UNIVERSAL LANGUAGE: Hip-Hop Dance Exchange, Part I

Hip-Hop Roundtable Discussion at New York University. From L to R: Dr. Joseph G. Schloss, Pop Master Fabel, Afrika Bambaataa, Alien Ness and his wife, Sabrina. All photos courtesy of Joe Conzo, “the man who took hip-hop’s baby pictures.”

For the last seven days, I have had the immense privilege of leading a group of eight hip-hop dancers/international cultural visitors on a tour of New York, thanks to funding from the U.S. Department of State and the visionary leadership at the DeVos Institute of Arts Management at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Hailing from Bolivia, Burma, Ecuador, Germany (by way of Turkey), India, Pakistan, Uganda, and Zimbabwe, these young artists and leaders have transformed the NYC streets and subway stations in which they dance (can’t stop, won’t stop) and every individual they’ve encountered since their arrival. To date, our ambitious tour has included attending “Swift Solos” and Freestyle Archityper 2: A Site-Specific Sculptural Installation by Carlos “Mare139” Rodriguez as part of the Hip-Hop Theater Festival; FELA! on Broadway; a Hush Hip-Hop Tour with the Cold Crush Brothers (live and direct! including a visit to 1520 Sedgwick Ave.); dance workshops with olive Dance Theatre, Ken Swift, Kwikstep and Rokafella (and an impromptu trip to The Door, the teen center where they give free breaking classes to teens); a private tour of the Bronx Museum with Joe Conzo and Daze; a screening of All the Ladies Say; and two unmatchable experiences at New York University (round table discussion) and The Brooklyn Ballet, where our dancers presented works-in-progress at The Schermerhorn, developed in less than four hours with poppers and ballerinas with Founding Artistic Director, Lynn Parkerson’s expert guidance.

The cypher: Joe Conzo captures the energy of the round table discussion in this semi-aerial shot.


“It’s my experience that the ones who say they ‘keepin’ it real’ are often the phoniest,” affirmed b-boy Alien Ness at a round table discussion at NYU’s Silver Center, on October 5, 2010, where Dr. Joseph G. Schloss, author of Foundation: B-Boys, B-Girls and Hip-Hop Culture in New York, State Department hip-hop ambassador and emcee, Toni Blackman, Martha Diaz, Director of the Hip-Hop Eduction Center (H2ED), and Dr. Imani Kai Johnson, post-doctoral fellow at NYU whose dissertation discussed “cyphers” joined our international cultural visitors. They answered the question (over about three hours):

If you stripped away everything else, what is essential to hip-hop for it to continue to exist?

Other guests included B-boy Alien Ness and Pop Master Fabel, who insisted the community, the park jams and accessibility are key to the culture. With the assistance of world renowned photographer and documentarian, Joe Conzo, we were also fortunate enough to have the company of the Godfather of Hip-Hop and founder of the Universal Zulu Nation, Afrika Bambaataa, who explained the fifth element of hip-hop, Knowledge, discussed globalization and the principles of hip-hop.

It’s no mystery in the hip-hop community that Pop Master Fabel’s got a big mouth. But, what you might not know is that his heart is far larger than his reputation as an “angry” dude who will check you faster than you can say “I was there, yo!” (a recurring statement among the pioneers I’ve encountered). Fabel not only joined us for the round table discussion at NYU, but also generously alternated between English and Spanish for our Latino/a visitors and encouraged them in the cypher at Mare139’s show. My heart leapt into my throat when Fabel challenged one of international visitors, Mr. Abraham Pari Seis. Hailing from La Paz, Bolivia, a.k.a. B-boy Crazy Mouse, whose Alto Estilo Crew practices in the streets at altitudes more than 4,000 meters above sea level. After both men had a round in the cypher, Fabel gave a radiant smile and a firm hug to Crazy Mouse. The b-boys and b-girls in our group definitely felt his warmth. Oh, and uh, don’t get it twisted: Fabel can still dance his a$* off.


In response to JDL’s (Cold Crush Brothers) prompt, “What is hip-hop?” on the Hush Hip-Hop Tour, our Burmese visitor raised a fist in the air and proclaimed, “Hip-hop is freedom!” Tears welled in my eyes; Burma is my mother’s home country, too. Our distinguished round table guests agreed that Knowledge is more accurately the first and not the fifth element of hip-hop, so do ya research about my motherland! Only then can you truly understand the weight that one, simple phrase carries.

