young dancer

young dancer DJs bring dancers out onto the floor at hip-hop event Body (above, left); Micaya's dancers perform the futuristic ensemble piece Cybertron. Photos by Paul Trapani

Hip-hop was different when Bay Area teacher/choreographer Christiane Crawford was a kid. There were no music video jobs to aspire to in the days before MTV, and few musical acts looking for hip-hop backup dancers before rap and hip-hop music hit the mainstream. Hip-hop, an African dance-based amalgam of jazz and street forms like break dancing, was still a young enough form that most dance studios didn't even offer it, so Crawford, a city kid studying jazz, and her friends essentially taught themselves by going to each others' homes after school, turning on the radio, and working out steps that they would string into routines for school assemblies. Eventually they found their way into local clubs, where the burgeoning music and dance movement was fed by people watching and learning from one another. Still, actual performance opportunities were limited.

Crawford belongs to the first generation that grew up on hip-hop and saw its progression from urban freestyle to suburban entertainment, and she is offering successive generations an outlet she never had. Last summer, Crawford and DJ Jessie Singer developed Body, a semi-monthly event merging urban, social, and performance dance into a kind of live update on the TV dance show "Soul Train."

At Body, clubgoers dance to DJ'd music, but unlike most clubs, Body also hosts performances by local hip-hop companies during the evening, and a freestyle dance contest in which participants vie for prizes like studio class cards. What makes Body different from other clubs, Crawford explained, is the level of talent it attracts. "Lots of clubs have dancers, but not professionals," she said. "It's club dancers who do more of a Showgirls, sexual kind of presentation, not people who who've dedicated their lives to performing."

Between performances, animated (and culturally divergent) clubgoers dance solo or in pairs, mixing standard hip-hop moves like contractions and isolations with swing dance steps and stylized variations. At the December installment, the crowd surged to the front of the stage for the dance competition, cheering for their favorite shimmying, high-kicking, locking, and popping contestants. The crowd went wild for a dreadlocked dancer named Patrick, who punctuated his improv with a backflip as the DJ spun a cut from Wu-Tang Clan.

Crawford and fellow teacher/choreographer Micaya are part of a new hip-hop vanguard working outside the commercial circuit of videos and concert tours. Crawford had already staged showcases like "Body of Jazz," which became an intersection for modern, jazz, hip-hop, and Latin styles. And last fall, after selling out the showcase "Mission in the Mix" at a modest venue, Micaya organized the Hip-Hop Dance Festival, which sold out four nights at Theater Artaud, a 300-seat theater that previously had hosted a successful weekend run from Philadelphia hip-hop company Rennie Harris PureMovement. In Harris, both women saw the bright potential of hip-hop as an evening-length show. Crawford's troupe performed at Artaud, and as part of a trade deal, Micaya's troupe performed at Body one month later. Both drew enthusiastic crowds and showcased a wealth of fresh talent, with performers as young as twelve.

The Hip-Hop Festival boasted nearly a dozen acts a night, and as many styles. The local chapter of Future Shock, a multi-city youth outreach and performance group whose seventy local kids regularly perform at schools and industrial events, was represented. Micaya's dancers performed Girls Girls Girls, a slinky ensemble piece highlighted—literally—by flashlights which dancers in midriff-baring T-shirts and pink and purple bobbed wigs manipulated in time with the music. They reprised that piece, along with the futuristic Cybertron, at Body. Both events had a social, community vibe, with audience members whooping and calling out dancers' names. Clearly, performers and fans alike were jazzed, and judging from the crowd, there is a healthy demand for events like Body and the Hip-Hop Festival, which Micaya hopes to remount this year. Like Micaya, Theater Artaud Project Manager Alex Perloff envisions a theatrical future for hip-hop. "We're realizing that hip-hop is emerging as performance," Perloff said, pointing to Micaya's assurance that the festival would sell out, which it did even before the press coverage began.

But despite hip-hop's growing popularity as more than just set dressing, Crawford and Micaya are still grappling with a problem familiar to all dancers: money. "It's the old story," sighed Crawford one afternoon over the phone. "Artistic vision versus financial reality." She had recently learned that San Francisco rock club the Transmission Theater had recently been sold to a private firm and could no longer host Body.

Crawford's search for a new home was made all the more urgent by her past experiences trying to underwrite hip-hop shows with grants. As she described it, grantmakers were skeptical of her efforts, partly because she was a white dancer promoting what is typically considered a black American dance style, and partly because many people still consider hip-hop more of a street or commercial form than a legitimate style of concert dance. Micaya had encountered similar sentiment. "I've had some parents say to me. 'Oh good, you have a jazz background—maybe you can sneak in some real dance.'"

Crawford also admitted that some of those reservations are not unwarranted, that hip-hop, with its roots reaching deep into African dance, has been watered down by choreographers who have adopted the athletic flash but neglected the cultural influences. What hip-hop needs, she said, beyond financing, is the kind of performance framework that older forms like ballet enjoy. And it needs respect.

"The co-opting of culture is an issue," said Crawford, "but my higher self says that we are a large society where each group donates to society. We've benefited from the music and culture that black Americans have contributed. It's part of our legacy as Americans." With Body and the Hip-Hop Festival, that legacy is primed to grow.