It’s a perfect summer Sunday in London, and this empty ballet studio looks picture-perfect too. Soft sunlight streams over the piano in the Karsavina Studio at RAD headquarters, and dapples the opposite wall. A sweatshirt hangs over the barre as if it dozed off right where it was flung. The whole place seems to be on snooze.
And then, in they come. Five young dancers: three women and two men. Four black, one white. No ballet slippers; trainers. No tights; cut-offs. No pianist; a beatbox. The choreographer flips the switch and a fat bassline floods the studio. It’s as if the pulse inside my ears has been tapped, turbo-charged, and pumped out into the room. My limbs twitch and my torso vibrates like an echo chamber, but that’s nothing compared with what the dancers are doing. In tight formations, they punch the air, they wriggle through it, they jut hips and knees and elbows in synch. The guys bounce upwards into jazzy turning leaps, a cue for the women to spring forward into a taut routine of blocky steps and knife-edge gestures. It’s short and it’s sharp, but every one of its 55 seconds brims with energy. At the end I’m left, well, electrified – both buzzing and somewhat dazed.
“That bass really pumps you up,” says 17-year-old Charlotte after the dancers have cooled down a little. “Kieran has a tendency to put the bass right up. Last year we blew the speakers.”
Kieran Daley-Ward, the group’s choreographer, smiles and spreads his hands in open confession. He and his sister Kelly had drawn the troupe from Ricochet Street Dance Company, which they’d begun as a training group but soon started producing enough talent to form several performance outfits. The dancers I’ve just seen are from their elite group, Elysium. They range from 17 to 19 years old. Two came to the Ricochet from performing arts school; one went to performing arts school from Ricochet; and all are hooked on street dance. For Leah, the best thing is its “energy and edginess”. For Charlotte, it’s the expressiveness: “you can really put your personality into it”. Elysium are here today to audition for the finals of the Street Dance Weekend UK Championships. Well, that explains why they’re here – but why is that here, in this RAD ballet studio?
The answer to that question goes back to 2007, when a youth charity called the Jack Petchey Foundation contacted the Academy. They’d noticed that dance was a great way of engaging young people, and was becoming ever more popular and asked the RAD to come up with a dance-based project for children aged 11–16 across 30 London schools. The result was the RAD’s first Step Into Dance project, with a programme of dance teaching for two hours a week in each school, culminating in a performance showcase.
“It was a huge pilot project,” remembers Mel Adams, the Academy’s development director for the scheme. “It was also the first community outreach work we’d done. In the planning stage, we contacted all the schools and asked what forms of dance their students would be interested in. And around 50% came back and said: that would be street dance.”
That presented a problem. Despite running a recruitment campaign, the Academy couldn’t field enough street dance experts to meet the demand. Fortunately, help was right on their doorstep, in the form of G Force Productions, a local company which had been a specialist in street dance for more than 15 years. Founder and director James Narh had been a street dancer himself (Kelly Daley-Ward had originally performed alongside him), and abandoned his later career as a government scientist to promote street dance. His flagship event, the Street Dance Weekend UK Championships, grow from a modest competition with a mere 75 spectators back in 1996 to an annual event that could fill stadiums. So when the RAD came knocking, he was already plugged in to a network, and finding teachers was easy.
“And really, street dance as part of Step Into Dance grew even stronger from there,” says Adams. “The pilot was a real success, and it has grown hugely in three years. We’re now in 90 schools across 11 London boroughs, and the final showcase is bigger and better than ever.”
But Adams’ moment of revelation was yet to come. Having helped to supply teachers for the RAD, Narh now invited the RAD to his own championships at London’s vast Hammersmith Apollo. “It was like no event I’d ever been to,” enthuses Adams. “The audience was as loud as the music, with whistles and whoops: the atmosphere was amazing. So was the dancing. Groups of kids doing incredible moves, death-defying acrobatics.” The choreography was every bit as impressive. “There was so much wit in the routines – it was very, very clever. I was blown away by it, actually.”
