From Hardship to Hip-Hop

Soul Street Dance is more than a breakdancing crew — members travel worldwide to spread their message. (Cedric D. Hicks on turntable.) Photo by Way2Much.

Rock Williams and director Javier Garcia, the founders of Soul Street Dance, were motivated to make their Houston-based hip-hop collective something truly remarkable. “We grew up in hardship, in rough neighborhoods,” says Garcia. “But we were able to overcome that with our talents. And we want to tell people that they can do the same.”

Even though they rose from their circumstances, Soul Street members recently encountered hardship of a different kind. Days before speaking with Bold Life, Garcia and his colleagues went through Hurricane Harvey, the United States’ first major storm — now part of a particularly severe 2017 hurricane season — that catastrophically flooded Houston. Garcia saw the disaster bring out the best in people, though. “Everybody has been reaching out from all over,” he says, “helping and shipping supplies: people we know, people we don’t know. It’s been an amazing thing to see what’s going on with America right now.”

Soul Street Dance combines hip-hop, storytelling, and music in a dazzling, high-energy show. Williams and Garcia danced together in another troupe and when that company ended its run, they knew they wanted to continue working together. “You’ve gotta have soul with whatever you do in life,” says Garcia, explaining the first part of the name. The “street” part encompasses the most gymnastic level of breakdancing aka “B-boying” — “whatever you want to call it,” says Garcia, it includes head spins, pop-and-locking (muscle movements visibly synchronized to the beat), and flips, plus narrative modern-dance techniques.

The educational element is always present — a proving ground on stage. “[It’s] the difference between somebody just talking in front of you and actually doing it, showcasing dance using different skill sets,” explains Garcia.

“Breaking Backwards” was the first program Garcia and Rock developed when they started Soul Street Dance, and it remains among the group’s most popular offerings. The show, which they bring to Tryon this month, is a music-and-dance travelogue through a large segment of the last century. “We do pieces from the 1920s all the way through to the ’80s,” Garcia says. “We show the different genres, whatever was super-hyped in that era, and we put our own style to all of it, and let it all flow. … When people see us really enjoying and loving what we’re doing — the people can feel that.”

Garcia and his colleagues have taken that swell of positivity around the world; in recent years, the company has performed all across the United States as well as in Haiti, the United Kingdom, Moldova, Bosnia, Kosovo, Hungary, Germany, Canada, and Mexico. And that’s not even the full list.

“The coolest thing,” he says, was three stops in Eurasia — visiting Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia — as part of the U.S. State Department’s Cultural Ambassadors program. In these countries with a historically deep-seated antipathy toward each other, Soul Street held workshops and shows. “We collaborated with the dancers there, and we also held a hip-hop competition in each one, picking the ten best dancers in each country.”

A month later they returned to the region, this time convening in neutral territory, on an island resort in Georgia. “We brought all the dancers, and did a big show at the end,” says Garcia. “The diplomats all came out too; everybody was cool. It was beautiful, with dancers everywhere … everybody got the vibe and energy.” Another popular Soul Street program is called “The Art of Hip-Hop,” spotlighting the talents of Rock Williams. “He’s not only a pop-and-locker,” Garcia says. “He’s a rapper, too.” Originally designed for use abroad under the aegis of the State Department, the show proved so popular it’s now performed in the U.S.

“We dancers do it for the love of it,” says Garcia. And when they spread the love, something interesting happens. “Politics and all that other stuff, none of it matters. We [bring] everybody together through hip-hop.”

Soul Street Dance performs on Veh Stage at the Tryon Fine Arts Center (34 Melrose Ave.) on Saturday, October 7, 7pm. $20/general, $10/students. Call 828-859-8322 or see tryonarts.org for tickets. For more information about the troupe, see soulstreetdance.com.

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