Although dance is considered a feminine pursuit by many people, it's surprising to see how much of a boy’s club dance can be. Even hip-hop, one of the freest and expressive channels of the art form, seems to have a disproportionate number of men at the helm. But the Janes, a Boulder/Denver hip-hop crew, is proof-positive that power, creativity and movement are anything but male-exclusive attributes.
“Our goal is to really represent women in a positive way,” says Christa Lewis, co-founder and -director of the all-female crew. “I think the role of women in the hip-hop community has improved, but there is still some work to do. In hip-hop music, there is the obvious misogyny that can exploit women sexually, victimize women and create this negative overhead that we live in.”
The hip-hop dance community is somewhat different, though still not perfect. “Especially in Colorado, there is a beautiful respect growing among women and men and an equality among people which I personally feel so lucky to be involved in,” says Lewis. “However, there is still that ‘Wow, you’re good for a girl,’ stigma. Our goal as a powerful female group is to erase the ‘for a girl’ statement and finally have an equality of talent and respect among men and women – those in the hip-hop community and those not in the hip-hop community.”
Lewis has seen the reformative power of hip-hop dance clearly in her own life. She was a painfully shy little girl and at family gatherings, she remembers, she would cry if someone even spoke to her because she was so scared to speak to others. “For me personally, hip-hop has been an enormous confidence booster,” says Lewis. “Dance pushed me to speak, ask questions, and hold a confidence that I never had before.”
While some men in the hip-hop community are allies for equality, Lewis is quick to point out that women bear the responsibility for elevating and empowering themselves through dance. “Hip-hop as a culture is not empowering to women,” says Lewis, “but it empowered us as individuals and artists, and that’s what we want to bring to the table as a company: the idea that hip hop can be a positive influence and it has the possibility to take charge of someone’s life in an uplifting manner.”
With that social architecture in mind, The Janes formed three years ago. But its roots in the local dance scene run much deeper than that. “Some of us grew up dancing together,” Lewis notes. “Individually, it ranges from three years to fifteen years.”
Lewis says Boulder’s hip-hop community has one person to thank for bringing street-inspired dance to town: Ken Jimenez, who started Motion Underground dance studio in 1997. “Ken came here from California with a mission to bring hip-hop to Boulder,” says Lewis. “We kind of all were trained by [him]. He was the guy who brought hip-hop into our world.”
Many of the dancers who benfited from Jimenez’s early efforts spread out around the country — but a good number have stayed or returned to the area over the years. The Janes now has fifteen dancers, although some of the members reside in New York City and Los Angeles. The years of practice and time together have definitely paid off for the Janes, which won the Vail International Dance Festival’s 8150 Urban Dance Challenge in both 2014 and 2015. It was a big accomplishment for the team, Lewis says, and it inspired the group to move toward another goal.
“We’ve never done our own show before,” says Lewis. “We won [the Dance Challenge] the last two years in a row so as a challenge to ourselves we were like, ‘Okay, if we win again we’ve got to do our own show.’”
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As it turned out, deciding that was the easy part of the process. Actually putting on the show was much more difficult, Lewis says: Moving from nailing down a single performance time to writing an entire hour-long show was a huge step. “It’s been a fun little roller coaster creating this show,” she explains. “We honestly had to book the date first so we couldn’t back out. We are all perfectionists, so the biggest challenge has been to stop nitpicking small things and look at the big picture.”
Having the freedom to do whatever they wanted was also a challenge for dancers used to adhering to dance-competition guidelines. “Because we don’t really have any rules … the sky has been the limit, which is sort of huge considering you’ve got a room full of creative and wacky imaginations ready to spit out the next, best idea,” says Lewis. “When we first began to collaborate on what our show was about, we ranged from having a show based on our favorite Disney films to a dark and twisty artistic abstract show.”
But in the end, the thing that made the most sense was simply telling their own story. “I’m glad we finally set on a simple introduction to who we are,” says Lewis. “I like to tell people it’s our personalities, on stage.”
The Janes perform We Are The Janes: The Show at 6 p.m. Sunday, October 11 at the Dairy Center for the Arts, 2950 Walnut Street, Boulder. Tickets are $15; for more information, call 303-440-7826.