Poised to pop
Old-school meets new-school at the San Francisco Hip-Hop DanceFest.

By Rita Felciano

RECENTLY, IN New York City, I saw a professional all-female company perform a hip-hop version of Stravinsky's The Firebird. The month before, at Dance Mission Theater, I saw a toddler in the recreational Bliss Hip-Hop Company steal the show from dancers twice her size and five times her age. San Francisco Hip-Hop DanceFest producer Micaya is not surprised: The fact that a huge range of performers can get involved is what hooked her on this exuberantly physical dance style in the first place.

In the past 30 years, hip-hop has moved from the hardscrabble streets of New York City and Los Angeles to the top shelf of the music biz – as well as into fitness studios and black box theaters. Hip-hop beats have inspired an international, increasingly sophisticated dance form as likely to be practiced in Tokyo and Paris as in Oakland and Philadelphia.

Trained in jazz, ballet, and ethnic dance, Micaya began to investigate hip-hop almost serendipitously. "Honestly, I did it because my students expressed an interest in learning to do it," she explained in a recent interview. "But the more I looked into it and the more I learned about it, the more I was blown away by the sheer quantity of local talent." She also noticed a conspicuous absence of performance opportunities: "These people performed on terrible floors and stages the size of a closet."

In 1993 she put her first show together at the always-open-to-new ideas Dance Mission Theater. From those early beginnings, the San Francisco Hip-Hop DanceFest, now in its seventh incarnation, has grown into an ever more professional event that still leaves room for young artists and local talents.

Today, hip-hop dancers are as likely to find inspiration in swing, jazz, modern, capoeira, steppin' (traditionally practiced by African American fraternities), and clogging as in traditional break dancing moves such as the moonwalk, spins, and up-rocking. The savvy Micaya tries to include a potent mix of what's out there: "It's too boring for an audience to see only one style of hip-hop." On the program, for instance, are locals Funk Beyond Control, who recently took first place in the 13-17 age division at the Hip-Hop World Championships.

Not everybody is as enthusiastic as Micaya about the breadth of contemporary hip-hop. Charles Powell, whose Black Messengers make their first fest appearance this year, prefers – and performs – old style hip-hop. "To me, a lot of [the new styles] lack creativity," he said in a recent interview. "It's too much about gymnastics." A pioneer of Boogaloo (which, according to Powell, originated in Oakland), Powell and his five-man crew, three of whom are still members, started dancing in 1972 at Elmhurst Middle School. They went on to be showcased by Chuck Barris on The Gong Show. But they also performed within the community, such as at Black Panther events. And unlike the common perception, Powell explained, early hip-hop was not an all-male affair. "We had a woman dancing with us – her moves were incredible," he recalled. "She was the baddest of us all."

From Micaya's perspective, incorporating the voices of the art form's originators is not just a matter of paying respect – it also gives her festival historical depth. If that includes dancers performing with canes and a casket, as the Black Messengers do, that's just fine with her.

Despite the festival's tight budget, the dynamic presenter, who insists on paying all her artists, has increasingly managed to attract acts from outside the Bay Area. Two of them – Sanrancune, an ensemble from Paris with a lot of African elements in their style; and Vancouver's Over the Influence, who use moves from both the Lindy Hop and the b-boy worlds – were even willing to come at their own expense. "Both of them were late entries," Micaya said. "But I just had to include them. Their videos simply blew me away."

Also new this year is New York's BiTriP, a company of Japanese artists who, in addition to dance moves, fuse elements of mime, magic, circus, and illusion into their acts. Artistic director Kenichi Ebina will also be featured as a soloist. The four-night festival features a total of 25 acts divided into two programs; each program is performed twice. The San Francisco Hip-Hop DanceFest runs Thurs/17-Sat/19, 8 p.m.; Sun/20, 7 p.m., Palace of Fine Arts Theater, 3301 Lyon, SF. $27.50 (two nights, $50). (415) 392-4400, www.sfhiphopdancefest.com.