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Urban Folklife, Urban Artistry: breaking down the complexities of urban dance with Junious Brickhouse

The following is a guest post from AFC folklife specialist Michelle Stefano.

Urban Artistry Instructor and B-Girl, Hannah George-Wheeler, Breakin' at an organized battle in Baltimore, 2015. Photo by Edwin Remsberg

Urban Artistry Instructor and B-Girl, Hannah George-Wheeler, Breakin’ at an organized dance battle in Baltimore, 2015. Photo by Edwin Remsberg

On February 22 at noon, the Library of Congress will host the talented dancers of Urban Artistry, Inc. in the Coolidge Auditorium as part of the Homegrown Concert Series of the American Folklife Center. Audience members are in for a treat: three rounds of one-on-one dance battles showcasing the wide-ranging urban dance styles of popping, locking, breakin’, and more, set to the beats of DJ Baronhawk Poitier and emceed by Urban Artistry’s Founding Director, Junious Brickhouse. The auditorium is bound to be shaking as dancers advance from quarterfinals to finals based solely on the level of audience cheering!

Nonetheless, you may be asking: what is popping and locking, and what exactly are dance battles? You may also be wondering about how and why they emerged as integral to rich urban dance traditions. Like most things cultural, the answers are long and layered, with a widespread, intricate, and interconnected web of origin stories involving pioneers and their communities. Often, the development of urban dance is rooted in certain places – such as Los Angeles, the suburbs of Washington, DC, and neighborhoods in the Bronx. It is always inextricably linked to music shaped in local clubs and social scenes, and through radio, television, and the Internet. These styles grow over time as nuanced movements are borrowed and added to, bringing even more to the canon of urban dance. In this light, urban dance culture comprises – as well as serves as a vehicle to express – deep senses of place, belonging, legacy, and identity.

To gain insight into these complexities, especially as someone who is not afraid to bust out the moves when good music is playing (but is woefully amateur), I sat down with Junious this past week at the Urban Artistry studio, just across the Washington, DC border, in Silver Spring, Maryland. Common to such opportunities to learn about culture, its expressions, and communities, our entry point was Junious’s own beginnings as a dancer and music lover, which he jokes usually “starts with a mom.” Making stops along the way to explain various styles and modes of expression, such as battling, he threaded together the reasons why he founded Urban Artistry at age 31 to promote, pass on, and keep urban dance traditions alive.

Bottom line: I wanted to be Bill “Bojangles” Robertson when I was a kid, but I couldn’t afford tap shoes. So, what do you do? You just move your feet.

Born in 1974, Junious Lee Brickhouse grew up in a musical household in the African-American communities around Virginia Beach and Norfolk, Virginia. At a young age, his mother would teach him routines to perform at talent shows and regular record parties in their home. She taught him the “Funky Chicken” and the “Breakdown” – dances popular in the 1970s – to the sounds of legendary Stax Records artists, including Rufus Thomas, whom she particularly loved. “For me, dance was just something that we did culturally; it wasn’t an activity, or a sport.” Although, he does remember learning moves from his grandfather, who would reward him with cake. As if an unspoken rule of life, Junious defends his youthful logic by declaring, “you dance for coconut cake!”

Junious realized that he was part of a distinct culture built through his extended family and the communities to which he belonged, one that provided him with a profound sense of identity and pride.

You know, in the absence of having an identity that was present, like, ‘hey, I’m Nigerian, I’m Senegalese, or I’m Dutch-Irish and Ghanaian’…like, without having that, I think a lot of inner city youth identify with music and with art…it was better than being just black. For me, I didn’t want to be just black. I knew that, even at a young age, race was a construct; it just didn’t make sense. For me, that music, those dances, the fashion, the way that we spoke – in all these different communities, mind you – that was culture…and it was my identity and it has defined me as an adult.

