The culture of hip hop can be as hard to pin down as it is to find its most basic practitioners, who engineered their own versions of dance and music in urban neighborhoods – be they on the pavement of South Los Angeles, in the boroughs of New York or their hybrid among some of America’s biggest cities in between.
For people in the heartland, it’s easy to make assumptions based on what we see on TV or in movies – which can denigrate or glorify aspects of hip hop that have basis in truth but don’t necessarily represent the entire genre.
To understand it, you almost need a guide. And that’s where the Versa-Style Dance Company comes in. Founded by a couple of LA natives in 2005, its dancers have been touring ever since to celebrate the artistry and spirit of street dance – something they will bring to Escher Auditorium at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 4 on the College of Saint Benedict campus as part of its Fine Art Series with Saint John’s University.
“Hip hop comes from a spectrum that can be very gray,” said Brandon Juezan, who has danced with Versa-Style in one capacity or another for more than a decade. “Our goal is to clear up a lot of misconceptions and teach its history and foundation. Street dance originated in rough neighborhoods and came out of a need, a want and desire for something more. These were people who lived in places that were gang-infested, where there was poverty. Because of that, there are two sides of hip-hop.”
Examples can be legendary artists like 2Pac Shakur and Dr. Dre, known for “gansta” rap. They became famous promoting some of hip hop’s negative narratives, and yet Juezan said they’ve also produced very positive and conscious and forward-thinking music.
“2Pac made a song about empowering women, and Dr. Dre – a guy who was once a part of NWA – made a song about stopping violence,” Juezan said. “That shows how this art can change over time. There’s the tough, street side that often gets promoted in the media. Sometimes that is about violence and drugs and degrading women, because that was unfortunately a raw expression of the culture that spawned it. But there’s another side that made hip-hop a universal language. This form of dance, music and the art of rap and deejaying also is a positive way to step away from those things that can be so destructive.”
Jackie Lopez (aka “Miss Funk”) and Leigh Foaad (aka “Breeze-Lee”) launched Versa-Style when the former was a senior majoring in world arts and cultures at UCLA and the latter was already a well-connected dancer of some renown in Southern California. They collaborated on Lopez’s first repertory work, quickly bonded and decided to emulate one of their greatest influences, Rennie Harris, whose Philadelphia-based dance company set a standard for hip hop beginning in 1992.
Juezan (aka BeastBoi) grew up in Azusa, California, captivated by America’s Best Dance Crew and So You Think You Can Dance? He joined his high school dance team and met Lopez for the first time when he was just a freshman. She liked his style and gave him a scholarship to attend a summer dance and theater intensive at UCLA. The following year he became a member of Versa-Style Next Generation, basically a development program for Versa-Style’s touring dancers. As the original members of the company transitioned to other stages in their careers, Juezan was among those selected to carry on the tradition. He joined them as a professional in 2014, finished an entertainment business degree at Cal-State Fullerton in 2017, and continues to perform and is currently the company’s artistic director of touring and events. He’ll be among at least eight from their crew who will be in Central Minnesota for a couple of days leading up to the show on Feb. 4.
They’ll provide “edutainment,” including workshops with the Boys and Girls Clubs of Central Minnesota and with CSB and SJU students and a leadership seminar with the schools’ student senates. As a 501(c)3 organization, Versa-Style works to help provide curriculum to a group of high schools in Los Angeles.
“We strive to spread love for hip hop and educate communities, provide resources and tools for students who want to learn,” Juezan said.
The show at Escher Auditorium is suitable for all ages, but that doesn’t mean they don’t get real. Juezan said this performance will be a blend of two of their staple shows, “Freemind Freestyle” with “Origins.” Freemind Freestyle is a deeper theatrical work that drew inspiration from the pandemic and other events during the same timeframe – including the killing of George Floyd and the civil unrest that followed. The name derives from the individual expression that contributes to the group production. While there is choreography, a lot of the show involves different artists doing different movements on stage.
“It’s improvisational, which is what street dance and hip hop is all about,” Juezan said. “It explores freedom and oppression and how we can be free despite how things in society might make us feel. There are parts of that which are more emotional, deep, intense and even a little dark. We need to express how it’s about love and having fun, but we can also get serious with it and tell a deeper story.”
Origins traces how African dance, salsa, swing and tap ultimately culminated in versions of what is now known as hip hop. “Popping” and “Locking” started in the 1960s in the San Francisco Bay area and the 1970s in South LA, respectively. “Breaking” came from New York in the 1980s. And “Krump,” Juezan’s specialty, came about in the early 2000s, also from LA. Other techniques include “party rock/hip hop freestyle” and “house,” all of which will be a part of the Versa-Style show.
“All these different styles were developed in different regions when they didn’t have Instagram to share everything with the rest of the world,” Juezan said. “They’re often black or Latino communities in underserved areas, each with their own influence. We look forward to bringing that diversity and beautiful complexity to people who perhaps haven’t experienced it or seen where it comes from.”
Tickets, ranging from $8 for CSB and SJU students to $38 for regular admission, are available at https://www.csbsju.edu/fine-arts/performances. The show is made possible in part by the voters of Minnesota through a Minnesota State Arts Board operating support grant, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund. The National Endowment for the Arts and the New England Foundation for the Arts also contributed to funding for the show.
The Versa-Style Dance Company includes (from front left) Brandon Juezan (also known as "BeastBoi"), Brianna Grey (aka "Passion"), and Anthony Berry (aka "Berry Groove"); and (back row, from left) Ceanne Augustin (aka "CyKlone"), Ernesto Galarza (aka "Precise"), Cynthia Hernandez (aka "Divina"), Jackie Lopez (aka "Miss Funk"), Leigh Foaad (aka "Breeze-Lee"), Harry Weston (aka "Fullout") and Alli Gray.