Spreading the art and power of hip-hop
By Gina McGalliard
Off of Interstate 5 in the heart of San Diego sits a nondescript three-story building. A dance studio is on the second floor. Set foot inside and you’re hit with vibrantly colored, graffiti-style murals covering the floor, walls, and even benches. Milling around are people of every race, age, and background, coming out of class flushed and glowing. What brings them together? A love of hip-hop dance.
This is Culture Shock Dance Center, a Southern California studio dedicated to urban dance, and home of the dance troupe Culture Shock, which has sister companies in Los Angeles, Oakland, Las Vegas, Chicago, Atlanta, and Washington, DC, as well as in England, Switzerland, Portugal, France, Italy, and Canada. You might have already seen them: Culture Shock dancers from San Diego, Los Angeles, and Oakland in JabbaWockeeZ were the winners of America’s Best Dance Crew in its first season.
This network, with a mission to educate audiences about the art and power of hip-hop, started in the early 1990s with a group of dancers led by a woman most wouldn’t guess would become a powerhouse of the street-dance world.
Culture Shock founder Angie Bunch grew up doing ballet and jazz and danced professionally at Disneyland and Disney World and in musical theater. Later, she taught jazz and fitness classes, was discovered by Nike, and traveled the world teaching cardio-infused dance for the brand.
In the early ’90s, Bunch discovered hip-hop, a dance form just beginning to enter the general public’s awareness. Unable to find any structured hip-hop classes in San Diego, she began commuting to L.A. to take classes. “And then I realized there is hip-hop here; there are street dancers here—they’re just not in plain sight,” says Bunch. “I decided I was going to start a hip-hop company.”
But there were a couple of problems. One, Bunch wasn’t a typical hip-hop dancer. “Wrong gender, wrong skin color, wrong age,” says Bunch, who is white and was 33 at the time. “People who didn’t know hip-hop bought this image. [They] assumed that every hip-hop dancer was really a rapper, black, and from the streets of New York, because that’s how fresh [hip-hop] still was. It was still very young in terms of the public perception of it.” Since then, she says, hip-hop has come to be embraced by people from all walks of life.
Two, Bunch wasn’t a hip-hop dancer, according to the definition at the time. Rather than learning hip-hop in the streets, she was a technically trained dancer. “It took me a couple of years to relax enough to allow my center to shift,” she says, “but I found it and it fueled me. I felt empowered; I felt strong.”
Also, some street dancers, many of whom were self-taught, considered a dance company antithetical to hip-hop culture. “Truly, street dancers are independent and individual in nature—the dance company concept goes against the grain,” says Bunch. “And I just thought, ‘Well, we’re going to give it a go anyway.’ ”
What she discovered in her company’s early days was that as many dancers chose to leave as stay. “They could not wrap their heads around [the fact] that they had to dance the same movement with somebody else and look good, and they had to try somebody else’s style,” says Bunch. “A lot of them were like, ‘No, I’ve got my style; I don’t need your style.’ That goes against the culture.”
Culture Shock is born
In 1993 Bunch persuaded Nike to fund her fledging company with apparel and footwear, and she posted audition notices in local studios and recreation centers. Despite having no permanent home, within a year Bunch had established company class with rotating guest teachers, a tradition that continues today. The classes are open to the public.
In 1999, the 9,000-square-foot Culture Shock Training Academy opened in San Diego’s Point Loma neighborhood, which would serve as the company’s home base as well as offer hip-hop classes to the public. A year later it became the birthplace of Culture Shock International Choreographer’s Showcase, now an annual all–hip-hop performance. “What we discovered is that we could produce our own event. We’d never, ever created our own production, but we just simply booked out,” says Bunch. Troupes from the sister cities of L.A., Oakland, Las Vegas, and Atlanta performed, figuring the audience wouldn’t exceed 200. More than 800 people attended.
Culture Shock has performed at World of Dance, Las Vegas MGM, and NBA and WNBA games. For the past decade, Culture Shock San Diego has been in the directorial hands of Sherman Shoate, who has danced alongside Missy Elliott, Britney Spears, Mary J. Blige, TLC, and Destiny’s Child. Shoate, who had always aspired to teach, got his start dancing for Culture Shock San Diego. Now on faculty at Culture Shock Dance Center, Shoate says his greatest reward is seeing dancers blossom: “I’ve seen dancers who were really bad turn into amazing dancers.”
A hip-hop epicenter
In 2001, Culture Shock had to move from its Point Loma site when the city of San Diego took over the land, and Bunch realized the company needed a base. So Bunch partnered with Broadway musical theater veteran Joe Savant, a longtime friend from her Disneyland days, and opened Culture Shock Dance Center. The new studio would operate at a much larger size and scope than Culture Shock Training Academy, which had approximately 10 teachers and served several hundred students. With approximately 40 instructors, Culture Shock Dance Center offers a far broader range of classes, and thousands of students have come through its doors. Located in San Diego’s Old Town neighborhood, it’s a for-profit business that runs separately from the nonprofit Culture Shock organization.
