HIP HOP IS BIG BUSINESS. The genre that started with kids break dancing at New York block parties in the 1970s is now a requirement on So You Think You Can Dance, and every suburban gym offers hip-hop cardio fusion. But beyond the aerobics classes and the rap-video swagger, the true heart of hip hop beats as strongly as ever.
Impossible to pin down, hip hop encompasses dozens of movement styles, from b-boying, b-girling and popping to locking, whacking and turfing…those crazy hip-hop kids seem to invent new variations and more insane moves every day. One of the nurturers of hip hop in all its manifestations is San Francisco choreographer Micaya, the founder and producer of the 12-year-old San Francisco Hip Hop DanceFest. The first festival to present hip hop on a proscenium stage, it is arguably the most fun, most surprising and most awe-inspiring event in San Francisco’s dance season, and possibly the most misunderstood.
“I love beating the expectations of what people think they’re gonna see when they come,” Micaya says. The refrain she hears most often: “‘I thought it was gonna be a bunch of loud, obnoxious music and some guys spinning on their heads.’ People think it might be offensive or loud or crotch-grabbing or guns or demeaning to women. There’s been such a bad rap, so to speak, that I’ve had to overcome a lot of stereotypes.”
So if the DanceFest is none of those things, then what is it? “I say the word ‘hip hop,’ but it’s very loosely, because I definitely bring in people who fuse it and push the boundaries,” Micaya says. “There’s been millions of successful battles and hip-hop competitions, and they’re great, but it’s never been something that I [wanted] to do. You have to follow what motivates you, what inspires you. And for me, it’s the people who take it and make artistic content out of the pieces.”
Hip hop is a communal art, and the festival offers an opportunity to share technique as well as to show what you’ve got. “Dancers want to connect with other dancers, to not only give them respect but to connect and network and bounce ideas. There’s a lot of respect.” Performers come from as far afield as Norway and Korea because Micaya has created a showcase of dance and passion and creativity centered on the best hip-hop dance companies and soloists in the world.
Micaya spends the entire year developing her performer wish list. “Let me tell you, I go crazy on the diversity,” she says. And over the past twelve years, she has learned how to put on a show: “I’m gonna book something that the critics are gonna love, and something that the kids are gonna love, and something that people who are kind of intellectual might really appreciate. And then I’m gonna book really skilled raw dance companies, and real fun dance companies. I want to fill the whole palate in one show, so that people get the best of everything.” An evening’s performances might span an emotional piece on homelessness, a tour de force of popping and an intimate solo about life as a woman in South Africa.
Of course, each year entails endless grant writing, fund-raising and budgeting, as Micaya insists on paying travel and hotel expenses for visiting artists. “I beg donors for money so I can bring them here. It’s so important to me that I’ve become a hospitable organization. Just like if we were going to have any professional artist come, they should be treated as such.” Micaya may be the world’s first hip-hop hostess, a role she relishes.
But looking beyond the travel planner, bookkeeper and on-the-fly producer, one finds a passionate, caring person who is motivated by a deep commitment to her art and her fellow artists. “What we all long for is the magic that art brings us… The very first time I got a job as a choreographer and I saw my piece, I knew right then and there that I was a choreographer. That was where my joy came from. I loved being on stage, but there’s nothing like that feeling of sitting in the audience and watching a piece performed.”
So the artist has become the impresario, much to her own surprise. “I would have never thought when I first started this that I would be flying people in from Austria,” she says. “I’m a dance teacher and a choreographer, I was a single mom, and never in my wildest dreams did I think I was going to be a producer. I mean, even now, it’s surreal… Honestly, it’s like Christmas, the thought of all these presents, these dancers, coming here. It’s something I just can’t wait to share with everybody because I know they’re going to love it!” It turns out that Micaya is a hip-hop mogul, and she couldn’t care less about big business.
Each DanceFest program includes 11 different companies, who will perform up to 9 minutes apiece. Here’s Micaya’s guide to the performers confirmed by press time.
Pro Phenomen is coming from Paris. They’re very cutting-edge. They knocked a couple of us out of our seats [at the Breaking Convention in London]. We saw they were taking things to a different level. Poppin’ Pete and I looked at each other like, What the hell are these guys?
I have two groups from L.A. One Step Ahead are real artistic, almost like modern dance. They’re doing a piece about dysfunctional families. Versa Style are so much fun; they have that joy that’s infectious.
FBC, a [local] youth company, have won millions of competitions. Mind Over Matter is Allan Frias’ group. He has a sexual nature to everything he does; I put him on right before intermission, and then I make an announcement that the next piece may be inappropriate for children. I don’t want to censor him.
My company, SoulForce, is in Program A… I am a real risk-taker when it comes to my company; definitely not your run-of-the-mill hip-hop dance! DS Players are some beautiful skilled guys from the South Bay; they do popping and locking. And then probably, almost sure, we have [Bboy Ynot with] Mr. Wiggles from the original Rock Steady—the kids are gonna pee their pants, because he’s legendary.
Funkanometry SF are a local company that do their own particular new style. Loose Change is influenced by modern dance; they’ve even done some stuff with Lindy Hop in the past. They’re very intellectual. They always have some interesting visuals, and people love them.
New Style Motherlode, with Diamond, their youth group, have their own studio in Rockridge. They always come up with something consistently fresh. They don’t play around! Academy of Villains is a group directed by CJ, who was with Soul Supreme on America’s Best Dance Crew.
Bliss Dance Company, a youth company from Vacaville, auditioned…for probably their fifth or sixth year and have never made it. Every year they’ve come back they’ve looked better, they’ve grown. And this year they made it! I was the happiest person in the world to notify them that they’d be performing this year.
From New York, I’m bringing Kinichi Ebina back…everybody loves him. He’s a soloist, he’s a showman, he’s an entertainer. He does these amazing stories and tricks. Motion Underground is coming from Colorado. Every time they come they are consistently on. They do a little bit of everything.
Spread Expression, from London, are performing a piece about human slavery that still exists in the world today. GrooveMekanex are a locker group from San Jose.
The Jungle Jills are whackers [from Los Angeles]; whacking is kind of like an offshoot of vogueing, so it’s just very, very flamboyant. This is their first year, and I just know it’s going to be super-ultra!
If previous DanceFests are any indication, it’s safe to assume that the whole weekend will be super-ultra (and sold out). Program A runs Friday, Nov 19, at 8pm and Sunday, Nov 21, at 2pm Program B runs Saturday, Nov 20, at 8pm, and Sunday, Nov 21, at 7pm, at the Palace of Fine Arts Theatre (3601 Lyon St., San Francisco). Tickets are $40 at CityBoxOffice.com; save $10 when you purchase tickets to both programs. For complete information, visit sfhiphopdancefest.com.