The Cypher, The Circle & The Drums

By Karla Flores

October 9, 2023, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE
Joshua Estrada (Spirit Realmer) is hitting a handstand freeze with legs crossed in the middle. He is in the middle of the crowd.
Photo by Ivy Chen
[ID: Joshua Estrada, wearing a dark hat, t-shirt and jeans is holding a handstand freeze in the middle of the dance floor while surrounded by a crowd. He has tattoos on his stomach and both of his wrists/forearms.]

Editor’s Note: Karla Flores is a Spring 2023 CA$H grantee. This article highlights her funded activities and vision.

AfroRooted is something new. And at the same time, has existed long before the name was even created.

It is holding up hip hop culture, and tracing its roots back to the drum. The first code.

It is recognizing the births and histories of these freestyle dances, and asking, “What more is there? Outside of the Black and Brown communities that catapulted house, waacking, breakin, rock dance, turfin and vogue into battles and onto world stages?”

The circle, the cypher (or cipher), existed long before these freestyle art forms began. This is not to generalize, more to emphasize that AfroRooted has been done several times over and over. The “cypher” existed in traditional dances from indigenous communities telling stories through movement. Honoring ancestors and connecting to Earth.


Karla Flores and Lilian Maxmillian Nabaggala posing on a rooftop in Kampala, Uganda.
Photo by Kibazzi Pius [ID: Karla Flores (left) and Lilian Maxmillian Nabaggala (right) both posing in front of bar white structure on a building rooftop. Karla, has her curly hair down, wearing dark lipstick black tank top and dark blue jeans. Lilian is wearing all black pants and a crop top with white jeweled headband.]

Lilian Maxmillian Nabaggala and me, Karla “Karlita” Flores, two women active in choreographic work, battles, performance and community organizing, met officially back in 2015 through the State Department cultural network, Next Level—an international hip hop diplomacy initiative. Meeting in Kampala, Uganda, we connected through our love of the dance style waacking. We learned each others’ teachings from freestyle and traditional movements. Some of these sessions would take place on hostel rooftops in Kampala.

AfroRooted is the continued “conversation” between dances from the African diaspora and the freestyle dances of today. It officially launched in 2019, forging a new community of Bay Area folks from the competitive street dance world and the traditional African dance world.

Dancers Kanukai Chigamba and Rama Mahesh Hall pose smiling to the camera and holding their 1st place prize frames.
Photo by Gladys Liu [ID: Dancers Kanukai Chigamba and Rama Mahesh Hall are side by side holding their 1st place prize frames. Their arms are extended straight out to the camera and all smiles.]

In 2020, AfroRooted evolved further, forming partnerships with Afrobeats Oakland, Elements and Dimensions Dance Theater. The festival was held at the historic Malonga Casquelourd Center for the Arts, a major cultural arts center and home to many African diasporic dance companies and master teachers such as Diamouna Coura West African Dance Company, SambaFunk! and Fua Dia Congo. The format was set as a 2 v. 2 open styles battle format danced to Afrohouse, afrobeats and other genres from Africa. The cyphers happened in between the battles and the event wrapped up with live African drumming. During those two years, AfroRooted became a healing and celebratory multi-ethnic, multi-generational festival. As Dance/USA Fellow and guest judge Muisi-kongo Malonga said in 2019, “Drum is the first code and these dances, these movements, have been done before.”

The third installment of AfroRooted is set for spring 2024 in Oakland, California. It will follow a similar format as before, with a community “battle” exploring the question of where our freestyle dances evolved from? What happens when we strip down genres to the foundational drum patterns? How can we connect what was done to what is still practiced today, to how these freestyle forms continue to evolve? The cypher, where we tell our stories…the connections and exchanges we do in “battles” and “cyphering,” it’s all interconnected. And more importantly, how the drum is the first code.

To keep updated on AfroRooted Volume 3, follow @afrorooted

This article appears in the Fall 2023 issue of In Dance.

Karla “Karlita” Flores is a dancer, community leader, and DJ based in Oakland, California. Breakin was her first entry into the dance world and since then has explored other styles such as rock dance, waacking and salsa. She’s traveled internationally as a dance mentor with All The Way Foundation, and as a hip hop cultural diplomat with Next Level. Through her creativity, she always centers her roots from Nicaragua and the Bay Area. To keep updated on AfroRooted Volume 3 please follow updates via IG: @afrorooted