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Posts Tagged ‘hip hop’

2 Tips for Hip-Hop Teachers | Rock to the Beat

48 2TipsHip-Hop
By Geo Hubela

Tip 1
For the rock, dancers stand slightly hunched over, relaxed and with feet together. On the 1, they bop the head backward (not forward as they’re often inclined to do) and continue bopping back to front with the beat.

Once they’ve got the back-front movement, have the students rock their head in a V shape (i.e., up and back to the right, down and front in the center, up and back to the left). They should step to the side on the right foot on 1, and hold that position for eight beats while the head V-rocks from right to left eight times.

From this position, begin the shoulder rock. Start by swinging the right shoulder forward as the head rocks right. Then the left shoulder swings forward while the right shoulder pushes backward; and the head rocks left. Do this for eight counts.



Tip 2
For a battle rock, add footwork. From a center point, the students will work four directions—front, side, back, and repeat side. Starting the rocking motion with the head, neck, and shoulders, they lunge forward with the right foot on the 1 (leaving the left foot on the center point), turning the body left and opening the arms to the sides. Return to center and lunge forward on the left foot, turning to the right and opening arms again. Return to center and lunge out to each side, right and left directions, then back on each foot, then repeating side lunges to the right, then left.




2 Tips for Hip-Hop Teachers | Way to Pop

By Geo Hubela

Tip 1
Getting young dancers to understand popping is a big challenge. Here is a way to get the movement into their bodies.

Start with a wrist pop. The heel of the hand makes a sharp downward pressing hit on the beat. Keep the arms straight and bend the wrists with the fingers going up. Mimic the revving of a motorcycle and, for fun, let the dancers make a “vroom vroom” sound.

Next, have them keep the hands relaxed instead of in fists. Get them to focus on popping only the wrist, not the whole arm, making the pop sharp and quick.


Tip 2
Popping looks most impressive when multiple body parts are used. Leg pops can be difficult to learn, but they make upper-body pops look more impressive.

Start by leaning side to side on the beat. When leaning left, push the right knee back as if hyperextending it, then reverse. Do it gently until comfortable, then snap the opposite knee back on the lean. Add wrist pops and eventually neck and chest pops to create a full-body pop.




Fundamentally Hip-Hop

In addition to opportunities for student participation, school visits feature performances by Mark “Metal” Wong and fellow Hip Hop Fundamentals members. Photo by Robert Lin

In addition to opportunities for student participation, school visits feature performances by Mark “Metal” Wong and fellow Hip Hop Fundamentals members. Photo by Robert Lin

3 arts activists speak to schoolchildren through dance
By Ann Murphy

Dancer-educators Mark “Metal” Wong, Steve “Believe” Lunger, and Aaron Troisi are three arts activists who decided to change the message being sent to K–12 youth. In too many instances, the message sent to schoolchildren in Pennsylvania, the region, and across the country, early in their academic careers, is that they have little worth and just as little power to do anything about it.

In September 2013, as the school year was about to begin, news of Philadelphia’s cutbacks to public education hit the airwaves. The city’s elementary, middle, and high schools were slashing essentials, including teachers, counselors, arts classes, sports programs, and even assistant principals.

Through workshops in what they call Hip Hop Fundamentals, the trio uses dance, music, and language to give kids an experience of critical awareness and collective action.

As if that weren’t bad enough, the historic city, where the Declaration of Independence was signed by Benjamin Franklin and his revolutionary crew, had to borrow $50 million simply to launch the academic year as planned. Officials didn’t intend to open all the schools, however––23 were slated to remain permanently closed this year as part of a now-familiar money-saving measure. As one online news outlet said, Philadelphia had “a public school system from hell.”

The same scenario is playing out in school districts across the country, particularly in cities with substantial poor populations where the tax revenue that helps fund schools—property taxes—is lowest.

Enter Wong, Lunger, and Troisi. Through hour-long workshops in what they call Hip Hop Fundamentals, the trio uses dance, music, and language shaped around a well-conceived curriculum to give kids an experience of critical awareness and collective action. The men show the students how, by expressing themselves together through dance (hip-hop), rhythm (beats), and rhymes (emceeing or rapping), they can make a difference, whether it’s in their schools, their homes, or their communities.


Photo by PJ Roane

Forty years after it first surfaced, hip-hop is now a global art form. It remains a vital part of music culture and permeates dance, visual art, speech, and fashion. Most students from kindergarten to 12th grade can relate to it—it’s hip, it’s fun, and it encourages even timid types to rap or toprock. But hip-hop is more than the commercialized fare that dominates music videos and mainstream airwaves.

At its roots, hip-hop is a form of collective street art and activism that arose out of the black and Latino working-class neighborhood of the West Bronx of New York City. During the summer of 1973, the Jamaican-born DJ Clive Campbell, aka DJ Kool Herc, imported a bit of Jamaica’s dancehall magic by rolling out his massive speakers for his now-famous house parties.

This was back in the days of turntables and vinyl, and funk was on the airwaves. During music “breaks”—in jazz, the rhythm segments of a song, when the rest of the song falls away and the drummer, for instance, takes over—Kool Herc began experimenting with prolonging the beats. Then he added a second turntable and began mixing and extending multiple rhythms even further. Before anyone knew it, the dancing met the rhythms, then turned competitive as movers “talked” to each other with their bodies. “Breakers” began dropping to the ground, performing power moves that included gymnastic feats on one arm and wild head spins. When partygoers gathered in a circle to watch, what quickly became known as breakdancing was officially born.

Overnight a new genre of sound and movement took shape. It involved battling DJs, competing dancers, emcees or rappers, as well as graffiti artists who spoke through spray paint. Hip-hop, ingenious and edgy, frequently spoke out against injustice, poverty, and police brutality, and it continued the venerable African American tradition of competition dance, music improvisation, and unified action.

Wong, who is of Asian and African descent, arrived from Bermuda at 17, clueless about funk music, let alone hip-hop. Sent to boarding school, he became passionate overnight about the new sounds and moves he discovered. He says he “fell into the dance portion of hip-hop and started rolling around on the ground by myself.”


Photo by Austin Horton

Next, while attending Haverford, a small Quaker-based liberal arts college 10 miles outside of Philadelphia, Wong began trekking to the city to join breakdance practices. That’s where he met Lunger, at the time a student at Temple University. As the white brother of two African American siblings, Lunger lived in the fluid zone between cultures and racial identities. Soon he and Wong were in a crew together and appearing at jams and competitions. Hip-hop became their passion.

Brought up with Quaker values and the ethos of the Civil Rights Movement, Wong and Lunger cobbled together a dance life mixed with odd jobs, gigs at bar mitzvahs, busking, and competitions. They got their first arts-education job in South Philly at the Houston Center, where they taught dance in an afterschool youth program being run by a friend.

The kids they taught were from strictly segregated parts of the same South Philadelphia neighborhood. On one street, “you’d have a whole block of families who had immigrated from places like Vietnam,” Wong says. Then, “one block over, it would be all African American families. Ours was one of the only youth programs in the area to get together this mix of 8- to 16-year-olds.”

In fact it was the first time many of these kids had ever acknowledged one another, even though they passed every day in the halls at school. Not only did the dancing bring them together, but some of them morphed into teachers who now teach kids the same material Wong and Lunger taught them—moves, but also a retooled attitude toward community.

Before Hip Hop Fundamentals came into being, Wong and Lunger had teamed up with their friend Justin Murta, who created the predecessor program, Hip Hop Handbook, in 2002. Murta emphasized the fun and entertainment of hip-hop as a dance form and as a means “to build confidence in the youth” and “to promote the positivity of the [hip-hop] culture.” By allowing kids to explore breakdancing and listen to music they regarded as cool, students got to taste empowerment and discover passions they might not have known they had.

But when Murta handed the reins over to Wong in 2010, Wong and Lunger realized that hip-hop not only speaks to kids because of its street cred and its entertainment factor but because of what hip-hop godfather Afrika Bambaataa (aka Kevin Donovan) calls the form’s wisdom. It’s through the fierce energy and inventive possibilities of hip-hop that Bambaataa was able to lure the formidable Bronx gang the Black Spades into music and dance combat, with its far deeper payout than drugs and guns. Former gang members quickly spread the gospel by toting boom boxes on their shoulders, strong bass beats accompanying their steps throughout New York’s boroughs.


Photo by Austin Horton

So Lunger and Wong renamed the project Hip Hop Fundamentals. The title not only suggests the basic elements of hip-hop but that hip-hop principles deserve to be understood as fundamental to education. As they quote Kool Herc, “Hip-hop has always been about having fun, but it’s also about taking responsibility.” They believe in hip-hop’s potential to promote ideas of social justice, responsibility, and moral purpose, concepts that can help kids think critically and creatively. This is precisely the kind of learning experience that educational theorists say is vital in order for people to develop into true participatory citizens.

With that, Hip Hop Fundamentals turned its one-hour school gatherings into tightly focused teaching opportunities, emphasizing either science or nonviolent direct action, and including a study guide that aligns with national core standards. They call their science module the Breaking the Law of Physics show, and they cover not only Newton’s ideas of inertia and friction, but Einstein’s concepts of energy and matter. “Einstein presented the revolutionary theory that matter—stuff—and energy—action—can be interchangeable when matter is sped up to the speed of light times itself,” Wong explains. “We demonstrate through interactive dance and crowd participation how particle accelerators speed up matter to make energy.”

This year, the crew added a master class that deals with race, diversity, and fairness for all, called Civil Rights Movements: The Power of Youth Engagement Through the Eyes of Dr. King. This was created through the efforts of Troisi, who majored in African American studies at Penn State, got an MA in education, and now teaches seventh-graders.

“I’ve been personally overwhelmed that race is so present in the school and yet there’s no discussion of race,” Troisi says of his own teaching experience. This means that students feel it and live it, he noted, but that the schools offer no means of decoding or unpacking the experience. The unaddressed realities of race then become the nameless elephant in the room that consumes enormous space and energy. Troisi sees that, as a consequence, teachers are missing important teaching/learning opportunities and occasions to model community for their students.


Photo by Keil Troisi

During the Civil Rights Movements module, students learn the facts of the civil rights movement; also, in a non-threatening and non-blaming fashion, they get to experience ways in which people can be discriminated against based on random factors—their hair style, or the color of the T-shirt they wore that day, for instance. In one of the assemblies, Wong singles out the dark-T-shirt wearers and invites them to the front with him. The kids feel special, but only for a moment, because Wong tells the kids that he was using an arbitrary factor—shirt color—to separate one group from another, and connects it for them to racism. He then invites all shirt colors up. A palpable sense of relief and the pleasure of inclusivity sweep the room.

Hip Hop Fundamentals holds about 250 assemblies a year, and runs more than six after-school programs at different sites in various communities. The group also partners with non-profits in the region, like Philadelphia’s ArtsRising and the Asian Arts Initiative.

“Hip-hop gave me a place in the world,” Lunger says. “It ties me to the larger world. We’re connected locally to experiences that are global.” And while he says he “can never really know if the work stays with the children,” he does know that he and Wong and Troisi are sharing their transformative experiences with these kids, and that even inspiring a handful of young people and modeling tough lessons in a non-threatening and entertaining way can make a difference.

“We understand that Hip Hop Fundamentals isn’t going to change the school system,” Troisi says. “It isn’t going to revolutionize education in the field.”

But what it can do, he says, is encourage action, reflection, and a sense of shared purpose, whether it’s performing breaks at a competition, kicking a ball to a teammate in a soccer field, or joining an effort in one’s community to help others.




Hip-Hop for All

All hip-hop classes at Icon Dance Complex include basics like tutting, waving and gliding; quicker tempos and complex combinations challenge advanced students. Photos courtesy of Geo Hubela, Icon Dance Complex

All hip-hop classes at Icon Dance Complex include basics like tutting, waving and gliding; quicker tempos and complex combinations challenge advanced students. Photos courtesy of Geo Hubela, Icon Dance Complex

Teaching methods that suit every student
By Geo Hubela

As I prepare for a new season of hip-hop classes at my studio, ICON Dance Complex, I always start by thinking about curriculum. It’s important to take several factors into consideration when designing yours: the number of classes, and the age range, experience, and skill levels of your students. You can then design an effective program with choreography tailored to the students.

At my school, students are placed into recreational programs based predominantly on age. I teach three classes within each age group: beginner, intermediate, and advanced. This enables me to effectively teach choreography to each student in those classes.

Fundamentals first, and forever

How do you determine the dancers’ skill? Each individual dancer will be different, and it is very important to determine the most effective way to teach the class as a whole. Having students do hip-hop progressions is a great way to start. Going across the floor doing simple funky elements such as footwork variations, slides, and b-boy floor work are useful exercises at all levels, and they reveal a student’s ability to follow steps and speed at picking up and absorbing new steps. These exercises are easy to build on by increasing the difficulty of elements such as direction, pace, and accompanying choreography.

The basics of popping, locking, waving, tutting, gliding, and b-boying should always be present in your curriculum.

Beginners should start by learning their hip-hop “ABCs.” For teachers, that means teaching a basic step or concept and building on it later. The basics of popping, locking, waving, tutting, gliding, and b-boying should always be present in your curriculum.

At the elementary level, find words and everyday references to help your students understand the dynamics of the movement. For example, to get them to “raise the roof,” tell them to press both hands upward as if lifting something overhead. For the “funky walk,” say, “Pull up your pants,” as they step and bend their knees, and instruct them to create opposition with the upper body as the arms pull upward. The wave can be easily explained as the arm mimicking the movement of a rollercoaster. Get creative and make it fun! When kids enjoy themselves, they stay focused and engaged—and they learn more.

For beginner isolations, be sure to focus on the body parts individually, breaking movement down slowly and precisely. As the students’ skill increases, pick up the speed and add movements or mini-combinations. For example, combine waving with popping, switching sides and continuing for a certain number of counts.


Teachers should pay attention to how quickly a class picks up choreography and adjust their expectations accordingly.

At advanced levels, begin by isolating one body part, and then add more as you go. For example, isolate the right arm in four popping movements, and then add leg isolations separately. Leg isolations can be done in two movements, for example, by alternating with feet turned in and turned out, while still popping the arms. Students find such exercises challenging and see them as a game.

You can then begin to add on, speed up, change direction, or anything else that adds complexity. But dancers must understand where each movement comes from before they can move forward in their development of technique and ability to perform choreography; only then should they move up a level. This is especially important for beginners. If they do not have full understanding of the fundamentals, they will not be able to progress. Dancers know when they haven’t mastered their skills, and a lack of confidence about their physical and mental abilities is discouraging and makes taking their art to the next level nearly impossible.

Regardless of the students’ level, they need to revisit the fundamentals often. Just like ballet dancers consistently practice proper form and technique, hip-hop dancers should always be in touch with the basics. Often I don’t tailor movement to the students’ skill level; instead I tailor the speed at which I want them to do the movement. This way the roots of the movement are never ignored, and more advanced students at higher levels are forced to keep up the pace and push themselves to do it faster.


It is crucial to find appropriate music to accompany your choreography. I always choose songs that inspire me to dance and motivate me to create unique steps for my students.

In my experience, mainstream pop music works best for younger groups. The song structure is fairly simple and the beats are basic and repetitive, which enables me to utilize various basic hip-hop movements within a song.

When both the tempo and beat of a song are consistent, beginner dancers tend to pick up steps with more confidence; they become aware of the repetition. A drastic change in music or tempo will distract a beginner dancer of any age. Understanding music is key to any dancer in all forms of dance, as the music usually dictates the movement.

For teachers, half the battle is teaching movement and the other is teaching rhythm. This is when having a music program on your computer or equipment with speed control becomes very beneficial. You can slow down songs when introducing steps and incrementally pick up the pace as the dancers become more comfortable with the movement. I use a program called djay by Algoriddim (which can be found on iTunes) on my iPad that allows me to adjust and control tempo very easily while teaching.

As a group’s skill level increases, I use music that has a more complex beat, with tempo variations and possibly even stylistic changes. My students must learn the moves I give them, but they must also study, learn, and understand the music. The more familiar they are with the music, the better they will perform that routine.


Every teacher has an individual method of teaching, and every dancer has an individual way of learning. The key to being a great teacher is adapting yourself and your style to the students’ needs. Be open to teaching in a different way. Have the students ask questions, and make sure they are clear in understanding the directions you give so they can learn the steps effectively.

If you begin a class determined to teach a certain combination in a certain way in a specific amount of time, I can guarantee you will not have as good an experience or outcome as you would if your intention was to enable the students to learn your choreography in their own way, in their own time. Preparation is important, but knowing your music and vocabulary and focusing on being an adaptable teacher prove more effective.

Trust yourself, your instincts, and your years of experience. It is your job to keep students engaged, and help them understand movement and choreography while keeping the momentum. Start your class strong, and finish stronger.





Hip-Hop for Tykes

Most of Impact Dance’s Studio’s Hippity Hop students, like the preschoolers in Kelly Pennington’s class, also take traditional classes. Photo courtesy Impact Dance Studio

Most of Impact Dance’s Studio’s Hippity Hop students, like the preschoolers in Kelly Pennington’s class, also take traditional classes. Photo courtesy Impact Dance Studio

Cool moves and lots of action for the preschool set
By Megan Donahue

When you hear someone mention a preschool dance class, you may think of miniature tutus and tiny taps, but there’s a new player in the preschool scene: Hippity Hop. That’s what many studios call their preschool-age hip-hop classes, which bring the energy and coolness factor of hip-hop to the fun and developmental activities of preschool dance. The classes vary from school to school, but what these classes have in common is upbeat fun.

Alternatives and anchors

Diane Fotino, owner of Impact Dance Studio in LaGrange, Illinois, started offering Hippity Hop classes about five years ago. Some of the 4- and 5-year-olds who tried a standard ballet, tap, and creative movement combination class “didn’t want to stand still and learn ballet positions, or stand at the barre. They just wanted to dance,” Fotino says. When parents called to withdraw their children from classes, they would say things like, “The class is too slow for my daughter.”

We started with one [Hippity Hop] class, and two weeks later it was completely filled. —Diane Fotino, Impact Dance Studio

Fotino decided to try offering a preschool hip-hop class, hoping it would appeal to those students and supplement the pre-dance classes. “We started with one class, and two weeks later it was completely filled,” Fotino says. She currently has three Hippity Hop classes on her schedule.


Hippity Hop classes offered by House of Dance anchor its preschool program and fill up quickly. Photo by Robin Moleux, Evolution Media

For House of Dance in Sudbury, Massachusetts, Hippity Hop was a natural choice. The school offers classes in a variety of styles, but its roots are in urban dance. “The studio brings an urban feel to suburbia,” says Brooke Rivero, co-owner and director of dance and choreography.

