Inside the heavy oak doors of Shoreditch Town Hall, a disco-funk beat is pulsing as we scale the marble steps to the Assembly Hall. PopcityUk’s 2020 International Hip Hop and Popping competition has already started.
In the ring of darkness surrounding the brightly lit dance floor, hundreds of youths have gathered. Some are dancers, stretching and limbering up to perform in the penultimate rounds of the biggest street dance competition of the year.
DJ Fayme, DJ T-Sia and DJ D-Bo mix their music on the high stage, while judges, who have arrived from all corners of the world, sit at a table below.
MC, Dicksonmbi, creator of this extravaganza and professional dancer of renown, has the mic and is calling out for a contestant to appear. Lulu, my photographer weaves her way to the front as all eyes search for the absent dancer. I turn my head back to the stage and see one of the judges bow his red cap and shake his head. It’s been a busy couple of days, 450 participants to get through. Time is of the essence. A lull in the energetic proceedings is unforgivable – ‘You lose the energy, the vibe,’ explains Dickson later when this happens a second time, before one of the dance “battles”.
The missing dancer cooly walks out onto the floor in her ruby jump suit. ‘I’ve been calling for ages!’ Dickson tells her impatiently. He smiles, ‘I’m not your Dad!’ By way of a retort, the young woman produces a comic dance, her mouth bunched with feigned disappointment. She’s entertaining but it’s not enough to get her through to the next round. An artistic-looking man with arms that float in mime takes to the floor next. Could he be the Dutch entrant I ask myself? Without a list of competitors, it’s all guesswork.
For the dance battles, where two dancers try to outperform each other in front of a crowd, a fair-headed, young man with glasses walks out, bearing a passing resemblance to a teenage Elvis Costello. He’s asked where he’s from. ‘North Chesterfield,’ he says proudly waving his arms in the air. Everyone laughs. He’s wearing a bomber jacket with the name, ‘Edwin’ emblazoned on the back. A glamorous, dark-haired, petite woman in a blue tracksuit, who has flown all the way from Montreal, is his adversary. Her dance seems karate-inspired together with popping, waving moves. She is impressive but **Edwin, unfazed responds by rolling his arms, shoulders and tilting his head in a complete Popping wave.
The dancer’s individuality and creativity is what shines through in this contest. Sure, the dancers are meant to execute the Popping* and Hip-Hop* techniques, but equally the dancer is given some leeway especially in the freestyle battles. This I learn the break, from Lulu, our photographer, who is herself a street dancer. ‘I may enter, next year,’ she quips.
In the under 16s category, I did observe common threads however in some of the teenage girls, whose dances were narratives of their lives. Pleading, disappointed, angry and proud, their stabbing fingers, anguished expression, energetic stamping and kicking, said it all. A great way to pulverise negativity and a celebration of endurance and strength, I thought. A few however were more inward-looking, enigmatic and had economy of movement. Their approach echoed the routines of the older female dancers, whose gestures were smoother, more fluid and less spiky.
In contrast, the under 16s men liked to dazzle you with athletic daring. One dancer in a yellow football top with an impressive head of hair, performed the perfect back somersault and many other stunts. The stage was swamped however when his equal in dance, raised his bent leg, rolled up his teeshirt over his shoe, and magically ejected the teeshirt from his torso. It flipped over his long braids, into the air above him. All was choreographed in time to the music. I’m still trying to work out how he did it! Many boys also went for the ‘needle & thread” or ‘jump over your leg’ , a highly risky manoeuvre where a broken leg could easily ensue!
The sprinkling of older dancers avoided such tricks. One bearded contestant with reversed leather cap, wordlessly handed me his phone, already on “record”. As he leapt to the dance floor to perform his number, Lulu saw my look of panic and grabbed the mobile from me.
We had to sadly leave before the finals but what an evening of colour, energy and unadulterated joy.
When I interviewed Dicksonmbi a few months back, I asked him about dance and what it brought to young people in our modern world. “I do believe dance creates a better world and gives people more confidence and self-awareness as it did for me”. Heartening and hopeful words.
My interview with Dicksonmbi: https://artmuselondon.com/2019/12/06/interview-with-dancer-dickson-mbi/
*Popping brings together dance styles such as the Robot, Waving and Tutting and much much more. Hip Hop came later and has its roots in Popping. It is performed to Hip Hop music and consists of primarily breaking but that is a simplification! In essence, both are often used in a dance for variety.
** Edwin, stage name Slayer, came runner-up in the U16s Freestyle.
Popcity UK vol.5 is presented by Fiya House, funded by Arts Council England, and supported by Shoreditch Town Hall and Team London Bridge.