Pittsburgh’s all-hip-hop studio is spreading the word
By Steve Sucato
Dance studios that offer hip-hop dance alongside classes in ballet, tap, jazz, and modern are everywhere these days. Studios devoted solely to hip-hop are rare, but if you visit the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, suburb of Emsworth, you’ll find one: Brenna Jaworski’s Pittsburgh Heat Hip Hop Dance Company.
Founded in 2005, the studio is the only one of its kind in the area (and quite possibly in the state). Even though Pittsburgh has had a burgeoning hip-hop dance scene since the early 1980s, Jaworski, 28, says she started Pittsburgh Heat partly because the community craved even more of it.
“Although there are more studios today offering hip-hop classes, when I started my studio there was still a need for a studio that offered the real urban hip-hop style of the streets, which is what we do,” says Jaworski. The other reason for founding the studio, she says, was that she simply loves the form. “I like the spontaneity of hip-hop. You could be at a park with your friends and one of them will start break dancing—and before you know it, a dance battle will break out.”
Jaworski grew up in the Pittsburgh neighborhood of Oakland, where hip-hop culture and street dance were prevalent. At age 5 she entered competitive cheerleading and spent the next 20 years competing in the sport. “It seems silly, but it’s the norm in competitive cheerleading and dance to start kids out at age 4 or 5,” says Jaworski. “When you start younger you don’t have that fear to learn how to tumble, stunt, and do the bigger tricks.”
As a child Jaworski also took dance lessons at Tammy Lee’s School of Dance in Pittsburgh, which at the time did not offer classes in hip-hop. “If you wanted to learn hip-hop you had to learn from street dancers or trying it on your own,” she says. She eventually began integrating hip-hop dance moves into her competitive cheerleading routines, with successful results. She also began coaching and choreographing for competitive cheer teams and judging competitions, all of which she continues to do as a separate business from Pittsburgh Heat.
A single-minded approach
Why a hip-hop–only studio? Says Jaworski, “Everybody has something they love. I left a very successful career as a hairstylist because I believed in hip-hop—so much so that I wanted it to be the only form of dance we do at Pittsburgh Heat.”
The decision to start her studio also came from a desire to create a studio free from the politics, negativity, and parental interference she says she witnessed at some of the studios she had worked with as a freelance choreographer and coach. She also felt, from talking to dancers and others in the community, that there was enough desire for hip-hop dance that it could support her single-minded studio.
“When you do something a little bit different you attract those people who have been waiting for that difference,” says Jaworski. “Kids in urban areas looking for something or somewhere to belong are drawn to hip-hop. I feel at times hip-hop gets a bad rap because of how it has been portrayed on television. I see hip-hop dance as having a positive impact in the community. Here, in the 1980s, crews used dance and dance battles as a non-violent way to claim territory.”
Jaworski posted 8,000 fliers on telephone poles around the area announcing the opening of her studio and soliciting students. She got 13—not a lot, but enough to start a competition team that was the studio’s sole focus for three years. It was after the success of that team, Jaworski says, that people began contacting her about classes.
Pittsburgh Heat’s facility features a 1,400-square-foot studio with mirrors, a surround-sound stereo system, and a no-impact, foam-cushioned dance floor. Yet to be renovated is another room (2,600 square feet), which will become a second studio and performance space.
In keeping with the hip-hop focus, the main studio’s walls feature graffiti art, including some by the members of the dance crew POREOTICS, the Season 5 winner of MTV’s America’s Best Dance Crew, who recently held a workshop at Pittsburgh Heat. “I gave them a can of spray paint and told them to tag the walls,” says Jaworski. “What other studio does that?”
Hip-hop and breaking teacher Mario Quinn Lyles, one of six instructors at Pittsburgh Heat, says, “We’re street, nitty-gritty down to the core, the real deal. It doesn’t matter what your age is, where you come from, or how much experience you have. We invite everybody to come learn. We will work with you.”
The studio operates seven days a week, teaching a mix of styles found in various regions of the country. Classes generally begin with a stretching and warm-up period, followed by a choreographed routine, with the instructors breaking down the movements step by step. Open classes include kids’ hip-hop (ages 3 to 8 ) and break dancing (ages 5 to 12), beginner hip-hop and intermediate/advanced hip-hop (ages 9 to 14), tumbling, krumping, and popping/waving classes, as well as a guys-only class and private lessons in hip-hop and break dancing.
While there’s obviously a big maturity gap between the 3- and 8-year-olds in the kids’ class, Jaworski says almost all start out at the same level of dance skills and that the youngest kids’ desire to emulate the older students aids their progress.
Competition team students take class twice a week. Jaworski says the studio averages 200 students a month, three-quarters of whom are walk-ins.
“That is one of the things I love about hip-hop—it reaches a lot of people across generations,” she says. “I have had adults in their mid-60s take class.” She says the clientele crosses socioeconomic lines—everyone from students and street dancers to businessmen and police officers.