“The first three years were kind of white-knuckling, hoping to get through. We really survived on the generosity of our teachers, because a lot of them taught for free for a long time.” —Joe Savant
Combining Bunch’s teaching background and Savant’s performance experience and business acumen, the two set about creating a hip-hop epicenter to be Culture Shock’s home and also make hip-hop accessible to the public. “The first three years were kind of white-knuckling, hoping to get through,” says Savant. “We really survived on the generosity of our teachers, because a lot of them taught for free for a long time.”
Artist Romali Licudan was commissioned to create the studio’s graffiti-inspired look. “I want you to open the door and step onto art,” says Bunch. “I want it to surround you and fuel you so that you are an artist. You step into the dance room and you belong; it’s yours.”
The studio offers hip-hop along with subgenres such as house, toprock, popping, and break dance. Several companies in residence call it home, including Unity Dance Ensemble, founded by Tessandra Chavez, who teaches at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles. The studio offers classes in salsa, Zumba, and jazz, among other non–hip-hop types of dance.
Culture Shock Dance Center attracts students from every walk of life. “You might see little boo-boos like 8 years old, and you’ve got somebody who’s 65,” says Trina Lyons, a faculty member and director of San Diego’s 25-and-up troupe, Afta Shock. “How beautiful is that? Every race, every creed, every color.”
“I think we bring something to San Diego that nobody else does,” says Savant. “I want to make sure that we stay where we’re at and stay cutting edge and relevant and that people like coming here, whether for recreation or to train and pursue a career in dance.”
Culture Shock has affiliate troupes of various ages in its sister cities. Future Shock, the 17-and-under apprentice company, is mentored by Culture Shock dancers, and many members later join the main company. The diversity of the dancers allows kids to meet peers from other backgrounds. “Not only in the Future Shock program, but in the places we go when we dance and on the stages we share, you’re meeting people from all over the place, not just your own backyard,” says Sherry Hill-Phillips, Future Shock’s director.
Two other affiliate troupes, Mighty Shock and Afta Shock, came about serendipitously. At a 2004 Future Shock audition, more than the usual number of younger siblings were present. Dance instructor Cheyenne Kibblewhite approached Bunch and offered to direct a 13-and-under team, and Mighty Shock was created. Later, another team for children 5 and under was created, called Mini Shock.
“For me, the goal of the Mighty Shock program goes beyond dancing,” says Kibblewhite, who has seen several kids graduate from Mighty to Future Shock. “We encourage the kids to do more than just dance. They are required to maintain a satisfactory GPA. We teach them leadership skills; encourage them to choreograph, teach their peers, and give back to the community; emphasize the importance of respect and teamwork, and build their self-esteem.”
Afta Shock, for ages 25 and up, originated in Oakland in 2007. “My friend Kim [Sims-Battiste], the director of [the] Oakland [branch], told me, ‘Angie, we’ve got a new team. It’s a bunch of parents, a bunch of moms. They got sick and tired of hanging out and watching their kids dance. There’s a free studio, and they talked me into stepping in and teaching them something,’ ” says Bunch. “She goes, ‘Angie, they’re good. Can I bring them to showcase?’ ” Although she was initially skeptical, Bunch says, they stole the show.
Bunch wanted to establish an Afta Shock San Diego but didn’t have time to direct it herself. So she kept an eye out for the perfect director and found it in Lyons, whom she had taught years earlier at community college and ran into again while judging a local dance competition.
For Lyons, Afta Shock represents not only an opportunity to refute the ageism prevalent in dance, but to instill in youngsters respect for hip-hop’s creators. “I am hip-hop. I’m from the street. That’s where hip-hop came from,” says Lyons, whose introduction to dance was battling with her brother in the streets. “So for [younger dancers] to try to duplicate what we did and try to shun us at the same time, I dare you! We’re history. You need to embrace your history, not shun your history.”
She says she gets upset when kids say she’s “old school.” “They’re saying it like it’s an insult, when actually it’s a compliment. You’re damn right I’m old school, and proud of it!”
Educating the community
Beyond training dancers, educating the community about hip-hop is integral to Culture Shock’s mission. The troupe performs at school assemblies, teaches in D.A.R.E. anti-drug programs, and gives numerous free community performances. “We’ll talk about the diversity of the dance, the dance styles, and then [audiences] want to know about the dancers themselves,” says Bunch. “And that gives them a little personal connection.”
Eventually, Bunch would like to establish a comprehensive educational program modeled after the Alvin Ailey Arts in Education & Community Programs. She would also like to see the company do more theatrical hip-hop, such as this year’s production of Graffiti Life, which, unlike a traditional musical, had no singing but contained dance and a storyline. On the docket for the 2011 holiday season is a Nutcracker with a hip-hop theme, an idea Bunch first had in Culture Shock’s early days.
But plans for the future aside, with troupes across the United States and the globe, Culture Shock has proved it has staying power.
“I’m happy to see Culture Shock still around after all these years,” says Shoate. “People come, people go, but ultimately you see an evolution every year. It may not be a big one, but it’s always something changing, something coming new to the table. It’s good to see that Culture Shock is persevering though all that.”