In a roomful of dancers popping, locking, and breaking, famed dancer, spoken-word artist, and director Jonzi D is as eloquent in words as he is in dance. Jonzi founded Breakin' Convention, the world's largest festival of hip-hop dance and theater, in London in 2004. This weekend, Breakin' Convention will travel to the Southeast for the first time for a performance at the Adrienne Arsht Center in downtown Miami.
"I think the name 'Breakin' Convention' disguises it a little bit," Jonzi clarifies for newcomers expecting solely breakdancing. "We are not a breakin’ convention; we are Breakin’ Convention.”
In its 17 years, Breakin' Convention has become a showcase of diverse styles of street dance from around the world. This weekend's event will present six Miami teams and four international crews: Soweto Skeleton Movers from South Africa, Yeah Yellow and Salah from France, and Protocol from the United Kingdom, including internationally famous figures such as Korean "powermove god" Bboy Pocket.
Jonzi describes the event as a celebration of not only hip-hop's history but also its future. "I believe that hip-hop is going to be the staple of theater going forward," he says. "If you look at history over the last 150 years, you’ll find that everything that was seen as a marginal street dance became a theatrical dance; jazz, tap — all of the dances of the original black communities in America have become the staple of theater."
Jonzi's passion for street dance stems not only from its organic nature — dancers often learn of the art as kids and perform it recreationally — but also from its artistry and technique. "We push the boundaries of human physical expression," he says, comparing traditional elements of classical ballet like grande allegro and petit allegro to the hip-hop equivalents of powermove and footwork.
Regarding the spoken text of theater, Jonzi says the MC is a key player. "Shakespeare used rhyme, cadence, and rhythm; this is what today’s Shakespeares are doing as MCs."
Jonzi, a London native, began his career in breaking in 1982, concurrently mastering "instution-based" styles such as jazz and contemporary. “I danced before I was born," Jonzi says. "I remember going to my first dance class, but that’s not the same as dance. Dance comes before that.”
He emphasizes that for street dance, the physicality of the venue is as important to Breakin' Convention as that of its performers. Because of classism, street dance was not "designed for the proscenium arch," Jonzi says, but that is no excuse for venues across the nation such as the Arsht to disengage. "What we’re trying to do is put an end to the cultural apartheid that exists in these buildings.”
While other theatrical artists might shy from social commentary in the current era, the crews at Breakin' Convention tackle the visceral psychology of racism and prejudice head-on. The English crew Protocol will perform a piece titled "I Can't Breathe," about “the plague of police murdering innocent people and getting away with it." An endeavor created in equal parts pain and love, this piece and others like it fuse the escapism of street dance with its politics.
To Jonzi's joy, Miami turned out to be "a perfect fit" for him this year. "I connected with the hip-hop community here," he says. "I’d say the general skill level here is quite high — and the love."
Jada Newball, a 17-year-old student at Miami Norland Senior High and a member of the school's Dynasty Step Team, exemplifies this skill and love while stepping with her peers, who were all relatively new to stepping when they started the team with the help of teachers. "It’s a blessing for us all," she says of the opportunity to perform at the Arsht and future shows in the community. "We came such a long way; we started from the bottom."
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To supplement the two-day festival, a block party Saturday on the patio of the Arsht Center will offer workshops and demonstrations of dancing, MC'ing, DJ'ing, and graffiti by local artists. Free to the community and friendly for all ages, the event will honor the history of hip-hop in the city while promoting visibility for Miami's vibrant scene.
Just one hour of rehearsal proves Jonzi's predictions about the future of street dance in theater are correct. Now it's time to appeal to those who don't yet totally understand it.
“If you come to Breakin’ Convention," Jonzi says, "whatever you thought about hip-hop will change.”
Breakin' Convention. 7:30 p.m. Friday, October 20, and Saturday, October 21, at the Adrienne Arsht Center, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; 305-949-6722; arshtcenter.org. Tickets cost $25 to $60. Free block party October 21 from noon to 6:30 p.m. on the Arsht Center campus.