He also stresses that this culture was free: all one had to do was turn on the radio, play a record, or watch Bill Robertson in old films on TV, with no need to purchase a “uniform” ahead of time. And this is an important point. Access to music and dance for “young, poor black kids” was, in a sense, free; yet, unlike the ‘classical’ dance schools whose social and financial barriers rendered them inaccessible to most, they found teachers in their elders and through each other, out on neighborhood streets.

In Virginia Beach, the mid-1980s saw “so much dance going on for kids,” such as at dance parties held on Friday nights in the civic center, or even at the local Chuck E. Cheese, where youth dance battles were hosted. During this time, Junious joined his first dance crew, City Limits, as its youngest member. Crews were formed based on one’s neighborhood, as Junious explains:

A dance crew is a group of people who get together and learn dance from each other, and compete against other dance crews. Back then, you only joined a dance crew with people you were close to. So, it’s almost like you didn’t pick your crew […] And if we grow, people notice us and we’re not invisible; we have a voice.

Crews were also considered families. In LGBTQ communities, he notes that “they have ‘houses’ – so they say, ‘we have a house’ – and there’s a mother of the house and a father of the house […] and the whole idea is that ‘if we want to grow and dance, we depend on each other’.”

Spending hours “messing around” dancing in recreational centers, basketball courts, and in the parking lots of their housing projects, he considers his teenage years in crews as “training” for when, one day, he would be showing his talents in the club, a core cultural hub for urban dance and musical traditions. He recalls:

There was a larger calling for the adults, because they were going to the club. One day, I was going to be in the club […] Back then, you didn’t welcome yourself in a space, you had to be brought into the space – you had to earn your wings, show and prove. You had to respect who came first, the people who were already there.

And dance battles certainly prepared one for the showcasing of skills, as well as for receiving constructive critique from more advanced dancers.

They call them battles, they call them jams, competitions, and sometimes they’re style specific…and sometimes they’re open styles, or ‘all styles,’ or however you respond to the music […] with the understanding that the music is supposed to inspire us, you know, and not make us work against it. So, if they play a song, and traditionally there’s three different styles that’s done to that song, and you can do one of those styles, or all of them, then you’re good. But if you don’t know how to respond to that song in an artistic way that’s above what people are already doing, or similar to what’s been done…meaning, if you don’t change the game, then you just fell flat. The music did not inspire you; you just worked against it. And we just all watched it, and we’re calling you on it: boo. Sit down.

There is also an element of surprise with most battles, when, as Junious explains, “you don’t know what the DJ is going to play.” The two main genres of battles are “organized competitions,” such as the one on February 22, and “call out battles,” which usually happen in “informal environments,” such as in clubs, on the street, or even online when a battle is arranged in advance, similar to the ‘meet you behind the bleachers after school’ threat. He continues:

And that’s someone saying, ‘hey, I want to show you something,’ that could be ‘I’m a better dancer than you’ or ‘I love this more than you’ or ‘you’re going to show me some respect,’ or it could possibly be: ‘I’m really pissed off about something that involves you, and I don’t know how to get that anger out […] so I am going to dance, and I’m going to show you that you’re beneath me in movement, and once I get out of that childish behavior, we can sit down and have a conversation.’

He remembers a time when he was called out by another dancer in a club; their battle lasted thirty minutes of back and forth one-upping until the other person walked away. (Junious had won.) Organized competitions for urban dance happen all over the world, from Europe to Washington, D.C. They differ mainly by how they are structured, especially with respect to keeping time on a predetermined schedule, as well as by theme and by how they are judged.

You have to go to communities of practice to understand how complex it is.

Stretching back into his youth, Junious first learned the dance styles of tap and Boogaloo, which has a decades-long history as a fusion of movements from African-American Rhythm & Blues and Latin music and dance. He notes that Boogaloo, closely related to popping, is simply “bugging out” and “catching the spirit of the music;” though, a novice like me needs a little more help in comprehending. In the late 20th century, Boogaloo evolved into what can also be known as “robot,” “strutting,” “waving,” and “ticking.” However, grasping the differences “usually depends on which tradition bearer is telling the story,” and many of these categories are still debated today.