Narh had a hunch that might happen. “When they saw the standard these kids were setting,” he says, “I knew they’d be impressed.” And so the partnership became a two-way street: he helped find street dance teachers for Step Into Dance, and the Academy provides studio space for the championship auditions. The arrangement benefits both organisations.
“It was always my vision to get street dance to the point of an established art form,” says Narh. “Dedication, commitment, hard work – those are the values of professional ballet. And that’s something we get by being associated with the RAD.” That in turn has an effect on the dancers’ attitude. “The name RAD adds status. It’s not a local youth centre or town hall. But put these kids somewhere that demands respect, and they will deliver it. You can see the change when some of the dancers arrive here: they might walk down the road with a bounce, but when they get here that leg straightens up!”
For the RAD, the benefits go beyond the Step Into Dance project. “Many of our teacher training graduates will go on to teach not only ballet, but other forms of dance too,” explains Adams. “Our emphasis is on professional standards of training and education, regardless of the form. And there’s a real market out there for street dance teachers.” It has an incredibly broad appeal among young people, cutting across class, gender and race, and puts the RAD in touch with groups that its core ballet programme has traditionally found hard to reach: black and ethnic minority kids, working class kids, boys. And that, in sum, is the story behind why five young street dancers – three women, two men; four black, one white – had burst bright-eyed into the RAD, shaking up a summer Sunday.
It’s part of a wider shift that has seen street dance crossing over into new ground. “Since I started in the 1990s,” says Narh, “the biggest change I’ve noticed has been the impact of street dance: it’s become the most popular dance across the country, a household name. It used to be ‘wrong’ or ‘bad’, linked with gang culture and drugs, but that attitude has changed. It’s not underground any more. Street dance is now an industry.”
Street dance has always played a part in the music industry, whether in music video or live concerts, but in the last few years it has really established its own presence. Narh’s championships may have begun in a school hall, but in recent years has played to capacity audiences in vast auditoria: this year, it took place at the cavernous O2 Arena. London’s Sadler’s Wells Theatre, the country’s most prestigious dance house, set up the Breakin’ Convention festival of hip hop dance theatre in 2004, and it’s now a major fixture in the British dance calendar. Visitors to this street dance sampler are regularly struck by the same four things: that street dance is global (with groups from America to Korea, Russia to Brazil); that it’s local (performing groups are very often embedded in local communities, in suburbs and small towns as well as urban centres); that it’s phenomenally popular among young people; and that there is an astonishing amount of skill and talent on display.
The wider world is sitting up and taking notice. Street dance is now appearing regularly in mainstream theatre and arts centres. Zoo Nation, a company that appeared in the first Breakin’ Convention festival, went on to create the country’s most successful street dance theatre production, Into the Hoods. Choreographed by Kate Prince, this hip-hop take on Stephen Sondheim’s musical Into the Woods was first hosted at the Sadler’s Wells Peacock Theatre in 2006, was one of the highlights of that year’s Edinburgh Festival, and went on to become the first hip-hop dance show to play in London’s West End. This year, it returns to London for Christmas; so too does Pied Piper, choreographed by Kenrick Sandy (a previous winner at Narh’s Street Dance Championships). This began life at the Theatre Royal Stratford East in 2006, where it picked up a prestigious Olivier Award, and will return to London’s Barbican Arts Centre. Insane in the Brain by Swedish company Bounce, a street dance version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, also returns to London after a successful run.
Street dance is mixing with other genres too. Director Ian Spink has engaged Edinburgh b-boy Tony Mills to teach street dance to Scottish Ballet, for his new production of Petrushka, premiered at the Edinburgh Festival. Talawa Theatre Company enlisted the help of the energetic dancer/choreographer Kymberlee Jay for their annual Youth Theatre production. Working with actors with no dance training hasn’t been a problem. “This generation of young people are very much an MTV generation,” says Jay, during a break in rehearsals at Talawa’s north London studio. “Though the technique within street dance is vast, it’s something they’re exposed to and recognise, so it’s easy for them to latch onto.” She also uses music that they relate to; in fact, even during their break the actors are bouncing and larking around happily to some music. “So,” continues Jay, “they come up with their own ideas pretty easily, and to put a count and a beat on that and give them some direction hasn’t been a problem at all.”
