Sandifer became a telecommunications network engineer for SBC. Her re-entry into dance came when she discovered that the Sacramento area didn’t have the diversity of dance options for youngsters that she’d known in her own childhood. In response, in 2004 she started the Sacramento Street Team, a dance competition group that she still directs.
To develop hip-hop teachers, Sandifer says, “find the kids in your studio who are loyal and committed and send them to workshops. The best way for a person to grow in a dance form is to teach it.”
“We rehearsed wherever we could—in parks, church sanctuaries, in high schools, on playgrounds. We spent a lot of time outdoors. These kids were so committed, like I was at their age.” Finding dancers wasn’t a problem. She taught for local studios at the time, and “kids followed me from studio to studio,” she says.
Her first year’s team had 37 members (including two alternates) ranging in age from 5 to 18. The second year, she took on a 2 ½-year-old. While the hip-hop is watered down for kids that young—“it’s more designed to help them with rhythm and coordination” than with mastering jaw-dropping moves, Sandifer says—“I’ve had success over and over again with kids that young. They’re like little sponges.”
In 2006 she opened Studio T in its first home in West Sacramento, across the river from California’s capital. She had quit SBC and sank her separation package and her savings into buying a studio space. “My husband [Ax Sandifer, a graphic artist] understood that this was something I had to do,” she says. However, “the building I bought in West Sac was in extremely poor shape, and I didn’t know about some of the problems when I bought it,” Sandifer says. “It was costing me more to maintain it than I was bringing in.” So she began scouting for a new home and shifted her operations to the Rancho Cordova gym last February.
A day last June found Sandifer in her rented space in the back of that gym, crouching on the floor of a carpeted studio with a beginners’ hip-hop class. As Stevie Wonder played on a boom box, she led the youngsters in clapping games and supervised as they frog-hopped and then crab-walked across the floor, freezing in place—well, sometimes—on command. She was funny and motherly, but always in charge.
The children ranged in age from toddlers to 6-year-old Shelby, the daughter of Jerry Edwards, who watched the class with other parents. Shelby had tried another dance school after mimicking hip-hop moves she’d seen on television, Edwards says, but “they had too many people in the class, and she wasn’t doing anything.” Shelby has been coming to Studio T since she was 5, and she and her dad are both happier. “It builds structure,” he says. “She has to look to someone other than me.”
Classes at Studio T vary from 15 students to as many as 70 in high-energy hip-hop classes where, Sandifer says, “as long as the kids can see me, it works out.”
Keeping the school male-friendly is high on Sandifer’s agenda. To fight prejudice against boys in dance, she says, “I changed the image of how dancers look. In the community of kids I work with, you have to be cool, you have to be ‘down.’ I teach them how to dress. I teach them how their hair should look” so that they can blend in with their peers.
Kiari Kirk was one of those boys. He came into Sandifer’s orbit when he was 15. “I was such an introvert that my mom had to talk me into dance lessons,” recalls Kirk, now poised and talkative at 21, with a ready smile.
Sandifer adds, “When I met him, he was so shy he wouldn’t even come into the classroom.” Once he got up his nerve, she says, he became “this kid in the back of the room, off in a corner, who was doing everything we were doing, and he just blossomed.”
Kirk, a native Sacramentan, didn’t take long to excel at hip-hop. He went on to study modern, jazz, and tap at a charter school for the arts, but he’s also stayed with Studio T, where he’s now an instructor. He’s there, he concedes, partly because “I want to give back to someone”—Sandifer—“who gave so much to me.” He’s also one of eight males on the dance competition team.
Kirk’s interests range well beyond the dance world, and so do the multiple career paths he’s considering. While he admits that his “dream job would be to tour with Janet Jackson,” he’s also working to become a Microsoft-certified computer systems administrator. And he’s done some modeling. “I want to model and I want to dance at the same time,” he says. “I’d rather be happy than rich.”
Without meaning to, he helps make a point that Sandifer makes later: “Our best form of marketing is these kids.”