Saturday, April 27, 2013

Falling Into The Abyss by Mai Lê

In 2012, I entered a House Dance Competition at International Soul Society Festival organized in Washington DC by Urban Artistry called The Abyss. Why was it called the "Abyss"? 
Probably because unlike traditional House battles, here, the selected dancers go hard for an hour straight in the cypher. So depending on where you come from, mentally, I mean, maybe geographically too (HA!), you could think of it as a harder challenge (1 hour vs 2 minutes) or as a rather natural experience (same as cyphering in the club). My past experience made me opt for the latter, but at the end of the day I didn't really know what to expect.

After participating in my first Abyss cypher in DC, I concluded that it wasn't as natural as I thought it'd be- probably due to the competition context (money at stake, judges' eyes, the thought of time management, etc.), but it definitely was the closest to the "real deal" in the sense that the cypher helps build an organic vibe among its dancers, true to its clubbing roots.

I may be wrong but I think we were all a little reserved when we did that first Abyss. We were half creating, half observing and understanding the dynamics of this "official competition cypher". Looking back at it, the reservation wasn't justified, we just had to go hard and that's all we should have thought about!

Lesson learned as the ISSF organizers come to Oakland to host an Abyss Qualifier at the Oakland House Dance Conference 2013. This time- no judges, the top 12 dancers (as opposed to top 8 the first time) still dance for an hour straight, but then they have to vote for who they think the best dancer of the cypher was. The winner then is flown to DC for the International Soul Society Festival for The Abyss 2013 finals, where he/she has the opportunity to win the grand prize.

In the Oakland Qualifier, I didn't enter for the win. I was honored to participate in The Abyss as a "wild card" - basically a dancer that jumps in the cypher for a short time just to spice it up! 

To be honest, this Oakland cypher didn't even need to get spiced up (HA!), those 12 dancers were hungry and going hard from beginning to end! The music was definitely helping (props to DJ Tomahawk Bang on the wheels with the bomb track selection). I felt the dancers covered more range too (floor work, animalistic style, aggressive flow, very smooth gracious flow, etc). The cypher was very intense, in a positive way, and was clearly entertaining the whole room.
When the time came for the dancers to vote, two dancers stood out, they each had three votes so they had to "battle" for an additional half hour to determine who was the cypher warrior of the day. Maaaan o maaaan, I have the biggest respect for these two! Angelo and Odie gave their heart to the floor. The crowd was super encouraging, so much so that we all got some of their sweat on our faces as a thank you ;)) Odie went home with the W.  Congrats again to him!

In conclusion (because I'm trying to make this short, but I see it becoming a book-HA!), my first Abyss experience was a dope one, but my Oakland Abyss experience was an even a doper one.  I just hope that future, "Abysses" follow that exponential growth trajectory! This cypher is not only inspiring for its dance but actually rather for its vibe and energy. It is a real, raw and memorable experience to all of us and on our paths in this House culture journey, I wish us all many more!

Thursday, February 7, 2013

"The New Style of Tap" by Che Shabazz

Modern tap dance is most commonly broken up into 3 styles of tap.  You have rhythm tap, which is the most popular style of tap; rhythm tap is easily separated from the two often presented a cappella rhythm tap is as much music as it is dance based in meters, bars, and of course rhythms.  Broadway tap is another style of tap easily recognized, the distinction between the rhythm and Broadway tap is a much bigger style of tap it is perfect for its medium.  The few sounds and big movements of Broadway tap work with the large musical numbers you usually find in Broadway productions. 

The third style is competition or convention tap.  Competition tap is choreographed, more so than the others, down to the movement of the dancer’s fingers. Competition tap is all flash steps and big smiles.
While there are three styles tap is broken up into every dancer has their individual style and many of the greats have even defined that style (for example, Savion Glover and his funk tap). 

