Inside the Versa-Style Dance Company

By Jessica Koslow

Jackie Lopez loves what she does. Her smile is contagious as she bounces to the pulsing house beat. She moves with passion and grace, in unison with the pack of Versa-Style dancers. It's a Sunday afternoon, the last performance of a two-weekend run of "Positive Dose." This is the company's third self-produced, full-length production since 2007; each placing hip-hop dance within the larger context of the dance world and highlighting the power and meaning of dance within hip-hop culture.

Lopez and her partner Leigh Foaad, aka Breeze Lee, are the artistic directors of Versa-Style Dance Company. Their mission is twofold: They team-teach a community house dance class Fridays at Evolution Studios in Hollywood and work for months to produce hip-hop dance theater, with the overarching goal of spreading positive perspectives on hip-hop culture.

"The whole idea for Versa-Style came about in 2004 when I was in the Department of World Arts and Cultures at UCLA, and I was asked and challenged to articulate what I love so much," says Lopez in a recent phone interview. "I had a huge passion for social styles, which is the Latin side of me, and hip-hop. I started researching what hip-hop is all about, and why people identify with it so much and love it so much. "

In 2004, Lopez met Rennie Harris, a pioneering hip-hop choreographer from Philadelphia, who was a guest lecturer/instructor at UCLA. With his encouragement, she started looking into the histories of the different street dance styles. Knowledge is power, and Lopez wanted both.

In the process of studying the dance legends and actually speaking to the living ones, Foaad and Lopez started teaching, and the seeds for Versa-Style were planted. "I feel that hip-hop in the mainstream is viewed one specific way, when there's so much depth and so much more we could share about the culture," explains Lopez.

The most vibrant elements of hip-hop culture - the spirit of inclusion, innovation, reverence and authenticity - were on display during "Positive Dose" at the Rosenthal Theater at Inner-City Arts in downtown L.A. Opening the show was video footage of Harris tracing elements of hip-hop dance back to singer and bandleader Cab Calloway, tap dancers the Nicholas Brothers and all-around entertainment phenomenon Sammy Davis, Jr. Next was a visually stimulating lesson on the huge influence of "Soul Train" on hip-hop dance styles. The gift of Versa-Style is it reminds us that dance styles will continue to change based on time, place and space, but they remain in conversation with the culture.

The show also introduced audiences to Versa-Style Next Generation, their junior company. "I used to be a teacher and I have a huge connection with students," begins Lopez. "We also have a huge following in our Friday classes, and we want to give students an opportunity to perform, to express themselves and feel like a family. Versa-Style is about passing our knowledge on and extending ourselves to the next generation."

The dance company does actually resemble a family, albeit a very diverse one. According to Lopez, it mirrors the makeup of Los Angeles. All of the Versa-Style dancers are tied to the hip-hop community, most attend b-boy/girl battles and events, and many are students or graduates of UCLA. And as in any family, the challenges for the parents - and kids - are many.

"Basically, Lee and I are not just artistic directors, we're administrative directors, executive directors, founders and choreographers," relays Lopez. "The biggest challenge is accommodating everyone's schedules. We're not at that point yet where we can pay dancers enough where they don't have to work other jobs. But we've been going strong for five years with only minor company changes. We are fortunate that we have a following of dancers that believe in our mission and what we love to do."

One day, Lopez hopes to expand the scope and reach of their work. The company just recently secured nonprofit status, and Lopez will soon be exploring and researching another world, that of grants. As the program director for The Flourish Foundation, a local nonprofit arts organization founded by Monica and Phil Rosenthal (creator/executive producer of "Everybody Loves Raymond"), Lopez has already observed the process of applying for grants and scholarships, and knows it is a long and tough road.

"This is something that we hold close to our lives and what we do," Lopez assures.
"We have a mission about what it is we want to share. Dances are social forms that come from an era of struggle for colored people. With our shows we keep the movement going. We find ways to educate while entertaining."

For more information, visit versastyledance.com.

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