It’s late Sunday morning, and I’m sitting in a parking lot in a seemingly industrial area of Boulder. At first look, there is nothing extraordinary about my surroundings. But the pumping bass sending reverberations up my spine is indicative that things are not as they seem.
The source is a small sectioned-off portion of a warehouse with “to be life” painted vertically in bold letters. Upon entering, I see a little over a dozen teenaged faces, smiling, sweating, having fun.
These are the faces of Side By Side Dance Company, an ensemble of movers brought together not only by dance, but also by a longing for community as well. At the helm of the rehearsal is Larkin Poynton, a self-described “all-style” hip-hop dancer with a knack for telling stories through his body. He leads the dancers through choreographed movements and uses a distinct vernacular—“boom-ka,” “wow-ha,” “hit-hit”— to create a pulsating rhythm that drives the dance.
Poynton, who was born in Spain but grew up in Longmont, remembers falling in love with dance as a kid after seeing its capacity to captivate audiences. Citing Marcel Marceau and Gene Kelly as early influences, Poynton defines dance as a conduit for self-expression. “It’s the body’s natural reaction to emotions,” Poynton says.
It’s a sentiment shared by many hip-hop dancers, who use their bodies to convey emotions or narratives. In a recent interview with “The New Yorker,” Brooklyn-based street dancer Storyboard P calls dancing cathartic and considers himself a storyteller more than anything else. “When you’re dancing, you’re revealing yourself,” he says.
Poynton and his dancers are preparing for the Prelude Urban Dance Competition, a national competition that stops in Denver this Saturday, January 18. Competitions like Prelude bring attention to the Colorado urban dance scene, he says, giving locals a chance to mingle with outside dancers. But the competition also puts some constraints on hip-hop, potentially stripping defining elements of the form, like its improvisational nature.
Hip-hop is a large umbrella, under which an impressive variety of sub-styles reside. New techniques have evolved since its origins on the Bronx streets: krumping, flex, animation, Memphis jookin’ to name a few. Poynton’s training ranges from house (a footwork-heavy style) and breaking to funk styles like locking and waaking. These diverse styles are merely a sampling of urban dance.
Commercializing hip-hop often requires more structure. Choreography may be set, formations organized and musicality made uniform. Some dancers, like Storyboard P, refuse to perform choreography. But Poynton doesn’t see the situation as being so black and white.
“I think that hip-hop dance and freestyle are synonymous, but I also think choreographed movement is just a part of dance in general,” rationalizes Poynton. According to Poynton, improvisation is “the seed” of his choreography, maintaining the authenticity of freestyle in the process.
The commercialization of hip-hop dance has made it possible for dancers to make at least a part-time living. Christa Lewis, a Prelude judge and hip-hop dancer, is thankful to pay some of her bills with her passion through teaching, choreographing and performing in commercials, music videos and live shows. (She also works in a Denver coffee shop.)
After a three-year stint in Los Angeles, Lewis is now heavily involved in the Colorado urban dance scene and committed to giving hip-hop more exposure. She hopes Prelude can do that on a local and national level. Lewis’s enthusiasm for dance runs deep and, as a self-described, “tall, lanky white girl,” she wants to spread the message that hip-hop is about inclusivity rather than exclusivity.
For these dancers, bringing hip-hop from the streets to the stage isn’t an attempt to change the dance form or disregard its roots. Hip-hop began as a movement for at-risk youth to break away from their troubled lives, Lewis says. “When you dance you forget about what's going on in the world and feel free.” She strives to keep that sense of freedom at the heart of urban dance.
Amanda Suk, a contemporary hip-hop dancer in Los Angeles, has competed in competitions like Prelude. She clarifies that the only parameter imposed during competitions is a time limit. Within that frame, troupes can be as creative as they wish. Overall, she finds hip-hop competitions to be too subjective, but still finds value in them beyond a first-, second- or third-place finish.
“At the end of the day, competitions achieve a platform for us to showcase our work,” Suk says. “It brings people of all different ages and walks of life under one roof to celebrate music and movement.”