In the vein of the greats, I myself have spent the last few years developing my own style of tap.  A style different than any style of tap to date, or at least different from any I have ever seen.  Tap dance is usually lumped into the category of “classically trained” dancers.  Dancers who learn tap usually learn jazz, ballet, modern, or contemporary, forgetting that tap is the original urban dance. 
My style of tap is meant to bring tap back to its roots in hoofing with complex footwork-  combining it with house, hip-hop, lofting, and popping.  Admittedly this is the most difficult pursuit I have undertaken in dance in my long dance career and is still incomplete.  I have been recording my pursuit  and it can be traced at my Courtap page.

Meet the Author:
Che Shabazz is a college student at University of Maryland and artist with Urban Artistry.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

"Investing in a Safe Space" by Emily Oleson

When I first started to collaborate with Urban Artistry, I was touched by their openness and the warm welcome I and my fellow Irish step dancers received.  I decided I wanted to study with this group of artists who had created one of the healthiest and happiest dance communities I had ever encountered.  I had to ask myself: what does it take to invest in a community, a cause, and a culture? Should you be from it, of it, or in it?  I knew from being involved in several different dance traditions that there are various ways to enter a new dance scene - I also knew from studying the idea of "community dance" in general that different approaches often determine how and how long people remain engaged.  I appreciate many of the ways that Urban Artistry creates and maintains a real community.
Investment in a common “topic” (whether political, aesthetic or social) seems to lead people to a space and time where their interests can be shared.  This is obvious.  What might not be so obvious to scholars and dancers from very formalized areas is that structures and rules already exists within dance communities that are self-sustaining.  The shape of a culture's organization might not look familiar at first, but when I look carefully I have found parallels between urban dance cypher culture and traditional Irish music etiquette, for example.  Understanding that rules exist, perhaps below the surface or by other names, has helped me identify and follow them with sincere efforts toward respecting leaders and peers.  Dancers who come from one dance culture to a new dance culture, say from contemporary or modern dance to urban dance, might have assumptions based on their own training that will be challenged in a new environment.  This is healthy, fun, and produces artists with broader minds and skill sets - it's a good thing for everyone.   I am learning from Urban Artistry members that there are three "T's that promote investment - "Time," "Transparency," and Tension."

It might behoove community dance practitioners who come into a group from the outside to spend an extended amount of time observing the existing aesthetic values.  What do the people you are there to serve consider beautiful or excellent?  Rather than pre-programming an agenda based on an imagined need, we can ask questions, both subtly and explicitly.  We can do this as students of a new style, discovering fresh goals, or as teachers in a new setting, realizing we have a range of tools and skills to offer.  Many leaders in the field of "Community Dance Practice" establish this as one of the most important of their "best practices."

The community should expect a high level of transparency and accountability on the part of incoming dancers.  Visitors should respect prior community members and protect them from oppressive or irrelevant judgment.  I find entering a new world of dance is a great opportunity to learn about my own preferences and assumptions.  There is no need to project shortcomings on other dance forms because they are not my favorite. I don't need to change, rescue or enlighten anyone so that everything can be my favorite thing - and I don't need to pick just one thing.  I like crossing over between different dance communities and building bridges for collaboration and play.  I also see most other members of Urban Artistry spearheading these kind of projects, without public funding or support.  This is inspiring.  My hope for the field of Dance Education is that with real attention and respect towards established dance artists in a variety of backgrounds, project-based community dance that's enriching to existing communities can be funded to have lasting and sustainable impact. 
Where many different people are all invested in a similar aesthetic/political/social topic, a certain amount of tension is inherent.  We don't have to look at tension or disagreement as a knife dividing communities into sub-groups.  We could look at the sub-groups or individuals in a community as charged particles orbiting around a single nucleus.  The tensions are like the electro-chemical charges that keep things alive and in motion around the common theme.  Just as some structures can’t be built or achieved without a certain amount of tension (hanging a hammock for instance), there might not be true community without internal dissent on some level – maybe.  There are stories from disparate individuals coming together to make group, creating counter-narratives across generations and backgrounds.  Creating safe space for dissent (instead of only trying to foster consensus) would definitely constitute another "best practice" for community dance.
The safe creative spaces that are bound by the three "T's,"- time, transparency, and tension, are not necessarily value-free spaces.  I have to admit I have personally spent a lot of time complaining about aesthetic hierarchies that discriminate against urban and folk arts (like those that might show up in higher education).  Still, I do see that within most communities certain organic hierarchies are present. 
Continuing the metaphor of particles in orbit, there are certain pathways and spheres of orbit that are closer to the nucleus than others – this is how I see hierarchies of artists manifesting within some communities.  There is a music jam at Augusta Heritage Center's Old-Time week called the “Onion Jam” where the instructors are in the center, and it radiates by skill level from there - respecting existing hierarchies might be a best practice, too.  
These are not linear, vertical, list-like hierarchies, but mobile, changeable proximity to the source of the art form.  In Good Foot Dance Company, my partner Matthew Olwell and I sort of orbit around each other- interacting, playing off of one another- creating our own pathways and yet following traditions.  This is also a necessary kind of motion in a dance company - you don't always maintain the same role, and you're not always the one on top.

