Hip-hop dance troupe wows Ellicott Mills Middle students

Group teaches kids about the genre

May 05, 2011|By Joe Burris, The Baltimore Sun

Among the first things that hip-hop performer Damon Holley showed the assembled students at Ellicott Mills Middle School was that, as in schoolwork, learning about hip-hop requires undivided attention. Hip-hop artists simply go about getting that attention differently.

"Every time you hear me say, 'What's the name of the game?' I want you all to say, 'Pay attention!' And then I want you to remain completely quiet," said Holley of Illstyle and Peace Productions, a Philadelphia-based dance company that staged a high-energy performance, "The History of Hip-Hop," at Ellicott Mills on Thursday.

After his instruction, Holley tested his call-and-response on the students.

"What's the name of the game?"

"Pay attention!" the students shouted. And they did just that, remaining captivated by a performance that included scores of dance moves, pulsating beats and a history lesson about the genre that began in the Bronx, N.Y., in the 1970s with its roots in Caribbean music culture.

And though hip-hop music is often frowned upon by older generations, the Illstyle and Peace show struck a chord with students, teachers and administrators at Ellicott Mills, as members of each group took part in a closing dance number.

Holley, who also serves as the group's rehearsal director, says that Illstyle and Peace bridges cultural divides and tears down the genre's violent and misogynistic stereotypes. He says the group performs not only at schools but at block parties and bar mitzvahs.

"We always get responses from people not knowing what hip-hop is and not being able to relate to it," said Holley. "Being it's one of the most influential genres, we believe that it's important for them to understand where it comes from and how it came to be as influential."

The group performs locally as a part of Baltimore-based Young Audiences/Arts for Learning, a 60-year-old, nonprofit arts education organization. Kurtis Donnelly, program director for Young Audiences, says that within the coming year, Illstyle and Peace plans to develop a hip-hop show that focuses on math as well as one on bullying.

Holley left the Ellicott Mills students with scores of hip-hop trivia items. He told them that Michael Jackson's popular dance that involves sliding backward while pretending to walk forward is not called "the moonwalk." One of the Ellicott Mills students correctly guessed what he said is the correct term: "the backslide." Holley said that many of the dance moves Jackson made popular, including the "backslide," are a variation of West Coast dances called "popping" and "locking."

Holley and Illstyle members demonstrated "popping," which involves the tensing of muscles to create quick-jerk movements. Then they demonstrated "locking," a dance that involves movements that go from rapid to freeze-stop. Holley demonstrated three variations of locking that included pointing and an arm-flapping dance called the "funky chicken."

And they told of how hip-hop music began with deejays homing in on the music-only portion of long-play dance tunes, which is called the break. The break spawned the athletic dance they demonstrated called "breaking," which, according to Holley, some people incorrectly refer to as "breakdancing."

Ellicott Mills seventh-grader Tim Jackson said he liked the group's closing message as much as the dance moves. "They told us that we can be what we want to be when we're older," Jackson said.

Holley said that after their shows, many adults who grew up on Michael Jackson's music say they didn't know the difference between the backslide and the moonwalk, the latter of which involves forward movements in slow motion. The terms are now used interchangeably. "They go from not knowing to knowing about hip-hop," Holley said.

With each demonstration, the students clapped loudly to the beat of the music and delighted as Illstyle members sometimes jumped offstage and danced alongside them. The group ended the show with messages about being focused inside and outside the classroom and striving to pursue one's dreams.

Ellicott Mills Principal Michael Goins joined a group of students and teachers on stage for the final number.

"There was music in the '50s and '60s that younger people definitely related to and the older generation questioned it. They wondered where was it coming from and what was its motive," said Goins. "This is a reminder of that. I think that seeing young people able to identify with any kind of art form and means of human expression is incredibly valuable."

joseph.burris@baltsun.com

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