Hippity Hop is an anchor in the preschool program, offered year round at House of Dance and in six-week sessions through the Park & Recreation Department. “Both of them fill up,” Rivero says. She offers classes to students ages 4 to 6. At Elite Dance Academy in Colorado, school owner Lisa Pevateaux has found Hippity Hop to be a great option for energetic preschool kids (ages 4 and 5), especially boys. “It’s a nice start for little boys,” she says, noting that it often prepares them for regular hip-hop or the studio’s “Boys Only” hip-hop class. She finds preschool hip-hop an easier sell to parents who might not be comfortable with the idea of boys in tights. She offers two or three classes at each of her school’s three locations.

In addition to sparking the interest of children who aren’t interested in traditional ballet and tap combination classes, hip-hop appeals to a modern sensibility. “I think a lot of little kids want to dance like the big kids. That’s what they see on TV,” says Rivero. The classes are popular, she says. “We always see reoccurring signups.”

How to Hippity Hop

Like preschool ballet, the hip-hop technique of Hippity Hop classes has been adapted by teachers and studio owners to be developmentally appropriate. Trying to teach a 4-year-old to pop and lock is akin to teaching him a cabriole. Preschool hip-hop uses simplified moves, with the focus on enjoying dance, building motor skills, and laying a foundation for future dance experiences.


Students in House of Dance’s Hippity Hop classes are eager to dance like the big kids. Photo by Robin Moleux, Evolution Media

Since actual hip-hop technique isn’t the point, a hip-hop teacher might not be the best fit for these classes. “A good preschool teacher is probably more than qualified to teach a Hippity Hop syllabus,” says Fotino. She likens the moves to basic pom and cheerleading—punches, kicks, lots of moving up and down. “Unless you have a hip-hop teacher who is amazing with little ones, I would say stick with your preschool teachers.”

Pevateaux looks for preschool teachers who are particularly high-energy and charismatic to teach preschool hip-hop classes.

Rivero has found that her preschool hip-hop classes offer a solid introduction to dance. “It’s such a good way to develop gross motor skills,” she says. “It’s almost like creative movement with more dances and structure.”

In addition to teaching dance, Rivero is a speech-language pathologist. Her knowledge of neurological development informs how she structures all of her preschool classes, including hip-hop, to include age-appropriate milestones like skipping, jumping, turning, and walking backward.

Rivero starts each class with a body awareness activity, like “Head and Shoulders, Knees and Toes.” Then she moves on to a rhythm activity that uses hands and feet. The children work on a short dance combination every week. Rivero has used some existing materials, like Tricia Gomez’s Hip Hop in a Box, and adapted them to the class structure she’s designed.

For Rivero, one of the keys to success with preschoolers is creating visualizations for the movements being taught. Stepping open and closed becomes stepping on bugs; bending down and jumping up becomes jack-in-the-box. Rivero believes such visualizations help kids connect with the steps, remember them, and have fun.

Class content

Young dancers in House of Dance’s Hippity Hop classes use visual images like stepping on bugs or pretending to be a jack-in-the-box. Photo by Robin Moleux, Evolution Media

At Impact Dance Studio, the Hippity Hop classes are 45 minutes, and offered for 4- to 5-year-olds. The class begins with a circle sharing time, followed by a short warm-up consisting of isolations, lunges, and some floor stretches. Fotino structures the across-the-floor section of class around high-energy marches. They start with four counts of marching and four counts of posing, then switch out the posing with other movements like “bounce right, bounce left” or punching.

“The children are 4 and 5, so it’s hard for them to get caught up once they get behind,” Fotino says. “Even if they’re missing the steps, they can get caught up with those marches.” Class finishes with a short center combination, which gets eight new counts added each week. “Every four weeks they get a new [combination],” she says. Fotino has incorporated multiple sources into her Hippity Hop syllabus, including Hip Hop in a Box. “We take a little from everything.”

Elite Dance Academy uses a single self-designed curriculum across its Hippity Hop classes, so different teachers teach the same things each week. The class mirrors a traditional pre-dance class, with circle time, games that focus on gross motor skills, trips across the floor, and short combinations. “The kids learn cool new moves, fun combinations, and we’re sneaking in dance fundamentals,” Pevateaux says.

Like many preschool classes, the most important lessons to be learned may be those involving personal space, following directions, and taking turns, all of which connect to future dance endeavors.



Choosing music for children’s hip-hop classes, or even for teens, can be challenging. Most hip-hop is not child-friendly; songs often contain inappropriate language, violent or sexual content, and general intensity. That means many very danceable songs get taken off the list.

“I try to use songs without words, except for combinations,” says Rivero. When she does use songs with lyrics, she has had some luck kicking it old school. “I use ‘Good Vibrations’ by Marky Mark [and the Funky Bunch], ‘We Like to Party’ by The Vengaboys, ‘Aaron’s Party’ by Aaron Carter, or even ‘Who Let the Dogs Out’ by The Baha Men,” says Rivero. There’s also the option of choosing “clean” versions or radio edits.

Some hip-hop music has been created especially for children. Kidz Beatz offer albums of nursery rhymes and children’s songs set to hip-hop beats. Musicworks has a selection of music for hip-hop classes, too. Rivero likes Mr. Chris Hip Hop Dance Moves, which includes songs with fun titles like “Rolla Armz” and “Catfish Dance.” Impact Dance Studio uses popular radio music like Justin Bieber and “Call Me Maybe.” Pevateaux’s Hippity Hop teachers often use Disney soundtracks.


House of Dance’s Hippity Hop classes are perfect for young boys and girls with an abundance of energy. Photo by Robin Moleux, Evolution Media

Hippity Hop may be a departure from traditional classes, but Fotino has found that most of the students at her school like both; about 75 percent of her preschool hip-hop students also take a traditional pre-dance class. “The moms still want to see them at recital in a tutu,” she says.

Fotina has had success pairing pre-dance and Hippity Hop on her schedule. “That’s been key—offering those classes back to back,” she says. “Not every kid is ready for that, for an hour and a half, but more people than not will try it.”

Pevateaux finds that kids tend to fall into one camp or the other—traditional creative movement and “First Steps” combination classes, or Hippity Hop. “What’s important to me is for people to fall in love with dance,” Pevateaux says. So if a kid never takes to ballet but adores the Hippity Hop class, Pevateaux is happy.

“We want to serve everybody,” she says. She likes being able to offer a better fit for kids who don’t take to traditional preschool classes. “It’s a great class for little people who need to expend more energy.”



2 Tips for Hip-Hop Teachers | Build a Foundation

By Geo Hubela

Tip 1
Sometimes hip-hop steps are right, but how they’re being done is wrong. If the foundations (such as popping and locking) and technique (such as isolations and contractions) are lacking, the steps will never look right or funky. Students need to connect with the music and translate it through movement.

Start progressions with a simple walk—no instructions, just tell your students to walk. Use a song with a moderate, funky beat. Ask a dancer who connects with the music and puts style into the movement to demonstrate.

Drive home the foundations of hip-hop so that your dancers can incorporate it into movement, even something as simple as a walk.


Tip 2
Get creative with progressions and add a new challenge after every exercise. After the basic walk, instruct dancers to move without lifting their feet. If they glide and wave, it should be easy. Can they glide or wave?

In many studios, I see that dancers are given hip-hop and commercial-style choreography without understanding where the movement comes from. Ballet dancers don’t do pirouettes without knowing what a passé or relevé is—why should hip-hop training be any different?



2 Tips for Hip-Hop Teachers | Drop & Freeze

2 Tips Hip-Hop
By Geo Hubela

Tip 1
There are many kinds of drops: the sweep, coin, and thread drops, and more. One of the simplest is the knee drop, which gives the illusion of collapsing one leg with a kick.

From standing (“toprock”), the left leg lifts back and cross-kicks into the back of the right knee; as the leg collapses, you drop forward. Instead of dropping to the right knee, land on your bent left toes. The right knee never hits the floor. From here, move into floor work (“downrock”) or hit a freeze.


Tip 2
One of the easiest dynamic stops is the baby freeze. (Use caution when teaching all breakdance moves.) In a squat, place both hands on the floor to the right of the body, fingers angled outward in opposite directions. With arms close to the body, press the right elbow into the right side and shift to the right until the right knee is resting on the bent left elbow. With your weight placed on both elbows, rest the side of the head on the floor and lift both legs off the floor.



Iraqi Breakdancers Persevere Despite a Home Environment Hostile to the Arts

First Step Iraq dance crew; photo courtesy First Step Iraq

First Step Iraq dance crew; photo courtesy First Step Iraq

The six hip-hop dancers of First Step Iraq—from Baghdad, Basra, Erbil, and Sulaimaniya—have overcome unmentionable odds in pursuit of their dream—to dance, but also to build something in their country that has been torn apart by years of destruction, reports Albawaba.

First Step Iraq is the product of collaboration between the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad (which sponsored and paid for the trip) and the YES Academy, which aims to train teachers and promote youth leadership in the arts in Iraq and a host of other countries.

Months of training in the country’s relative safe haven of Kurdistan paid off when the dancers were given the opportunity to travel to the United States to perform their breakdance routines for an American audience. Their U.S. tour will take them to Washington, DC, New York, Philadelphia, and Detroit during October. For many of these dancers, it is their first time visiting the United States, and for some, their first time traveling out of Iraq.

Aside from the security concerns that plague Iraq, the war and its subsequent instability has worked to intensify religious fervor in a nation where many do not view artistic expression favorably. Iraq, once strongly influenced by the Soviet arts system (which strongly emphasized ballet dancing), is suffering from a drought of artistic instruction. There is just one dancing school in Baghdad that mostly teaches ballet, but the program’s instruction is limited. Being a ballet dancer in Iraq is considered to be dangerous.

Instead of using dance to escape their circumstances, the First Step Iraq dancers used their experiences to shape their performances—creating dances that addressed the emotions behind living in a war zone.

To read the full story, visit–528216.



2 Tips for Hip-Hop Teachers | Focus on Foundations

Tips Hip-Hop
By Geo Hubela

Tip 1
As hip-hop is evolving, I see more urban styles that convey emotion. Lyrical hip-hop, which combines the nuances of lyrical dance with the vocabulary and foundational movements of hip-hop, is more interpretive than standard hip-hop. There are still isolations, gliding, smooth movement, and waves, but they are more fluid and less hard-hitting. And, as in lyrical dance, emphasis is placed on storytelling and conveying emotion. But stay true to the foundations of hip-hop or else call it lyrical.

Tip 2
The foundations should always remain true to the art. A pet peeve of mine is seeing elements of jazz in hip-hop routines. Double pirouettes, kicks with pointed feet, and jazz poses compromise the integrity of a hip-hop routine. Get creative and transform technical elements into hip-hop. Instead of lifting and elongating the body, bend the knees more and hunch over; instead of pointing a foot, flex it. Show your dancers the differences in movement and placement so they know each style must stay true to its foundation.




Ailey Students Lend Talent to First Lady’s Efforts to Fight Childhood Obesity

Hip Hop Public Health; image courtesy HHPH

Hip Hop Public Health; image courtesy HHPH

Songs for a Healthier America, a boisterous new album aimed at amplifying the benefits of healthier child nutritional and exercise choices, will be available for free download beginning September 30.

The album’s release will be celebrated with a star-studded live event at Symphony Space on September 30 at 6pm featuring performances by 10 Ailey School students who also appear in the video for the album’s second single, “Let’s Move.” More than 600 New York City school students will attend the event, which also features rappers Doug E. Fresh, Artie Green, and Chauncey Hawkins.

The project is produced by Partnership for a Healthier America (PHA), an organization that works with the private sector and its honorary chair First Lady Michelle Obama to help end the childhood obesity epidemic, and Hip Hop Public Health.

The “instant recess”-style video will be distributed in October for use as a dance exercise break and to engage young people in a fun, physical activity. The 19-song compilation Songs for a Healthier America will be offered to children across the U.S. at and at iTunes for free—the first time a complete album will be offered at no cost on iTunes.




Hip-Hop Crew Jabbawockeez Claims Manager Increased Share from 1 to 52 Percent

Jabbawockeez; photo Monsters of Hip Hop, courtesy Facebook

Jabbawockeez; photo Monsters of Hip Hop, courtesy Facebook

The hip-hop dance crew Jabbawockeez has sued its manager, claiming he sneakily increased his ownership of the group from 1 percent to 52 percent, reported Courthouse News Service last Friday.

Lead plaintiff Kevin Brewer sued Fred D. Nguyen and his company FDN Holdings in Clark County Court, Los Vegas, Nevada.

Brewer and his co-plaintiffs—Christopher Gatdula, Joseph Larot, Philippe Tayag, Rainen Paguio, and WKZ LLC—got their big break in April 2008 when they won a contest on MTV’s America’s Best Dance Crew. They are known for wearing white masks as they dance and have appeared in movies and other TV shows, and have performed on the Vegas strip since 2010.

The group says in the lawsuit that it formerly had another member, nonparty Jeffrey Nguyen, who is the defendant Nguyen’s brother. They claim they contacted defendant Nguyen, “who purportedly had some business experience, to take a management role in the business.”

Defendant Nguyen was initially given a 1 percent interest in Jabbawockeez LLC, which later “improperly grew to 52 percent,” the complaint states. The plaintiffs’ attorney, Joseph Ganley, said in an interview: “We believe Nguyen was able to increase his commission by manipulating the business’ articles of incorporation.”

To see the full story, visit



2 Tips for Hip-Hop Teachers | Muscle Memory

Tips HipHopBy Geo Hubela

Tip 1
Clean, strong arms are imperative for me in hip-hop routines. Some dancers lack the technical training to understand correct arm placement. Try this: line the dancers up with their backs against the walls or mirrors, both arms against the wall at shoulder level and bent at a 90-degree angle. (You can also use elements and poses from your choreography that apply.) The goal is to increase muscle memory so they can nail the pose without the wall there. The wall helps with placement, preventing the dancers from having wild arms and moving beyond the pose.

Tip 2
Here’s another muscle-memory exercise that helps dancers remember to keep their arms engaged and working. Have the dancers hold their arms in front of them at shoulder level with fists clenched and shoulders pressed down, as if holding a beach ball. Press down on their arms, telling them to resist and to remember the sensation of resistance. This is most beneficial for popping and tutting and keeping hip-hop poses and movement tight, sharp, and powerful.


One-Hour TLC Special Spotlights Young Hip-Hoppers as They Prepare for Competition

Dance Kids ALT; photo courtesy TLC

Dance Kids ALT; photo courtesy TLC

In Dance Kids ATL, TLC takes viewers inside Dance 411 Studios, an Atlanta dance studio where kids train from an early age to become the best hip-hop dancers in the world, reports HitFlix.

This new one-hour special will air July 24 at 10pm and showcases a team of hip-hop dancers ages 9 to 16 as they tirelessly prepare for their first performance of the competitive season.

Just six days before the big competition, tensions are high as the dancers rehearse with dance coach Tracey Berry and choreographer Sean Bankhead (who has worked with Beyoncé, Ciara, and Bruno Mars). The choreography is challenging, and in order to win first place, each hip-hop hopeful has to elevate his or her performance to the next level, or risk being cut.

To learn more, visit


New Zealand’s Hip Op-eration Crew Shows You’re Never Too Old for Old Skool

The Hip Op-eration Crew; photo courtesy The Wall Street Journal

The Hip Op-eration Crew; photo courtesy The Wall Street Journal

In the world of hip-hop, Violet Hollis is strictly Old Skool and unabashedly so.

Twice a week, the New Zealander practices dance moves like voguing and popping with her crew. Her clothes—hot pink and fluorescent green leg warmers, a studded glove, and a black hoodie—are modern. But Hollis has a piece of bling that sets her apart from other hip-hop dancers: a wheelchair. Also, she’s 96 years old.

The Wall Street Journal reports that about 30 members of this 37-person crew will perform alongside youthful crews from as many as 40 countries at the World Hip Hop Dance Championships in Las Vegas in August. The Hip Op-eration Crew claims to be the world’s oldest hip-hop dance group. Hollis—or “Granny V”—is the oldest, although several others are in their 80s and 90s.

The crew performed at the National Hip Hop Championship finals in Auckland in April, and earned a standing ovation from their audition at the TV show New Zealand’s Got Talent this month. Their latest song is titled “Life Is for Living.”

While the original goal was to reduce the stigma of aging, it quickly evolved into something bigger. “It’s about showing respect to young hip-hoppers in the world hip-hop community and to try and better connect senior citizens with young people,” said Billie Jordan, the crew’s manager.

Others say the history of hip-hop had special appeal. “We feel very much in tune with those people who were very poor and nobody seemed to care about,” said Maynie Thompson, 94, also known as Quick Silver. “We want to show young people that old people can do things like that, too. When you get old, you don’t have to sit at home and knit socks. You can get out onto the floor and dance.”

To see a video report on the crew and the original story, visit


2 Tips for Hip-Hop Teachers | Dressing the Part

2_Tips_HipHopBy Geo Hubela

Tip 1
Clothing that complements the hip-hop style and makes students feel comfortable is important; if they don’t feel comfortable, they won’t dance to their full potential. Loose-fitting clothes and materials that move well against the skin accentuate many styles of hip-hop. Popping always looks better in sweatpants or a polyester warm-up suit. Many boogaloo-style poppers wear dress slacks instead of jeans because the slacks move well with popping leg movements. Long sleeves add flow to popping and waving.

Tip 2
For shoes, encourage students to wear classic street sneakers. (I’m not a fan of jazz sneakers with split soles and slippery bottoms.) Sneakers provide a better grip, allowing movements to be sharp and to stick. For gliding, a shoe with a stiffer sole and smoother bottom facilitates rising on the toes without pain and easy sliding. Michael Jackson always wore classic penny loafers onstage because he did so much gliding; it made him appear as if he was walking on air.


2 Tips for Hip-Hop Teachers | Slides

By Geo Hubela

Tip 1
To teach what looks like a knee slide, have students crouch with feet shoulder-width apart and put the left hand on the floor. They push off, transferring the weight to the left arm as they slide on the side of the left calf around the supporting arm. As the slide begins, the torso remains lifted and away from the supporting arm. The right leg remains parallel to the left, held off the floor in somewhat of a side attitude, foot flexed.

Tip 2
In a combination, have students start on the right with a kick ball change (1 & 2), then repeat left (3 & 4), and then do a quick ball change right-left (& 5) while squatting and prepping for the slide. As they slide past the supporting arm, the right foot moves toward the front of the body and the weight transfers onto it. Rise, turning outward over the left shoulder and stepping onto the left foot, facing front. Repeat, starting with kick ball change on the right foot again.