Beat Retreat Teaser
Perhaps the saying “you get out what you put in” explains the fact that artists who invest the most in the form seem to be more central in the scene.  They are fed by the art form emotionally, mentally, spiritually, and hopefully materially -  but perhaps one can only be nourished by the form and the community by being responsible for oneself.  Being transparent about your intentions and background helps to set a tone that inspires generosity in others and helps create the safe space for the community and the individual.  The space, perhaps filled with a healthy tension, between the individual and the group, holds our communities together.  

Meet the Author: Emily Oleson:
Emily Oleson started as an intern with Urban Artistry, and has become an Artistic Director because of her background in the connections between Irish and European step dance, Appalachian flatfooting, and tap.  She recently graduated with an M.F.A. from University of Maryland and is the co-founder of Good Foot Dance Company, which specializes in remixing American vernacular dance into innovative “Trad Dance Theatre.” Emily's article, "Two Shoes, Same Foot: Vernacular Dance and Concert Dance" was recently published in Dance USA. She also has an upcoming performance at Flurry Fest with Urban Artistry's Executive Director, Junious Brickhouse in February. 

Thursday, December 6, 2012

"We are family" by Leslie Liao

“We are family...I got all my sisters with me...We are family...Get up everybody and sing...” ...My mother's favorite song when I was growing up. She would sing in her beautiful broken english accent and I would revel in the moment and dance along.
Like most families, we were dysfunctionally functional. We had no idea how to communicate with or help each other. So, I used dance as an escape from family, my own thoughts, the world. But rarely did I ever share that with my family. I danced for myself.
It’s not that my family didn’t like to dance. In middle school, I often came home to my older brother and sister and their goofy high school friends trying to do the running man or the cabbage patch in our living room. I was too shy to join them but I would watch with envy from the stairs with my face lodged between the rails. Eventually, I would go off to college and join the working world, and finding a dance group/community, wherever I lived, became essential to my standard of living.
Recently, I had been living in San Francisco when my mother had an aneurysm. It was almost a miracle that they found it. I couldn’t handle the thought of losing her. So, I decided to move back to Maryland and vowed to help her address the very real disease that plagues her and millions of other Americans—stress. I knew it was an incredible opportunity that I had just been given. Yet, I was worried because I didn’t know if there was much of a dance community here in DC.
Clearly, I didn’t do my homework. Thankfully, Tsunami introduced me to Urban Artistry
and put me in touch with Junious Lee Brickhouse, the company’s Executive Director, Founder, ultimate mentor and guide. So, I began going to the house classes, but it wasn’t until several months later, when I joined Urban Artistry, that I realized Urban Artistry would change my life.
“It’s not really about dance," - a common sentiment we hear from Junious, about Urban Artistry. At first, I didn’t know what he meant. But after half a year of practicing together twice a week, going to classes twice a week, performing with the group, eating with and getting to know people in the group, organizing events with the group, cyphering and going to the clubs with the group, I have come to understand that it truly is not just about dance. What is taught in the classes and beyond are tools to help you feel comfortable in the cypher, and ultimately, with yourself. What is created at practices is the safe space to try new things and fall in the process, yet to get back up and try again. What is demanded of every member in the group is a commitment to be authentic ambassadors of culture, to truly challenge and support each other, and to be unselfish with our knowledge, skills and opportunities. So, it’s about honoring the process of finding dignity, integrity, and grace within oneself and extending the same to others, which naturally leads to growth in one's identity as an artist.
Through being a part of Urban Artistry, I am finally conquering my fear of being in the cypher—a fear that I’m realizing is rooted in not knowing how to communicate. This has become clear in the past year since I’ve moved home and begun to address long-standing issues with my family. As I try to enter the cypher more often and work through issues with family members, I realize that this may be a long journey, for there are no shortcuts. But the path is becoming clearer – the more I attempt to communicate with my family, the more confident I become in the cypher and in my artistry.
I see the circle of life in UA. We come together because of dance, we then build and grow and are committed to each other because of our humanity, and then we exchange and inspire and teach through dance. So now, I want to share dance with my family, with my Urban Artistry family, with friends and others. Now, instead of dancing for myself, I dance for them. I dance for family.

