Dance styles are moving landmarks from regions all over the world.
Someone wearing a Memphis Grizzlies jersey could simply be a fan of the team. But, if they start rhythmically stomping and jerking their bodies to rattling 808s drums, they’re probably doing the Memphis-born Gangsta Walking dance style and from the Tennessee city.
For much of the south, dancing is part of its identity and earlier this month, Red Bull gathered 16 street dancers at Generations Hall in New Orleans for its Dance Your Style one-on-one competition showing how important street dancing is to the city.
Most of the dancers hailed from southern states such as Texas, Tennessee, and Louisiana. For 16 rounds, dancers competed against each other in one-on-one dance battles. They would each either stand on the red or blue side of the dance floor and perform twice to the songs they didn’t know were coming until they hit the speakers.
At the end of each round, spectators voted by selecting the dancer’s corresponding color on Red Bull wristbands they were given upon arrival. The faces in the crowd were painted with ebullience but not disbelief at what they were watching since street dancing is so embedded deep into the cultural fabric of New Orleans that it’s probably part of most of the audience’s daily commute.
“Usually going through the [French] Quarter [section of New Orleans] you’ll see some street performers. You’ll see the statue guys. That’s what made me want to do something like that.I’m a very animated kind of freestyle dancer. They were my New Orleans inspiration,” dancer Robo Steve told Shadow League.
During the competition, the anxious crowd with their gazes transfixed on centerstage were instantly surprised when two doors in the back of the hall burst open and the celebratory TBC Brass Band marched out big band music as bold and New Orleans as gumbo with andouille sausage. The jazz band was formed in 2002 by young Black men looking to avoid the violence and drugs that hampered their friends’ lives.
Young New Orleanians with that level of agency is proof of how foundational music is to their lives and why no one was shocked to see a pre-teen young girl blowing her heart out through a trumpet that looked as big as her, with the TBC Brass Band during the Red Bull event.
That’s the thing about the south. Street dancers can take many forms, even as police officers. Marcio “Rico” Flake is a member of the Memphis Police Department and has competed on hit dance competition show So You Think You Can Dance. He told Shadow League hours before he competed at the Red Bull event that he uses dance as a way to prevent violence and give the people he’s sworn to protect and serve a place to be themselves.
One way he’s done that is by co-founding the U-Dig Dance Academy to help kids in urban areas who are interested in dance. Street dancing is so integral to Memphis that balancing time between serving the community and serving dance competitors has been easier than one may think.
“Luckily, because I’ve done So You Think You Can Dance and other stuff in uniform, and my department knows me for dance, I guess I get a lot of respect from my lieutenants and allowed to take off a little bit more if I have an event.”
Before the final battle between Marquez “Spider” Alexander and Nick Fury, New Orleans’s own, and the self-proclaimed Queen of Bounce, performed while flanked with flexible and rainbow-styled dancers. Spider was the eventual winner of the competition with his braided hair decorated in beads resting under a black hat with the iconic Playstation controller buttons stitched on it. His Memphis Jookin’ was as eclectic as his outfit.
The sensational dancer glided across the stage before licking his finger and tapping his butt in his opponents face as Lil Nas X sang “Wrangler’s on my booty” from genre-busting hit record “Old Town Road.” He did two 360 degree spins, twerked and did a high kick without missing any of the frantic Mannie Fresh beat on Juvenile’s “Back Dat Azz Up.”
Three years before hoisting the trophy, incessant criticism and lack of support almost had him quit dancing. “Dance is what I love and I can’t explain it. Nobody can take that from me but God.” For dancers like Steve, and many other New Orleans natives, street dancing is embedded deep in their culture due to a similarly inexplicable love for the art form.
Steve attests that street dancing is “an outlet to forget all of that worry and issues that happened” because he has the first-hand experience with how the greatest tragedy to happen to the city helped him get into street dancing.
“I had to go to a different school because New Orleans wasn’t a livable situation yet,” Robo Steve said. “Hurricane Katrina happened the year before I started dancing. The following year when I was watching my friends dancing before class, I was like, ‘Yeah, this is something I could see myself doing.”
Spider and Nick Fury will both take their talents to Las Vegas to compete in the Red Bull Dance Your Style US Finals on September 28th with a shot at competing in the world finals on October 12 in Paris.