Ballet Scene | Ballet Meets Ethnic in Atlanta

Waverly T. Lucas II and Nena Gilreath based their school on the blend of African and ballet they experienced as members of Dance Theatre of Harlem.  All photos courtesy Ballethnic Academy of Dance

Waverly T. Lucas II and Nena Gilreath based their school on the blend of African and ballet they experienced as members of Dance Theatre of Harlem. All photos courtesy Ballethnic Academy of Dance

Ballethnic’s uncommon blend of African and European dance
By Mary Ellen Hunt

The earthy grounding of African dance and the airy grace of ballet are not so far apart, philosophically or physically, at Ballethnic Academy of Dance. Founders Waverly T. Lucas II and Nena Gilreath have built a curriculum that offers both—as well as modern, tap, and hip-hop. But here the focus is as much on building character and developing the whole person as on teaching dance.

It’s the similarities between ballet and ethnic dance that are most interesting to Lucas, who came up with the name “Ballethnic.” “Between those two forms, you encompass every other aspect of dance,” he says. “While there is freedom in African dance, there is also specificity in the movement and in the placement, and I think sometimes people ignore the particulars of that. In classical ballet, you have those particulars—you try to find your own way of moving within the limits of the genre to present that in as creative and unique way as possible, while blending it with core, or the intent of work. In African dance, at times you have more expressive freedom, because that’s in its nature. But in classical ballet you have expressive freedom as well.”

“The way Mr. Waverly’s mind works is amazing to me,” says Savery Morgan, who has danced with the Ballethnic Dance Company since 2005 and, like all of the company members, also teaches in the school. “He has a fresh approach. It’s not as though he’s trying to create something new in the technique, yet he comes up with things that I’ve never seen before.” He says Lucas’ petit allegro has much in common with African dance footwork and that the quality of adagio in ballet is very much like the continuous movement taught in African.

The school’s roots

Located in East Point, Georgia, just south of Atlanta, Ballethnic’s studios occupy some 20,000 square feet, and Lucas and Gilreath are quick to note that owning the property has been a worthwhile investment. With three studios in the building, Lucas says the 150 students they serve bring the facility nearly to its capacity.

Both Gilreath and Lucas are former members of Dance Theatre of Harlem and Atlanta Ballet, and the philosophies and working styles of both companies have been instrumental in shaping the way they see their own company and school.

While there is freedom in African dance, there is also specificity in the movement and in the placement, and I think sometimes people ignore the particulars of that. —Waverly T. Lucas II

“Without the influence of Dance Theatre of Harlem, I don’t think there would be a Ballethnic,” Lucas says. “DTH not only set the foundation but also motivated us to believe in this concept, because it is an offshoot of their basic philosophy. That’s where we were introduced to the idea of blending classical ballet with African.” (A neoclassical ballet company formed in 1969, DTH showcased African American influences in works by such choreographers as Geoffrey Holder, artistic director Arthur Mitchell, and Vincent Mantsoe.)

“At Atlanta Ballet,” says Gilreath, “[Artistic director Robert] Barnett fostered a free-flowing, easygoing atmosphere, which was totally different from New York. Everybody at Atlanta Ballet cared about quality of life very much, and it was there that I learned that you could work hard and have a good time at the same time.”

Gilreath, who grew up in a blue-collar town in North Carolina and graduated from North Carolina School of the Arts, adds, “I liked the pride of being an African American doing ballet at a high level. I liked being proud of being a chocolate girl, and that experience guided how I wanted to influence girls of color.”

R_Ballet_Scene2Starting a school that would encourage African American kids to study ballet, however, wasn’t a universally endorsed notion. Traditionally, ballet companies (and thus classes) have been predominantly white, a deterrent for children of color, especially those who are black.

“People said discouraging things,” recalls Gilreath. “ ‘You’re not going to get black kids in your school; they won’t do ballet.’ But we would play all kinds of music and mix that with ballet. Once the kids saw that ballet was no different from anything else, they weren’t so fearful of it.”

“Before I came to Ballethnic, as a young lady, my uniform was always pink tights,” says Jennifer Thomas, who began studying at Ballethnic at age 9 and now, at 30, is on the company’s board. “At Ballethnic we wore flesh-colored tights [that matched our skin tones]. It was such a small thing, but I think that gave me a special pride, because it said your complexion is a beautiful part of your artistry.”

Gilreath says, “We’ve had a bunch of bunheads and some kids who went on to be singers, play instruments; several people have gone on to Broadway. We’ve always said that tap will help with ballet, African dance will help with ballet. Our academy is all about building a diverse dancer, but our number-one priority is ballet. We believe that if you’re able to do ballet effectively, you can do anything else.”

“When I started at Ballethnic, I saw how passionate and talented all the students were,” says Thomas. “At the time I was a bit of a bunhead; I was disappointed to take off my pointe shoes. But everything about my technique was strengthened by taking these other classes. You only deepen your knowledge by learning about the whole body. You find out that you don’t have to be in some kind of silo and only learn one thing—that you shouldn’t be shut off to other ideas and opportunities. And that intellectual curiosity applies to so many other areas of life.”

Starting out: Ballethnicize

Over the years, Lucas has developed a teaching system he calls “Ballethnicize,” which incorporates elements of ballet, jazz, and modern African dance principles. Its form is flexible enough to adapt for a wide range of abilities, from adult students (who do a conditioning form of the Ballethnicize class) to preschoolers as young as 3 and a half.

R_Ballet_Scene4“The whole concept with Kiddie Ballethnicize is getting the children to play using dance, with the belief that once you do that, they will forever have a love for dance,” says Lucas.

Kiddie Ballethnicize starts with a musical section, in which drumming helps the students learn basic rhythm and appreciate moving with music. Next is center work, “so they gain an understanding of space,” Lucas says, “and we teach them about the fixed points of the room. After that they work on stretching exercises. With the kids, we use props to make it fun—I teach them to reach out to touch their legs to something. They learn that stretching isn’t a labor but a fun thing.”

The sequence progresses toward building more complex motor movements—hopping, jumping, skipping, galloping. And becoming acclimated to the stage is also part of the early training.

“Our kids learn early what upstage and downstage are, stage right and stage left,” Lucas says. “Because of all this, we can have our students dance in a professional production from a young age without needing to have bigger kids out there leading them, or teachers giving them instructions from the wings. We empower them by teaching them and expecting them to come up to a level of excellence. We teach every class with the expectation they can learn something that they can present back, because if they’re not learning things, then it’s just babysitting.”

When it’s time for more serious training, Lucas says, “We have to be careful not to kill their spirit. Our teachers are challenged to keep it fun. You want to be serious and have a purpose, but that reward has to be in there.”

A no-nonsense approach

In the academy, Gilreath and Lucas run a tight ship. Dress code at the studio, which includes flesh-toned tights and shoes rather than pink, is mandatory; hair ornaments, jewelry, and warm-ups are not allowed in class. In addition, students are expected to have a dance journal and a copy of Gail Grant’s Technical Manual and Dictionary of Classical Ballet with them whenever they’re in class. The writing not only helps hone verbal skills, it adds a reflective component to the students’ work and emphasizes the seriousness of their dance studies.

R_Ballet_Scene3“Ballethnic is not for everybody,” says Gilreath. “We are no-nonsense and straightforward. I’m going to say things that are not popular: ‘The work is the star; it is not about you.’ It’s all about the work, and that’s tough for people to hear.”

That said, many students are extremely serious about working. The school offers nine levels of classes that run from the pre-ballet Kiddie Ballethnicize class to a pre-professional Level A program. The Level A program includes nearly 11 hours of classes each week, including ballet, African dance, jazz, tap, hip-hop, pointe, men’s class, and pas de deux. The school also offers special workshops and classes in nutrition, makeup, costume design, dance history, and stage etiquette. Students in the upper level put in more hours, for rehearsals, if they are cast in dance productions.

“The kids might take as many as 15 to 20 class hours a week,” says Morgan, who teaches Vaganova-based ballet, modern, and jazz dance at the school. “We have kids who are extremely committed. It’s interesting that the ones who commit to that schedule are often the straight-A honor students too.”

“The discipline is something that will not be compromised,” Lucas says. “You must appreciate discipline, because it is what allows you to become successful. We feel that if we develop disciplined young people, they’re at that first stage of success. Add talent to that and you almost ensure success. If you don’t have extreme talent, but you have discipline, you’re going to figure out a way to become successful. That’s our basic, simple philosophy.”

This approach, Lucas says, allows dance to benefit each individual, no matter where the student’s talents lie. Schools that focus almost entirely on their very talented students, he says, “ignore the dancer who struggles, but who may be brilliant at something else. I want to maximize the potential of the person in whatever area they are in. We teach them that if you stand up straight, present yourself, and know how to make an entrance into a room, that’s the same concept as making an entrance onto the stage. You are being noticed, and that lesson can be transferred to any situation.”

Developing danseurs

As part of their outreach efforts, Lucas and Gilreath have created the Danseur Development Project, designed to encourage boys to consider studying dance.

R_Ballet_Scene5“We’re trying to take young men off the streets and the basketball court and get them into the studio,” says Lucas, who recruits boys by talking with parents and taking male company dancers to visit football camps, where they give ballet demonstrations. “We want them to see that this can be your basketball, your baseball, your football as well. It is just as athletic, if not more so.”

The recruitment has been so successful that the school is able to offer regular pas de deux classes (which Lucas relishes teaching) as part of the curriculum. A significant amount of experience in partnering, unusual in small schools, gives the students a distinct advantage when they go to other pre-professional programs or college, Lucas points out. Plus, he adds, there is a social development aspect that has value beyond the studio.

“You’re developing gentlemen in pas de deux, and that’s something that young ladies and parents appreciate,” he says. “Most young men try to show how macho they are, but they don’t know how to be gentlemen, and this is what I want them to understand—that there is nothing effeminate about being a gentleman. That is the most masculine thing you can be.

“This commitment to young men and women makes their whole experience better,” he continues. “We would rather they engage with each other in the studio, where we can instill discipline and respect, than in the streets or mall, where anything goes.”


Prepared for life

Gilreath and Lucas are keen to teach their students lessons they can take into any career. A workshop series called “Beyond the Barre” teaches business fundamentals such as marketing, fund-raising, and public speaking, exposing students to another side of the arts world.

Thomas, who studied with Ballethnic through her college years but later went into law, says her experiences at the academy and with the company opened up a new world for her. As a board member, she now lends her legal skills and expertise and helps with fund-raising. And those lessons learned at Ballethnic continue to serve her, she says.

“There’s a discipline about being an artist that you can take into other areas of your life,” says Thomas. “You are prepared to be competitive. In a courtroom, you have to stand in front of a jury or a panel of judges and carry yourself with aplomb, which is the same as performing in front of an audience.

“Ballethnic doesn’t change the art form of ballet or African dance,” she continues, “but it brings you into it, makes you a part of it, and there’s something very special about that. I gained a sense of confidence as a teenager—of my own self and what I could achieve—and Ballethnic did that for me. It made me feel as if I were a part of something beautiful.”


Dancing Big

Jimmy Locust brings L.A. -style energy to a class in Giordano jazz technique. Photo by Mindy Vaccino

Jimmy Locust brings L.A.-style energy to a class in Giordano jazz technique. Photo by Mindy Vaccino

Jimmy Locust’s kid-oriented mission matches his high-energy career
By Ryan P. Casey

A normal week might find Jimmy Locust teaching 20 classes at his studio in Stamford, Connecticut. Or he might be on a plane to Los Angeles or Hawaii to choreograph a music video. Or a camera crew might be following him as he prepares for an upcoming performance with his acclaimed youth performance team, Hip Hop’s Finest. Life keeps the diminutive Locust, who is four feet nine inches tall, on the move.


Locust shares his experiences being bullied for his height on the reality show Locust Under 5′. Photo courtesy Jimmy Locust

A veteran teacher and performer, Locust is also a studio owner, celebrity choreographer, and budding reality-TV star. Outside of his professional work, he uses his talents to help others by running several community and anti-bullying programs for children and teens.

Locust, 51, owns and directs Locust Performing Arts Center, founded in Stamford in 2010. After operating for several years out of a hotel ballroom, the studio moved to its own building in September 2012, where it serves more than 400 students of all ages each week, in disciplines ranging from tap and hip-hop to modern dance and musical theater, including several pre-professional youth performance companies.

A dual career

When Locust, a native of Dayton, Ohio, moved to Connecticut in 2005, he had what few other dance studio owners can boast of: a Hollywood resume that includes appearances with music icons such as Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson, Paula Abdul, and Quincy Jones. Locust continues to split his time between Stamford and Los Angeles, running his studio classes and companies and community-education programs while working as an in-demand choreographer.

“It’s really a blessing to have a career where I can wear different hats,” he says. “It keeps me on my toes. I can bring the energy from L.A. back to my students, and I can bring the energy from my classroom to the directors and producers I’m working with.”

But he doesn’t keep these two worlds separate—in fact, he brings his Hollywood career into the classroom every chance he gets.

[Gus Giordano] told me, ‘I don’t see your height; I see your dancing. I know you’re small, but I’m looking at how big a dancer you are.’  —Jimmy Locust

“If I’m teaching a certain move or lesson that relates to one of my experiences, I take a moment to share it,” Locust says. “My students love to hear those stories and learn what it was like to work with a celebrity. They instantly want to be better. It gets them to work hard.”


Jimmy Locust, a studio owner, choreographer, and budding realtiy-TV star, splits his time between Stamford, Connecticut, and L.A. Photo by Jim Kahnweiler

Monica Richardson, the studio’s assistant director, says that because of Locust’s professional experience, “he understands how to push his students to work at that level. He’ll say, ‘What if you had an audition in New York tomorrow? Would you dance like that?’ ”

To emphasize the importance of self-discipline, for example, Locust tells his students about dancing with Michael Jackson at the 1995 Video Music Awards. When Jackson was in the studio for rehearsals, Locust and his fellow dancers were told to not even look at him, but to be on top of their game and focus on what they were practicing. Self-control and discipline enabled Locust to ignore the legendary performer’s imposing presence.

“They can apply these lessons right away, every time they’re in class with me,” says Locust. “They understand that I’m coming from a professional standpoint and preparing them for the industry.”

And he has plenty of professional experience to draw on in the classroom. In 2011, he collaborated with the Stamford Symphony, choreographing the opening number for its annual fund-raiser, and is currently working with Stamford’s regional theater company, Curtain Call, on a production of Legally Blonde, which opens this summer. At the same time, he has been choreographing for the CW reality show The Next, featuring Joe Jonas and Gloria Estefan. Additionally, he is the creative director for recording artist Arika Kane’s upcoming music videos and tour.


Overcoming odds

When Locust was young, a career in the industry seemed unlikely. Jaundice stunted his growth from birth, and as a child he endured constant ridicule about his short stature. He loved dance, but he felt self-conscious about the way people looked and pointed at him.

But then, for five years, and while still a teenager, Locust danced as a principal member of Giordano Jazz Dance Chicago. The director, jazz master Gus Giordano, gave Locust the confidence boost he needed when he auditioned for the company during a summer workshop.

“He told me, ‘I don’t see your height; I see your dancing. I know you’re small, but I’m looking at how big a dancer you are.’ For once, somebody put my talent first, instead of my size. From that point on, nobody could bring me down. So when I walked in front of people like Paula Abdul to audition, Gus had already instilled in me self-esteem.”

The similarly short-statured Abdul was encouraging, assuring Locust that the right job would eventually come along—and it did. In 1988 she cast him in the music videos for her hit singles “Knocked Out” and “Forever Your Girl.”

“He was different from everyone else and worked it to his advantage,” says Julie McDonald, Locust’s first agent and co-founder of McDonald/Selznick Associates, a talent agency based in Los Angeles and New York. “He put himself out there in a way that made employers change their projects just so they could cast him. He always approached his work the way he approaches life—with full enthusiasm and 100 percent focus.”

To make up for his small size, Locust emphasized his enthusiasm and personality at every audition, showing up early to secure himself a spot in the front row. Even when he was cut, he had often made a memorable impression on the casting crew.

Locust’s work with Abdul gained him access to the industry he had worked so hard to break into. He went on to choreograph for sports and fashion companies (including Reebok and Speedo), act and dance in films such as Coming to America and Teen Witch, and work with recording artists such as Monica and Raven Simone.

Bringing dance to the community

After many years of traveling the world and living in various parts of the country, Locust decided that it was time to give back by creating a performing-arts school. Shortly after moving to Connecticut, he co-founded Stamford Performing Arts Center with friends Carol and Gerrit Paasman, bringing in top New York dance talent to teach more than 400 students each week. After several years in business together, their artistic visions changed, and in 2009 Locust departed to work on opening his own studio.


Locust’s mission is to give students the same personal attention and encouragement he received from Gus Giordano and Paula Abdul.

He also began developing after-school dance programs for underprivileged and low-income students in Stamford, hiring teachers from his studio as instructors. With the aid of the U.S. Department of Education’s 21st Century Community Learning Centers, he launched 10-week programs at Stamford Family YMCA and Chester Addison Community Center.

Locust wanted to incorporate his programs into academic settings (primarily schools and community education centers) because “in order to be a great dancer,” he says, “you need to be an educated dancer—not just in history, but in all the subjects you learn in school.” He meets with the directors of interested organizations and determines what kind of programming they are seeking, whether for a short period like six weeks or a full academic year. He then crafts a curriculum that will fit that time frame and incorporate appropriate skill sets and movement techniques.

Through various styles of dance, Locust’s programs attempt to build self-esteem and establish healthy boundaries for students, many of whom come from family situations that don’t offer the attention or guidance they need. The students learn how to carry themselves, collaborate with their peers, and have respect for their instructors, each other, and what they are learning. Locust and his faculty cultivate a positive atmosphere by teaching the students how to work together despite personal struggles and differences, and they aim to increase the students’ confidence by finding something in each of them to compliment every week.

“The students get support and encouragement from their whole class, not just their teacher,” Richardson says. “When Jimmy gives a compliment, everyone applauds that student along with him. That’s how he builds a safe and positive environment.”

“These kids don’t think they’re intelligent, but they are—we’re just homing in on it and cultivating it,” Locust says. “That’s what my goal really is: to change the minds and hearts of these children who feel like they don’t have a chance.”

From each outreach program, he selects one exceptional student to receive a full year’s scholarship to his studio—including tuition, costumes, recital tickets, and photos—so he or she can continue studying dance in the community.

Anti-bullying effort

Through Harmony Nation (formerly titled No Hate But Harmony), an anti-bullying performance troupe he started in 2005, Locust seeks to combat negative behavior he had witnessed in his community. Taking performances into Connecticut schools, local high school students recruited by Locust perform original skits and dance routines that demonstrate bullying and methods for handling it. Locust speaks to the students about his own experiences being bullied for his height, using his career as an example of success despite adversity.

“My effort is to get my message out there before more kids hurt themselves,” Locust says. “We need to pour positivity into our children; not enough people are doing that.”

To share his message and his experiences with a larger audience, Locust developed an online reality show, Locust Under 5′, which debuted last year with two short episodes on YouTube. A third episode was released in January and Locust is negotiating with a production company to bring the show to TV.