Street dance seems to be popping out all over the stage, but the biggest hike in its profile has been on screen. Last year, street dancer George Sampson, 14, won the ratings-topping TV programme Britain’s Got Talent. This year, not one but two street dance groups reached the 2009 finals, with East London group Diversity going on to beat both rival outfit Flawless and the bookie’s favourite, singer Susan Boyle, to become the surprise winners.
Even before their triumph, a street dance film was already been put into production. By 2008, James Richardson of Vertigo Films had picked up on the broad youth appeal of street dance, and started researching material for a feature film. Once again, James Narh was at hand, introducing him to Flawless and Diversity, both previous championship winners. And again, Narh cannily invited Richardson along to the championships. The experience was even more of a baptism of fire than it had been for Melanie Adams: because Narh invited Richardson to be a judge. “Of course I had no idea what I was looking at or looking for,” laughs Richardson. “I don’t understand the technical element at all. So it was all about what made a fantastic spectacle, what the audience connected with, and just what I thought worked best creatively and as a performance.”
The film, which began shooting in August, is to be Britain’s first 3D feature film. For Richardson, a dance film was a natural choice for the technology. “The new technology is incredibly good,” he explains, “and it makes the film feel very immersive. With the shapes of dance and the depth of movement we were thinking, this is going to look amazing.”
The street dancers in the film include Diversity, Flawless and George Sampson. Richardson has already consulted with Kate Prince and Kenrick Sandy, as well the choreographers Ashley Banjo from Diversity and Marlon Wallen from Flawless – and William Tuckett from the Royal Ballet. So what’s the plot? “It’s about a street dance crew who are trying to rehearse for the street dance championships,” says Richardson. “And the local ballet school says that they can use our space. But they have to take on some of the ballet dancers. So then, they have to overcome their differences to try to win the finals. So that’s the story, about how they’re going to work together. And there’s a love story within it, of course.”
Sounds familiar? Hip-hop bursts into ballet studio? One art form falls for another? Remember, you heard it here first.
Kimberlee Jay’s quick guide to street dance
Street dance kicked off with funky styles from the late 1960s and early 70s, exemplified by the music of James Brown and given a boost by the rise of the DJ. The early dance styles included locking, where you momentarily “lock” a position on the beat, giving the movement a freeze-frame effect and a rhythmic edge; and popping, a more fluid style where the dancer “pops” the joints in succession, creating an impression of a current passing through the body. In New York, a more acrobatic style emerged that included drops, spins and windmills. Together, these are known as old school styles and are sometimes lumped together under the generic term breakdancing.
The 1980s produced house dance and styles such as vogueing (popularised by Madonna) and wacking. Evolving from locking, these use a lot of arm movements, and they’re both very feminine and very bold and strong. In vogueing the moves emulate photoshoot and catwalk poses; in wacking the arms are more thrown. Both started off in the gay communities before becoming more widespread.
Then in the late 80s and early 90s came the New Jack Swing era. This was dominated by big party moves, like the “cabbage patch” and the “running man” – straightforward moves that everyone could join in whether they were a dancer or not. They were made famous by artists such as Bobby Brown and MC Hammer.
From then, the evolution was into something called the New York style, which is the basis of the choreography that we now know in street dance. Previously, street dance had been very free and individual, it didn’t involve a lot of choreography. The New York style began to take certain moves and break them down so that they could be taught. Dancers were no longer dancing freestyle. It was all about being in synch.
Then developed what is called LA style. The dancing is very controlled, a lot smaller and more rhythmically intricate. Dancers hit not only the counts, but the half counts and the counts in between those too. LA style was made famous artists such as Justin Timberlake, whose moves are very controlled and smooth.
Currently, we’re very much in the era of New York and LA style. But of course more styles are always emerging. One of the main recent ones is krump, which emerged over 10 years ago in Los Angeles, and is closely linked to African dance. It’s said that it comes from the heart, and in fact the moves all come from the torso. The basic move is called a chest hit. Krump is more an expression of emotion than a choreographed style. So it’s almost like we’re coming full circle again to a more freeform way of dancing.