Lesilie Liao is a Board Member and artist with Urban Artistry

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Bienvenue Kamikaz Crew (Algerie)

This week, Urban Artistry has the honor of helping the State Department welcome Kamikaz Crew, a hip hop-inspired performance group that frequently uses their talent to uplift Algerian youth, including orphans, children who are ill, and children living with disabilities. The Kamikaz Crew was recently voted the most talented group after participating in a competition sponsored by the U.S. Embassy in Algeria. They also recently won the Algerian National Dance Championship and the 2011 Algerian Talent Competition.

Kamikaz Crew is participating in a 3-week study program coordinated by Global Connections, titled "Youth Empowerment through Hip-Hop" for the State Department's International Visitor Leadership Program.  They will be touring D.C., Mississippi, L.A., and New York, and we hope to expose them to the many sides of cultural dance that D.C. has to offer during their short time with us. 

On Sunday, they were invited to our company rehearsal.  Their passion and charisma amazed both our Artistic Directors and the youth in our company. Diyanna, an Artistic Director with Urban Artistry and first year student at Trinity University, said, "They were dope!" We'll have many more opportunities this week to bond and break bread with Kamikaz. 

Tuesday, December 4th @ 6pm

Explore one of the U Street Corridor's newest artsy and casual additions- Satellite Room.  Kamikaz and Urban Artistry will dine in the diner-inspired setting tucked back behind the 9:30 Club. It's a perfect spot for a pre- or post-show burger thanks to its late-night hours.  Then we'll head over to Bus Boys and Poets for Open Mic Night. 

Wednesday, December 5th @ 9pm

Along with @OKAYAFRICATropicalia DC and DJ Underdog, we welcome you to be apart of the essence of progressive African rythmes and house music at "Okayafrica DC". House Dance, Azonto, Zouk and stretch out with dj's Underdog, Native Sun, DrewCool, Kimozaki and Nykoskiie.

Thursday, December 6th @ 6pm

Kamikaz will join Urban Artistry students and family for our weekly classes in Bethesda, MD. Arts education is a key component of our mission, so to learn from and with Kamikaz is an honor.

Friday, December 7th @ 11am 

Kamikaz will be guests on our weekly live radio show, The Urban Artistry Show, which airs live on WLVS:  This will be an opportunity to share Algerian hip-hop culture and dance traditions to American and international audiences.   While dance itself is a language, and a way of communicating, one can gain different understandings of the movements through discussion about where and when they came from. Urban Artistry has begun having more conversations about dance on our new live radio show. It is a chance to interact with DJs, musicians, visual artists, historians, dancers, and educators who continue to shape the culture that is dance. 

