Take your feet to the street

Hip-hop dance is bigger than ever, with the UK championships next week and a movie in production. Emma Love reports on a TV-inspired phenomenon
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The Independent Culture

Street dance has always had its fair share of fans. Those crowds who fervently support their favourite crews at the countless competitions sell-out showcases and annual events on the street dance calendar.

Only a few weeks ago, several thousand of them packed out Matter nightclub at London's O2 arena for a one-off, Michael Jackson Amnesty International tribute, to see some of hottest, most in-demand companies perform new choreography to the king of pop's classic hits. For those fans, the ones who've been tuned in for years, street dance – a modernised dance form under the hip-hop banner, which encompasses funk styles like popping and locking as well as breaking and jazz influences – has long been top of the agenda.

Now, though, since this year's Britain's Got Talent when two dance crews, Flawless and Diversity, pitted it out against each other as part of the final line-up (Diversity won with their witty Transformers routine), street dance has been catapulted straight into the wider public consciousness. And with the Street Dance Weekend UK Championships taking place on 30 August at Indigo at the O2 arena, the first British street-dance movie in the pipeline and innovative hip-hop theatrical shows set to return to the stage in the next few months, it seems that's exactly where it's going to stay.

The upcoming championships, founded 13 years ago by James Nahr of G Force productions, will involve crews battling it out on the dance floor, firstly split into separate age categories and then to decide an overall winner. From the start, it immediately became known in the industry as the competition that up-and-coming groups wanted to win, and in recent years both Diversity and Flawless have taken the title.

Last year, the Mexalon crew came second, and their choreographer Glen Murphy believes the event is as important as ever. "The biggest dance groups that you see on television and in music videos have all been at the championships. Every group wants to be where Flawless and Diversity are now, and it shows that that's the sort of place street dance can lead you to in the future," he explains. "The actual street-dance industry itself is huge but not many people have known about it before. As a dancer, if you've just done small shows you might think you're dancing with the best crews out there but at the championships you can see the level you've got to reach."

Of course, events like these aren't just important as a tool for dancers within the industry already, but imperative to inspire new talent to take up the dance baton. To stay successful, any form of dance needs to keep growing and developing, both through those taking part and those who enjoy watching, and right now, the numbers who enjoy watching street dance have sky rocketed. The more opportunities available to people to see exactly what's involved – fusing different music tracks, storytelling, humour and costumes, as well as immense skill, precision and timing – the better.

One such opportunity will come next spring when the film StreetDance (past movies such as Stomp the Yard and Step Up 2: the Streets are American, this is British) is released. James Richardson, producer and co-founder of Vertigo Films had the idea, about a street- dance crew who lose their rehearsal space while training for the championships and are forced to team up with dancers from the Royal Ballet School, after visiting the Street Dance Weekend Championships last year. "I started looking at what was going on in the street-dance world and watching the films that were already out there, and then at the championships, I thought this is exactly the kind of film I want to make. It was incredibly visual and exciting with people of all ages taking part; it's a totally encompassing dance form."

Richardson is right: like other styles of dance, street dance is all inclusive, and that's the beauty of it. It's just that while people have always been able to identify more mainstream types of dance such as ballet, jazz or tap, they were simply less aware of street dance before the Britain's Got Talent hype kicked in. Now, it's obvious that with such an increased interest, the demand is there for more – both commercially and theatrically. Who would have thought years ago that a group like Diversity would be on the bill at the Wireless festival in Hyde Park, where they were this summer? Or that hip-hop theatre would prove so incredibly popular that two prestigious London venues are including urban-dance shows as part of their Christmas programme?

Hip-hop theatre arrived around three years ago when two leading choreographers in the street-dance industry, Kate Prince and Kenrick Sandy (both are heading up the choreography team on StreetDance , too) each caused a stir with their individual dance companies by producing electrifying pieces of theatre. Prince and Zoo Nation put on Into the Hoods based on Stephen Sondheim's Into the Woods, while Sandy's Boy Blue Entertainment won an Olivier award for Pied Piper, an adaptation of Robert Browning's poem "The Pied Piper of Hamelin". The fact that both shows are now returning – Into the Hoods will be at the Southbank Centre and Pied Piper at the Barbican – is a marker of the huge appetite for street dance on stage.

For Prince, who's also writing a new show for next year, Some Like It Hip- Hop, (taken from Some Like It Hot), the more people that become aware of and involved in dance the better. "Through working with young people in London, I realised that many of them had never seen a musical in the theatre. There was no frame of reference to understand dance, they only knew it through MTV. With Into the Hoods, I was trying to create a family show for a multi-generational audience that was cool enough for young people to want to see. The new show is also about inspiring young people, particularly males, to get involved in dance."

Sandy, whose Boy Blue Entertainment company currently consists of around 50 dancers, including a group of under-16s in Da Bratz, agrees. "It's important for young people to be involved in something where they can express themselves, whether it's dance, acting or spoken word." As well as putting on their annual Boy Blue showcase this October, at the Broadway Barking in Essex, Sandy is also working on a new production aimed at pushing the theatrical street dance limits even further. "In the last few years, street dance has definitely increased in popularity, from those who want to watch it, to those wanting to get involved. Britain's Got Talent boosted the audience, which is encouraging people to put on more dance shows. It's about timing and now is the time for people to embrace street dance."

Visit www.gforceproductions.com; www.zoonation.co.uk; www.boyblueent.com