Dancing through hip-hop history

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Hip-hop dance was born in the streets and took off like a wildfire across the country way before the Internet. A product of that environment, Philadelphia's Rennie Harris now serves as the voice for the American style around the world.

His company, Puremovement, comes to Pittsburgh as the exclamation point of First Voice: A Pittsburgh International Black Arts Festival at the August Wilson Center. Its presence underscores just how far this urban movement has come, from playgrounds to the concert stage.

First Voice: A Pittsburgh International Black Arts Festival
  • Where: August Wilson Center for African American Culture
  • Schedule: Tonight through May 29.

    • Vanessa German, 8 tonight

    • Rennie Harris Puremovement, 8 p.m. Friday

    • Jasiri X, MC, activist and entrepreneur, and film "This Week With Jasiri X," 3 p.m. Saturday

    • "East of Liberty: In Unlivable Times" with filmmaker Chris Ivey, 6 p.m. Saturday (free admission)

    • Jazz artist Brett Williams, 8 p.m. Saturday

    • August Wilson Dance Ensemble, 6 p.m. Sunday

    • Pittsburgh Jazz Orchestra, 8 p.m. May 28

    • "Anire Mosley: New Works" art exhibit, today through May 29

  • Tickets: Festival passes ($38-$45) and single-event tickets ($17.50-$22.50) available. Rennie Harris Puremovement tickets: $18.25-$33. Brett Williams: $11. 412-456-6666 or

Hip-hop is so new that there are conflicting explanations as to its origins. Budding historians toss around possibilities such as Africa, where it was transported through slave ships; Brazil's capoeira, also born in slavery and a form of self-defense disguised as movement; and even James Brown, who inspired teens to back-glide and shimmy their feet.

But hip-hop dance, which visually signaled the birth of a whole culture with its DJ-ing, rapping, tagging and clothing styles, really erupted simultaneously on both coasts here in America during the '70s. From the East Coast came uprocking, a Brooklyn gang routine that included foot shuffling, spins, turns and "jerks." The West Coast created popping, a fluid series of movements punctuated by the contraction and relaxation of muscles, and locking, where a dancer sometimes freezes movements in a pose.

So how and when did those forces converge in Pittsburgh?

The First Phase

Brian "BWEAR" Starks came to Pittsburgh from Chicago to visit his mother in 1979. He brought a blend of the West Coast and East Coast styles, which were already intermingling in the Windy City. Another pioneer was Donald "Sodda Pop Kid" Wilson, who began popping in Homewood in 1981. They both still maintain vivid memories of Pittsburgh's early days.

Sodda Pop and BWEAR said that teenagers from the suburbs all wanted to learn the latest moves. They frequented under-21 clubs such as Heaven, 2001 VIP and events on the Gateway Clipper fleet, where dancers were often seen running to make the boat.

Then there were the talent shows, where a confident BWEAR declared, "Put me on last!" More than likely he would win, dressed in something akin to a mime outfit -- white gloves, bow tie, suspenders, black baggy pants and the prerequisite karate shoe.

But things really started taking off when "Flashdance" was filmed in town in 1982. Hip-hop was definitely going mainstream, and the Pittsburgh scene jumped from two or three to 20 crews. By the next year, breakdancing or b-boying, with all of its acrobatic moves, had arrived in Pittsburgh and the dance craze reached a frenzy. Dancers would "battle" at the under-21 spots, and participants would go home and practice all week. BWEAR's crew, the Mechanical Wizzards, performed at places such as the Stanley Theatre, the Civic Arena and Heinz Hall.

"The atmosphere was competitive," recalls Sodda Pop. "Everyone was trying to get into one of the top groups. It was all about learning the dance, getting better and having a reputation."

The two men recall Warner Cable's "Spotlight Tonight," a talent competition in which Pittsburgh viewers could vote for the winner on their cable box. Pittsburgh Mayor Richard Caliguiri subsequently got into the act, giving the local groups jobs performing for the city's Parks and Recreation Department. B-boys could get their Screen Actors Guild cards dancing in commercials for the likes of Father & Son Shoes.

They also started to lose the suspenders and mime makeup. Dancers began to wear Lee jeans, shell-toed Adidas and, for the groups, members-only jackets. "It was our identity," the pair asserts. BWEAR also started expanding the dance form in Pittsburgh by doing skits and putting on shows.

It wouldn't last much longer.

By 1986 they had been forced underground. They were told "no one's doing that anymore." Everyone was suddenly unemployed; they became closet poppers and lockers. Dancers who were trained in ballet and modern dance started taking up the street moves, which all were referred to under the umbrella title of hip-hop.

Although he is still an active popper at 49, Sodda Pop became a barber in New Kensington, while BWEAR, now 53, expanded his entrepreneurial skills into acting, modeling, photography and clothing.

Taking It Underground

Still, MC Hammer, famous for his Running Man dance, was touring and performing on television and gangsta rap was emerging -- "all about the gold and belittling women" according to a rueful BWEAR. Hip-hop was starting to go international -- Japan, Germany, Switzerland, France. But Pittsburgh's movers and groovers had receded into the individual neighborhoods.

Teenager James Weaver, a star athlete at Westinghouse High School, was taking mental notes. "There wasn't much to do but dance and sports in Homewood," he recalls, so he decided to start a hip-hop group with five others.