Luckily, Junious helps by defining popping as a “style of dance that comes from robotic movement and Boogaloo.” It grew out of dancing to Funk music, since “people have been moving like wooden toys and robots for years,” but became an important element of Hip Hop dancing, among others. Essentially, in terms of the science behind it, “it’s the contraction of your muscles and a release to create something that looks like a pop.” And as a separate genre of dance, locking is:

[A] style of dance that was coined by a gentleman by the name of Don Campbell, and he was doing the Funky Chicken – you know, listening to Rufus [Thomas’ 1970 hit] song. And like the song says, ‘flap your arms and kick your legs,’ and he would kind of freeze or lock into place, and then pick it back up again…and they started calling that ‘Campbell locking.’

He also emphasizes that this is one origin story out of many, and that countless people across a multitude of communities have contributed to these dance styles – from well-known innovators to those sadly unsung.

How these distinctive movements were transformed and spread across the U.S., as well as beyond, is a question that underscores the complex web of histories and communities that have developed urban dance over decades. Yet, Junious has one theory. He calls it “The Project Network,” and explains:

If you live in the projects in Virginia Beach, and you probably got a cousin who lives in the projects in New York. You got a cousin who lives in the projects in New York, they probably got some friends or some people in D.C. You know, so everybody’s moving back and forth, and staying with this family member and that family member, and when music came on, we would show each other. We would have these dance competitions…these battles, you know?

The movement of information, style sharing, and physical dialogue across the country was (and is) at its roots “homegrown,” a crucial aspect of the overall culture that, to this day, Junious seeks to help safeguard. He recounts that in the 1990s, the genres and sub-genres of urban dance were becoming subsumed by the broader, more widely accepted “Hip Hop” and “breakdancing”[1] categories. Though deemed cool at the time through mainstream media, as well as through trend-conscious dancers themselves, these headings tended to gloss over, or generalize, the nuanced differences in styles, including their rich and layered histories.

Junious knew for a long while that in order to raise awareness of these histories and the communities that formed them, urban dance education is needed. While in the military and stationed in Europe for much of the 1990s, he would keep grounded with his love of music and dance, and drew up curricula and syllabi plans that, in the future, he hoped to teach. He shaped an educational program that was not only geared towards young dancers, but would also serve to raise awareness among the public, as well. Moreover, he recognized that such programs ought to be based within communities of practice, themselves, as a means of breaking down the barriers between what has been traditionally considered ‘American Dance,’ such as that which is typically taught at ‘classical’ dance conservatories and in university MFA programs, and the vernacular, homegrown expressions of urban dance. “We don’t think of this hierarchy of culture, that there’s this ‘high art’ and ‘low art,’ and we definitely don’t believe that we’re somewhere on the bottom. Culture is culture, and it should be respected, especially if it’s not your own.” He continues:

I get it; you want to learn this thing, but you have to go to the communities of practice to understand how complex it is. If you don’t, then you’re just feeding falsehoods into the canon […] You know, it’s about credentializing, right? They say. But you don’t need a credential; there’s no credential behind being a listener, being honest, sitting down in these communities and allowing these people to voice things for themselves. You can collaborate with people from these communities, so you’re not just writing down what they say and then go in and try to teach, you know, popping with a ballet aesthetic […] Why don’t you get someone who can be objective and from a different community, and they can represent what their community does and their ideas? Until academics, scholars, and people from communities of practice get together, not only would there be this continued rift about appropriation, like, there will always be this thing that divides us.

This is one of the main reasons why Junious founded Urban Artistry in 2005. After returning from Europe, he realized that his calling was to become what he calls a “farmer:” nourishing the figurative soil from which younger generations of urban dancers sprout and grow. Significantly, this entails not only securing a dance studio space and creating a system for classes that are taught by community members, but an active engagement in research and documentation, as well. He states:

Sooner or later, there will be no more elders around to speak for themselves. So, then, we’re back to that same rabbit hole that we deal with with Jazz, we deal with with Blues, where our elders are no longer around to speak for themselves…so, people are writing books about people who long passed away, about what they think they were doing. […] When will we ever learn? […] When it comes to urban dance culture, it’s so important that we try to get this right. We have an opportunity to get this right now. And I hope that we can show that all of these dance styles – that regardless of people’s perspective – that they have value, that they come from a very, very honest place. These styles are innately American. They’re connected to music genres, and music and movement go together. If we can elevate the music, we can elevate the movement…and we can elevate people that are involved in that.

