Hip hop is not just a single genre of dance. Underneath its umbrella, there is popping, locking, breaking, commercial, lyrical hip hop, jazz-funk, jerkin’ and more. And there are certainly dancers who excel in each of these forms.
But Jackie Lopez (“Miss Funk”) and Leigh Foaad (“Breeze-lee”), passionate, young hip hop artists, wanted to show the world that hip hop dancers, like other movers, could be versatile and do it all, and that street dance had many faces…and technique behind it.
So, in 2005, Lopez and Foaad formed Versa-Style Dance Company, a LA-based group that strives to showcase that range and one that hopes to educate the mainstream and inspire future generations.
“Street dances have history, foundation and technique, just like the ‘classical’ forms like ballet, tap and modern,” says Foaad. “There was a notion at the time (and still is, in some ways) that hip hop is just this thing that kids do where they get all wild and crazy. We wanted to show that these dances were created by incredible artists and are thriving, movement-based forms of expression.”
So Versa-Style’s repertoire is varied, with multiple forms of street dances used to storytell. The company performs works that feature elements of popping, locking, hip hop, house and whacking, and even merengue, cumbia, salsa and West African dance. Music ranges from funk to house, hip hop to Latin. For example, Versa-Style’s latest full-length work, Box of Hope, is danced mainly to Motown music, including songs by Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and The Temptations.
“Many hip hop dance companies out there do not take the time to learn the foundation and technique rooted in hip hop dance, nor do they take the time to learn the history of where these dances come from and why they were created,” Lopez remarks. “We do take the time, doing our research by talking to and taking classes from the pioneers and creators of these dances. We feel this knowledge helps us maintain a high level of artistry in our dance. We are truly using the vocabulary and history of hip hop dance culture and creating language with it, telling our stories through the powerful, evocative, rich movement.”
Aside from a dedicated mission to educate and inform audiences of the history and diversity of street dance, Versa-Style has another important goal: to inspire and motivate the youth, particularly impoverished communities in LA. The company offers school performances and residencies, all in the hopes of sharing the positivity and roots of hip hop culture, and the possibilities that can come from the art form.
“Many of these youth see themselves represented as criminals, gangsters and destructive forces in society, which then leads to them becoming exactly that,” Lopez says. “We want to change that cycle by showing them representations of themselves as leaders, innovators and creators of positive change. We do this through hip hop dance, by educating them to the fact that young men and women just like them created dances and business and artistic traditions that will last forever. We hope this inspires them to become the next leaders of our world.”
In 2009, Versa-Style also established Versa-Style Next Generation (VSNG), a pre-professional hip hop dance company made up of talented young dancers (ages 16-19) from the greater Los Angeles area. Participants receive one-on-one mentorship with some of the main company’s principle dancers, as well as opportunities to perform in community shows, some travel productions and other Versa-Style events such as competitions, festivals, intensives and classes. Ninety percent of the current Versa-Style Dance Company came from the VSNG program.
Versa-Style is working hard to spread its message about hip hop and youth empowerment. In 2013, the company embarked on a 10-day, seven-city tour of Israel, where they offered performances and taught several workshops, as part of the Envoy Program at the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv. This past fall, Versa-Style took part in two week-long residencies at Iowa’s Luther College and University of California, Santa Barbara. Next up, in January 2017, the troupe has planned a three-week, five-city tour in Alaska.
Foaad says the company hopes to keep that momentum going, and in 10 years, he shares, “We hope to continue doing exactly what we are doing now – continuing to create work and grow as artists, furthering the language of hip hop dance and sharing our message with the world. First and foremost, we love to travel and perform, so the more of that, the better. But we also hope to have our own building one day, where we can operate our community programs, rehearse and offer more jobs and opportunities to the youth of LA.”
Versa-Style is equal parts performance ensemble and non-profit organization dedicated to bettering its community. Lopez describes, “We feel the high level artistry, mixed with the dedication to community organization and empowerment, is a powerful and magnetic combination.”
Visit versastyledance.org for more information on the company’s upcoming events, classes and performances, or to make a tax-deductible donation to its social justice movement.
By Laura Di Orio of Dance Informa.