Unlike the drama-fueled dance competitions that populate reality TV, Locust’s show has a positive, educational tone; it tested well with focus groups as a program that parents and their children can watch comfortably together.

In the show’s initial episodes, Locust describes how he overcame issues related to his height, booked his first commercial jobs, and came to love teaching and choreographing. He advises one student who is being bullied at school and works with another student who has misophonia, an extreme sensitivity to certain sounds, and for whom dance class is one of the only activities in which she can participate without discomfort.

His mission as mentor

Despite juggling myriad projects and duties, Locust has never lost sight of his focus: to teach and mentor children and teens with the same kind of personal attention and encouragement that he received from people like Giordano and Abdul.

“With every child I meet, whether in my own studio, at a workshop, or on tour, I find something good in them,” Locust says. “And I look them in the eye and tell them that if they stay with their dream, they can achieve it.”


2 Tips for Hip-Hop Teachers | The Shoulder Bounce

p54_2Tips_for_Hip-HopBy Geo Hubela

Tip 1
There are many variations on this simple and fun hip-hop move. As you step with the right foot, pop the shoulders up-down (count 1&) and repeat while stepping on the left foot (2&), continuing through 8 counts. Then have the dancers reverse the shoulder movement (pop down-up) as they step, and try it stepping backward as well. Now step it up by alternating shoulders right-left (1&2&3&, etc.) while stepping right-left on 1-2-3, etc.

Tip 2
Add footwork beyond the basic walking step to the shoulder work. While bouncing the shoulders in any variation, add popping up to both heels at the same time. Make it more complex by popping up to the right heel (foot turned out) and the ball of the left foot (turned in). Reverse to the left heel turned out and the ball of the right foot turned in. Alternate for a full 8 counts. Stress that the movement should be clean but not too stiff; you want it to look funky!


Thinking Out Loud | Hip-Hop Gold

By Carol Crawford Smith

For 18 years, my studio’s enrollment has remained steady. I have seen students graduate from high school and move on, only to be replaced by little ones now old enough to join Fundamentals of Dance, a class for the youngest dancers. Some students move away while an equal number of dancers change studios and come my way. Yet attracting male students to the school and sustaining their enrollment was like picking apples off a pear tree—until I added hip-hop to the roster.

With modest marketing efforts, my hip-hop classes have attracted seven boys this year. That’s huge! In a town where soccer, karate, and baseball are king, for boys, dance has simply been something their sisters do while they wait in the lobby playing with trucks, reading a book, or doing homework. Now it’s the sisters who read the books while their brothers pop to beats by Kanye West.

I see them in the studio laughing, smiling, and having fun while they worm across the floor and do semi-circle challenges. One boy, beet red from the workout, takes a water break and quickly returns to his spot for more locking action. Another boy in class is a black belt in karate. I have always known him as a quiet, reserved little brother, but after his hip-hop class he is talkative and outgoing.

Maybe it’s the music that pumps them up and leaves them feeling fierce and confident enough to move and carry themselves in new ways. Moving to music is natural to me, so it comes as no surprise to see that the boys love classes whose music practically commands them to move. Maybe dance competition TV shows or movies that highlight street and social dancing phenoms like tWitch and Darrin Henson convey the message that it’s cool to be male and demonstrate what the body instinctively wants to do when a dope beat is heard. Or maybe it’s the fact that my hip-hop classes are taught by a teacher named Benjamin.

Attracting male students was like picking apples off a pear tree—until I added hip-hop classes.

Ben can dance hip-hop like nobody’s business. He moves with fluidity and grace in one instance, shifting into sharply accented steps when the words and music dictate. He interprets music exquisitely and teaches the students to do the same. Under Ben’s instruction the class learns both hip-hop technique and choreography.

Ben is one of 11 children. Having grown up with six younger siblings, he is familiar with the dynamics of working productively with school-aged children. He is calm yet authoritative and engages with his students on their level, encouraging them to demonstrate their best moves without reservation. Then he’ll take those moves to another level. The students know they presented an inspiring move when Ben shows what he does with that inspiration and directs everyone to model it.

Parents ask where I found him. Like many of my instructors, Ben is a student at Virginia Tech. When he contacted me about teaching the hip-hop style he had performed and choreographed for many years, I invited him to teach two introductory classes to see how he teaches and to gauge the students’ interest. I was immediately delighted, and continue to be so, as are the parents who support the class by enrolling their children.

I have struck gold! My studio is rich now with the bright, sparkling smiles and gleaming eyes of boys who love to dance. Hip-hop draws in the sons of pleased parents and brothers of young ballerinas—boys who want to bust a move.

Dance is moving in so many new and exciting directions. It took a while, but I am reaping the rewards, both practical and spiritual, of moving with the flow of sought-after dance forms. I’m enjoying a priceless journey because I dug deeper to find more dance joy.


Higher-Ed Voice | Dance Steps, Next Steps



Left Photo by Bing Gordon; right photo courtesy ODC School


A San Francisco school helps teens navigate the path to college dance programs
By Lisa Okuhn

The quiet midafternoon hum of San Francisco’s ODC Dance Commons’ lobby slowly ratchets up to a low roar as a swarm of young dancers, many of them teens, gathers before dispersing into the classrooms. And like thousands of high-schoolers around the country, many of these dancers face the college admissions process, a challenge—to put it mildly—for any teen. At ODC, a program called Next Steps is there to help.

Students who plan to dance in college face a unique set of hurdles. First they must find schools that offer the balance of dance training and academics that best suits their needs. Then there are the auditions held by many schools. Add to that the solos many require, performed live or on video. Taking it one step further, the University of Michigan has an additional requirement: pre-screening audition combinations, a set of short ballet and contemporary phrases posted online that dancers perform verbatim on camera. U Michigan faculty reviews the videos before even inviting an applicant to a live audition. With all this, even the most ambitious high-school dancer is likely to feel overwhelmed.

Stepping into the breach

ODC School’s Youth & Teen Program offers contemporary, ballet, hip-hop, global, tap, flamenco, boys, young creative, and performance classes to around 900 students ages 2 to 18 each year. A little more than three years ago, the faculty and staff observed that the school’s teens needed help navigating the demanding college application process.

“We were getting lots of questions from teens who wanted to get into college dance programs,” says Kimi Okada, ODC School’s director and ODC associate choreographer. “And with all the options—conservatory schools like Juilliard, Tisch [New York University’s School of the Arts], Ailey/Fordham, and SUNY Purchase; myriad choices of colleges and universities that have dance majors, and many that don’t offer dance majors but have dance programs—people were trying to figure out what they should even look at.”

Next Steps staff can guide parents through a landscape that may seem entirely foreign, helping them understand the intricacies of auditions, video requirements, even the basics of dance language.

But choosing a college is by no means the only challenge. Once they’ve selected the colleges to which they’ll apply, students then have to tackle the application requirements, which often vary from school to school. “[At one,] the solo can’t be longer than a minute,” Okada says, ticking them off on her fingers. “[At another it’s] two minutes. It needs to have X, Y, and Z in it. There are different specifications. We were getting a lot of requests, mostly from our Dance Jam members [ODC’s teen dance company] for help in preparing all these materials.”

ODC faculty scrambled to fill students’ needs on a case-by-case basis as dancers asked teachers to choreograph and help rehearse their solos. “There were all these independent relationships going on with our faculty,” Okada says. “It was really confusing. We realized we needed to centralize this, make this a service. That’s really how the program began.”

Next Steps faculty and staff also recognized the critical role they could play in helping students keep the process on track. “This is a gross generalization,” Okada says, “but a lot of teens don’t have a lot of the skills to keep up with everything. We’d get these requests, like ‘Oh, I need this next week.’ And it’s like, ‘You have to have something choreographed and filmed and your deadline is next week. Are you kidding?’ We realized these guys need help; they need help organizing what they need and when they need it.”

Several organizations around the country offer information sessions for college-bound dancers, and there are private admissions consultants who specialize in helping students gain admission into college arts programs. Next Steps does both, offering teen dancers a comprehensive system of support from teachers, mentors, and staff who know them, in most cases quite well. (The program has also helped some younger students as they apply to summer intensives and arts-oriented high schools.)

First step

Next Steps holds an annual seminar designed for teens and their parents. Last year’s seminar, held in late August, was conducted by Okada along with Susan Weber, a certified college advisor who has danced with Lar Lubovitch, serves as associate artistic director of Berkeley Ballet Theater, and assists Mark Morris when he creates works for San Francisco Ballet; and Leslie Wax, a social worker at the International Studies Academy, and the daughter of modern-dance choreographer Margaret Jenkins. Normally, ODC co-artistic director KT Nelson also participates, but was unable to do so this year.


Anna Boyer (foreground) utilizes Next Steps’ services when applying to eight colleges. Photo by Margo Moritz

Seminar attendees are given a list of colleges and universities that have dance programs, and guidance about what to look for. “We tell them, ‘Don’t judge a place by its website,’ ” Okada says. “ ‘Look at the faculty, the guest artists. Do the research. And immediately find out what the application process is for each school. Go visit.’ ”

Current students or recent graduates from a wide range of college dance departments talk about their experiences. This year’s participants were from Ailey/Fordham, University of the Arts (in Philadelphia), University of Illinois, Stanford, and Bard. The floor is opened up for questions, and the teens have an opportunity to talk to the college students one-on-one.

Seminar attendees leave with an overview of the application process and a menu of the fee-based services Next Steps offers, which include an initial consultation, follow-up consults if needed, partnership with a choreographer for audition/video-submission pieces, individual coaching, videographer services, assistance with scheduling rehearsal time and studio rental, editing services, and providing a finished DVD master recording.

Students can choose to use any or all of these services, depending on their needs. Okada estimates that utilizing everything Next Steps offers would cost approximately $700.

Stepping up

So far about a dozen teens have participated in Next Steps. Of the four seniors enrolled in ODC’s Youth and Teen program this year, three are following in the footsteps of Next Steps successful alumni. Current Stanford senior Doria Charlson was one of the first participants. Emma Lanier, who, like Charlson, took advantage of Next Steps’ full arsenal of services, is now a freshman at Skidmore College.

During the initial consultation, the teen and her parents—armed with a list of potential schools and their requirements—meet with Okada and Nelson to create a plan.

If the student needs a solo choreographed, Okada says, she and Nelson “match them with a choreographer who we feel [can] show them off to their best advantage. We use members of our faculty, many of whom are choreographers.” And since most Next Steps participants have studied at ODC for some time, “the faculty know the students well, understand their strengths and weaknesses,” explains Okada. “In the consultation I ask them, ‘Whose movement style do you really connect to? Who can really show how well you can dance?’ They usually know right away.”

Faculty and outside choreographers who have worked with Next Steps dancers include Nelson, former ODC dancers Brian Fisher and Tammy Cheney, Katy Barnhill, Amy Foley, and Robert Moses’ Kin dancer Dexandro Montalvo.

Senior Anna Boyer, who has trained at ODC for six years and danced with Dance Jam for four, utilized all of Next Steps’ services to apply to eight colleges, including the University of Michigan. To help her with the required ballet and contemporary pre-screening videos, Next Steps set up coaching sessions with Fisher and ODC School ballet director Augusta Moore.


Photo by Christopher Boyd

“Augusta was great,” Boyer says. “She told me what to pay attention to, what professional dancers look for, what they’ll say about this little part. She was very good about keeping a balance between me pushing myself to be something that I’m not, but still showing all the technique I really do have.” Fisher offered much the same kind of help, “only through the lens of a modern teacher,” Boyer says.

For her two-minute solo, Boyer was paired with Montalvo, who teaches in the LINES/Dominican BFA program as well as at ODC. Next Steps found Boyer a videographer, but some students enlist a tech- or video-savvy parent or friend and avoid the $100 fee.

Throughout the process, Next Steps staff can guide parents through a landscape that may seem entirely foreign, helping them understand the intricacies of auditions, video requirements, even the basics of dance language, at a time when teens are not always inclined to be helpful. “They wonder what all of this means. Some of them have no idea what contemporary is,” says ODC Youth and Teen Program registrar and outreach coordinator Liz Kamara. “And the kid is like, ‘M-o-o-m-m!’ We’re like a middleman to help buffer their relationship; we can explain things, parents can ask questions, and the mother–kid relationship is less dramatic.”

Equally important is the large web of connections the ODC dance community has in the dance world. “We can usually find somebody from these colleges who can talk to the students about their experience,” Okada says. And knowing faculty at various schools may help get applicants on the radar. “We know people at these universities, colleges, and conservatories,” Okada says. “We can call and give them a heads up—‘Hey we have a really great student applying,’ or we can say, ‘Would you mind having a conversation with them?’ We use our connections in whatever appropriate manner that there is; mainly it’s for communication and information.”

ODC also hosts many colleges’ Bay Area auditions, an advantage for Next Steps participants, says Kamara, “because our students feel confident in our space.”

Next Steps plans to implement an audition component next year, one that will offer instruction on auditioning successfully. “How do you audition, from the minute you walk in the door?” Okada says. “What’s the best strategy for being seen well? Not being a wallflower in the back, but not being so pushy nobody wants to look at you. How to be respectful, there, present; how do you get noticed?”

A crucial (and for Boyer the most helpful and important) aspect of Next Steps is that the faculty and staff “really put an effort into getting to know the people they’re working with,” says Boyer. Okada and Nelson offer an enormous amount of artistic guidance, she says, and “Liz has been so helpful, checking in and saying, ‘OK, I checked with the school you’re applying to and it looks like they need this.’ The support is very strong. They’re very dedicated to helping the dancers stay on top of everything.”

One afternoon in late September, still deeply engaged in the application process, Boyer and 14 fellow students took Montalvo’s advanced modern class. As if she had put aside all her worries about SATs, Common Application essays, and audition solos, Boyer was focused and intense as she swept a leg across her body, arms snaking over and around her head. Sinking into a deep, undulating plié, she pulled up into a sharp, still, second-position relevé.

With help from Next Steps, this high school senior seems to be on top of it all.


Broadway Pros and Newcomers Alike Represented in Choreographer’s Canvas

Aerial choreography by Bobby Hedglin-Taylor; photo by Ilan Harel Photography

Aerial choreography by Bobby Hedglin-Taylor; photo by Ilan Harel Photography

This May, the Group Theatre Too (GTT) will present its sixth annual Choreographer’s Canvas, a one-night event featuring the works of more than 15 established and emerging choreographers from around the country.The Canvas, headed by GTT executive producer Justin Boccitto, will showcase many styles of dance including tap, ballet, jazz, hip-hop, contemporary, theater dance, aerial, and swing dance. Since its inception, the Canvas has presented more than 65 choreographers, with more than 450 dancers performing to sellout houses.

This year’s event features choreography by Bobby Hedglin-Taylor, an aerial choreographer whose work is represented in the Broadway revival of Pippin, as well as Richard Hinds, who is the associate director of both Newsies and the upcoming Broadway revival of Jekyll and Hyde.

Other work will be presented by choreographers Michael Blevins, Justin Boccitto, Emily Bufferd, Pam Covas, Francesca Harper, Punchali Khanna Kumar, Merete Muenter, Derek Mitchell, Nicole Ohr, Sue Samuels, Jaime Shannon with Tony Fraser, Stephanie Sine, Jeanne Slater, and Broadway Dance Center’s teen company, AIM.

The 2013 Choreographer’s Canvas will be presented May 18 at 8:30pm at the Manhattan Movement & Arts Center, 248 West 60th Street (between Amsterdam and West End Avenue), New York City. Tickets are available at  ($30 in advance/$35 at the door).


New England Dance Festival Seeks Entries for June 15-16 Competition


Registrations are now being accepted for the 17th annual New England Dance Festival, to be held June 15 and 16 at the Timberlane Performing Arts Center in Plaistow, New Hampshire.

Run by Paula Callahan, a 25-year member of the Dance Teachers’ Club of Boston, the NEDF is a local competition that uses many DTCB members as judges. Categories include ballet, pointe, tap, lyrical, modern, hip-hop, contemporary, character, jazz, musical theater, production, open, student choreography, and Irish. Age divisions are primary (6 and under, 7 to 8), junior (9 to 10, 11 to 12), intermediate (13 to 14, 15 to 16), senior (17 to 18, 19 to 29), and adult (30 and older). Classifications include a pre-competitive class for first-year competitors, novice for dancers training two hours or less a week, amateur, pro-am, and professional.

Entries need to be received by May 17. Late entries will be accepted on a first come, first serve basis according to availability. For more information contact Paula Callahan at


2 Tips for Hip-Hop Teachers | Muscle Control

By Geo Hubela

Tip 1
Squeeze Play: A common error when learning to pop is jerking the body. A pop is not a contraction—the movement of a pop is much smaller, quicker, and tighter.

Make this squeeze exercise part of your hip-hop regimen. Have students hold their arms up and squeeze every muscle in their body, not jerking or contracting. Go through 8-count holds, 4-count holds, then 2 counts, and then quick, tight squeezes. Tell them to think of the tensing action as quick electric shocks.

Tip 2
Moon Man: Going across the floor, take a step and move the legs and arms in walking motion for 8 very slow counts. Pop or squeeze the muscles on the 1 and 8 counts. Step with the other leg and repeat. I use “Planet Rock” by Afrika Bambaataa for this exercise. Coming back across the floor, do 4-count slow-motion walks.

I use the analogy of walking on the moon to help the students mimic the feel of no gravity. This helps dancers work on core control and balance—both necessary hip-hop skills.

Rhee Gold Seminars


Youth Development Program Partners with Emory University in Annual Show

Men in Motion director Chris McCord with Emory University senior Julio Medina (far right); photo by JD Scott Photography

Men in Motion director Chris McCord with Emory University senior Julio Medina (far right); photo by JD Scott Photography

Men in Motion, a dance program that provides boys ages 8 to 13 with an alternative to street life and a path to achievement, will celebrate its 10th anniversary with performances that showcase its three-year collaboration with the Emory University dance program.

New contemporary and hip-hop works set on Men in Motion by male choreographers, faculty members, and students from Emory University will be included in the 10th Annual Men in Motion Show February 23 at 6pm and February 24 at 3pm and 5pm at the Beam Theater, 750 Glenwood Avenue, Atlanta.

Men in Motion is a division of the youth development program Moving in the Spirit, which uses dance to help young people—many from Atlanta’s most challenged neighborhoods—overcome the obstacles they face each day and realize the potential for their lives.

“Our partnership with Emory’s dance program has been invaluable to our students’ growth and self-esteem,” says Chris McCord, Men in Motion director. “Being exposed to Emory’s students and faculty has given the boys in Men in Motion a sense that college is attainable, which is something they weren’t thinking about before.”

Tickets are $12 for adults, $6 for ages 13 and under, and free for children under the age of 3. For more information or to purchase tickets online, visit and click “News and Events.”


