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Shock-ing revelations: Hip-hop troupes tell their stories at JCC event

By Martin Jones Westlin

Contributor

The community room of an apartment high-rise at 1520 Sedgwick Ave. in the Bronx sits empty except for the dust, not unlike the surrounding residences whose decay speaks to the neighborhood’s hard times. It’s tough to fathom that just a generation ago that venue was the site that yielded a worldwide dance culture. But seeing’s believing — and even as the building wilts under disrepair and threats of foreclosure, a San Diego group has plenty to show us this weekend in tony La Jolla. Its history, in fact, traces to the Sedgwick property and a signature phenomenon, one that steadfastly refuses to show its age.

Culture Shock San Diego, the local repository of all things hip-hop, will strut its stuff Friday and Saturday, May 21 and 22, at the Jewish Community Center’s Garfield Theatre. The Shock Showcase will mark a company first — some 119 dancers from Culture Shock’s four troupes, whose members range from age 7 to 40, will trot out their takes on break-dancing, beat-boxing, splitting and other genre staples, marking the first time all four groups have shared the same stage at once.

That’s a far cry from 1992, when hip-hop was couched under the much less catchy moniker “cardio-funk.” Culture Shock founder Angie Bunch remembers the year well, posting the odd flyer at whatever venue came to mind, taking her cue from a nearby city where the genre had become established years before as a positive answer to gang violence among teens.

“We came in late in the hip-hop dance world,” Bunch, 51, explained. “Previously, I’d gone to Los Angeles for classes, because there was nothing like it here. The dancers were around in San Diego; hip-hop just wasn’t accessible to the public in terms of mainstream. It was such a pivotal time on the West Coast, and L.A. was the center for that.”

L.A.'s the center for a lot of things. This thing’s different, though. The performer, for better or worse, is entirely in control.

“That’s the beauty of hip-hop,” the former Nike-sponsored team trainer and jazz dancer said. “Every one of the dancers is their own choreographer and has their own style. But when you have a company that has to look like this powerful dance army, they have to be able to mimic other choreographers. That’s where the skill comes in.

“But it takes far less time to master hip-hip than any other technique. It can take a lifetime to master ballet. You can get a good sense of hip-hop in a matter of weeks to months.”

Maybe that’s because of its relaxed demands. The only message to hip-hop, after all, is the coolness of self-expression, born of the same spontaneity that marked the genesis of the genre in 1973. The Sedgwick Avenue community room was the unlikely site, where Jamaican native Clive Campbell, then 18, thought he’d throw a dance party for a few friends.

“I was messing around with the music,” he said in a 1989 interview at New York’s defunct New Music Seminar showcase, “and started out by buying a few records to play at my house. ... I went out and got around 20 records that I felt was good enough, and we ... charged about 25 cents to come in.” The door took in $300 that night.

Parties became a staple at the building after that. Campbell himself played the tunes, which featured reggae, funk and a measure of James Brown, a personal fave. Even the hardware got into the act as Campbell randomly spun the records at the same time in a series of cacophonous explosions. Each week yielded variations on the same collage. Each week inspired new contortions and moves. Each week fueled this very American phenomenon, which shows itself today in everything from sociology texts to movies to TV dance shows.

“The dance shows today inspire people to learn hip-hop,” Bunch explained, “but not how to learn it.” The key, she said, is in the performer’s independent thinking — the kind that inspired Campbell to host the party heard ‘round the world.

The La Jolla show is expected to be a powerful sight and sound presentation. The highlight could be Culture Shock’s snippets from the dance theatrical “Graffiti Life,” which will be presented at the Garfield Theatre in August. The Shock’s stellar breaking crew will also “break out” a new work.

Before the curtain falls, all the dancers will take the stage “for a show-stopping grand finale,” according to Bunch.

If you go

  • What: ‘Shock Showcase,’ hip-hop program
  • When: 7 p.m. May 21; 1 p.m. May 22
  • Where: Garfield Theater, Jewish Community Center, 4126 Executive Drive, La Jolla
  • Tickets: $12-$15
  • Contact: 299-2110;

www.cultureshockdancecenter.com

  • Details: The show is a benefit for the four Shock dance companies: Culture Shock (professional dancers), Future Shock (apprentice teen troupe), Mighty Shock (training troupe for ages 13 and under) and Afta Shock (dancers ages 25 and older).