From its earliest beginnings in the 1970s, hip-hop’s dance culture grew from street-corner kids spinning on their heads to a genre that crossed racial boundaries while encouraging creativity and social connection.
Its dancers flavored the movement with emotional expression and cultural and historical elements that continue to enrich and unite young and old, from old school enthusiasts to TikTok performers.
“UnderScored,” being presented Thursday through Saturday at UC San Diego, is Ephrat Asherie Dance company’s tribute to the heyday of New York City’s underground club scene. It reminds us that, per dancer Archie Burnett, “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.”
The performers in “UnderScored” span five generations and they have plenty to say about hip-hop culture, club and street dance.
“It’s an hourlong show full of music and stories and dancing and projections,” said artistic director Ephrat “Bounce” Asherie by phone from her home in Harlem. “‘UnderScored” is an extravaganza.”
Asherie was born in Israel and at the age of 7 her family moved to New York.
Growing up, she was a big fan of hip-hop music and made mix tapes by artists such as De La Soul, Salt-N-Pepa and A Tribe Called Quest. Her education includes a master’s degree from the University of Wisconsin, where she studied the roots of street and club dances.
But Asherie’s most powerful instruction came from mentors like the late, Haitian-born Marjory Smarth, a professional dancer and choreographer who went on to teach others to “find their own eloquence.”
Smarth, who succumbed to breast cancer in 2015, was known for her style of house dancing, essentially freestyle movement informed by African diasporic culture that became a hallmark of the underground club scene.
“She would put Lindy (Hop) steps in her house!” Asherie said.
“She would be at the club and do a Charleston step, or she would do West African movement in the middle of her dancing and show me, so seamlessly, how all of these dances are part of a larger continuum, Asherie said. “The way I intersected in the continuum was important to understanding everything that was going on culturally, musically, spiritually and physically. I got lucky. I had mentors who never, ever separated the dance from the culture. I was able to see that this was about people and communities and these dances are occurring because of a very large and important history.”
Other mentors who perform in “UnderScored” include Archie Burnett, Brahms “Bravo” LaFortune and Michele Saunders, who spent her weekend nights dancing at New York’s Paradise Garage, where Diana Ross, Boy George and Madonna were part of an underground scene that lasted until dawn.
The music was uplifting and different, with a blend of pulsing bass beats and hypnotic lyrics that later became commercialized. The atmosphere unified people from all walks of life, encouraged freedom of expression and provided an escape from the stressors of life.
“Paradise Garage was one of the seminal clubs in the early ‘70s that provided a haven for African Americans, Latinx and LGBTQ+ communities,” Asherie said. “That club closed in 1987, but those reunions have been happening for years and it’s amazing.”
The musical accompaniment for “UnderScored” is a mix of original music, house beats, disco classics and funk anthems.
Asherie said her inspiration comes from dancing with people and exchanging that energy. When she choreographs, her ideas are inspired by music, by movement she first imagines in her head or by the way certain dancers embody space.
“Sometimes I hear a piece of music and think, I need to make a dance to this. I can see every step and I can create like that. Another version is when I have an idea about what I want to say and the idea supports the movement. Then I find the music so that it all makes sense.”
San Diegan Grace Shinhae Jun will participate in “UnderScored” by offering a pre-show conversation with local hip-hop elders Melody Mel Jackson and Charlie Rock.
Jun, who earned her Ph.D in drama and theater at UC San Diego, is a choreographer and the artistic director of the dance troupe bkSOUL. She teaches at multiple universities and at transcenDANCE Youth Arts Project, where Asherie will offer a master class.
Jun met Asherie at a Show & Prove (S&P) Hip-Hop Studies Conference in Riverside five years ago and said “we have been friends ever since.”
“I think it’s so important to learn about the context and the history of hip-hop culture,” Jun said.
“I think about what I grew up listening to and how that is in the atmosphere of my family,” Jun said. “I’m Korean and my husband is African American. Growing up, hip-hop was just forming. I was drawn to it and it’s definitely where I am today. It was argued that hip-hop was a fad and here we are, 50 years later. It’s still thriving and a part of people’s identities.”
As for performing with older dancers, Asherie said that she has always been drawn to the idiosyncratic ways people move at different times in their lives and considers it a privilege.
“There is something about the life force of dancing and of moving together and relying on each other as a community that’s invigorating,” she said. “We don’t have to stop dancing or sharing this energy or having these conversations. It’s life-affirming.”
ArtPower presents Ephrat Asherie Dance: ‘UnderScored’
When: 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday
Where: Mandeville Auditorium, 9500 Gilman Drive, UCSD, La Jolla
Tickets: $42, general admission. $22, students
Phone: (858) 534-1430
Luttrell is a freelance writer.
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