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Flash Review 2, 7-21: The Heart & Soul of Hip-Hop
Rennie Harris's New 'Illadelph Legends'

By Janine Gastineau
Copyright 2001 Janine Gastineau

BOULDER, Colorado -- Groove is in the HOUSE! Thanks and props to our man Rennie Harris, here again at the Colorado Dance Festival, who reminds us to honor the source. Harris's "Illadelph Legends," originally a week-long celebration of hip hop held in his native Philadelphia, has morphed into a new evening-length tribute to the pioneers of the genre, which premiered in Colorado last night. Harris is touring the show, he recently explained, "to give people more information on hip-hop culture and the history of the dance form, and to (let them) see the creators and innovators, pioneers of the movement."

"Illadelph Legends," whose four performances close the 19th annual festival, grew out of Rennie Harris PureMovement lecture demonstrations: "At first it was about the history of hip-hop," said Harris. "Then it became about honoring the legends of hip-hop. It kind of snow-balled." History and tradition have always been a big deal to Harris. Teaching class, he continually reminds his students to learn about the history of what they're studying. And not just hip-hop, either -- modern, ballet, and above all, the source, traditional West African dance, as well.

In each tour city, local hip-hop crews are invited to perform their own choreography in "Illadelph Legends," as well as demonstrate a majority of the House and B-boying sections. Boulder's Motion Underground, founded and directed by Ken Jiminez, opened last night's show. I've always loved this company because lots of women dance in it (Motion Underground has always been at least 50% women since being launched five years ago), something Jiminez clearly encourages. And he has a way of getting the women to inhabit and perform this male-dominated form like they own it.

And Jiminez's men dance with such joy. Several stand out. You can see the Latin influence in the way Gabriel Nelson (also an excellent salsa dancer) moves his upper body; Larry Southall whips out an excruciatingly slow sustained body roll; Liz Spellmire, small and speedy, eats up the floor with her feet, and then...there's Ray Ray. Ray Ray Maestas, all of nineteen is a charming and disarming performer. His specialty: head spins. He "taps" -- hands touching and then coming off the floor as he turns, balanced on his head, legs open in an "S" shape. He "floats" - "Look ma, no hands!" while still turning. He wraps it up with a "drill," - whipping his legs together and straightening them, extending the float almost indefinitely. Maestas has checked in with an astonishing 30-plus revolutions from a single preparation. There aren't a lot of guys out there doing this. In "Illadelph Legends," Maestas tosses off 15 revolutions more than once without breaking a sweat. His top and down rocking ain't bad either, and he does it all very sweetly.

A brief video clip of Harris follows, the choreographer explaining house dancing: "The closest thing to freeform Jazz. And I feel that we have to honor the circle when we talk about house." So these dancers do. Two dozen dancers (from Motion Underground and dance studios in Denver and elsewhere) form an open circle, and one by one the dancers dive in and take it down! I feel like I'm watching bebop, almost seeing the notes float in the air, everyone dances with such detail and clarity -- particularly Motion Underground's Nelson, who rocks the house with a magical, weirdly syncopated bit that stays in his left leg for a long time.

Next up are the Untouchables, four men who are "keeping the hip-hop tradition in Philly alive," says Harris. Wonderfully silly, their spin on the form includes swing partnering (legs straddling the partner's waist, body diving between their legs), flips (step onto your partner's clasped hands and over you go!), two-man silliness on the floor that smacks of Pilobolus, unexplained scooter-riding in the middle of the dance, and double-dutch jumping without the rope. This team ends its section standing in two tight overhead spotlights, two of the performers looking at the audience and breathing hard, their partners moving a hands in and out before their chests. The tableau reminds us that this troupe is pumping some serious blood. These clown princes of hip hop work HARD.

Another video clip shows Harris talking about Don Campbell, inventor of locking and founder of the Lockers crew. (Legend has it that Campbell, unable to do the Funky Chicken, invented locking instead, combining mechanical robot moves with dashes of wild movement and exact stops and starts). In the 1970's, the Lockers were one of the first hip hop dance companies to perform professionally, touring major cities (once with Frank Sinatra!). Last night, ably assisted by Sugar Pop and Steve "Wiggles" Clement (of Electric Boogaloo), Campbell demonstrated his funkadelic style.

