Los Angeles is rich in culture; dance, theater, music and film. It has a very diverse demographics and it is the home of nearly a hundred dance companies representing every ethnic group. Surrounded by all this activity is an extraordinary group that is sadly unknown to many concert dance audiences. Founded in 2005, it is highly respected in the Hip Hop community, the Latino community and by the inner city youth. This company has toured and even attended festivals abroad. I am referring to Versa-Style Dance Company, Co-Founded and Co-Directed by two very gifted artists, Jackie Lopez, aka Miss Funk, and Leigh Foaad, aka Breeze-Lee. They also run a junior company, Versa-Style Next Generation, made up of mostly teenage dancers who have trained with them in community classes.
What prevents this company from reaching a larger and more diverse audience is exposure, opportunity, access to presenters and funding. The talent, the devotion and the drive to succeed is apparent. The work created by Lopez and Foaad is professional and represents with great distinction an important element within the LA dance scene.
I attended a rehearsal of Versa-Style Dance Company at the impressive East Los Angeles Performing Arts Academy. I was immediately struck by the dedication and discipline of the dancers. Leigh Foaad began by building movement phrases that were soon woven into his new evening long work, BOX OF HOPE, premiering in September at the Ford Theater. The same professional work ethic was evident that one sees in a ballet or modern company rehearsal. The emphasis on detail and decorum was the same that I experienced throughout my career with other choreographers. The only difference was the style of dance. The choreography is original, organic and extremely musical. The music that evening was Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye, and I watched as the dancers, seven men and six women, concentrated on learning and perfecting Foaad’s exciting movement.
Jackie Lopez, who is also the Director of the UCLA Summer Dance/Performing Arts Intensive for high school students, coached the dancers; reminding them to breathe and to work on their phrasing. “I know that it comes with time, but you have to think about how you breathe.” She said that it is just as important as the attention one gives to her/his “training, the craft, the dancing and the choreography”; that it is part of the “entire package” of their work. She gave clear examples of where in the choreography they could take advantage of breath; how they could use that time to improve certain gestures and the musical phrasing of the movement. Lopez is a supportive, nurturing, but demanding coach with an excellent eye for detail that allows Foaad to concentrate on his choreography.
When asked where he drew his inspiration, Foaad said that it came from years of training and working with Rennie Harris Puremovement. He, and Lopez, spoke of the late Hip Hop legend Marjorie Smarth who was known as the Queen of House Dance. Big names like Caleaf Sellers aka Big Leaf, and Ejoe Wilson were mentioned, and presently Foaad is researching the theories of Movement Culture’s Ido Portal.
I wanted to hear from them what the dance community at large should know regarding their company’s needs. Lopez was passionate in her response. “Providing the Versa-Style dancers with opportunities. When I was growing up and watching dance, I never saw anyone who looked like me.” As a girl, Lopez never imagined that she would ever have the chance to perform. She and Foaad now work tirelessly to give the next generation of dancers in their community the exposure to dance and the opportunity to perform. Both grew up in the inner city and stressed how important the arts were in making it possible for them not only to dance, but to further their education. In 2004 Lopez graduated Summa Cum Laude from the UCLA Department of World Arts and Cultures, with a concentration in Dance. She and Foaad are on the dance faculty at UCLA.
They spoke of how they pay homage to American Band Stand and especially to Soul Train because those television shows were showcases for street social dances such as Popping and Locking. Foaad said that “street dances” are now taught in studios and Lopez feels that Hip Hop has become somewhat negative; “portraying sex, money and drugs”. For her it is important, and necessary, to expose people to the more positive and healthier aspects of Hip Hop dance. “Hip Hop is alive, beautiful and healthy.” Lopez stressed. “I have always said that Hip Hop needs to be in politics. It is the one culture where whatever your background is doesn’t matter, and it could help bring people from different backgrounds together.”
I asked what obstacles the company faces with presenters in Los Angeles and elsewhere. “Access and funding”, they said in unison. They plan to make full use of the Western Arts Alliance in Los Angeles but they need financial support to attend other booking conferences across the country. A professional staff is needed to manage and promote Versa-Style; someone to book performances and tours, and a person to do the grant writing. As Foaad put it, “We need the staff to put on paper what we put on the stage.” Presently dancer, Harry Weston, doubles as Company Manager and another, Ernesto Galarza, takes care of maintaining the company’s social media sites. Each man wears two hats within the company while also teaching.
Versa-Style is fortunate to have a partnership with the Ford Foundation at the John Anson Ford Amphitheater. They make good use of the Foundation’s Summer Partnership Program which provides guidance on what business skills the company needs to focus on. Lopez is confident about the quality of their work, but the company needs help getting the word out.
I interviewed two company members who worked their way up through the ranks. Lilian Ortega comes from an artistic family. Her mother is a poet and her father a dancer. Before meeting Jackie and Leigh, however, she had no way of advancing to college or having a career in dance. Ernesto Galarza only knew about Salsa and other Latin social dances. He had hopes of becoming an Engineer before he literally stumbled across Leigh’s Hip Hop classes. Upon seeing how talented these two were, Leigh and Jackie invited them to join Versa-Style Next Generation and finally to become members of the professional company. As a result of meeting Jackie and Leigh, Lily and Ernesto have earned degrees from UCLA and they both now teach. The path of their lives changed as a result of the work that Lopez and Foaad do in their communities. They and the company strive to help other inner city youths in Los Angeles realize their potential.
At the Evolution Dance Studios in North Hollywood I watched Leigh Foaad, Ernesto Galarza and Anthony Berry take the Next Generation dancers through their warm up and rehearsal for an upcoming show. During a short break I had the dancers express in two or three words what it means to them to dance in this company. Their ages range from 16 to 21 and the majority are Latino, two are Asian; all ten are inner city youths. Their answers tell the entire story of how Lopez and Foaad have affected their lives: “Exploration of myself”, “Culture and Liberation”, “Love and Freedom”, “Freedom and fun”, “The essence of dance and freedom”, “Feeling free in the movement”, “Expressing myself”, “Just having fun”, “Showing Love”, and “Challenging my artistry”.
The 2016 season is a busy one for Versa-Style Dance Company. The company has several Public School Educational Tours, with events, jams, battles and performances. They are booked at Scripps College, UCLA, Eastside Arts Festival, College of the Canyons in Santa Clarita, University of Utah, workshops at the Carpenter Center in Long Beach, The Women Manifest Dance LA Festival in Hollywood, Shut UP and Dance Festival at the Bootleg Theater in LA, Ventura College, East LA Performing Arts Magnet, the premiere of BOX OF HOPE at the Ford Theater on September 17th, the Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Oregon, a residency at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa and an Alaskan Tour in January of 2017.
My hope is that this article will inspire one or more presenters in Los Angeles to give the Versa-Style Dance Company an opportunity to perform in theaters like Royce Hall, the Nate Holden, the Wallis or other more “mainstream” theaters where audiences go to see concert dance. Los Angeles needs to recognize that it has an amazing Hip Hop dance company in its midst. I encourage everyone to check out this dynamic company.
You can learn more about Versa-Style Dance Company at http://versastyledance.com.