Get to Know Your DLTC Faculty: Tricia Gomez

Tricia Gomez; photo courtesy DLTC

Tricia Gomez; photo courtesy DLTC

For each DanceLife Teacher Conference, Rhee Gold assembles a faculty of some of the most creative and enthusiastic leaders in the entire dance studio industry. Their resumes are impressive, for sure, but what really makes them tick? What brought them to dance, and what keeps them there? What do they love about teaching, and makes them keep moving?In this installment of “Get to Know Your DLTC Faculty,” we learn more about Tricia Gomez. Hip Hop in a Box creator Tricia Gomez is the director of HYPE Studios Cultural Arts Center in Los Angeles County. She has shared her hip-hop instructional methods for preschoolers on Dr. Phil, and appeared as a judge on TV’s Saturday morning kids’ dance contest show, Dance Revolution.

She’s danced professionally for the Los Angeles Laker Girls, Universal Dance Association, Disneyland, Universal Studios, and Knott’s Berry Farm, and choreographed for Saved by the Bell, the Laker Girls, the L.A. Clippers’ Spirit Dance Team, and Dance the Magic.

When did you first start dancing and why?

Tricia: I started dancing at age 2 with Miss Debbie Root Moore in a very small town in south Louisiana. She was my next door neighbor. Needless to say, she had quite an impact on me!

Did you ever seriously consider a career in another field? What was it?

Tricia: My first major in college was chemical engineering (I know, shocking) because I was really good at math and chemistry. After a year, I tried architecture because I loved design, but on my first day of class, I discovered there was a bed in the classroom. It was there because students often worked on projects through the night, took a nap, and then woke up for class. Noticing that this was going to seriously hamper my dance career, I changed majors right away.

Over the next year, I tried accounting and broadcast journalism. None felt organic and I knew in my soul that I wanted to be a dancer. I dropped out of college and moved across country to begin my professional dance career. My first job was dancing for the L.A. Laker Girls!

To learn more about the DanceLife Teacher Conference scheduled for August 1 to 4 in Scottsdale, Arizona, visit



Hip-Hop Goes Iconic with New Competition/Convention from Geo Hubela

Geo Hubela; photo courtesy ICON Dance Complex

Geo Hubela; photo courtesy ICON Dance Complex

Described as an “East Coast urban dance event,” ICONS of Dance aims to showcase top dances and dance crews while also providing performance opportunities and industry contacts.

Dancers will receive live feedback from a celebrity panel, following the feedback format popularized by TV shows such as So You Think You Can Dance and America’s Best Dance Crew. Judges lined up for Atlantic City include SYTYCD choreographers Tabitha and Napoleon D’umo (Nappytabs), Step Up Revolution assistant choreographer Mike Song, and Arnel Calvario, manager for many top hip-hop artists and board president of Culture Shock International and Culture Shock Los Angeles.

A convention with master classes will be held from 8 to 11:45am. As a means of encouraging relationships within the urban dance community, the afternoon session will begin with a “freestyle session” from 2:15 to 5:15pm that will allow all participants to rehearse their routines onstage and engage in cyphers and freestyle sessions inside the event venue. During the evening session from 7 to 10:30pm, crews can either compete or choose to perform in showcases and exhibition numbers. An “unofficial” party will follow the 10:30pm awards presentation.

Audience member tickets are $20 general admission, and doors open at 6:30pm. More events are tentatively planned for the fall in Las Vegas, Chicago, Orlando, and San Juan, Puerto Rico. For more information or to register, visit



Registration Open for ADTNJ’s Jazzy January Workshop


Registration is now open for the Associated Dance Teachers of New Jersey’s Jazzy January Workshop, set for January 20 at the Bridgewater Marriott, 700 Commons Way, Bridgewater, New Jersey.

Check-in will run from 9 to 9:30am, with classes from 9:30am to 2:30pm. Faculty includes Jennifer Archibald, contemporary; Justin Boccitto, theater jazz; Sally Mae Dunn, active assist stretching; and Neil Schwartz, hip-hop. Student classes will include sessions for juniors (ages 7 to 10), teens (ages 11 to 13), and senior/assistants (ages 14 and up).

The day is free for ADTNJ members, $55 for non-member teachers; $45 for member students/assistants; and $50 for non-member students/assistants. Workshop fees include continental breakfast for teachers and lunch for students and assistants.

A Networks Luncheon will be held from 3 to 5pm and include light fare plus Helen Watts speaking on the topic “Improving Summer Income and Other Business Builders.” Cost is $10 for members and $25 for non-members.

To register, visit



2 Tips for Hip-Hop Teachers | Music and the Mirror

By Geo Hubela

Tip 1

Sometimes counts alone are not enough when it comes to finding musicality in a routine. Hip-hop routines are usually beat-heavy and accented, less fluid than lyrical or contemporary. To help students hear the beats and accents I am hitting in my choreography, I teach them the beats and then have them clap them. This exercise is useful in getting dancers to hit the choreography on time. Learn the rhythms and then dance to them.


Tip 2
Having students partner up and dance while facing each other after learning a routine is very useful. Many dancers become too dependent on a mirror. Facing each other presents a challenge—to go in the direction they were taught and not follow the dancer they’re looking at. My hip-hop choreography tends to have poses and lots of arm movement, and this exercise forces students to focus on the choreography and not the image in front of them. And the kids have a blast working together.



On My Mind

Words from the publisher

In this month’s issue we focus on jazz and hip-hop. As we were brainstorming about the content for the jazz section, I found my mind wandering back to the mid-1970s, when as teenagers, my twin brother, Rennie, and I would go with our mom to New York City to take classes from the jazz masters of the time. Many of those classes were with Luigi, who is featured in this issue.

At that time there were no mega-schools like Broadway Dance Center or Steps on Broadway. Most teachers, especially those who taught jazz, had their own studios. I remember all those hot summer days and jam-packed studios with dancers from all over the world. We all wore those shiny Lycra jazz pants with legwarmers and sweat was flying all over the room. Sometimes we couldn’t even see because of the sweat pouring into our eyes. There was an almost indescribable energy in those classes—the closest I can come to expressing it is that we weren’t tired after those classes. We wanted more.

On a good day in the city we would pull off three or four classes. We’d take Luigi’s 1pm class, run to Phil Black’s class at 3 o’clock, and then grab a slice of pizza before heading to Betsy Haug’s 6pm class. Back in our hotel room, we’d go over everything we had learned that day. And then we’d wake up the next morning and do it all over again.

I remember being in a class with Lee Theodore of American Dance Machine, who was one tough teacher but knew so much about the history and legacy of jazz dance. Part of what made these crazy days in New York City so great was that we would take classes that encompassed different eras of jazz dance, immersing ourselves in the historical background of the movement we were learning. Lee taught one of the hardest classes in the city, but we sure felt good when we made it through. And we felt smarter each time.

There was a bohemian quality to those days, too. At Betsy Haug’s studio, the resident cats would run through our legs during class and Betsy was always eating potato chips. I remember being in JoJo Smith’s class and seeing babies in a playpen. Once, when Rennie and I were in Luigi’s class, he looked at us and said, “I have always seen double”—he has an eye that wanders—“and now I’m seeing fourple.”

After a few days, we’d pack up the car and head home to Boston feeling totally motivated and, without a doubt, like we were better dancers. Even more than the classes we took, the trips were reaffirmations of our passion for dance. The experiences would be fuel enough to keep us going until the next time.

All those moments are coming back to me with this issue of the magazine. So, Luigi and every other teacher from those steamy New York City days, thanks for the memories.



Giving ’Em Love


Photo by Ben Li, Raw Edge Photography

San Francisco International Hip Hop Dancefest’s 14-year love affair with dance
By Rita Felciano

If the San Francisco International Hip Hop Dancefest, now in its 14th year, had a sustaining mantra it would have to be “give ’em love.” It’s with these three small words that producer and artistic director Micaya (single name only) encourages her audiences to thank the artists onstage one more time.

A transplant to San Francisco in 1987 and already a dance teacher, Micaya first started programming hip-hop concerts in 1992 at what was then the home of Third Wave Dance Studio. At first, in order to pay for her dance classes there, she worked in the office “with my small son doing homework and playing on the floor,” she says, and later taught there; she’s now an in-demand teacher at various SF Bay Area studios, teaching exclusively hip-hop. In those early years of teaching jazz/modern/ballet and African-based classes, she noticed that her students appreciated the inclusion of hip-hop moves, which whetted her appetite to further explore the art form she had first encountered in the 1980s. Many excellent hip-hop companies existed in the Bay Area, but “they had no decent place for their shows,” she says. “They performed in dingy halls and on cement floors.

San Francisco International Hip Hop Dancefest is “one of the most dynamic gatherings of the last great folkloric dance forms that we have in the U.S.” —Marc Bamuthi Joseph

She also observed that the choreography was becoming increasingly sophisticated. So she stepped into the producing business, eventually calling the shows “Mission in the Mix.” The performances were an immediate success, selling out, as did the later ones at Theater Artaud (now Z Space), where she first used the name Hip Hop Dancefest.

In 2002, taking her cue from the well-established San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival, Micaya moved her festival to the 962-seat Palace of Fine Arts Theater, designed by pioneer architect Bernard Maybeck and which dates back to the 1915 Panama Pacific Exposition, located in San Francisco’s elegant Marina district.

Like the Ethnic Dance Festival, Micaya models her programs on high-quality dance that offers a wide range  of expressions within its chosen genre. There is room in both festivals for large community groups, distinguished professional ensembles, and soloists pursuing their own explorations. She also borrowed the Ethnic Dance Festival’s idea for grand finales: at the end of the evening, all of the dancers return to the stage to take their final bows in a big love fest before a cheering crowd.

A novel feature of the Hip Hop Dancefest is that instead of warming up backstage, dancers can choose to engage on the open stage in a freestyle demonstration of skills. To walk into the theater and see a 5-year-old bravely step into the circle, only to be followed by a much older professional, has become the festival’s ever-so-endearing welcoming gesture.

Photo by Jonnie Malachi

Much like jazz and to some extent modern dance, hip-hop, once a quintessentially American art form, has spread around the globe, and the Hip Hop Dancefest presents international artists from the far reaches of the world. “This year we had over 100 applicants,” says Micaya, whose own SoulForce Dance Company performs annually. In addition to local and national participants, the roster has included dancers from Australia, Austria, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, Czech Republic, Chile, Denmark, Egypt, England, France, Japan, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Norway, Philippines, Poland, Puerto Rico, Switzerland, Tunisia, and Uganda.

Marc Bamuthi Joseph, a hip-hop artist with an international reputation and the recently appointed director of performing arts for Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA) in San Francisco, has watched the festival since its early days. He calls it “one of the most dynamic gatherings of the last great folkloric dance forms that we have in the U.S. It reflects the diversity of the Bay Area in a really critical way and begins to accomplish what I want to do at YBCA. Hip-hop is more than just an exciting, urban, marginal dance form. It is an extension of a survival instinct, out of urban America; but it is also part of a continuum of black dance and modern dance globally.”

Hip-hop has proven to be an exceedingly flexible language, able to absorb any number of regional and personal dialects. The festival reflects that richness. Over the years, the mix of local, national, and international groups has resulted in a vibrant mix of fine takes on new school, old school, and true school (an approach that aims to preserve the old-school art of the original hip-hop artists), incorporating jazz, capoeira, African, modern dance, mime, and narrative and theatrical elements.

Breaksk8 hip-hopped on roller skates; Bill Shannon did it on crutches; and the dancers of ILL-Abilities used their physical limitations to expressive results. MopTop Music & Movement has evoked the Founding Fathers, The Wizard of Oz, and the bebop era. DS Players popped and locked as office cleaners and businessmen. All-female groups such as Haus Fraus from Copenhagen; B-Syde from San Jose, California; Decadancetheatre from Brooklyn, New York; and Extreme from Montreal showed how women around the globe have moved into the center space from the edges of what used to be a primarily male club. Dancers like Popin’ Pete and, early on, Oakland’s Black Messenger evoked the early days when hip-hop had not yet burst into the national, not to speak of international, consciousness.

Schools, many local, have pulled out all the theatrical stops. Sunset Academy of Dance is a mixed-genre school that trains a large number of hip-hoppers, from tots to teens. Its choreographer and hip-hop program director, Darnell Carroll, has set the young ones loose as cartoon characters, the older ones as zombies. Chapkis Dance—110 dancers strong—created a tumultuous jungle, while on the same program the much smaller Loose Change suggested a more abstracted idea of the man/beast continuum.

Many of the choreographers register high on the entertainment scale, such as the Bay Area’s Academy of Villains and Chicago’s Footworkingz. Their fulminating footwork and spiky, immaculate group dancing would put many a ballet ensemble to shame. Yet the festival also offers somber reminders of how violent and difficult urban life can be. Raphael Xavier’s Black Canvas strongly evokes the uneasy relationships among a trio of anguished men, and Antics’ first appearance last year started out playfully enough, but left everyone onstage as if gunned down. Appropriately, the piece was titled Mortal Rounds in the Fatal Cypher.

Photo by Daniel Pincus

Not least among the festival’s attractions is the audiences’ involvement. They do give ’em love, many of them cheering, hollering, and calling out names of favorites and friends much as they might on the streets or in the clubs. Particularly spectacular physical skills are acknowledged, but so is inventive choreography. These viewers are not passive consumers of art; they are supportive, curious, and welcoming. Their involvement makes for very festive events for fellow dancers and parents and friends of the performers, but increasingly also for unaffiliated dance watchers who have become intrigued by the energy, high level of skills, and sense that this is truly a 21st-century inclusive, communal art.

The Hip Hop Dancefest has run into controversy a couple of times. The local troupe Mind Over Matter is a regular and longtime participant, but Allan Frias’ choreography, with its often explicit treatment of sexuality and violence, can be off-putting despite excellent performances. Micaya knows. “There is a huge subset of people who simply come to see them, and they love the raunchy, or whatever you want to call it, part. But Allan is just such a pure being; to edit that out would be to cut off what makes him tick. I would never want to do that. What I have learned to do over the years is let Allan be Allan but allow people to make their own decisions on whether to see that piece, because it is of an adult nature.”

At times, though, Micaya has asked artists whether certain elements were necessary to the artistic vision and asked them to consider cutting them—because, in terms of audience complaints, she has “to deal with that stuff.”

Programming is always a delicate balancing act between “what I know my audiences want to see and what I can afford,” Micaya explains. Everyone, she insists, gets paid. To traveling companies from abroad, some of which may get support from their own countries, she can offer plane fare, housing, and a modest per diem. Though the budget has doubled, the festival has felt the sting of tough economic times. While shows used to sell out even in the large Palace of Fine Arts, selling tickets has become more challenging.

Still, Micaya remains as committed and enthusiastic as ever. Putting her hand over her heart, she says, “It comes from love.” Seeing this tall, slender woman—who spends her days in sweats and sneakers but looks glamorous on festival nights in a miniskirt and maximum heels—step to the edge of the stage is seeing love in action.

Borrowing from the Ethnic Dance Festival, Micaya used to hold auditions, but she gave them up as being too cumbersome. “I had a panel,” she says, “and we wrote down constructive criticism so that we could help the applicants for the following year. I saw that work, and that was a big thing.” Now, though she has experts she can draw on should she feel the need, she goes through the process by herself, still working out of the second bedroom in her Oakland home.

Sometimes decisions are fairly easy to come by. Having served on competition juries, she immediately recognizes the “bang in, bang out, four minutes, you are done” submissions made with competitions in mind. They’re not what she needs; “I am looking for good choreography,” she says.

Every festival also includes weekend workshops for all comers, presented primarily by performers from abroad. “It’s an opportunity for people to get to know these artists a little better,” she says, “but I also want to give them some additional work.”

French dancer Meech Onomo, who first participated in the 2006 festival, has taught several of the one-day workshops. He says the students always are a mix from beginning to professional levels. “I base my class on house dance, on a routine that I already have prepared,” he says, “but then I take it into different directions, such as old school, house, disco, foot- and floor-work.”

He starts what is usually a 90-minute class with a warm-up that allows him to judge the dancers’ level so he can “satisfy myself, the students, and the atmosphere in the class.” In the technique section he includes the movement’s history, and then he creates a routine that reflects “the idea that what we are doing is freestyle, much as is done in clubs or on the street.”

As for his own participation, Onomo praises Micaya and her team’s professionalism. “I feel at home,” he says. “Hip-hop there is bigger than what we can see in France; this festival has further opened my mind about street dance. I am fascinated by the way each company, each team, and each choreographer brings dance to the stage, and I so appreciate the selections of the different universes and communities we have onstage.”

Onomo would certainly agree with Bamuthi Joseph, who says that “at its best [the festival] showcases some of the most inventive choreographers who are working; at minimum, it brings together a very vibrant and diverse community in the name of dance.” There are similar festivals around, “but no one is going as deep and pushing as far as Micaya does.”







Keeping It Fresh

Husband-and-wife jazz dance teachers make “old school” relevant for young dancers
By Eliza Randolph

You could call Marcus Alford and Annie Day the duke and duchess of jazz dance. Partners in marriage and in business, both studied with jazz masters and have choreographed, performed, and taught for more than 30 years. Alford performed with jazz legend Gus Giordano for a decade, and Day studied with the likes of Luigi and Phil Black, and then worked as second in command to JoJo Smith, founder of what is now Broadway Dance Center.

Now based in Atlanta, Alford and Day own a thriving studio, Dancentre South, Inc., and produce Jazz On Tap—the Metro Atlanta Jazz and Tap Dance Festival, now in its 26th year. Their love of jazz encompasses respect for the “founding fathers” with whom they studied and welcomes the continual development of the form through the influence of popular culture.


Their jazz roots

Alford, after earning a dual degree in modern dance and business administration from The University of Alabama, planned to pursue modern dance further with a master’s degree from Florida State University. Before he got to Florida, however, his family gave him the gift of a three-week workshop with Gus Giordano, who was to visit UA in 1975. “Well,” he says, “Gus Giordano did not show up, for some reason, and in his place there was a woman named Lea Darwin [Giordano’s assistant, who put his technique down on paper]. She was an amazing instructor. I will never forget, the first day, she said to us, ‘Put your leg as high as you can, and then arch your back.’ And I thought, ‘You’re insane, lady. Someone’s going to tumble over.’ And then I thought, ‘Oh my god, that’s the coolest feeling in the world.’ It was a back layout.”

During the workshop, says Alford, “I basically caught on fire.” Darwin offered him a scholarship to the Giordano studio, and he took it, moving to New York by the end of the summer. Within three years, his career as a Giordano dancer was launched.

If you define jazz dance as a form linked with popular music and embracing a wide variety of styles, then it’s not only relevant, it’s foundational to the ongoing growth of the entire field.