You've seen one bit of Campbell's style, perhaps without knowing it. Just remember that jazz split with the bent back leg that many of dancers (and rock singers) like to throw themselves down into, then snapping their legs together as they float up to standing again. It's a stock move that predates hip-hop, rock 'n' roll, all of it. James Brown kicking this same move in his act in the 60s. The Nicholas Brothers were doing it in 1940s movie musicals. And if you went back far enough, you'd surely find someone in Vaudeville using the move. Campbell and company use it to incredibly dynamic effect, the whole crew often moving in unison, then popping back up to twirl their lower arms, feet simultaneously doing step reach back, step reach back, then spinning wildly. It's bright, it's down, and it's ever so funky

And the unforgettable costumes! The Lockers wore flashy, loud-colored clothes that more than hinted at the 1940s zoot suit: from the big floppy hat to large bow-ties over fitted shirts and vests, baggy knickers recalling those pegged pants. Sugar Pop, decked out in such finery, came sailing off the upstage bleachers in a classic split jump to land on the floor in that same jazz split, then gave us a fine rendition of the Locker style. He was echoed by "Wiggles" (Thursday night) and Skeeter Rabbit (Friday night), and then they brought on the man himself -- Don Campbell -- who rounded things out with his own silly hat bits and a little more dancing.

Next up was DJ, who "sets the landscape," as Harris put it. "He's the percussionist, the drummer, and the dancers respond to him that way." And spinning platters, you realize, is almost as artful rhythmically as playing an instrument. Story is that, years ago, a DJ named Kool Herc added a second turntable and began mixing the music up to extend the break beyond a song's typical 32 bars, all to keep people dancing longer. Tonight, the masterful Evil Tracy demonstrated his craft, milking the moment for all it was worth, reaching under his lifted leg and around his back, and even using his back (and butt) to move the platters.

Finally, the highlight of Illadelph Legends arrived. A video clip rolled and we saw Boogaloo Sam talking about winning a dance contest at Ervin Junior High School, along with four of his brothers. Then he described a disabled man he knew who gave him the inspiration for the style he became famous for. "He walked like this," Sam said, lifting a leg and sidling along, "and I saw it and thought, damn! That's a tight move." Boogaloo Sam demonstrated just how tight by rolling it through his body slowly, until it became that recognizable Electric Boogaloo style: part Robot, part undulation, the body parts moving in exquisite contrapuntal isolation, and with those emphatic reverberations whenever a limb, head, hand, or foot stopped moving. Electric Boogaloo is the only dance style I can think of that can possess seemingly opposing qualities at the same time: sharp and smooth, jittery and relaxed, vibratory and sustained. Like all hip-hop styles, the dance's timing changes constantly, making everything that happens a delightful surprise, with the added plus of Electric Boogaloo being the most deliciously detailed of them all.

The Boogaloo part of the evening was a generous one. They all soloed: Boogaloo Sam, Skeeter Rabbit, Sugar Pop, Wiggles, and Poppin' Pete. all were resplendent in black with white accents -- fedoras, bow ties, cummerbunds, armbands and spats -- and danced to cheers and screams from the house (I swear I even saw a bit of "Snake Hips" in Skeeter Rabbit's solo!) Individually their solos run the gamut, from silky Sam to frenetic Wiggles; collectively it was as wonderful dancing as I have ever seen, and I had to keep pinching myself that it was really the Boogaloo crew here in person, after all those times I saw them on TV.

Harris and company -- Motion Underground, the Untouchables, and an assorted crew of a dozen or more dancers from Denver and Boulder -- formed another circle, wrapping up the evening with a 'B-boying' demonstration. Everyone pulled out all the stops. Dancers obligingly performed windmills, handplants galore(including a bizarre twisty one with two legs bent), hollowbacks and inverted hollow backs with straight legs, bent legs, spread legs, legs over the head, and legs all twisted up! They did back spins, hands spins, even an elbow spin, and one guy whipped out a "2000": arms extended, hands on top of one another, he spun on his palms. Julie Urich downrocked into a long set of gorilla walks. The house lights went up, audience members were invited to the floor, and some young kids (who looked to be about 7 and 10 years old) broke it up with the best of them in the circle, before the whole crowd began dancing at once and filling the stage, as the audience rose to its feet, clapping and screaming. Harris stood at the back, surveying the crowd, grinning at the joyous assembly his show had brought together.

In the end, old style or new, hip-hop is all about joy -- joy for those watching, joy for those doing it -- and community, in the crews who perform together, in the way dancers share their skills with each other and from the young kids trying to master it. Major props to Rennie Harris, whose third appearance at the Colorado Dance Festival (since 1997) continues to inspire and encourage members of our local hip-hop scene as well as the larger dance community. "Illadelph Legends" is of great importance, not only so we can thank Don Campbell and Boogaloo Sam (and all the others who created hip-hop), but also observe in all its brilliant detail what they gave us with their dance innovations. Don't miss its stop in your town!

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