Ballet dancer turned aspiring b-girl, Ms. Hida Guerrero from Guayaquil, Ecuador, is a young woman filled with light. As the teenage boys at The Door rallied around her at the open practice, she kindly shrugged them off, gesturing with limited English something to the effect of, “Yea yea. Okay. Now, show me how to do that head spin and those freezes.”

Mr. Kadir Memis (Berlin, Germany) a.k.a. Amigo founded a b-boy crew, “Flying Steps” and is one of the founders of a worldwide dance association, “Dance Unity”. He incorporates new forms of dancing into his techniques, including Turkish folkdance. On the first day, when asked his age, he left us with a profound reply: “How can you put an age on your soul? I’ve been dancing 25 years, so I guess that makes my soul 25.” He also held an entire subway station captive at an impromptu performance to a live jazz band.

The baby of the crew, Ms. Nonie Sachdeva (Mumbai, India) is a member of the dance group “Buskers,” whose number of students ranges between 30- and 50,000. Nonie’s fire is unmatched; her signature hair flips always charm the crowd. Mr. Hasan Rizvi (Karachi, Pakistan) is the founder and director of BodyBeat Dance Studio in Pakistan, which is the first and only dance school in the nation. He has taught over 1,800 students since it opened. Although a dancer of 20+ years, he admitted that he now feels he has only been dancing one week, the duration of his visit with U.S. hip-hop greats.

And for all of you who have already seen the trailer for Bouncing Cats (like say, Kanye West, who recently featured it on his blog), you will have seen Mr. Abdul Kinyenya’s face (Kampala. Uganda). He is a founding member of BreakDance Project Uganda, which uses hip-hop to generate positive social change. (I was there in November 2009. Just imagine 500 – 1,000 b-boys and b-girls gettin’ dirty, literally, in an open-air dirt lot. Ridiculous). A contemporary African dancer and b-boy, Abdul has worked extensively with youth throughout Uganda and co-founded Tabu Flo, a professional Ugandan dance crew.

But if I could say I have a she-ro in the crew, it’s Ms. Yeukai Zinyoro (Bulawayo, Zimbabwe) a.k.a. Yo. Yo is the only female member of ROLX, a touring hip-hop dance crew from Bulawayo. A pure and joyful spirit, Yo has rocked many cyphers during her brief trip so far. Although sometimes in need of a push to overcome a bit of shyness, once she hits the dance floor, her leadership is contagious. This is a woman to watch, young world.

From L to R: Hasan Rizvi, Yeukai Zinyoro, Hida Guerrero. Photo courtesy of Joe Conzo.

I am overwhelmed by the power of this universal language we call hip-hop. Following an inspirational visit with legendary hip-hop duo, b-boy Kwikstep and b-girl Rokafella, Rok wrote me, “I got emotional at our goodbye because I knew [the international visitors] would be going home to some really challenging circumstances. I hope they can transcend it all. We can connect and motivate each other to keep going.”

As this is the first of three posts I will share during this visit, I hope that you will all join me in my personal mission to convince the State Department that the core values of hip-hop culture, which Afrika Bambaataa reiterates–Love, Peace, Unity and Having Fun–can and do change the world. Please share your own stories via the comments section below. Like the energy we bring to the cypher, it will take a village to preserve this culture, which, for many of us, has saved and changed our lives.

Group photo at NYU by Joe Conzo.


Since 2006, the U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs’ Cultural Visitors program, managed by the DeVos Institute of Arts Management at the Kennedy Center, has offered artistic development and cultural exchange experiences for artists and arts managers. The goal of this program is to energize the work of emerging international artists in their own countries by bringing them to the U.S. and providing them with instructive and informative experiences in their arts discipline, exposure to the creation and performance of world-class American art, and opportunities to develop relationships with U.S. arts professionals. Participants have come from more than 37 countries worldwide, including Azerbaijan, Bolivia, India, Indonesia, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Lebanon, Malaysia, Morocco, and Turkey. On behalf of the U.S. Department of State, the Kennedy Center develops customized programs for each group. For more information visit the Kennedy Center website.

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The international cultural visitors will perform at the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage on Monday, October 11, 2010 at 6:00 p.m. Free and open to the public. For more information, click here.