Rennie Harris has been testing the limits of hip-hop dancing since at least 1992, when he founded Puremovement. The Philadelphia choreographer helms one of the first hip-hop groups to tour the modern-dance circuit as a company, not a crew. In 2000, Rome & Jewels, his all-male adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, gave hip-hop its first evening-length narrative work and garnered international rave reviews. Last year, his Facing Mekka incorporated women, capoeira, and butoh. Mekka included enough virtuosic dazzle to win a battle and inspire big whoops—men, on their heads, sliding across the stage or spinning interminably. But the choreography as a whole achieved an emotional range and spiritual depth that seemed unprecedented.
At the same time, Harris, 40, has been looking backward, holding annual conferences—called “Illadelph Legends”—in his hometown, bringing together the creators of hip-hop dance in the ’70s and early ’80s in an attempt to establish accurate histories and certification programs for teachers, inspire a new generation, and generally counteract the soulless path he thinks commercial hip-hop has taken. Out of these conferences came Legends of Hip-Hop, a touring showcase of pioneer vernacular dancers opening a two-week run at the New Victory Theatre on November 12.
Harris continues to experiment. He’s just finished collaborating with Judith Jamison and Robert Battle on a piece for the Ailey company (“They’re hip-hop, too,” he says), and he’s working on a solo for himself and a B-boy ballet. Yet Legends of Hip-Hop, a show he didn’t choreograph and doesn’t perform in, remains the project he likes the most. “It’s where I feel at home. Everything else is me searching.”
Essentially, Legends lets Harris shift a bit of his limelight onto his heroes. He’s brought in Don Campbell, father of the hydraulic, stop-and-start dance known as the “campbellock” or “locking”—collapsing like a deflated balloon, then snapping back into a goofy pose. Harris grew up watching Campbell’s group, the Lockers, perform on TV’s Soul Train. Legends also features Boogaloo Sam Solomon, originator of the boogaloo style, with its rolling body isolations, as well as the jerky articulation of joints known as “popping,” Harris’s own specialty.
Although much hip-hop history is murky and contested, the legendary status of these men is clear. It’s the hip-hop label that’s questionable. Campbell grew up in Los Angeles. Solomon started out in Fresno, and later moved to L.A. “One thing that came out of the conferences,” says Harris, “is that the West Coast faction said they were not part of hip-hop. They got swallowed up by hip-hop”—an East Coast term and movement— “when they had never heard of it.” Their moves pre-dated hip-hop, at least in its popularized form, and they prefer the term “funk styles.”
This concern with definitions and labels is partly a belated response to the international “breakdancing” fad of the early ’80s, when the mainstream media and Hollywood latched onto a variety of regional and individual styles, collapsing them into a single trend. B-boying, the Bronx-based style of dancing during a record’s percussive breaks that developed alongside DJ’ing, MC’ing, and graffiti, got the most attention. That was also its curse. Playing to the camera encouraged the use of flashy “power moves” at the expense of personal flair, humor, musicality, and insider subtleties like the transition from upright to floor-based maneuvers. And when the attention shifted to rap, B-boying was seen as played out, passé.
Legends has included representatives from the East Coast, too. The Rock Steady Crew danced in many of those ’80s films. Richard “Crazy Legs” Colon, its president and at 38 the only original member still performing, served as Jennifer Beals’s stunt double for the break dancing scenes in Flashdance. Yet his was the second or third generation of B-boys. By the time he came up in the late ’70s, B-boying was falling out of favor in the African American community. Colon’s peers—like him, mostly Latino—brought the form new attention by adding acrobatics and multiple spins on their backs, heads, and shoulders.
A taste of that transition comes across in interview footage shot at the Philly hip-hop summits and included in the show. At one point, Crazy Legs speaks of upright moves as mere preparation for hitting the ground and dancing upside down.
In contrast, the older funk dancers tend to stay on their feet. Their emphasis is on rhythm. “Popping” takes its name from the sounds Boogaloo Sam used to accompany his contractions. The sharp shifts of direction respond to the beat and the funky accents; the wit depends on musical timing.
The artists on Harris’s roster are facing the same generational challenges he is. Crazy Legs, after some 25 years of pounding his body against cardboard and concrete, worries about agitating his herniated disks. Boogaloo Sam is in his forties. Campbell is over 50. At the New Victory, he’ll get a little help from the Tokyo Lockers, younger acolytes from Japan. Out of the five men who now make up Sam’s group, the Electric Boogaloos, only one besides him is original, his brother Poppin’ Pete. But the other three are all old school. One, Steve “Mr. Wiggles” Clemente, also belongs to the Rock Steady Crew. His decision to learn the funk style must have something to do with getting older.
Watching these guys dance is a bit like watching the grown-ups bust out old moves at a wedding. And much of the fun in the period footage is nostalgic, especially the outfits—the loud colors, enormous apple hats, and white gloves. But it’s never embarrassing. The middle-aged men have still got it. In his long black coat, dark glasses, and porkpie hat, Boogaloo Sam exudes the unmistakable authority of a creator. You can tell that the style is his. “Younger cats are mostly trick-based,” says Harris. “When you go to the Boogaloos, you’re going to see people dance.”
Harris makes room for local guests, too—young New York hotshots, both male and female. DJ Evil Tracy and others will display their mad skills. For can’t-believe-your-senses virtuosity, it’s hard to top “human orchestra” Kenny Muhammed—one man, one microphone, making at least two turntables’ worth of sounds.
Still, the project as a whole has an older-but-wiser air. The footage reminds us just how young the legends were the first time around. These days, they’re concerned with avoiding exploitation, controlling production, starting unions, and finding time for their kids. Harris wants to encourage universities to hire them (he recently taught hip-hop at UCLA).
By their lights, the old-school guys don’t get enough respect from either the world of rap, where dance is often treated as a stepchild, or from mainstream dance, where the negative “street” associations haven’t entirely faded. Says Harris, “These people shaped pop culture. Don Campbell was the first one to organize a company. In Japan, he’s Elvis. Go outside the country, and these guys are treated the way they should be.” Harris hopes the Legends show will change all that, though he’s been disappointed with the interest level so far.
Hip-hop dance is in a “transition period,” he says. Some awkwardness is to be expected. (West Coast forms, he reports unironically, are now to be called “funk styles associated with hip-hop cultures.”) Recent years have seen a resurgence, with new groups and more video and concert work emerging. Dancers are scrambling to establish a more solid foundation this time.
That’s clearly one reason Harris has hit the road. “A lot of people would challenge whether what I do is hip-hop,” he says. “But all my movement is hip-hop. I have to show people where it came from.”