Choreographer Rennie Harris goes beyond linking together steps to make a cool new dance. His performances are all about narrative. In his new dance company, Grass Roots Project, Harris sets out to use dance as a vehicle for change.
“I want to get back to the basics of street style,” Harris says. “We’re not here to entertain people. We’ve been convinced that all we’re good for is entertainment. But no, we have to do more.”
Harris grew up in Philadelphia and has spent his life in the hiphop community. Grass Roots Project is his third dance company after Rennie Harris Puremovement and his training company Rennie Harris R.H.A.W. The new group came along when Harris wanted to start something with a West Coast vibe. He considered different places like Los Angeles but instead decided on Colorado. For the past seven years, he’s been teaching dance at the University of Colorado. Not only is he familiar with the Colorado hip-hop community, he calls it the most progressive culture he’s ever seen.
With Grass Roots, Harris’ mission is to tackle social and political issues that are at the heart of the community. The company covers myriad dancing styles, including house, hip-hop, popping and locking and b-boying or b-girling. In December, Harris held an open rehearsal for Grass Roots. In keeping with his purpose, within a few minutes of starting, a black dancer yells, “Look at this white boy over here,” reminding the audience that this isn’t just about dancing. The next hour showed issues acted out through dance — domestic abuse, racial profiling, drug use and gun violence. In one heated scene, two black dancers begin to get harassed by an invisible police officer and we see them getting arrested, all told in lyrical dance moves.
Hip-hop has garnered a bad reputation over the years, Harris says. Rap videos have caricatured the dance form as portraying only one type of message. Harris hopes to branch out. He says most hiphoppers only want to dance at a level seven to 10 intensity, but Harris wants to experiment with slowing it down in the one to six region.
“In order to sustain hip-hop and street dance theater, we have to explore other aspects of the style,” he says. “We can’t just always be on angst and do ‘in your face’ dancing. That’s gangster stuff, and that’s what people are confusing with hip-hop. I want to get back to the basics of street style. We’ve become ignorant by saying that hip-hop can’t be expressive. Just because you don’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not there. It’s about pushing the envelope.”
It’s that ignorance and confusion that the Grass Roots Project is hoping to fix, says artistic director Larry Southall. Hip-hop isn’t about ca$h money hoes; it’s about dancers trying to tell a story.
“Hip-hop, just like any other style, has narrative; it has a vocabulary,” Southall says. “I’ve heard it commonly referred to as just shaking your booty, or that it’s just a stripper dance, but that’s just ignorant. There’s good and bad ballet; there’s good and bad jazz. The sad thing about hip-hop is people think that there’s one style.
“With Grass Roots, we’re showing people that there is technique. When people see Western dance, they think that’s it’s so strong and elegant, but when they see street style, they say it’s just fun, like it’s not a serious dance style. That’s very biased.”
Another facet of Harris’ vision for the company is diversity. The dancers come from different ethnic backgrounds, range in age from early 20s to early 40s and come from an assorted dance background including modern, jazz and classical. Along with using relatable issues that affect every community, the mixture of dancers adds to the universality of the project.
“We’re addressing the common man,” Harris says. “What happens in black culture, Latino culture and white culture isn’t different. We’re all going through the same thing. Some of us just like different spices and a little more hot sauce. We’re all taking different modes of transportation but we’re all going to work. Grass Roots is addressing the global need for a dance company like this.”
For the dancers, the diversity is a growing opportunity. Millie Heckler was a dancer her whole life and initially wasn’t going to major in dance at CU. But she was inspired by the dance department and one of Harris’ classes and has since been studying dance for the past four years. Harris asked her to join the company, and Heckler jumped at the chance
“More than anything, it’s been a learning experience for me,” she says. “I look up to all the dancers I’m working with. They’re all good at what they do. I have lot to learn, and growing to be done, and I’m really hungry for it.”
Through her education at CU, Heckler says she’s learned more about the background and theory of different dance styles. She’s learned much more about hip-hop, which she says is important to her dancing.
“I came from a competition background,” she says. “My idea of hip-hop was what I saw on MTV and So You Think You Can Dance, which is a pretty skewed version of actual hip-hop and its culture. Now I’m getting a multicultural dance education, and I’m learning where the form comes from and how it speaks to the culture and people who created it. We’re learning its true form so we’re not appropriating it or we’re not skewing it for commercial purposes, which happens a lot.”
The dance department staff at CU approaches teaching with this cultural overview, says Southall, who is also a pro fessor at CU. He grew up in the Bronx and has been dancing hip-hop for more than 30 years. He says hip-hop is a culture that changed things in the south Bronx in the ’70s and stopped people from killing each other. He says people have seen hiphop as a sexual and deviant act, but he wants to set the record straight.
“It’s good to be able to show what the positives are because it’s always the negative that’s being pushed,” Southall says. “There’s a lot more to it, just like any other society. One of the mantras for hip-hop culture is ‘love, peace, respect and having fun.’ That’s not deviant but it gets twisted.”
Hip-hop has been an inspiration for Heckler, not just in dancing but in life. She says there’s a sense of community that she feels.
“What I’ve learned from the tradition is how to be a better person in general — to know your own biography and know where you came from and how to be able to express your individuality in a group context,” she says. “And to be accepting. There’s a give and take. Hip-hop is a safe place. It’s a place where you can express yourself and be supported.”
The people behind Grass Roots want that acceptance to flow out of the group and into the bigger culture. Southall says he wants people to understand that hiphop is just another style of dance and should be measured that way.
“They don’t have the information to understand that some people eat with metal — they use forks. Some people use chop sticks. Some use their hands. No better no worse,” Southall says. “They’re just different culturally. That’s all hiphop is — a different culture. People look at the differences and judge it more so than appreciate it as just a different dance style, a different language.
“It’s about breaking down ignorant stereotypes, making people learn that we’re all people and we can learn each other’s cultures. I think that would help us all get along better to see where we come from instead of assuming from outward appearance.”
To achieve that sense of acceptance, Grass Roots is using the power of movement. Heckler says it is a very poignant time for this discussion because things are very heavy in the country. When she dances, she hopes to give people a sense of humanity.
“I try to be as honest as I can possibly be,” she says. “I try to have conviction and give as much of myself as I can. As far as the choreography goes, Rennie is speaking to prevalent social issues. Art is so powerfully provoking — the power of movement, to speak through the body. Art has the power to speak to the everyday person.”
Harris’ main intention for the project is to spark discussion. He says he doesn’t usually like to tell people what to think about his shows, but with this project he hopes it encourages a sense of reflection.
“If the work connects to you, ask yourself, ‘Why does it connect?’ and investigate that with yourself,” Harris says. “I want these conversations to start happening in the community. This is a bigger issue, it’s not just about one particular group.”
The project hopes to formerly premiere sometime next year. Harris is currently adding more dancers to the group and is planning to present at dance conferences in the fall.