Mr. Weaver also liked to work out, so he started NAKA (Nothing Against Kan Achieve) Fitness in 1990. Despite the prevalence of gangsta, he wanted to "do something for the community."

When gangsta rap began to die down, Mr. Weaver began to use hip-hop as a tool to get messages across to youth. "People were afraid of hip-hop, that it would bring violence," he recalls. "But it was something to get them off the street."

With 20 years of b-boying and b-girling behind him, his organization, now called NAKA Entertainment, resides at the Glen Hazel Recreation Center.

"The kids I deal with a lot come from the inner city," he explains. "They have problems, but they're able to leave that at home."

Some of the students, like his own daughter, 17-year-old Jamese, headed for dance programs at Pittsburgh's Rogers Middle School and CAPA High School. Hip-hop became a tool of empowerment.

With its increased respect, international recognition and programs like Randy Jackson's "America's Best Dance Crew" on MTV, hip-hop also began to move away from a male-dominated dance form. B-girls began to assert themselves. Now a whole female army of dancers is being trained, with hip-hop classes at virtually every dance studio in the Pittsburgh area.

Traditionalists in ballet and contemporary dance look down on this young and muscular form of movement. Granted, it doesn't generally have a standard vocabulary or technique across the boards. But people such as Mr. Harris and Puremovement are working to correct that at highly respected sites like Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival. It's obvious that hip-hop is here to stay.

Moving into the future

There is no doubt that hip-hop has not only made its appearance on television in programs such as "So You Think You Can Dance," but also has infused ballet and contemporary dance on the concert stage. And there are signs that the culture has deep roots that are producing new growth. As hip-hop expands, here are a few local individuals and groups that could lead the way in the Pittsburgh area.

Gabriel Ash, 23. His hip-hop talent emerged during a performance at Martin Luther King Elementary School, whereupon principal Wayne Walters urged him to attend Rogers. Despite being surprised that he had to do ballet, the young dancer went on to CAPA High School and University of the Arts in Philadelphia. A self-confessed rebel, he has returned to his first love. He works with NAKA Entertainment and is just starting his own crew, K.G. Dynasty, at Pittsburgh Center for the Arts.

"Dance is coming together," he says. "I want to be a part of that."

Teena Marie Custer, 31. With degrees in contemporary dance from Slippery Rock and Ohio State universities, Ms. Custer performs with a national all-women crew, Venus Fly Trap, and is the only female member of Pittsburgh's Get Down Gang. She is also a full-time faculty member at Slippery Rock and is carving a niche for herself in the emerging world of hip-hop academia by leading workshops in dance composition at hip-hop conferences. (The University of Colorado is trying to arrange a panel for her and Mr. Harris in the fall.)

"Many of the hip-hop artists are naturally blessed, but if they had a few more tools it could help them progress," she says.

The South Hills native was pleasantly surprised to find a 12-year-old boy on a trip to Germany who knew all the words to hip-hop steps in English, similar to the way ballet uses French.

Get Down Gang. This 12-member crew has been organized for about a year and is currently the only functioning hip-hop group in Pittsburgh. They practice vibing at local clubs and have participated in out-of-town competitions and battles. But the group's primary purpose is to cultivate the local hip-hop culture.

"You don't have to go to New York," contends spokesman Devon Jeffries. "There's a lot of hidden talent here." Right now they're just trying "to get the word out" through events like Classic Material at East Liberty's Shadow Lounge, where you "just go and dance."

International Freestylers. This Carnegie Mellon University group meets to work on improving their technique late at night. Made up of students interested in the hip-hop culture, the current president is Cyndie Hu, a business major with a minor in Chinese and Japanese. "The culture is so different -- there are no rules and no right way to do something," she says with some degree of modesty about a lifestyle that often brings plenty of attitude. "It also doesn't matter what economic background you come from -- it's what you can bring to the floor right now."

IFS sponsors a Battlezone every November, competes and has a hand in bringing experts like New York hip-hop deejay and writer Bobbito Garcia for a class in "Sneakerology," and Pop Master Fabel. What's important is that some of the IFS members stay in Pittsburgh after graduation, something that will affect the direction of the local community.

Brenna Jaworski, 27. With "a dollar and a dream," Ms. Jaworski began Pittsburgh Heat Hip Hop Studio. The Heat has 275 students from ages 3 to 60, all studying hip-hop, and is the only local studio to do so exclusively. In addition, the former hair dresser sponsors competitive teams, has won at the Pittsburgh Hip-Hop Awards and was a keynote speaker at the Boys & Girls Clubs of America's National Keystone Conference here earlier this year. "Hip-hop is what the kids are into," she says. "We have to speak their language."

Jame Samuels, 29. Ms. Samuels is an instructor at Dance Alloy studios in Friendship and teaches at Pathways, where she gives her students "their happiness for the day." Her "short story" consisted of "African jazz, Cirque du Soleil and a New York lifestyle" before heading back to the 'Burgh. She wants to bring city dancers up to speed by offering professional workshops to local hip-hop dancers. Already Sean Bankhead (Usher, Brittany Spears and more) and Jungle Boogie (MTV's ABDC) have passed through and will be back. She calls hip-hop "medicine for some people."

Former Post-Gazette critic Jane Vranish can be reached at jvranish1@comcast.net . She also blogs on CrossCurrents at www.pittsburghcrosscurrents.com .


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