Talent and ambition propel Miami hip-hop dancers struggling to break into the big leagues


Talent and ambition propel Miami dancers struggling to break into the big leagues

The story unfolding on a North Miami Beach stage in pulsing torsos and rippling arms, slamming splits and wild leaps is of an aspiring dancer fighting for a place in the hip-hop world with the support of her ardent community. It’s a story the two dozen performers hope will come true for them someday.

“We’re gonna make it happen!” producer Ekandem “E” Essiet shouts from the stage at the end of the show. “Everyone here who’s a dancer stand up!” Half the 500 people in the Julius Littman Performing Arts Theatre on this Friday night come to their feet cheering.

For the dancers and Essiet, who has been producing this showcase for five years, a happy ending to that onstage story means breaking into the big leagues of commercial dance entertainment. Those hopes got a boost last year when the movies Rock of Ages and Step Up 4: Revolution were filmed in Miami, employing local dancers and raising their profile for roles in TV shows, commercials and pop tours.

The movies “started a sort of spark, ‘Oh, everyone is going to Miami, we gotta go there too,’ ” the producer says. He points to recent casting sessions for the Fox series Glee and the sequel to the 2007 movie Stomp the Yard and to dance studios around Miami-Dade where hip-hop classes fill schedules along with ballet and jazz.

“Everything has grown tremendously, especially for Miami,” says Essiet, 28, who studied dance at the Northwestern Senior High School magnet program and Florida International University. “Hip-hop went from being a fad or a phase to a recognized part of the industry.”

Dondraico Johnson, a top, Los Angeles-based hip-hop choreographer who has worked on the Footloose remake and the Step Up films as well as tours for Madonna and Jennifer Lopez, was in the audience for the North Miami Beach showcase.

“They’ve come a long way, and the growth is only going to come up,” Johnson says of Miami’s dancers. “This community breeds amazing talent. Now they’ve got a taste and they want more.”

Genre grows

For many people, hip-hop dance conjures images of guys in sneakers doing body-twisting flips and head spins — what dancers call break dancing or B-boy. But that’s only one aspect of contemporary hip-hop dance, which has grown into a broad, inventive genre that’s an essential part of pop tours, music spectacles, reality shows like So You Think You Can Dance and hot movie franchises like the Step Up series. For the 6-and-younger set, Disney has just released Master Moves Mickey, a head-spinning Mickey Mouse doll.

“It used to be that [hip-hop dance] had no structure or technique — you either had it or you didn’t,” says Phillip Kendrick, 31, folding his tall frame into a seat after the showcase. A dancer who moves with a riveting combination of fluidity and explosive power, Kendrick teaches at several studios and has been in videos for Flo Rida and Jason Derullo. “Now hip-hop style evolves every five minutes.”

One of the showcase’s choreographers, Kehynde Hill, 38, started at age 10 break dancing for business crowds in downtown Miami, imitating what he saw on music videos. His studies took him deep into the original hip-hop style as well as jazz, ballet, karate and Lindy Hop and helped make him one of the city’s most respected hip-hop dancers and teachers.

“Hip-hop has its own foundation and language,” Hill says. “There’s dancers who can dance, but you can tell they have no training. If I tell you six-step or lock, and you don’t know the language, you can’t keep up.”

Miami’s multiethnicity and connections to Caribbean and Latin culture help set its dancers apart, and its thriving Latin music and TV industries are a major source of work. Many dancers become fluent in Latin styles to work with Spanish-language pop singers or shows like Univision’s Premio Lo Nuestro.

“We’re very expressive and passionate because of where we’re from,” says dancer Kerine Jean-Pierre, whose parents are Haitian and who has a particularly sinuous and exuberant way of moving. “The mix of cultures means we’re very expressive in how we talk and walk, and that carries into how we dance.”

Jean-Pierre’s talent for expression persuaded Brigid Baker, a modern dancer and choreographer who has worked in New York and Europe, to turn her 6th Street Dance Studio in Little Havana into a center for the Miami hip-hop dance scene. Jean-Pierre was a modern-dance student on scholarship eight years ago when she persuaded a skeptical Baker to let her start a hip-hop class.