Day’s love of jazz began when she was about 8, in an Ohio studio where she first studied Luigi technique. A few years later, having an older sister living on Long Island gave Day a big chance. “I started traveling to study in Manhattan when I was about 11 or 12,” she says. “And I would take with Chuck Kelley, and Luigi, and Phil Black—anybody who would let a young person into class.”

These classes were formative for Day. “I just remember the thing Luigi said. He saw me in class and said, ‘Dance like the bad girls in your neighborhood.’ Oooh, delicious! Forbidden! For a little person who grew up in farm country in Ohio, to be in Manhattan and in that environment was really cool.”

After a decade of performing with Giordano, Alford felt ready to move out on his own and accepted a position directing a small company in Atlanta. In 1986 he founded his own company, Jazz Dance Theatre South, with which Day performed before the two married and went into business together. Since founding the Jazz On Tap festival, Alford and Day have watched the field of jazz dance grow and change dramatically.


What is jazz, anyway?

Alford and Day acknowledge that, depending on whom you talk to, jazz dance is either becoming obsolete or it’s the most relevant form in the field today. And this all depends on how you define “jazz dance.” “Old school,” or classical jazz in the style of masters such as Luigi, Frank Hatchett, and Giordano, might be called obsolete by younger students of hip-hop, for example, or of “contemporary dance”—another term with varying definitions.

But not at Dancentre South, where they teach jazz classes right alongside classes in both hip-hop and contemporary. If you define jazz dance as a form linked with popular music and embracing a wide variety of styles, then it’s not only relevant, it’s foundational to the ongoing growth of the entire field. That definition encompasses both old and new schools of jazz.

“I don’t think it’s obsolete. I just don’t think that what we call jazz dance now is what it was 10 or 15 years ago,” says Alford. “I think many people misconstrue what jazz dance is. It’s basically now the core of a lot of contemporary.”

Day agrees, and elaborates on how new approaches build on and enrich the old. “The vernacular that we’re already accessing is just enhanced by a quirky line here, or a different jump there, or a different piece of music than what you might normally work with. I think those things keep your teaching fresh, your choreography fresh. And it keeps challenging the students.”

When building jazz dancers, both Alford and Day start with the basics. Says Day, “I would say we give a clean, technical base—good body awareness, good alignment, use of the plié, beautiful feet, clean port de bras. Basically, the building blocks of any strong dance technique have to be there first, and then an understanding of the vocabulary, the steps, and the terminology. And then style is the icing on the cake. You can’t be a good jazz dancer unless you have style.”

And style is what changes the most over the years, Alford explains. For example, he says, the Giordano technique “is still alive, but that style, that regal, almost effortless jazz that he did, is just not taught so much.”


All about context

Since students don’t always understand that new styles grow out of old ones, Alford and Day work to keep classical jazz alive and relevant in a changing dance scene by giving context to the material they teach. “I have my own style, my own technique,” says Alford. “But I bring in Giordano. When I teach, I’ll say, ‘This is a Giordano exercise,’ or ‘This is a Luigi exercise,’ or ‘This is Horton,’ educating the students. Sometimes a young student will say, ‘Who is Gus Giordano?’ ” In response, Alford points to the sky and says, “He’s up there!” and gives some background.

Alford also teaches jazz in the dance department at Kennesaw State University, where he enjoys providing his college students with even more historical context for their studio practice. “There I can really break it down,” he says. “ ‘This is a Giordano jazz hand; this is a Fosse jazz hand,’ etcetera.” One of Alford’s college students, in a teaching evaluation, wrote, “He teaches half old jazz and half the new stuff. Why doesn’t he just teach the new stuff?” Says Alford, “I thought that was a compliment.”

Alford understands that the explosion of dance in popular culture—on TV, for example—can obscure the foundations of the form and its study. TV shows like So You Think You Can Dance often don’t give students enough context for what they’re seeing and for how deep their study of dance needs to go. Alford is a savvy teacher, and he works hard to keep his teaching fresh. He and Day both regularly serve as judges at competitions. “I love to sit up there and see what’s going on,” says Alford. “What is it up there that fascinates that dancer? That tells me this is the newest and latest thing to do.”

His energy for teaching and even performing seems boundless. “I’m 58 years old,” he says, “and I’m still learning, seeking, and wanting as much as they do.” Also, keeping up with popular music helps the teaching duo stay up to date. “I can be old-school,” says Alford, “but I love listening to all kinds of new music.”

Student Bailey Caves, a high school senior who has studied with Alford and Day since age 2, says of Alford, “He’s very fun, and each class is very exciting. I always look forward to both their classes every week because there’s always variety and you don’t get bored.” Caves has enjoyed her study of jazz so much that she’s planning to enter a college dance program focused on jazz and tap. She was a shy kid, she says, and jazz “really brought out my personality and gave me a lot of confidence. It’s my favorite style to do. It’s very well rounded. [Alford and Day] do a really good job of giving you all different styles of jazz.”

The Jazz On Tap festival, which includes performances by companies from around the country and abroad, as well as master classes with a variety of teachers, also keeps Day and Alford current with developments in the field. “We continue to tweak the faculty and what we offer for master classes,” says Day. “We didn’t used to offer hip-hop, years ago when we started. Now we offer hip-hop, and we offer contemporary, where we used to maybe offer lyrical. We try to broaden the plate of classes that we’re serving up for the kids.”

Through all the growth and change in jazz—the shifts in terminology, the additions of new styles—Day maintains a practical stance. “Jazz is a very employable art form,” she says. “And although we like to do art for art’s sake, you can’t be a professional unless someone pays you for what you’re doing. The audience appeal of jazz has never waned. It’s always been an audience pleaser and an entertaining dance form.”



The Heights of Hip-Hop


Reia Briggs-Connor (bottom, second from right) led her dancers to the season six semifinals of MTV's America's Best Dance Crew. Photo courtesy of World of Dance

At Phunk Phenomenon, hope and potential offer reasons to dance
By Karen White

When Reia Briggs was growing up, there was no glamour to hip-hop, no big purses or prizes. Winning a circle battle meant bragging rights; losing meant more practice. It was social, and it was fun. As a youngster in Chelsea, a hardscrabble abutter of Boston, Briggs and her friends would make up hip-hop routines in someone’s living room or show off their moves in local talent shows or under-21 clubs.

But then two events changed the way she thought about dance. Once, when Rennie Harris Puremovement performed in the area, her street crew was invited to perform at the show’s close. On another special day, members of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater taught the “Wade in the Water” section from Revelations at her public school.

Those events “changed my life,” she says, and made her determined to use hip-hop as a basis for so much more than street battles and bragging.

And she has. Now Reia Briggs-Connor, the dance teacher founded Phunk Phenomenon Dance Complex in 2000 in Everett, Massachusetts, with 75 students. Today her dancers wow the crowds at Boston Celtics games, appear in movies such as Step Up Revolution, and are former Hip Hop International world and U.S. champions.

Today Phunk Phenomenon’s dancers wow the crowds at Boston Celtics games, appear in movies such as Step Up Revolution, and are former Hip Hop International World and U.S. Champions.

And in 2011, on season six of MTV’s America’s Best Dance Crew, the Phunk Phenomenon crew of seven guys and one girl took their Boston brand of hard and fast, in-your-face swag blended with humor, theatrical panache, and acro, all the way to second runner-up.

“I grew up doing tap and jazz, but hip-hop grew up around me,” Briggs-Connor says. “My mom did send me to dance school, but I grew up in the city, so I experienced both sides. But they didn’t call it hip-hop at the time. When my first dance teacher wanted me to come back and teach, she asked me what I wanted to label my class; I called it hip-hop after the type of music.”

After high school, she considered the slim pickings of dance jobs in the Boston area and, in 1995, ended up as a New England Patriots cheerleader. When that job ended four years later, her boyfriend at the time—Brian White, son of Boston Celtics great Jo Jo White—arranged for her to pitch an idea for a dance team to the Celtics organization. The Celtics didn’t bite, but Briggs-Connor kept sending in demo reels of a crew she had put together—Phunk Phenomenon, a coed mixture of break dancers, street dancers, and studio-trained dancers ages 18 and older. After about two years, she finally got an OK. In 2000 Phunk Phenomenon began performing during breaks in Celtics games two or three times a month, she says, as well as at grand openings and radio station events, charity events, and area hip-hop shows.

About five years later, when the Celtics started developing its own all-female dance team, it severed ties with the Phunk Phenomenon adult team but asked Briggs-Connor’s younger team, Lil Phunk, to share the Celtics’ spotlight.

Founded in 2004, Lil Phunk is a coed crew of about 30 dancers ages 6 to 13, and a powerhouse of energy and attitude. Members, chosen through auditions, must commit to a heavy performance schedule that, along with Celtics games, includes performances at WNBA games and other sporting events, charity events, store grand openings, and in commercials. “They get seen a lot at the games, and the calls come in. They are constantly performing,” Briggs-Connor says. “People want them because they’re cute and have a lot of energy—plus they’re really good.” (She generally splits Lil Phunk into two groups that alternate performances.)

The inspirational message of Hip Hop for Hope has brought the Phunk Phenomenon Dance Complex community closer together. Photo courtesy World of Dance

What the crew doesn’t do is competitions, with one exception: Hip Hop International’s championships, held each summer in Las Vegas. Because of HHI’s limit on crew size, only eight Lil Phunk kids can make the trip. “It’s an expensive trip and they pretty much have to give up their summer to train hard,” says Briggs-Connor. “Some of the kids [not selected] get sad, but I tell them, ‘You get to go to the beach instead of the studio.’ ”

All that training pays off. Lil Phunk was named HHI’s U.S. champion in 2010, bronze medalist in 2011, and world champion in 2009. The studio also sends two other teams to HHI, a “varsity” crew of teens (U.S. champions in 2010) and an adult crew (second in the U.S. in 2010).

Dancers who want to be on crews but don’t fit the requirements or don’t want to take on the commitment needed for Lil Phunk and Phunk Phenomenon can join (with Briggs-Connor’s approval) one of the studio’s other teams: Future Phunk, a self-run, self-choreographed crew of older teen dancers; Junior Phunk, a preparatory team of 8- to 12-year-olds; or Teen Phunk, accomplished teen dancers who “age out” of Lil Phunk.

Barely a weekend goes by when at least one Phunk crew isn’t performing, Briggs-Connor says. Bookings for paying performances such as bar mitzvahs or corporate events are handled through R and B Entertainment, which she and White founded years ago as a full-service talent agency; it now mainly manages the crews.

Along with hip-hop, Briggs-Connor is building a slate of ballet, tap, and jazz at her studio. Since the crews’ class time is generally spent on choreography, she insists that members take at least two other classes at the studio, hip-hop or another type of dance.

Making sure her dancers are well rounded is a lesson she’s learned from graduates who find that as professional dancers they are expected to be fluent in more than hip-hop. One who danced for Lady Gaga found that he needed to do ballet onstage but had never studied it. “He came back and told the kids, ‘Get in those classes.’ I tell them they have to differentiate between when they need to be up tall with pointed feet and when they have to swagger for hip-hop,” she says.

True, says Jean Carlos Lloret (aka B-Boy Bebo), who auditioned for Phunk Phenomenon at 16. A member of the Phunk America’s Best Dance Crew team, he’s also taught at the studio and was a featured dancer in Step Up Revolution. “I’ve been break-dancing since 14, and through Phunk I learned other styles of dance,” he says. “I loved watching so much diversified talent under one roof.”

And Briggs-Connor isn’t fazed by students who take hip-hop with her and other technique classes elsewhere. “A lot of people these days are not loyal to one studio. I don’t mind as long as they show up when I need them,” she says.

A faculty of 14—plus Briggs-Connor, who teaches 12 classes a week—handles the studio’s 400-plus students. This fall she opened a satellite studio in Peabody, Massachusetts, called The BR Boys Dance Academy, named for “Billy” Rich, the late father of Chris, Nikko, and Trey Rich, members of Phunk who performed on America’s Best Dance Crew. With her young, ambitious hip-hop teachers often getting the itch to strike out for performing jobs in California or New York, Briggs-Connor hopes that more teaching hours and responsibility will encourage valued faculty members to stick around.

In fact, one of the reasons she started her studio was to provide steady income through teaching jobs for her original Phunk Phenomenon dancers. “You are dealing with people who are really good at what they do,” she says. “It’s a constant battle to try to keep everyone here.”

Another idea that’s percolating in Briggs-Connor’s mind is the creation of a hip-hop–based dance production, blended with poetry or dialogue that would follow a storyline, that her faculty and adult dancers could take on tour. “That’s been my dream,” she says.

She’s already proved there’s more to hip-hop than attitude and saggy jeans. In every episode of America’s Best Dance Crew featuring Phunk Phenomenon, the super-large lettering on the dancers’ T-shirts shouted out “Hip Hop for Hope.” Their hope, shared by the entire Phunk Phenomenon Dance Complex community, concerns her son, Jared, 8, born with a rare genetic disease: Sanfilippo syndrome, an inability to produce certain enzymes.

Jared Connor inspired Phunk Phenomenon's Hip Hop for Hope campaign, which raises awareness about a rare disease. Photo by Tom Struzziero

“My whole thing was: can we get on this show and get exposure for my son’s disease?” says Briggs-Connor. “Individually, it boosted the careers of those dancers, and we did get some exposure for the disease because they always got to wear their shirts.”

When Jared was 2 his stalling development concerned Briggs-Connor and her husband, Rick Connor. Doctors initially thought Jared was autistic, but testing revealed the true diagnosis. “They basically told us our son had a rare genetic disease with no cure and no treatment. He wouldn’t be able to do a lot of things and would lose skills along the way, and have a life span of 10 to 12 years,” she says. “They said to take him home and love him.”

The initial shock of the diagnosis led Briggs-Connor to consider giving up her studio, but she instead decided to use it to raise awareness for Sanfilippo syndrome—which is seen in about 1 in 70,000 births (according to PubMed Health, U.S. National Library of Medicine). Awareness might help parents recognize the disease and encourage researchers to take up the cause and pharmaceutical companies to invest in finding a cure or developing treatments. “At 98 percent of the shows we do, I get up and speak [about the disease],” she says. “Getting on MTV was just another platform.”

Channeling her personal grief into action has worked “as therapy” for Briggs-Connor, she says, by giving her strength to continue to live her life and enjoy dance despite her son’s illness. And while her studio has always had a philanthropic bent, with crews performing regularly for no charge at charity events such as the Special Olympics or Walk for Hunger, “Hip Hop for Hope” has brought her studio members closer together.

Phunk Phenomenon dancers follow a regimen designed to turn them into versatile dancers. Photo by Tom Struzziero

“You can feel it at the studio. They all dance for another reason, a deeper purpose. Everybody has a shirt with Jared’s picture on it, and it’s caught on to where people from all over the world buy our shirts,” she says.

Devin Woolridge, 27, a member of Phunk on America’s Best Dance Crew, and now a choreographer and teacher, agrees. “What makes this special is that we dance for Jared,” he says. “[Before,] I just did it because I liked it and it was fun. But having a person you perform for—and to get to send the message ‘Hip Hop for Hope’—makes you feel good.”

Who knew hip-hop had such potential? Certainly not the Chelsea girl who would engage in dance battles one day and trot down the street to tap and jazz classes the next.

“When I started the studio, the people in Phunk Phenomenon were not trained dancers, but real underground hip-hop dancers,” says Briggs-Connor of her first “crew” of teachers. “I had to show them how to bring that into the classroom. People say the hip-hop at my studio is ‘raw’ and ‘real,’ and that’s why—it’s not jazz transformed into hip-hop, but hip-hop with a whole foundation and vocabulary to it.

“I always wanted to have an adult company and a traveling show,” she continues. “Then I just started teaching the kids and having a good time, and it turned into a monster!”



Pennsylvania DMA Chapter 10 Unites to Help Former Dancer Struggling with Leukemia


Emily Leyland; photo courtesy Danspirations for Emily

Members of Dance Masters of Pennsylvania Inc., Chapter 10, were moved to action after hearing a status update during a grand body meeting about a former competitive dancer’s expensive fight against leukemia, and organized a fund-raising dance workshop called Danspirations for Emily.

The event, set for December 9 from 10am to 4pm at the Doubletree by Hilton Hotel Pittsburgh-Monroeville Convention Center, 101 Mall Boulevard, Monroeville, Pennsylvania, will benefit Emily Leyland, 28, a former competitive dancer and dance teacher who was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia (commonly referred to as AML) in January 2011, after a routine check-up and blood work.

Heather Goelz-Carpenter of Carpelz Center for the Arts, Pittsburgh, who is organizing the event along with teachers from Dotty McGill School of Dance in Grove City, Pennsylvania, and Kat and Company Dance Studio in Morgantown, West Virginia, said that Leyland underwent many rounds of chemotherapy treatment and one failed stem cell transplant before receiving her second stem cell transplant in August 2012. She is currently a patient at UPMC Shadyside Hospital, Goelz-Carpenter said.

The day will include classes in ballet, tap, jazz, and hip-hop; a studio combo showcase; a choreography class for ages 16 and older; and a studio teachers/owners motivational luncheon. Faculty includes Sammy Haas, Wendy Virtue, Emily Caudill (of Dayton Contemporary Dance Company II), and Heather Goelz-Carpenter.

Scholarships to Dance Masters’ of America’s National Convention, New York City Dance Alliance, Shock the Intensive, The Countdown, West Coast Dance Explosion, Jump, Nuvo, and Tony Bradford’s NYC two-week summer intensive, will be awarded through a silent auction. Every studio in attendance will receive a $200 entry fee certificate to The Power of Dance competition, and competition entry certificates to Power of Dance, NYCDA, American Dance Awards, Extreme Talent Showcase, Headliners, Rising Star Talent Showcase, and Star Systems will also be awarded.

All proceeds from master class fees, raffles baskets, and silent auctions for scholarships to major dance convention/competitions will go to help Leyland’s cause. Registration deadline is December 3

For more information on the event, visit!/pages/Danspirations-for-Emily/231560583641122?fref=ts.


DLTC Faculty Member Joins DSL Magazine as Monthly Contributor


Gregg Russell; photo courtesy DLTC

Emmy-nominated choreographer and master tap teacher Gregg Russell will be sharing his insights into tap education each month as part of Dance Studio Life magazine’s “Two Tips for Tap Teachers” feature.

Russell, who will also be teaching at next summer’s DanceLife Teacher Conference, has joined the magazine’s esteemed “tipsters” Bill Evans (“Two Tips for Modern Teachers”), Mignon Furman (“Two Tips for Ballet Teachers), and Geo Hubela (“Two Tips for Hip-Hop Teachers”).

Russell has directed commercials and performed with numerous music artists. He appeared in a national Volkswagon commercial, trained Dancing With the Stars’ Derek Hough for an upcoming feature film, and performed on the Jerry Lewis Telethon and Dance Halloween charity events. As a master teacher he travels with Co. Dance Conventions and produces his own Tap Into the Network dance intensives.

