Photos by Sage Gallon courtesy of The Underground.
Every Wednesday night, street dancers from across Los Angeles meet at a gang-neutral strip mall parking lot in North Hollywood for a krump session. One at a time, dancers with nicknames like Lil "C," Miss Prissy and Krucial flail their arms, contort their bodies aggressively, and make frantic footwork to a thumping beat. In a few minutes, the dancer’s catharsis is over and it is another one’s turn to “work it out.”
This is the essence of krump, a Los Angeles-born street dance that along with several other forms of hip-hop movement are the focus of The Underground, a new dance company that will be performing at Cal State Long Beach on Saturday. Instead of guns and thug life, The Underground’s 10 dancers direct their frustration with street living into so-called “sessions” like the one in North Hollywood—freestyle dance workshops often held in reclaimed public spaces that attract talented dance groups from all over L.A.’s sprawl.
“Sessions are my thinking pad. It’s therapeutic for me,” says Marquisa “Miss Prissy” Gardner, the founder, director and choreographer of The Underground street dance company, who was also featured in David LaChappelle’s 2005 krumping documentary Rize. “[The Underground] is the place where we come so that we can make it make sense to the masses.”
Known to many as “The Queen of Krump,” Miss Prissy is the top female krumper in the city and her classical ballet, tap and jazz training mixed with more than a decade of organic and professional street dance experience (she has toured with Madonna, Snoop Dogg and The Game) makes her the ideal leader for a new company as unique as The Underground.
Though formed last year with support from current company producer Jessica Koslow—who discovered some of the dancers while filming her USC masters thesis on the North Hollywood sessions—The Underground was conceived by Miss Prissy along with choreographic help from another featured Rize dancer, Christopher “Lil 'C'” Toler. The all-volunteer company of both Hispanic and black dancers premiered its first live show to a packed house at USC last September and has since performed at the Nate Holden Performing Arts Center and will also be featured in the Pasadena Dance Festival in April.
Its series of dance skits, performed with urban props like construction cones and graffiti-covered trashcans, is called “From The Streets To The Stage.”
“We are the minority, not just in skin complexion, but where we stand on the totem pole of dance,” says Miss Prissy. “Krumpers, jookers, bone breakers—all of that stuff is definitely part of the new era in hip hop, more than any of those classes being taught in Hollywood that are being called ‘hip hop’ that are mixing lunges and leaps with belly rolls… With the street dance, you are dealing with true, natural feeling and placing it on the dance floor whether that be in the street or on a stage, your bathroom or wherever you want to get those emotions out.”
In addition to Lil “C” and career krumpers Larry “Ruin” Combs, Deidra “Krucial” Cooper-Jenkins, Manny “Xclusive” Fernandez, Darren “Outrage” King and Christopher “Worm” Lewis, Miss Prissy’s crew also has members skilled in other street dances like jooking, bonebreaking, popping and locking , footworking and more.
The diversity brought by Chicago-born footworker Charles “King Charles” Parks, Brooklyn bonebreaker Nicholas “Slick” Stewart and local popper and locker Ricardo “Boogie Frantick” Rodriguez Jr. makes The Underground one of the only dance companies in the country to actively bring a range of street dances into a single cohesive production, one that has the power to bring hip hop dance to wider audiences.
“I kind of want this to be an Avenger-type situation,” says Miss Prissy. “I think what a lot of people don’t understand is that we have our own language. It doesn’t even matter if he’s from Brooklyn or wherever—he’s from the streets. And when you’re from the streets, you already understand the ground; you already understand what to say and what not to say. It’s so much easier.”
A few months ago, CSULB Associate Professor and Head of Acting Hugh O’Gorman reached out to Koslow about bringing The Underground to Long Beach and a free show in honor of Black History Month is planned for this weekend. If the show is successful, O’Gorman may bring them back next year as part of the school’s academic programming; the performance raises crucial contemporary discussions on dance, identity, theatre and urban culture.
“We’re not necessarily toning down [what happens on the streets], but we’re stylizing it. What would people think if Slick just came out and started breaking his body all crazy like he does? If I can make that make sense to the audience then they can look at it for what it really is, which is art,” says Miss Prissy. “…I feel like this is the best way to get the message out there. You can come from nothing and still be recognized for something you built in your own backyard.”
The Underground performs "From The Streets to the Stage" Saturday, February 23 from 4PM-7PM at CSULB's University Theatre, near 7th Street and E. Campus Drive. The show is free and open to the public.
To learn more about The Underground and to hear about upcoming performances, go to undergroundstreetdance.com. The Underground also has a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign in an attempt to take the company on the road. Click here to contribute.