“I was like, ‘errrr,’ but I decided to look, and I couldn’t believe what I was looking at because the talent was so extraordinary,” says Baker, who now offers classes for adults and children as well as workshops and programs to foster talent.

She believes the energy and creativity Miami dancers bring to the form make them heirs to the hip-hop pioneers she knew in New York in the 1980s.

“There’s no place like South Florida for hip-hop,” Baker says. “Part of my mission here has been to provide a space for these urban artists to push the boundaries and find new ways of developing.”

Keeping up

For all their talent, local hip-hop dancers are straining to keep up with their counterparts in Los Angeles, New York and Atlanta. Occasional film shoots and music videos can’t match the constant work in the entertainment nexus of L.A.., which draws many of Miami’s most talented dancers. Those who remain reel off names of friends who’ve gone on to dance with the likes of Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Beyonce, Britney Spears, Katy Perry and Nicki Minaj.

Danielle Rodas may follow them soon. Only 19, Rodas got her first professional gig at 16, on Premio Lo Nuestro, and has worked in L.A. on the Teen Choice and Alma Awards shows. She loves hip-hop dancing — “the hypeness, the bigness, how the crowd feeds off you” — and dreams of touring with pop stars and dancing in movies.

“I want to build a name for Miami and myself,” she says. “It’s possible to make a name for yourself here, but then it’s time to travel and set bigger goals.”

Essiet and others are trying to create more opportunities here for dancers like Rodas. Frustrated at negotiating her own jobs with the likes of Spears, Ricky Martin and the MTV Music Awards, choreographer and dancer Amanda Tae started an agency, Tae Talent, in 2007. Today she represents more than 100 clients and owns one of Miami’s top hip-hop dance studios, Focal Point, in Kendall, which trained Jeanine Mason, the fifth-season winner of So You Think You Can Dance.

“Miami dancers have a huge fire inside; we’re much more voracious and passionate,” Tae says.

But, she says, outsiders often take advantage of that eagerness. “A lot of directors or producers realize there’s amazing talent here, and also how much cheaper it is than L.A.. or New York.”

The naïveté and insularity of the local scene hurt local performers as well, she says. “A lot of dancers here get comfortable and they forget to train. I tell them, ‘You need to get better, you need to take class. A choreographer from L.A.. doesn’t know how good you are.’ ”

Essiet has organized many classes to give Miami dancers a chance to learn from, and be seen by, the people who are shaping the hip-hop dance world. “It’s always an audition, from the moment you walk in,” he says.

Gym workshop

On a recent Saturday evening, some 50 dancers gather at a studio in Gold’s Gym in Miami Lakes for a workshop he arranged with Kiki Ely, a choreographer whose credits include the movie Drumline and rappers Nelly and Ludacris.

Sporting elaborately layered, highlighted hair and low-cut sweatpants that show off her mobile mid-section, Ely is looking for dancers for a new singer she’ll be working with.

“A dancer needs to be able to connect with the music and tell a story, to have personality and charisma onstage,” she says.

She teaches a sequence that combines flamboyant, loosely defined moments where the dancers can cut loose — “Guys, you can show your stuff here. Girls, you can do your sexy thing” — with precise, rapid-fire sections. She has the dancers repeat the sequence until they’re gleaming with sweat. “When you get tired, that’s when you gotta pull it together!” Ely exhorts.

Many of the dancers stay afterward for a meeting of Miami’s nascent chapter of the professionals’ union Dancers Alliance. Organizer Dionne Renee urges them to insist on rehearsal pay, a minimum rate for music videos (often a quarter of what’s paid in L.A.. or New York) and generally join together for better pay and treatment. “Let’s stick to these standards so our community can go higher, and not have to go to L.A.. when they get to a certain level,” Renee says.

Hill, the choreographer and teacher, struggled between his ambitions and his ties to Miami. Although he sometimes travels to L.A.. to dance, he opted to stay in Miami and get a day job — he’s been a city of Miami firefighter for 13 years — and now has twin baby boys. Much as he believes in the hip-hop dance scene here, he’s judicious when asked to predict its future.

“I encourage people to leave, but to let people know where they come from,” he says. But Hill is hopeful that Miami dancers’ talent and ambition will work for them in the long run.

“As long as the community keeps on rolling and stays focused,” he says, “we’ll be fine.”

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