His first set of tap tips will appear in the January DSL. For more information on the DanceLife Teacher Conference, visit



SRU Dance Club Show to Benefit Nationwide Dance Therapy Program


The SRU Dance Club; photo courtesy Salve Regina News

The SRU Dance Club, Salve Regina University’s student-run dance organization, will present its fall performance, Freakshow, on November 17 at 7pm and November 18 at 1pm in the Rodgers Recreation Center, Webster Street, Newport, R.I.

Admission for Saturday’s show is a minimum $1 donation to the Andréa Rizzo Foundation, named for a Salve Regina graduate who was killed by a drunk driver at age 24 and which funds dance therapy programs for children in hospitals and school settings across the country. Admission for Sunday’s performance is $5. Both shows offer free admission for children young enough to sit on an adult’s lap.

According to Salve Regina news, Freakshow features more than 120 performers in 26 dances that showcase various styles of tap, jazz, lyrical, hip-hop, modern, Irish step, and African dance, with a finale performance showcasing the entire SRU Dance Club.

To see the original story, visit For more information on the Andréa Rizzo Foundation and the Dréa’s Dream dance therapy program, visit


2 Tips for Hip-Hop Teachers | Watch and Learn

2 tips for HipHop TeachersBy Geo Hubela

Tip 1

Homework! Understand the history and the styles. Studying old films is a great way to pick up moves and understand where they came from. Wild Style, a movie about hip-hop pioneers, is a must. Beat Street motivated me to breakdance and battle. Breakin’ is more of a commercial film but has some great popping—Turbo and Ozone rocked it out! The Freshest Kids, one of my favorites on hip-hop history, is an essential hip-hop tool.

Tip 2

I love gliding, the illusion of floating. Transferring the weight from leg to leg with a push-and-pull movement is essential in perfecting this move. Have students rise onto the right toes with a forced arch, then push off the right foot while the left leg slides away. Transfer the weight to the left foot and pull the right foot in to the left; raise the right heel and transfer the weight back to the right toes and repeat push-and-pull. Check out Usher; he loves this crowd-pleasing move.


Dancer/Contortionist Turf Shows Jersey Students He’s “Got Talent”


Alonzo “Turf” Jones, who made it to the semifinals of America’s Got Talent with his unique brand of contortionist dancing, performed for students at Dance Mania in Parsippany, New Jersey, reported

Amy Semtak, Dance Mania owner, said she was inspired to invite the dancer to her studio after hearing his story of how he was thrown out of his home after graduating from high school when he told his mother he wanted to pursue dance, then performed on the streets of San Francisco—often dancing all day—to get by.

Semtak explained that Turf’s own story of being told he couldn’t make it as a dancer resonates on a personal level.

“I feel honored to have Turf come to my studio,” she said. “I know what it is like to be told you can’t do something. I myself was in a severe car accident when I was 17 and I was told that I would not be able to dance again, but just like Turf I would not accept that and I pushed on through the pain and graduated from Montclair State University with a BFA in dance. Now I own a successful studio, which has been in business for 10 years. Turf has taken my heart because he is a hero to all the people who have heard ‘you can’t’ in their lives.”

Turf explained he became passionate about dance in his teens.

“I was 15,” he said, “and just fell in love with the way music made you move to the beat.” While his style is rooted mostly in hip-hop, Turf explained that Michael Jackson was a big inspiration for some of his more gravity defying moves. He offered up a bit of advice for anyone who’s been told to get a job rather than to pursue a dream.

“Never give up on your dreams. Keep chasing what you believe and you’ll always be successful. And at the end of the day it’s always all good.” To see the full story, visit


New TV Show Considers All Things Dance in New York City


A new dance television show, Inside New York City Dance, hosted by New York City radio personality Ashani Mfuko, will premiere September 28 at 10:30pm on the Manhattan Neighborhood Network (MNN) Culture Channel.

Mfuko is executive producer, CEO, and host of The Kiner Hour—Let’s Talk Dance with Ashani Mfuko radio show. Inside NYC Dance will feature interviews, coverage of NYC dance events, and health and wellness tips, plus information on dance classes, performances, Broadway shows, and the latest dance industry news.

The first season will feature the Bessie Awards, the Joffrey Ballet School, Ailey II, Dance Theatre of Harlem, Full Circle Soul Productions at Lincoln Center (Lincoln Center Out Of Doors), The Hip-Hop Dance Conservatory, The Ladies of Hip-Hop Festival, Exit 12 Dance Company, The Young Choreographer’s Festival, and Dance Magazine columnist Dr. Linda Hamilton.

Residents within the five boroughs of New York City can watch the show on TV through their local cable network. Viewers outside of NYC can watch the show’s live stream at The show will air every Friday night at 10:30pm. For more information, visit


Monsters On the Move Awards Scholarships to 17 Dancers


Monsters On The Move Foundation, Inc. (MOVE), a non-profit organization created by Monsters of Hip Hop to provide aspiring dancers with financial support to pursue a quality dance education and fulfill their artistic goals, has announced its scholarship recipients for this year.

Scholarship funds will be used to assist in paying for dance education at accredited schools, organizations, or institutions. As part of MOVE, recipients must also “Pay it Forward” by giving back to their school, church, or community.

More than 200 applications were received this year. Recipients include: Camryn Adams, Roanoke, VA; Marley Clapp, Idaho Falls, ID; Myles Mitchell, Redwood, CA; Mireya Ruiz, Plainfield, IL; Ivy Anderson, Muncie, IN; Kylie Douglas, Novi, MI; Gabrielle Nealon, Carlsbad, CA; Haley Rutherford, Santa Cruz, CA; Kate Carpenter, Berlin, MD; Jessica Francis, Charlotte, NC; Tyanna Padilla, Modesto, CA; Ronnie Treadway, Norman, OK; Joanne Butler, Woburn, MA; Allyson Gamble, New York, NY; Aurianna Parker, Albany, GA; Alexis Peralta, Staten Island, NY; and Tessa Jenkins, Urbana, OH.

For more information on MOVE, visit


2 Tips for Hip-Hop Teachers | Grooving

2 Tips for Hip Hop TeachersBy Geo Hubela

Tip 1

Tell your students not to wait for the 5-6-7-8 to move. I always encourage my students to freestyle or groove to the music before a combination begins. When they’re standing still, it’s my mission to get them moving. Some students have trouble doing their own thing for fear of looking silly. I always encourage them to let the music move them. Freestyle is the biggest hurdle for hip-hop dancers to overcome.

Tip 2

During the last five minutes of class, let the kids freestyle one at a time. You won’t be able to drag some dancers out of the circle and you’ll have to force others to go in. This is a great time to let your dancers express themselves and develop their own style—vital for hip-hop dancers. At higher levels, I stress that they shouldn’t mimic the moves of other dancers. I say, “Do something different. Stand out and you will be noticed!”


2 Tips for Hip-Hop Teachers | Bye-Bye, Ballet

By Geo Hubela

Tip 1
One of the fundamentals of ballet is turnout, but with hip-hop, it’s turning in. Keep students focused on keeping their toes pointed forward with feet parallel, hips turned in, and the body squared. Hip-hop students should do the opposite of many of the fundamentals they use in ballet class. For students who are trained ballet dancers, this is a huge challenge. I keep it simple and tell students to do everything they are told not to do in ballet!

Tip 2
Take that good posture and throw it away. In hip-hop, the posture is rounded, hunched, and low. Much of the movement will be bending, dropping, and pressing into the ground instead of being lifted. In ballet and jazz, the body is elongated and stretched, and in hip-hop it is the opposite. Tell the dancers not to be fooled—strength and force are necessary to make their movement look crisp and sharp. Tell them to get down and earthy, taking their moves into the ground.


2 Tips for Hip-Hop Teachers | Tutting and Toning

By Geo Hubela

Tip 1
Tutting is creating shapes in choreographed patterns with the hands and arms, much like Egyptian poses seen in artwork. Making clean, 90-degree angles with the upper arms in line with the shoulders is very important in mastering this style. Have students lift both arms to shoulder height with elbows bent at 90 degrees, wrists flexed and pointed away, then turn the hands to the inside so that the fingers point to the head. Continue creating different shapes and patterns, almost like building a puzzle. Once the basics are mastered, incorporate the moves into choreography.

Tip 2
Building upper body strength is essential to hip-hop and break-dancing. I drill arm-strengthening exercises to help students with popping, tutting, and waving dynamics. I describe it as holding invisible weights—in other words, isometrics—as if holding or pushing against an opposing force. Have students hold the arms out and squeeze the fists. (Tensing all muscles is a great exercise for learning how to pop.) Hold for 8 counts, then relax for 8 counts, then repeat with 4, 2, and single counts.


2 Tips for Hip-Hop Teachers | Across-the-Floor Moves

By Geo Hubela

Tip One
The funky walk is the first progression in my classes: step forward on the right foot, hands in fists straight down over the foot. As the knees bend, drop the torso and pull the arms up while doing a double bounce; repeat on the left leg. Tell beginners to mimic pulling up their pants—it works! Many beginners punch down as they drop, but you want them to work in opposition, pulling up as they drop.

For advanced levels I add variations, such as pivots, steps on the off-beat (the “and”), and footwork. Make basic moves more fun and challenging by building on them without ever leaving the basics.

Tip Two
The hip-hop slide, done corner to corner to keep it advancing, is the second move in my progressions. Again, the biggest challenge is the opposition of the upper body and the legs. When sliding, arms should go away from the direction of the slide. Hands can be in fists or just open and relaxed. Most important is keeping the feet on the floor; otherwise the slide becomes a step. Add variations, like a “raise the roof” with a double bounce, before sliding to the opposite side.


2 Tips for Hip-Hop Teachers | Listen and Feel

By Geo Hubela

Tip One
Teach your students to listen. Get them to focus on the music, not just counts. Hip-hop music is filled with rhythms, beats, rap, and sound effects that have to be accented with choreography, with style and swag. A song needs to become part of them so they are “in tune” with it; the more they know it, the better they will dance to it. Becoming masters of musicality will enhance their battle and freestyle skills.

Tip Two
Teach your students to be expressive. Explain that dance needs to evoke emotion from the audience and that if they are just going through the motions with the steps, the audience will lose interest. They can keep them engaged by expressing themselves through the movement and the music. In hip-hop terms, that means getting your swag on! “Swag” is the way a dancer presents himself. Students need to express themselves through personality, confidence, and style as well as movement.


2 Tips for Hip-Hop Teachers | Homework for Teachers

By Geo Hubela

Tip One
Know the craft. Like ballet, tap, and jazz, hip-hop has a foundation. Popping, locking, tutting, waving, isolations, and break dance are all elements and styles within hip-hop. Do your homework and drill the basics. I incorporate popping, waving, and isolations into every class, just as a ballet teacher does pliés. Know the terminology. Do you know these moves—Fresno, the old man, twist-o-flex, walk-out? The Internet is at your disposal to help you learn the craft—just make sure you go to credible sources.

Tip Two
Stay up to date with music. When you keep it fresh, your students will be more engaged. We always need to stretch and do the basics, which gets repetitious, so an easy way to spice things up is by using a variety of tracks each week. And not just Top 40—think old-school, electronica, dub-step, and house. Listen to what fits your style and introduce your students to new sounds. Your classes will be energized! 


Bright Biz Ideas | Thinking Inside the Box


Dance teacher turns entrepreneur with hip-hop teaching tool

By Jennifer Kaplan

From the classic Ronco Veg-o-Matic to the newfangled best-selling ShamWow, product designers and developers have one thing in common. They see a need—from turning lights off from your bed to washing your feet in the shower without bending down—that other products in the cluttered marketplace didn’t fulfill.

The same goes for Torrance, California-based dance teacher and choreographer Tricia Gomez, creator of Hip Hop in a Box. The owner of Hype Studios Cultural Arts Center near Los Angeles, Gomez had developed a program and curriculum for teaching hip-hop to youngsters as young as 3. “When I started teaching hip-hop to 3-year-olds back in 1993, I didn’t know that a lot of studios say you’re not supposed to teach it until [children] are 7 or 12, or whatever age [studio owners] decide,” Gomez says. “Well, I started teaching hip-hop to 3s and it worked great for me and for the kids, too.”

“I spent a solid six months on it, every day, all day,” Tricia Gomez says of Hip Hop in a Box. (Photo courtesy Tricia Gomez)

Gomez grew up in a small town studying ballet, tap, and jazz at an even smaller studio. In high school as a member of the dance team, she began teaching herself hip-hop moves from music videos, starting with the Roger Rabbit. After she moved to L.A. and became a Laker Girl, she gained more experience from a wide range of choreographers.

But a decade later, she was teaching 21 classes a week, running a booming dance business in one of the busiest dance cities in the country—L.A.—when misfortune hit. “I wasn’t feeling well,” she says, “and ended up getting diagnosed with lupus.” That put a kink in her teaching load, which she could mostly fill from her roster of teachers. But Gomez couldn’t find anyone to teach her hip-hop classes for the youngest students—those bouncy 3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds. She felt that the experienced hip-hop dancers couldn’t break down the steps well enough, nor did they have the patience needed to handle the youngest students, who lose focus more quickly than older children do.

“I wished I had something I could give to the teachers and say, ‘Here, teach this in class,’ because I knew it was easy,” says Gomez. “The simple things I was teaching them just made sense to the kids.” Then a friend chimed in with an idea: make three-by-five cards with various steps and exercises to give to substitute teachers. That’s when Gomez’s entrepreneurial streak took off.

“I played around with the idea,” she says, “talking about it with a couple of people in my studio.” One parent offered graphic design services and, coincidentally, Hype sits next door to a recording studio where music and videos are often produced. With someone to design the cards and packaging, and someone else to create and record original music on a work-for-hire basis (so rights and permissions wouldn’t become an issue) and shoot video for an instructional DVD, Gomez had pulled together a team. She paid for all services she used, whether offered by parents of her students or professionals in the community. She put the product on the market in 2006 and is now close to recouping her initial investment.

Working on instinct, without a formal business plan, Gomez knew she needed to put the teaching material in a form that could be broken down into teachable steps, phrases, and combinations, both on paper and on video.

Hip Hop in a Box grew from that initial spark of an idea. The product, which retails for $69.95, features 100 mix-and-match cards, each containing instructions and pictures for a different hip-hop step (fundamentals and some with a hip-hop flavor); a DVD with Gomez demonstrating each step; a CD with five original hip-hop songs; and a “teaching tips” workbook.

Aside from helping dance teachers who lack hip-hop expertise, Gomez has found that physical education teachers and other educators, and even teachers in adult programs, find the material useful. She’s also used the cards with older students as an exercise in creative choreography: they deal out the cards and use them to build their own phrases and combinations set to music. “So a step like crack-a-stick would have four different picture positions,” says Gomez, “and those positions, when you link them together, create the step.”

 In the process of creating Hip Hop in a Box, Gomez says, “I spent a solid six months on it, every day, all day, in some manner, whether it was writing the list of steps I wanted to include, all the way up to editing the pictures, which I did myself in Photoshop.” It was a long, hard, time-consuming process, and some days she wanted to drop the idea. But Gomez believed her product would fill a need in the dance education and studio community, so she pushed herself to complete it.

Her best, simplest—and most obvious—advice? “It helps to have a deadline. It pushes you to spend time on the project every day until it gets done.”

As the product development neared completion, Gomez worked with a local printing agency on how to produce (design, photography, etc.) and manufacture the product at a reasonable cost. She had to decide how many to order and at what price point she could sell it. Ultimately, the local printer jobbed the project offshore, so the cards and box are printed and assembled in China. “I wish I could have manufactured it in the U.S., but it would have been impossible” due to the costs, she says.

Gomez had done no pre-marketing and had no advance orders, so she simply ordered what she and her husband, who works in the technology industry, could afford: 2,000 units. She’s just now getting ready to reorder. She stores the boxes at home and fills all orders herself. At some point, as her number of products and popularity increase, she hopes to hire an assistant.

On the heels of Hip Hop in a Box, Gomez has developed a companion product, 1-2-3 Dance, featuring additional hip-hop steps and materials to help overworked teachers plan lessons for their youngest students, ages 3 to 5.

On the heels of Hip Hop in a Box, Gomez has developed a companion product, 1-2-3 Dance, featuring additional hip-hop steps and materials to help overworked teachers plan lessons for their youngest students, ages 3 to 5. Her goal with both tools is, she says, “to allow people to do things they didn’t think they could do.”

That’s exactly what happened to Gomez. She never thought she’d become a product innovator, designer, marketer, and jack-of-all-trades in creating her own products. But now she is.

Gomez has promoted Hip Hop in a Box primarily at conferences and conventions. She hasn’t invested much in advertising aside from Google Adwords, but the kit has gained a few brief editorial mentions in dance and education magazines, plus a featured spot on TV’s The Dr. Phil Show, during a show devoted to parents who want their kids to become stars. Somehow a producer came across Gomez’s product and invited the dance teacher to serve as a judge in a mini talent competition in which kids used the cards to choreograph and perform short phrases on the show. “What’s great is that now I have Dr. Phil announcing me as ‘our dance expert Tricia Gomez with Hip Hop in a Box.’ That gave me a boost,” she says.

 For Katie Whorton, who owns and directs Beatniks Dance & Tumble in Platte City, Missouri, Hip Hop in a Box has been a lifesaver. Whorton teaches ballet, tap, jazz, tumble, cheer, and hip-hop. “I have more traditional ballet, jazz, and tap training,” she explains, “and always felt inferior in the hip-hop world. Even in college, I struggled with hip-hop and found that I shied away from it.”

She found that she needed a strong, easy-to-use curriculum that would allow her to provide the same quality classes in every genre she offers. “Hip Hop in a Box has a lot of desirable qualities,” says Whorton, who has taught for more than a decade. “The steps are so basic that even someone who was ‘hip-hop challenged’ like myself could execute them with confidence and skill. The breakdown of each step and the level of counts for different age levels is a quick, easy way to turn a basic piece of choreography into an intermediate one, and [then] on to advanced.”

She also likes the various types of explanations—written out and sketched on cards and demonstrated on DVD—along with the interactive possibilities the cards provide in getting children involved through putting together their own steps. Best of all for Whorton, “it eliminated my weekly stress of getting through three 50-minute hip-hop classes.” Now, she says, “I am a good hip-hop teacher and my kids learn a lot from me.”

Another fan of the product, Megan Mendoza of Cheryl’s School of Dance in Carlsbad, New Mexico, is an experienced hip-hop teacher. However, she says, “I was not experienced in teaching young children. I had such a hard time coming up with things that were ‘simple’ or easy to explain, let alone keep the class fun and interesting.” Using Hip Hop in a Box, she says,” I have been able to have successful classes for 4-year-olds.”

