Her Brilliant Career

Suzy Stone is a driven dance teacher who has turned her troupe, the Hip Hop Kidz, into a big-league draw. Is it any wonder she's also a bit of a tyrant?

In a nutshell this is what it boils down to, and my daughter knows it: If she wants to continue, she can continue. If at any point she says, “Dad, it's too tough, it's too demanding, I want to get out,” she's out. It's as simple as that.

-- Steve Allen, father of a dancer named Mel

Onstage, upbeat, and according to Stone, making an 
impact on millions of people
Courtesy of Hip Hop Kidz
Onstage, upbeat, and according to Stone, making an impact on millions of people

Sunday morning, 9:45. The Hip Hop Kidz Production Company and their parents have assembled outside a Publix supermarket in Hollywood. The meeting place stands right across U.S. 1 from Young's Circle and the stage where Footy's Wing Ding is about to begin its second and final day of live music. The Kidz will be one of the opening acts at the festival. Stone always makes sure everyone arrives early on performance days, and today is no exception. The Kidz aren't scheduled to perform for at least two hours.

Whiling away the pregame time, girls inspect the colorful ribbons in their respective hairstyles. Three of the new break dancers Stone recruited are here for their first performance. Collectively they balk at the modified overalls they've been assigned, expressing a strong preference for their own street clothes. One blond-haired young dancer buys six cupcakes frosted with sugary orange icing. When Stone learns of the purchase, the color drains from her face. She lets the girl keep the treats, but later, when she sees a boy sharing a sack of sunflower seeds, she puts her foot down.

Seizing the bag, she warns that the seeds will cause them to “bloat” and be unable to perform.

The parents huddle casually, in their polo shirts and shorts, looking like any collection of Little League moms and dads. Another mother hands out fruit, as if she were at a soccer game. There's plenty of time to talk about their involvement with Stone. One mother raves about the balance the dance program provides in her son's life. She adds that his love for the Hip Hop Kidz has given her a great disciplinary tool: “All I have to do is threaten to not let him go to practice, and he usually falls right back in line,” she explains with a laugh.

Bruce Gusman, scion of the prominent Miami family, is Zack's father. Gusman is wearing a white Hip Hop Kidz polo shirt, an accouterment he picked up during his four years with Stone's program. He says dance has been good for Zack. “He was running for class secretary,” Gusman says. “During the speech he had to give, when he said he was in the Hip Hop Kidz, the whole class sort of went, “Ooooh.'”

Steve Allen wears the sleepy look of a man who woke up this morning far earlier than he wishes he had. He admits he doesn't particularly care for 7:30 wake-up calls to chauffeur his daughter Mel to yet another performance. But he's aware that he'd likely be driving Mel around no matter what activity she pursued -- soccer, martial arts, whatever. He's satisfied with her hip-hop experience. “It's a phenomenal program for someone willing to pursue an acting career,” Allen remarks. “This opens doors to the dancing industry, or the casting or modeling industry, because of the exposure they get on the commercial venues. It's pretty phenomenal. Average kids are not going to get the opportunities these kids are. They are involved in so many things, it's hard to keep track of it.”

When the time finally comes, the Kidz gather for a cheer. Together they cross the street into the talent area. They are the second scheduled act, following a local singer who has toured with Britney Spears. Although it is very early in a long day of concerts, a sizable crowd of mostly teenage girls has already filled the lawn in front of the stage. The sun is so hot that an aura of negativity already has set in.

The Kidz dance on to the stage and take their positions, generating a mixed response from the sweltering audience. “Oh my gosh, they look so cute!” shouts one girl of about fourteen, mesmerized by the overalls. A preteen black boy nearby is less receptive. “This is supposed to be hip-hop?” he asks before the music even starts. “If they don't dance [real] hip-hop, I want my money back.”

A year ago at the Wing Ding, the CD player skipped several times as the Kidz bounded across the stage. Stone stopped the performance and, before allowing her troupe to continue, demanded that it be fixed. One girl in the audience remembers the incident. “These are the guys who stood around forever last year,” she says to her friend.

Today the music doesn't skip. (Stone recorded the music on digital audio tape, just to be safe.) The Production Company hips and hops through a three-song medley of slightly aging standards. “It's all about the Benjamins,” Puff Daddy chants. Stone stands to the south of the stage, watching critically.

The performance seems to go well. When it concludes honest applause rises from the crowd, the approval registering with at least as much force for the singer who opened for the Kidz. “They're good,” offers a young girl. The young black skeptic has changed his expression from disgust to something noncommittal. He does not demand his money back.

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