Understanding the legacies of the wide and varied urban dance styles that are taught must include lessons on their histories, instilling in students deep senses of rootedness and continuity. He comments:

You know, breakin’ is different in New York than it is in Japan, in France, and Germany, than it is even in Los Angeles. People bring their cultural traditions into [urban dance culture], and that’s good. We’ve always done that in our culture, but we’re wrong when we stop talking about what inspires us. If we just call it and speak about just what we do [in the present], then we are doing ourselves and our cultures a huge disservice. This is why Urban Artistry is so focused on researching what’s going on in many different communities. Of course, as artists, we like what we like, but that doesn’t mean that we dismiss what everyone else is doing.

In addition to classes in popping, locking and breakin’, among other styles and musical genres, Urban Artistry’s documentation and archival arm, The Preservatory, takes a holistic approach to researching urban dance. As noted on its website:

The project interviews all types of individuals from urban dance culture, including dancers, DJs, MCs, club owners, music producers, music lovers and others. The project gathers first-hand accounts of experiences and events in the urban dance community as well as exchanges this information across generational, cultural and geographical gaps. The Preservatory Project empowers all community members to share their thoughts and experiences, recognizing and celebrating our differences and similarities.

And this is why, when Junious introduces himself, he states that he is a dancer, a choreographer, and a “citizen folklorist,” researching and promoting the easily-neglected narratives of urban experience and artistic expression. Conscious of breaking down the hierarchies and generalizations that exist with respect to culture and its diverse knowledges, skills, and meanings, he notes that focusing on the genres of dance all around us is where the “healing needs to happen. We recognize that in our communities a lot of people are dancing for a reason, so in order to help them on their path, maybe we can help them in their life.” The organization’s holistic approach to promoting the cultures from which its students, volunteers, and educators come, also includes instruction in DJing, music production, visual art, entrepreneurship, conflict resolution, and ethics, since he highlights that it is a “huge responsibility to be tradition bearers,” and to be telling the stories of their communities.

[W]e have just demolished this idea that everything we’re doing is Hip Hop […] Hip Hop is a separate culture on its own and, though many of these dances have been influenced by Hip Hop dance or by Hip Hop music, or are done to Hip Hop music […] I mean, it’s just true: Funk music is before Rap music, and there was movement people were doing to Funk music. You can’t really say that those Funk dances and those styles are Hip Hop dance. And as an educator, it’s our responsibility to be honest with people.

Junious acknowledges that Urban Artistry’s missions do not fit the more popular pursuits of “hey, let’s make money, and let’s just have fun and be positive.” As he points out, “there’s a lot of negativity and a lot of sad stories that need to be told and it’s connected to the music, which is connected to the movement.” He brings a level of much-needed seriousness to urban dance education, research, and safeguarding, and if you are interested in exploring this culture, the same level of seriousness and commitment is needed.

Of course, space is also made for celebration – both of cultural differences and commonalities – through programs and events in the D.C. metropolitan area to worldwide. Urban Artistry organizes over twenty dance, music, and theatrical events each year, such as the annual International Soul Society Festival that “celebrates Hip Hop and urban arts and their many influences,” as described on its webpage. It is also an organization that facilitates artistic collaborations and exchanges in the Caribbean, Europe, Asia, and throughout Africa, earning a remarkable global reputation that is forever grounded in the local.

[1] It should be noted that “breakdancing” was and still is considered a poor term for describing the longstanding range of styles more commonly called “breakin’,” “b-boying,” and “b-girling,” among others.

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