For Gomez, the venture boils down to persistence and determination. The difference between her and everyone who says they could have thought of it is that she “sat down and did it,” she says. “I didn’t know if it was going to work, and that first year I sold maybe 70 units. I could have just said it wasn’t worth it, but I’m stubborn. I knew it was going to work.”

As for her future, she says, “I think I’ll see where it takes me.” She runs Hype and holds two other part-time jobs: operations manager/choreographer for Dance the Magic and teaching artist with Disney Performing Arts Program at Disneyland.

“I would love to see Dance In a Box take off to become a full-time job,” she says. “But knowing me, I’d still keep my part-time jobs, too. I can sleep when I’m dead!”


The Power of Being ICONic


Geo Hubela puts his brand on hip-hop for kids

By Eileen Glynn

“Be ICONic!” is hip-hop artist Geo Hubela’s motto. It’s both a positive message for his students and a catchy marketing brand.

Whether performing in front of an audience of millions on TV or teaching hip-hop to tots in his own New Jersey studio, Hubela attracts fans both large and small. Drawing on 15 years of experience touring with artists such as Jennifer Lopez and Pink and teaching at conventions, in 2006 Hubela launched ICON Dance Complex in Englishtown, New Jersey. After only five years, the 5,000-square-foot complex has an enrollment of 700 students, of which 120 to 150 are boys. Along with hip-hop, the school offers ballet, tap, jazz, contemporary, lyrical, break dance, and cheer/funk.

Hubela says break dance is what got him started dancing back in the 1980's (Photo courtesy Geo Hubela)

Hubela began dancing in the ’80s. “Break dance is what got me started,” he says. “It was the Michael Jackson era, jazz-based but commercial choreography. What he was doing then would be called hip-hop now. That’s what got me interested.” Hubela took classes with Frank Hatchett, drawn by what he describes as Hatchett’s “funky style of street jazz”; lyrical with Michèle Assaf; lyrical and jazz with Joe Lanteri; and AC Ciulla’s grungy street style jazz at Broadway Dance Center.

While taking class at Horizons in Dance in Brooklyn, Hubela started teaching his own class, which he called hip-hop. He booked his first job at Disney World in Orlando, “and that was the start. I taught at Star Power in New York City, and Allison [Ellner] from Broadway Dance Center stopped in and asked if I’d be interested in teaching there. It was a dream come true.” And he hit the convention circuit with Tremaine, Monsters of Hip Hop, and Darrin Henson’s Dance Grooves, “I love teaching huge ballrooms full of kids,” he says. “Teaching helped support me. I taught at the Edge, close to 100 studios around the country, wherever there was an opportunity.” Now on the Showstoppers faculty, he tours on the weekends and runs his studio the rest of the time, teaching 20 hours per week.

Hubela came up with the name for his school when he was staying at Hotel Icon in Houston and saw the name on the hotel stationery. “It was like ‘Boom!’—a light turned on, and I knew that I had found the name for my studio,” he says. “Now, when people hear [the word] ‘icon,’ they think of our dance complex. And when they hear ‘iconic,’ they think of our ICONic Boyz and ICONic Girlz crews.” As for his motto, he calls it “inspiring,” a catchphrase that “pushes kids to do their best.”

Performing with his own ICONic dance crew on the first season of America’s Best Dance Crew helped put Hubela’s brand on the map. “The school opened with 300 or 400 students, and then we went on the show,” says Hubela. “I used my credits with people in the industry like J-Lo and Will Smith in my marketing, and that was a big draw.” This year his ICONic Boyz crew performed on the show’s sixth season. Ranging in age from 10 to 14, the seven boys are the youngest crew to have performed on the show to date. “Season 6 was the first time they let kids on the show,” Hubela says. “The Boyz were the only kids who made it. The Girlz went all the way to contracts. They didn’t make the show, but they did very well.”

Hubela’s crews are required to take at least four classes per week: two in hip-hop (which include strength and core work) and one each in jazz and break dance. Rather than holding auditions, Hubela handpicks his elite crews, basing his choices on “talent, attitude, looks, style, and ability to pick up choreography quickly and execute it well. They have to work hard.” There’s no age minimum; some crew members have been as young as 9.

National TV exposure has given the ICONic Boyz a large following and has led to numerous performance opportunities at conventions, competitions, and charity events. “They are like pop stars,” Hubela says. “Wherever we go, there are hundreds of girls showing up to see them dance. They are like the first boy band of dance—and they don’t even sing!”

But Hubela cautions them to remain humble. “I tell the dancers, ‘No one job and no one experience can make you better as a person than anyone else.’ I don’t want to create an uncomfortable dynamic with the other students in the studio,” he says. “Instead, I hope that the ICONic Boyz crew inspires even more kids, especially boys, to take dance classes.”

Indeed, the heart of Hubela’s business is his dance studio. Hubela and his sister Beth, a former professional cheerleader, co-founded the dance complex and direct its curriculum. Their mother, Karen, handles the accounting, while their father, George, signs students in at the front desk. Another sister, Jeanine Sottile, and her husband, Chris, were two of the studio’s main investors, while Hubela’s brother Michael manages day-to-day studio operations.

“For a while we all lived together under one roof in order to get the business up and running. We knew that we had to make sacrifices in order to get where we wanted to get,” Hubela says. “Even now, whenever we get together, 90 percent of the conversation at the dinner table is about the dancing school, and then you go to bed thinking about it. It becomes your life. These kids become so important. You are giving them your passion.”

Founding a family studio was always in the back of his mind, says Hubela, who grew up—and took dance lessons with his siblings—in Brooklyn. Later, as he traveled the country teaching master classes in hip-hop, he paid close attention to the studio environments he encountered. “Every time I walked into another studio, I’d say, ‘Hmm, I like this,’ or ‘I’d never do that,’ ” he says. “As a working professional, I had to be an entrepreneur from a young age, doing things like negotiating my own salaries, for example. For me, being at work was like being in school. I paid attention to everything around me. I knew I wanted to open my own studio someday and I didn’t want to have to worry about how to do it.”

“I wanted a name that was going to stand out. Now, when people hear [the word] ‘icon,’ they think of our dance complex. And when they hear ‘iconic,’ they think of our ICONic Boyz and ICONic Girlz crews.” —Geo Hubela

Hubela sharpened his entrepreneurial skills by working as an assistant for Henson, who won an MTV Award for Best Choreography for *NSYNC’s “Bye Bye Bye.” (Hubela performed in it on American Music Awards.) “Darrin would show up at conventions with T-shirts and videos for sale. He told me, ‘You have to brand yourself. You are an inspirational role model for kids. Make a T-shirt; it gives you something to sign for them,’ ” Hubela recalls. “So I started with ‘Geo’ merchandise and now I have ‘ICON’ merchandise. I owe that advice to Darrin.”

Selling merchandise is just one of a number of marketing ideas that Hubela swears by. “A great website is a busy studio owner’s first tool, followed by a great use of social media—Facebook and maybe Twitter,” he says. “This gives people somewhere to go in order to find out more about you.”

Hubela also recommends becoming involved in the community by performing at charity events and festivals. Just before launching his studio, Hubela, his sister Beth, and several friends performed at the local Manalapan Day festival. “We had our logo, T-shirts, and signs, and put on a 15-minute show with just seven dancers,” Hubela says. By the following year the studio had enrolled 200 students, and Hubela brought them all back to the festival. “We wore a common color and put up a huge tent to continue our branding,” he says. “By the year after that, we had doubled our enrollment again to 400 dancers. This year, thousands OF people came to see the ICONic Boyz perform at the festival.”

Community performances that feature Hubela’s polished male dancers are a tremendous boost to ICON Dance Complex’s enrollment, as was being on national TV, of course. But according to Hubela, word of mouth is his biggest marketing tool. “We have a good, young, trained staff. We stay fresh and new, with new music,” he says. “The kids are walking out smiling and that’s what you want.”

He is careful to make male dancers feel welcome by keeping the decor in a gender-neutral color scheme. “I stayed away from pink and purple because those colors are isolating to boys,” he says. “I chose silver and a deep blue—we call it ‘ICON blue’—to make it very hip to all kids. I want anyone and everyone to feel welcome in the studio.” These days he’s teaching three boys’ classes—that’s about 100 boys—back-to-back.

Widespread public interest in hip-hop classes has also increased the school’s enrollment. “There has been a surge in hip-hop since the ’90s and early 2000s, when it started appearing in conventions and then on reality shows,” Hubela says. “Hip-hop is vital to a studio’s curriculum, especially if you are branching out from ballet, tap, and jazz. You need hip-hop too, in order to survive. Many people think hip-hop music is negative. But there are plenty of positive commercial songs that are remixed, clean, and kid friendly. The majority of the music we teach to is pop.”

Although ICON Dance Complex offers a wide variety of classes, Hubela’s hip-hop classes pull in the largest numbers for both professional-track and recreational dancers. He and Beth have also begun a “Hip-Hop for Tots” program that introduces the basics to 3- and 4-year-olds. “Like ballet, hip-hop is an art form that has its own technique and terminology that can be introduced at an early age,” Hubela says. “We teach popping, cutting, gliding—all of the basics—to the little ones. It’s not just moving to Britney Spears music.”

While many studios don’t offer hip-hop to students under age 7, Hubela recommends introducing it to younger kids—and potentially retaining those students for the next 15 years. Chances are the young hip-hop dancers will find other dance forms that interest them too, and gradually increase the number of classes they take per week.

In Hubela’s experience, many young children also enjoy freestyling, an important part of hip-hop culture in which kids “step into the circle, dance the way they want to dance, and express themselves through the music,” he says. He saves the last five minutes of class for freestyling. “It can be easier to dance in front of a huge group, where you can block out the audience, than in front of a small group of your peers. I don’t push kids who don’t want to enter the circle on their own. I tell them it’s an expression of who they are. There’s no wrong step. It’s the music telling them what to do.” He gives them a few weeks to feel it out. “And once they go in,” he says, “I really praise them for trying.”

Positive reinforcement is a great motivator at ICON Dance Complex, and Hubela models that behavior through his own actions: “I strive to work harder and sweat more than the kids in class. Also, I learned from other people that it’s easy to be negative.” But, he says, focusing on the students who are doing something correctly motivates those who aren’t. “The kid who’s doing it wrong wants the attention,” he says.

Also motivating are the numerous photos of Hubela’s performance career that line the walls. “Every time I took a photo with a star, I had the thought that I would hang it in my studio someday—not to show off, but to inspire my students,” Hubela says. “I have a passion for teaching and I’ve always wanted to do it in a place that I can call home.”

The ICONic Boyz will perform at New York’s Apollo Theater on December 10. Plans are in the works for a possible 12-city tour in 2012 with a dance convention, open to the public.


Turning Up the Heat


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.

Pittsburgh Heat team dancers show off their hip-hop moves at dozens of competitions and events throughout the Pittsburgh area. (Photo courtesy 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.”

Competition teams
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.


Hip-Hop From a Ballet Perspective


Balancing tendu and plié with popping and locking

By Quinn Wharton

Dance, for me, has always been about having fun. I dance with San Francisco Ballet, but I didn’t start with ballet. I began with hip-hop when I was very young, at Ewajo, a small dance studio in Seattle. At 6, I wasn’t learning a whole lot of technique and discipline; instead I was learning how to have fun dancing. The class blended many styles (mostly hip-hop, jazz, and swing) to create upbeat, exciting movement. I loved the music, the freedom in the swinging, and the flow of the movement.

“Hip-hop nurtures individual style,” Wharton says. (Photo by Quinn Wharton and Dores André)

The contrast when I started ballet two years later was shocking. To go to strict, upright movements that were so stylized and precise was completely foreign to me, the antithesis of what I had fun doing. I stuck with it for many reasons—scholarships, access to boarding schools, and because I got to leave my public school three times a week and go downtown to take ballet in a big, beautiful building—but I wasn’t having fun early on. It was only after many years of dedication that I began to appreciate ballet’s joys and freedoms, buried deep within the structure. It’s as though you need the two styles to introduce movement to people.

As fun as it was, hip-hop would have been a less fulfilling career choice for me. Ballet has the depth and challenge that keep me working and overcoming hurdles to improve. I needed both to fulfill my need to dance and make the most of my talent. Without hip-hop I would have never done ballet, and without ballet I would never have gotten as far as I have. Hip-hop was the joy that got me to love dance, and ballet taught me how to maximize that movement, to finesse it.

Hip-hop has done more for my career than any form of dance other than ballet. I studied most everything when I was younger, albeit briefly—jazz, swing, salsa, modern in many forms, tap. All of them have things to contribute to a dancer’s development, but as a full package, hip-hop offers more. It teaches you improvisation, complicated rhythms and syncopations, and freedom both within boundaries and without. Ballet is all about control, while hip-hop wants you to dance on the very edge of your movement and find your individuality in each step. You almost never conform to the exact style of the teacher, and most teachers couldn’t describe their exact movement if they wanted to. The steps are guidelines for you to move within.

Hip-hop’s encouragement of individuality in movement stems from teachers asking you to do “your own thing” for eight counts before heading back into the choreography, and from participating in battle circles after classes and in clubs. The idea is to set yourself apart as an individual and develop your own unique flavor. Through improvisation (a skill never taught in ballet), hip-hop nurtures individual style. Spending hours making up moves helps dancers discover how their bodies work. Most choreographers today want the dancers to contribute to the pieces they are making. I have choreographed entire phrases that have then become morphed into the work.

I’ve learned that finding my own voice is the most important way to distinguish myself from the masses, even in the corps of a classical ballet company. That voice is also a huge piece of knowledge that can help ballet dancers flesh out how they move. As dancers, we are always learning and absorbing so that we can create a style that is all our own. This can exist within another style, but be individual in its aesthetic on each person.

The importance of individuality is a huge lesson for ballet dancers to learn, one that becomes more and more important in the contemporary dance climate. Developing an entirely new vocabulary, as most choreographers now are doing, takes a lot of creativity and innovation. Today’s choreographers are curators and assemblers almost as much as they are dancemakers, and I’ve found that my ability to improvise has set me apart over and over again in the studio.

At SFB, I’ve encountered works by Jirí Kylián, William Forsythe, Wayne McGregor, and Nacho Duato, all of whom pull from urban movement that is akin to hip-hop. As the pieces move into large ballet companies’ repertories, the need for multifaceted dancers rises. Learning Forsythe was a huge leap for me. It is ballet, but ballet pulled so far off its base that at times it doesn’t even resemble the classical line. I struggled with the process for a long time until I realized that my hip-hop training filled in the gaps in my knowledge.

Through improvisation (a skill never taught in ballet), hip-hop nurtures individual style. Spending hours making up moves helps dancers discover how their bodies work. Most choreographers today want the dancers to contribute to the pieces they are making.

Applying the earthiness that comes from hip-hop to the movements, I changed my dynamic. Take the long lunges and extended legs of ballet and pull them down into the earth, and the movement becomes Forsythe. The popping I learned in hip-hop became the basis for the fast-twitch movement necessary for in the middle, somewhat elevated or Artifact Suite. Krumping teaches you how to throw your limbs to extreme angles without holding tension in your joints, particularly the hips. The repertory of hip-hop is the antithesis of ballet, and in that way it is the perfect partner. Learning both extremes makes dancers capable of doing anything, from the highest, most elegant ballet step to the lowest, most grounded break-dancing move.

I recently saw a work by Flemish-Moroccan choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, performed by the Dutch National Ballet, a largely classical company with a strong traditional repertory. This piece was a completely different beast. It involved more floor work than movement on the feet—rolling and sliding and gliding. It was performed in socks, cargo pants, and hoodies—not your typical ballet garb. It was completely different from any classical work, and yet the dancers excelled. I noticed that prominent parts went to people who might have not been so classically trained but had other movement qualities that suited the ballet. They didn’t have perfect feet or legs or much turnout, but none of that mattered. Once they began moving and rolling, they became gorgeous, fluid creatures. Their individuality gave them a huge edge in the current climate of ballet, allowing them to do principal parts they might not have gotten before. As companies keep promoting more avant-garde and varied choreographers, they need dancers who can push the boundaries of their abilities.

Aside from creating individuality and pushing boundaries, hip-hop is fun. It’s easy to forget how much fun movement is in a highly competitive ballet world—and how much you need fun dance in your life. A hip-hop class, with its energy and enthusiasm, has a very different feel than a ballet class, with its serious demeanor. Even if I drag my feet on the way to a hip-hop class, I am always so happy I went. The sense of community and support fostered by the group and the happiness of doing something technical and cool makes everyone feel great. You’re also encouraged to be louder, dance bigger, to step outside of yourself and act out. Hip-hop can become an outlet for feelings and energy that otherwise might get bottled up and explode somewhere else. Who doesn’t like to act silly and ridiculous?

I take class with a youth and young adult hip-hop collective in San Francisco called Funkanometry when I have free time. They rehearse twice a week from 9pm to midnight, hours that seem unreasonable to me. I asked the director how he gets 40 kids, ages 15 to 22, to show up for every rehearsal every week and put so much energy into it. They make no money from it, and they all work or go to school. Yet they set apart these hours each week to come in and exhaust themselves for the group. The director looked at me as though I had asked a very strange question and said they were all there because they wanted to be. That sort of enthusiasm is hard to find in young people (about anything), but these kids are willing to do it for their community.

Hip-hop’s popularity will inevitably cause it to be melded with ballet. Arts need reinvention to draw in new crowds and to progress in their own exploration. Hip-hop has all the energy needed to reinvigorate ballet, as well as an audience that is young and enthusiastic. The ability of So You Think You Can Dance to run tours around the country and sell out arenas is a testament to popular commercial dance. So the challenge for future choreographers is to find a way to create a middle ground that engages people in their 20s to their 50s and speaks of art and energy and enthusiasm.

Melding these styles breathes new life into the art form. Wayne McGregor is already doing this with his work on The Royal Ballet and other major companies. He puts classical ballet dancers on pointe and has them do movement that in no way relates to ballet. It may look a little like ballet, but that’s mostly because ballet dancers are doing it. Because of our training, we infuse his ideas with line and classical forms. McGregor hasn’t embraced a hip-hop sensibility per se, but the idea of contemporary culture is all over his work, which allows younger audiences to relate to it.

I have always felt that hip-hop is the perfect accompaniment to ballet. It is the one style that ballet dancers can’t just pick up; and for hip-hop dancers, taking ballet would add so much grace and finesse to their art. Having a strong base in both allows a dancer to move over any terrain in the dance world with ease. It allows young dancers just entering the professional world to quickly understand the new styles and movements thrown at them. It can reveal talent in a dancer who might not have the strongest classical technique. And if nothing else, hip-hop is a great community builder because the joy that comes from a class ties people together.

Hip-hop will always be a large part of my life. It’s where I began and I continue to cultivate it in myself. I look forward to the day when it has the same legitimacy as ballet does.

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