@11pm: Finally, to celebrate the end of Kamikaz's week in Washington, DC, and to wish them well on the continuation of their journey across the United States, we have invited Kamikaz to join us for a night of dancing at U Street Music Hall.

As excited as we are to show Kamikaz how we experience urban dance styles in Washington, D.C., members of Urban Artistry are even more interested in seeing, hearing, feeling, and being inspired by the similarities and differences of the experiences of Kamikaz.

Bienvenue aux Etats-Unis, Kamikaz!

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Urban Artistry does Class Acts Arts: Fiesta 2012

Live performances, food, and libations to benefit arts education!

On Friday, November 16th, 2012, from 6:30pm – 9:30pm, Class Acts Arts will host their 3rd annual fundraiser at the Montgomery College Cultural Arts Center(7995 Georgia Ave. Silver Spring, MD).

Class Acts Arts ( is a non-profit organization that brings interactive performances, workshops and residencies representing a broad range of artistic disciplines and cultural traditions to children, youth and families in Maryland, the District of Columbia and Northern Virginia. 

Urban Artistry has long been on the Class Acts Arts roster of artists (, doing shows as far away as Port Republic, MD, and as close as Arlington,VA. By bringing positive and historical representations of urban dance cultures to suburban and rural communities, we keep the histories alive. But sometimes, it is the schools- their students, parents, and teachers that keep us alive and focused.

Urban Artistry Artistic Director and DJ, Russell Campbell noted recently after doing a Class Acts show at Mutual Elementary School, "It makes me feel good to know that kids can walk away from a show feeling like they can move like we do. It reminded me that music and dance are for everyone and sometimes the most timid are the most talented. This is another reason why we push to do more."

When we host cyphers, demonstrations, and question and answer sessions after our own performances, we learn that the youth (and their teachers) are just itching to share their artistic talents. Their movements and the support from their peers in the audience are inspiring.

Come and get down this Friday like the kids do! 

For more info and online tickets sales,

Tickets will also be available at the door.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

The Urban Artistry Show on @WLVSradio

The Urban Artistry Show
 Airs Friday's 11am EST

@urbanartistry on twitter!

"Sometimes you have to just take some time to talk about dance." - Junious Brickhouse

While dance itself is a language, and a way of communicating, we can gain different understandings of the movements when we talk about where and when they came from.

Urban Artistry has begun having more conversations about dance on our new live radio show, The Urban Artistry Show.  The show airs on WLVSthe largest streaming-online broadcasting brand in the DC metropolitan area. WLVS is unique, commercial-free “radio you can watch” at the progressive edge of broadcasting’s wild new future.  

@WLVSradio on twitter!

The Urban Artistry Show presents a global perspective on dance culture from various music and movement communities. Every Friday from 11am-12pm, viewers from around the world are exposed to dance culture by youth and adults from urban, classical, world, folk and traditional genres of dance.  It is a chance to interact with DJs, musicians, visual artists, historians, dancers, and educators who continue to shape the culture that is, dance. 

The Urban Artistry Show is more than talk radio. It's movement on the airwaves, through generations, and to your soul. In the past month that the show has aired, we have had guests like Bus Howard, well known actor and motivational speaker. In episodes hosted by Junious Brickhouse, Urban Artistry's Executive Director, as well as other Artistic Directors, we have talked about the parallels between the pulse in Lindy and the jack in House dance. We have had international featured artists from Senegal and Sweden as well as local youth who cypher in the studio.

And in his weekly segment, "Can You Dig It," DJ Baronhawk Portier makes poignant connections between LPs and cds- giving the history behind remixes and samples... All while keeping it funky.

The best part is that you don't have to be in DC to experience the magic. You can tune in from anywhere! The Urban Artistry Show gives you a warm and fuzzy feeling. It's the family reunion with cameras always on.


Check out the recent TWEETS about the show!!

If you would like to support or be featured on The Urban Artistry Show, please contact Emily Wessel, Director of Operations:

We are currently looking for new folks to serve as the featured artist (adult- any dance style) and youth spotlight (any dance style) reach out if you want to be on the show!