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May 2, 2010: Marathon trainingHip-hop danceMixed martial artsWhat's in your gym bag?Sporty fashion

Urban Beat: Hip-hop classes foster fitness and community

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By Sarah Wildman
Sunday, May 2, 2010

It's five minutes to 7 on a wet March night, and, as I peek into classrooms while walking down the hall at the Dance Institute of Washington in Columbia Heights, I see several classes taking place at once. Girls in black leotards and pink tights hit plié after plié in Studio 1; adults in Lycra reach up to relevé on toes, then gracefully extend arms over head in Studio 2.

I'm going to the room at the end of the upstairs hall. There, a woman with a pile of twists pulled into a bun stretches her leg out on the bar; she wears sweats, an old baggy Baltimore Law School T-shirt and colorful sneakers. Two teachers walk in, LaTasha Barnes, a fitness trainer and former competitive track star; and Junious "House" Brickhouse, dressed in a purple hoodie, shiny white sneakers and a purple baseball cap, brim up. He's the founder of Urban Artistry, the five-year-old urban dance company in residence since January at the Dance Institute that offers classes for everyone from company members to people, like me, off the street. He offers a hand to me, clearly the newbie, and introduces himself.

As more dancers trickle in, they greet each other as old friends and banter with Barnes while she connects her iPod to the sound system. "Hi!" the stretching woman says to me, extending a hand. "Welcome! The great thing about this class is that you can drop in. It's not like other dance classes, where if you miss the beginning of the choreography, you're just lost." Brickhouse slips out; he's not teaching this class. Suddenly the room jumps with sound -- gone is the classical music from down the hall -- and up comes a deep bass, up comes hip-hop.

***

Urban dance borrows from African, Latin, martial arts and American social dances; the movements were perfected on streets from New York to Paris. It continues to grow and evolve, and recent television shows have sparked more interest. "I think that 'Dancing With the Stars,' MTV's 'America's Best Dance Crew' -- I think all those things help to popularize dance as an art form," said Fabian Barnes, founder of the Dance Institute of Washington. Hip-hop in particular, he said, has been an entry point for people who had not been part of the dance community, especially men.

I have always danced -- in every city I've lived in, from Washington to Paris to Vienna. But, after giving birth to my daughter more than a year ago, I've been mostly on a yoga mat and in the gym. I thought I'd kept in good shape -- I even took dance classes into the seventh month of pregnancy -- but I've never taken a hip-hop class, and my cardio fitness ... well, let's say it has suffered. This spring, I wanted something to kick-start my energy again; even more, I wanted to find community and a creative release separate from my work. For that, I needed to get back in a dance studio.

The dancers in Barnes's hip-hop class that first night are all women -- I mentally pin them in their 20s and early 30s -- except for one boy, age 11, who blows us away when he dances. Barnes, 29, stands in front of the mirrors and runs through a basic series of movements: a jump, a body wave, a neck isolation, a hip isolation, a shimmy, a march. I and the five other dancers imitate. It's hard, but it's doable, and it speeds up immediately. Within five minutes, my lungs are screaming because we're dancing so fast. And this is just the warm-up.

The music is J Dilla and Flying Lotus. Movements reminiscent of late 1980s and early '90s music videos emerge in a wave around the room. Everyone except me is in baggy pants, old-school high tops or rainbow-colored hip-hop sneakers. I'm in old gym shoes, and I covet the footwear around me.

I make eye contact with the stretching woman who had spoken to me, Carlendra Frank. "I'm so out of shape!" I mouth. She shakes her head. "No! You're doing great! You look awesome." It may be an exaggeration, but I'm definitely moving well. I feel invigorated. I'm drenched in sweat; I'm rolling my hips; I'm weaving my arms; I'm one of those awesome guys dancing on the street while a crowd claps to the boom box.

"My movement is more old school mixed with some isolations and popping fundamentals," Barnes says later, meaning a kind of funk move where muscles literally "pop" and contract, almost like a snap. "A lot of what we do is based on how muscles move."

In class, 40 more minutes fly by. "Get some water," Barnes shouts. A fresh-faced woman in a white tank stops me during our two-minute break. "I'm Maren," she says, grinning, "I'm in the company, too." She nods, indicating Frank. "You're new, aren't you?" she asks. "Welcome."

I've always reveled in the emotional and physical release of dancing: the deep muscle burn, the sweat, the joy. And I've always hated the cliquey-ness of dance crowds, the familiar mean-girl swagger from some of the class regulars. At least on this first visit, there's none of the latter. It appears that Urban Artistry has found a way to mix dance, fitness and true community. By the time class wraps, I feel as if I've discovered the Shangri-La of dance classes.


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