Forward motion
Hip-hop dance leaps from the streets to center stage.

By Johnny Ray Huston

YUSUF NASIR HAS something to say. "When you write a piece of music, dancers are in the score," he explains. "We're right below the timpani, the bass – we complete those phrases. I'm always looking for music that requires me to think critically, not just an obvious booty song. I've used Björk in a hip-hop piece before, and people have been like, 'Y'all ripped that beat!' "

Actually, Nasir has plenty to say. Dressed in a gray Members Only jacket with matching hoodie, he can be amusingly salty whether he's discussing former dance groups or a onetime fellow student who recently received deluxe star treatment in another local newspaper. As we walk along the street and find a place to sit in front of a café, the 21-year-old Richmond-born dancer remembers his first piece of choreography, an eight-count at the age of 13: "If I looked at it today, I'd think, 'Wow, that looks a hot, lovely mess!' " Praising Janet Jackson as his top pop inspiration – a commercial artist who truly works with her dancers – he launches into a verbal routine: "It's too bad that after the Super Bowl, white America said, 'Not Damita Jo – dammit no!' They weren't having it. But the shows she did while trying to promote that album – those dancers ate that choreography."

Of course, cracking wise isn't Nasir's true specialty. His love of and flair for dance started early, at age seven, when his tap abilities got him a spot on Star Search. He didn't cross paths with Britney or see Aaliyah sing "My Funny Valentine," but the experience whetted his appetite for performance. "All the other kids were there with their stage moms," he recalls. "But me and my mom were just chillin'; we were two peas in a pod." Since then, Nasir has gone on to study at School of the Arts and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. He's formed his own company, No Label, who've performed as an opening act for 50 Cent. Moving to New York in late 2003, he took gigs with singers such as Ashanti and Thalia, and worked off-Broadway on Thin Line.

One week before our conversation, Nasir led a class of intermediate students through some bullet-quick moves to a track off Missy Elliott's The Cookbook. Working in front of the wall-length mirrors at Lines Ballet's dance studios, he was five floors up from the madness at Seventh and Market, but he remains true to the street. "Missy is a beast," he enthuses later. "I thrive off of her music. You can do something simple, something abstract, and still wind up on top of her [and Timbaland's] beats. She really gives choreographers something to play with."

Teaching and commercial gigs have their advantages, but choreography is Nasir's passion, a place where he can bring together Bob Fosse and b-boying. Now back in the Bay Area for a few months, he's put together a hip-hop dance, music, and spoken-word showcase, Substance: Rebirth, featuring No Label. "I love my friends out here, and I love the work we do when we get together," he says. "We're all still coming into our prime, trying to figure out if dance fits in with our priorities. I wanted to bring that out in our contemporary piece. We've been living separate lives, and I really want to show that vulnerability about change. I realized in New York when I stepped off the plane that I can't [dance] forever, and I've given up all my security to do it."

The biggest show in the Bay

You could say that 2005 has been a banner year for hip-hop dance. David LaChapelle's movie Rize has brought clowning and krumping to the masses. On television So You Think You Can Dance? is giving dancers pop-star attention. Like Nasir, one of the show's remaining Bay Area contestants, Allan "Big Papa" Frias, cites Janet Jackson as a formative inspiration. Nasir admires one of So You's judges, Mia Michaels, saying that she "took time from going to get her cocktail on" to give him advice when he approached her on a street corner in New York.

In the Bay Area, hip-hop dance has reached center stage each fall, thanks to promoter and choreographer Micaya, who will be producing the Seventh Annual San Francisco Hip-Hop Dancefest, this November. "I'd never heard of hip-hop dance in a theater with people buying tickets and appreciating it," Micaya says, remembering the first event she put together, back in 1991 at Dance Mission, then called Third Wave. "I wanted to take it there."

So she did – without any grants or donations. Early on Micaya took inspiration from Kim Cook, a programmer at Theater Artaud who brought hip-hop dance trailblazer Rennie Harris to town. The first Hip-Hop Dancefest was held at Artaud, but by 2002 the event had grown so popular that a larger venue was required. The name of the one Micaya found – the Palace of Fine Arts – contains some sweet justice, considering that hip-hop dance is often limited to the street, or confined to an abbreviated format behind pop performers. For first-time attendees, the experience can be a revelation, busting those stereotypes.

