Arts and Culture

The World's Largest Hip-Hop Dance Festival Takes Over the Buell Theatre

Bboy Factory is one of the groups performing at the Breakin' Convention.
Miles Chrisinger
Bboy Factory is one of the groups performing at the Breakin' Convention.
In step with Denver Arts Week, the Denver Center for the Performing Arts will host the world’s largest traveling hip-hop festival, Breakin’ Convention, on the last stop of the renowned production's United States tour. The family-friendly two-day festival (on November 4 and 5) will take audiences through the origins and evolution of hip-hop culture, showcasing artists from around the world and Denver, too.

“Even though Breakin’ Convention has been a really successful idea, most theaters and cities aren’t courageous enough to offer it,” says founder and artistic director Jonzi D.

When he visited the Mile High City earlier this year to discuss coming through on tour, he got the sense that “Denver’s a very artistically in-touch town," he adds. "It feels fresh and hip, like the place to be. I think it’s perfect timing for this production here because of the openness of Denver’s people and the evolving nature of the city itself.”

D is a pioneer of hip-hop culture and dance theater in Britain who founded Breakin' Convention in 2004. He’s performed on HBO’s Def Poetry Jam and presented at TEDxWarwick in 2015 on the influence and evolution of hip-hop culture.

The weekend promises dancers, rappers, singers, DJs, actors, poets, performers, painters and even chefs, with a full lineup of ticketed and free activities. More than a weekend of performances, Breakin' Convention also aims to educate society and artists about the history and elements of hip-hop culture.

“I feel that hip-hop has been failed by the media, being pigeonholed and bottlenecked into this gangster, ghetto culture, when those of us who understand the origins of the art form know it has nothing to do with that kind of stuff,” says D.

“Breakin' Convention is about bringing back the beautiful, almost innocent aspects of hip-hop culture, the parts that allowed young children to be part of it without worrying about swearing or offensive gangster lyrics, and that embraces the Each One Teach One concept inherent within the OG hip-hop scene,” he continues. “Hopefully, this convention will appeal to families as a truly safe space to enjoy hip-hop as a culture and an art form.”

Among the international acts performing this weekend, Popin’ Pete is a living legend in street-dance culture. Before working with such artists as Justin Timberlake, Gwen Stefani, Chris Brown and the Black Eyed Peas, he and other members of the Electric Boogaloos were approached by Michael Jackson to help choreograph the "Thriller" and "Beat It" music videos. Wedding parties and flash mobs worldwide have been trying to re-create his moves ever since.

Also performing is Salah, also known as Spider Salah, an award-winning competitive dancer from France who’s best known for his popping abilities, the style made famous by Popin’ Pete. Salah, who taught Denver Mayor Michael Hancock a few moves at a press conference on November 2, combines popping with other dance techniques like b-boying, animation and boogaloo to create a style all his own, which won him the inaugural season of France Has Incredible Talent, two seasons of Arabs Got Talent, and sent him touring with Cirque du Soleil. “He’s a great entertainer, and reminds me of a modern-day Marcel Marceau or Charlie Chaplin,” D says.

Also on the bill, Protocol is a London-based dance-heater company that tells powerful, often politically charged stories through movement. Members of the troupe were selected as artists in residence at the renowned Oxford Playhouse this year, helped choreograph films at the Sundance Film Festival in 2016, and have performed at festivals all over Europe.

South Africa’s Soweto Skeleton Movers will bring their circus-like, history-inspired street-dance style to Denver, and Yeah Yellow, a high-energy French b-boy crew, will also take the stage.

Earlier this week, Salah and JB from Yeah Yellow taught dance classes to local youth at Denver’s Bboy Factory.

“I was able to see a very nice selection of highly skilled local acts here in Denver, some of whom will be performing this weekend,” D says. “Traditionally, the street-dance environment is based on the battle, but Breakin’ Convention instead presents a variety of interpretations of hip-hop. This is what I encouraged local acts to do, and they embraced it beautifully.”

The local acts performing at Breakin' Convention will include some of Denver's highest-caliber crews in hip-hop dance and theater: Block 1750, a dance-based community center and youth-support program; Machinez Remainz, a company that began as a way of giving underground dancers a way to compete as brothers and to put Colorado on the map of hip-hop culture; Malika, an all-women trio combining various dance styles, storytelling and comedy; Rennie Harris Grass Roots, a production conceived during the founder's time as an artist in residence at the University of Colorado; and School of Breaking, one of Denver’s best-known breakdancing schools, which will be paying tribute to such recently passed musical icons as Prince, Phife Dawg and Chester Bennington.

In addition to these ticketed events, there will be free, pre-show activities for audiences of every age. The 303 Jam will include music-production workshops, spoken-word poetry, dance tutorials, beatboxing and freestyle demonstrations, graffiti art stations, open-mics and even culinary music production with vegan chef Ietef Vita.

D believes that when high-art institutions like the DCPA affirm the legitimacy of hip-hop culture, they strengthen society as a whole.

“Every theater in the world has street dancers living around the corner from that space, but there’s no relationship there because it’s not really seen as high art,” D says. “When theaters present work that appeals to much wider parts of the community, they contribute to healing some of the divisions in society.”

Breakin' Convention, November 4 to 5, Buell Theatre, 1345 Champa Street, 800-641-1222.