While some of those 200 students take classes in other forms of dance at other area studios, Jaworski says for many of them—especially on her competition teams—hip-hop is the only form of dance they take, and only at Pittsburgh Heat.
Competition team students sign yearly contracts, paying for their classes in installments while everyone else pays by the class or purchases a pass for four classes at a discounted rate.
Jaworski teaches classes and choreographs for and coaches many of the studio’s All-Star competitive dance teams. The “All-Star” moniker is a designation used by several national cheer and dance competition companies and governing bodies such as the U.S. All Star Federation to delineate their most extreme approach to competitive cheer and dance routines. All-Star teams all follow a standardized set of competition and safety rules and regulations.
Like Jaworski, Pittsburgh Heat’s other instructors are also active in the Pittsburgh hip-hop community. Some—like dancer and hip-hop recording artist Chris “Choze” Jaeger, who appeared in the 2008 movie Step Up 2: The Streets—are members of Pittsburgh dance crews.
In hiring teachers Jaworski says she looks for individuals who are kindhearted and as passionate about hip-hop as she is. “I am looking for street dancers who have it down to a science so they can relay what they know into a class,” says Jaworski. “I don’t have to advertise for teachers; they find me. They like the company and what it stands for and want to be a part of it.”
“I like the spontaneity of hip-hop. You could be at a park with your friends and one of them will start break dancing—and before you know it, a dance battle will break out.” —Brenna Jaworski
Beyond a few rules on conduct, Jaworski says she’s hands-off, letting her instructors bring their personalities and teaching styles and methods to their classes.
Last July Lyles taught an all-ages hip-hop class in which he instructed a group that included studio regulars plus walk-in dancers and instructors from another studio. Lyles taught choreography he made up on the spot, set to a song from his own hip-hop band, 30 Realm.
A native of Buffalo, New York, who sports dreadlocks and an easygoing demeanor, Lyles describes his teaching style as “boom boom pow,” meaning he uses markers in the music rather than counts to teach his steps. The approach is engaging, with Lyles sometimes becoming downright giddy at some of the choreography being created, which he hoped would be used in a music video of his band’s song “Chasin.”
One element that defines hip-hop—and gives it its edge—is the dancer’s look, including attitude and facial expressions. But how do you teach more privileged students that street attitude and “mean mug” without them appearing disingenuous? Both Jaworski and Lyles say what’s most important is teaching confidence. Lyles says he instructs his students to move with a swagger that is reflected in their faces.
“We are putting on a show when we dance,” says Jaworski. “At times we need to act. Facial expressions do not always have to look mean; they go with the music and what the dancer is trying to convey. A dancer’s facial expressions and performance attitude are important in competitions because you are scored on them.”
Since Jaworski comes from a competition background, it comes as no surprise that she considers her five competition teams, for kids ages 3 and up, the heart and soul of her studio. “They really drive me,” she says.
The teams average 12 competitions a year, a number that Jaworski says her dancers would like to see increased. “They love it,” she says. “That is what they work for, to go to competitions and do the best that they can.” The teams compete primarily in the Pittsburgh region (to cut down on expenses and raise awareness of the studio) in competitions hosted by companies such as AmeriDance, National Dance Alliance, and Xtreme Spirit. The teams learn one routine per team each season, honing it throughout the competition season to improve their scores.
In a rehearsal of a routine Jaworski choreographed for her Blaze (ages 14 to 18) and Inferno (ages 18 and over) competition teams, the school owner coached 13 girls through a routine featuring group formations, sharp arm movements, and body isolations, à la a Janet Jackson music video. A vocal coach, Jaworski barked out instructions and corrections over loud club music. After instructing one unfocused student to run a lap around the studio’s parking lot, she greeted the girl with a motherly hug when she returned. The method worked: the girl rejoined the others a more focused dancer. “I nitpick my competitive teams like crazy,” says Jaworski. “I just want to get the best out of them.”
Jaworski then joined two other women from the Inferno All-Star team as they moved through choreography similar to the Blaze dancers’, with some added break-dance elements. The dancing was much sharper and was delivered with more impact, a lesson not lost on the younger girls who were watching. Jaworski sees continuing her own dance career as a way of teaching and leading by example.
In the community
Pittsburgh Heat’s dance teams do more than competitions. “We get out into the community and perform” at community outreach events and corporate events and in local hip-hop shows, says Jaworski. She and her instructors also are regularly invited by area schools to present workshops in which they educate students on hip-hop’s history as well as teaching them steps.
The studio’s efforts have earned it the distinction of being named best dance group at the 2010 and 2011 Pittsburgh Hip-Hop Awards.
Pittsburgh Heat’s mission is to spread the word of hip-hop. And by making the studio and its classes accessible to everyone, Jaworski is doing so at the community level—much the same way as the dance form she loves got its start, one street at a time.