"People are blown away," Micaya says. Her warm, relaxed voice echoes her own attitude toward hip-hop dance, which is grounded in an appreciation of other forms, in particular what she calls "the mother and the father" – ballet and African dance. "I love hip-hop dance, but not at the exclusion of loving samba," she says, praising Rize – which she claims left her speechless for a good half hour afterward – for drawing connections between hip-hop and African forms. "I was blessed to just go to Cuba and study dance. I'm really into salsa and Cuban music."

Each hip-hop dancer brings his or her own sensibility and personality to the art of movement. Prem Kumta, of Flavor Group – a collective of musicians, dancers, and visual artists who've been around since 2001 – is liable to explore the links between break dancing and capoeira. "When you're in front of a crowd, you can potentially fool them with entertainment," he explains. "But what we're really pushing is the foundation of hip-hop. I seek those dancers who have that kind of fundamental technique. You can see who is dope and who needs to practice."

For Kyle Wai Lin, of Funkanometry SF Dance Company, dancing didn't come easily. As a teenager Lin thought of himself as a "wallflower" with "no rhythm," but one fateful night, when he dared to ask a girl out on the floor, changed all that: She became his girlfriend of four years, and he went on to dance with groups in LA before forming his own company in the Bay Area. Like Kumta, Lin pledges an allegiance to hip-hop roots. "If you don't respect it or know where it came from, maybe you shouldn't be doing it," he says with a laugh. Yet he also stresses the "eclectic" tastes among his crew of b-boys and one b-girl: "I listen to house and a lot of indie rock, and I grew up on Souls of Mischief, Tribe Called Quest, and Hieroglyphics. But Emerson [Aquino, Funkanometry SF's choreographer] loves smooth R&B, and he can put together amazing choreography to it."

Films like Rize are still more exception than rule, so the Internet and DVDs (Lin praises Breakvision) have been crucial in helping hip-hop dance proliferate. Flavor Group and Funkanometry SF both have handsome Web sites (www.flavorgroup.com and www.funkanometrysf.com, respectively) that help in terms of establishing a profile and doing outreach. Funkanometry SF holds a weekly class in Daly City, Lin says, and is establishing an East Bay youth group in Newark next month. Preparing for some Love Parade-related activities next month, Kumta and Flavor Group are using their own events (which have grown to include Urban Momentum team battles) to bring in East Coast hip-hop legends such as Ken Swift, of Rock Steady Crew – though Kumta is quick to stress that the robotic movement known as locking was developed in the Bay Area during the pre-rap '70s.

Talking with various local hip-hop dance figures, one current name is repeatedly mentioned: Corey Action. "I don't know what Corey feeds those kids [in Diamond Dance Company]," Nasir says. "I was told he makes them stand in front of a mirror and work on their facial expressions. Who does that? Those kids are fierce." Lin singles out the performance by Action's adult company, New Style Motherlode, as his favorite at last year's Hip-Hop Dancefest. "They did this amazing, extravagant piece to original music by Corey," he remembers. "It was a full-on production, and it just dwarfed every other group. It made us want to step up our game this year.

"The best part of the Dancefest is just being backstage and feeling the energy of the dancers who care about it as much as you do," he continues. "Micaya puts on the biggest show in the Bay. You get 100 dancers together under the same roof, and it's crazy. In my experience hip-hop dancers are all crazy." 'No Label presents 'Substance: Rebirth.' Featuring No Label Dance Group, Funkanometry SF Dance Company, Diamond Dance Company, Even Odds, and Sierra Harris. Sat/27, 8 p.m., Dance Mission Theater, 3316 24th St., SF. $15-$18. (415) 826-4441, nolabelsf@hotmail.com (for advance tickets).

'The 17th Annual San Francisco Hip-Hop Dancefest.' Performers this year include Diamond Dance Company, Flavor Group, and Funkanometry SF Dance Company. Nov. 17-20, Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m., Palace of Fine Arts, 3301 Lyon, SF. $25. (415) 392-4400, www.sfhiphopdancefest.com and www.cityboxoffice.com.