How Street Dancing Is Now the Rhythm of the Mainstream

The world is moving to a new beat—it’s starting from the street

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Dancer Dr. Rico / Carol Cruz/Red Bull

What do Cirque du Soleil, police officers and Beyoncé’s iconic Coachella performance have in common? They all are connected to the world’s best street dancers who are part of Dance Your Style—Red Bull’s one-on-one street dance competition in which dancers battle it out across America to showcase the leaders of the new wave of dancing that’s influencing popular culture.

Earlier this month at Generations Hall in New Orleans, bodies crawled on their backs, pantomimed shapes and contorted in unthinkable ways. All of it was unbelievable. None of it was unfamiliar though. That’s because these moves have been in the mainstream via concerts, music videos, commercials and TV shows that some of these competitors helped usher in. 

“In the mainstream, street dancing is being raised to the level of choreography,” dancer King Havoc said. “Everyone can’t accept street dancing as openly as choreography because choreography could be taught. It’s easier to present that. When it comes to raw street dancing, you never know what you’re going to get, and you can’t teach that.”

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Dancer Yung Chris / Carol Cruz/Red Bull

Street dancing is so pervasive in American culture that an acclaimed street dancer could serve you coffee at Starbucks, wash your car or even protect your neighborhood. Memphis Police Officer Marico “Dr. Rico” Flake competed in New Orleans with his street dancing style of choice being “Jookin’.”  This style is rooted in decades of Memphis dance culture as a foundational two-step.

Jookin’ went from being relegated to underground to helping one of the most recognizable artists of the decade—virtuosic artist Janelle Monáe—develop her first signature move. Monáe’s 2010 music video “Tightrope” was highlighted by the tuxedo-clad Monáe asking to “let me see you tightrope” while shuffling her feet into a glide with the nimbleness of an acrobat delicately crossing over a tightrope. The dance has been one of Monáe’s most recognizable moves for years and was, in part, choreographed by Rico and inspired by street dancing.

“The tightrope move is already a move we do in our [jookin’] style. It’s called the S-Elevation. You’re doing an S, like a snake, with your foot and raising up,” Rico told ONE37pm.

Rico’s work on the video’s dancing led to a MTV Video Music Awards nomination for best dance choreography in 2010. Rico bought some of those “Tightrope” vibes to the New Orleans competition by battling in a full suit. Beyond the matching threads, the jookin’ style of dance Monáe showcased to the tens of millions of people who watched the music video or saw her perform the song live was on full display. “The one thing Red Bull has done well is represent the people that weren't really being heavily being represented,” Rico said. 

It’s hard to argue that the most popular showcase of diverse dancing in recent memory isn’t the once-in-a-lifetime experience of Beyoncé’s Coachella performance. Forever known as Beychella, the performance’s Netflix special, Homecoming, attracted more than 1 million viewers on its first day of release. You’ve seen it. Your grandmother’s seen it. And you all have committed some of the dance routine to memory. You can thank Dance Your Style D.C. competitor King Havoc for part of that magic. 

“When I came out [onstage for the Beyoncé performance], there’s a certain move I was doing that the whole stage had to follow, literally. The band and everyone on that stage had to follow that same movement,” Havoc recalled, describing the moment during Beyoncé’s performance of “I Been On,” when the Houston-bred superstar and her army of dancers all swayed and dipped in unison, exaggerating their joint movements to show the flexibility of their toned, statuesque bodies. “As far as highlighting flexing, that was the most powerful piece and authentic piece.” If you look closely during that performance, you can see Havoc leading the charge, bringing the same contortionist tricks that helped him stun the D.C. competition’s crowd and impress Queen Bey.

“The way [Beyoncé] received my moves and my style was she had a different reaction every time. She couldn’t believe it,” he remembered with a laugh.

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Dancer King Havoc / Carol Cruz/Red Bull

Although she didn’t win her competition in New Orleans, dancer Inyoung “Dassy” Lee stole the show in addition to continuing to help spread street dancing to the masses. The 28-year-old’s style of choice is “Poppin’,” a street dance style rooted in hip-hop breakdancing centered on stringing together concise and precise joint popping moves that looks like a robot glitching. With already 20 years of dancing experience, she dazzled the engrossed crowd with Usher’s classic “Yeah!” as her backdrop.

She’s taken the poppin’ style to Season 14 of So You Think You Can Dance, Calvin Harris and PartyNextDoor’s music video for “Nuh Ready Nuh Ready” and even Monaco with her all-women dance crew Femme Fatale as part of Cirque du Soleil’s 45 Degrees dance group. For the latter, she told ONE37pm that she and her crew “choreographed our act, using popping skills and isolation. We used our style.”

Whether it’s nearly every TV network having a dance competition featuring some form of street dancers or the biggest singer of this decade turning one of the longest-running music festivals into a showcase of street dancing excellence, the world is moving to a different rhythm and it’s starting from the street.

“To the untrained eye, you may think it’s just dancing, but to trained dancers, we can pick out what has a hip-hop foundation,” dancer Chris “Yung Chris” Thomas said.

Dassy added: “Right now, Cirque du Soleil is open to taking different styles because street dance is going big right now. The music is changing and dance is changing.” 

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