Homegrown hip hop

by joey  |   


Hardcore-the professional company at alumni-owned Underground Dance Company-performed at Wendy Williamson Auditorium in June. (Photo by Ted Kincaid/University of Alaska Anchorage)

A violet glow silhouetted several dapper dancers. A chandelier scattered purple rays into the dark reaches of the Wendy Williamson Auditorium. The bass kicked in, the horns wailed and a crew of high-energy butlers erupted into motion.

The contestants in this year's Miss Teen Alaska crossed the stage while eight hip hop dancers popped and locked in the background. With hair pulled back tight and trademark purple suspenders, these performers were quite literally the help in the Gatsby-themed pageant. Even though they served as butlers in the background, the audience couldn't miss their energy or their moves. Something they may have missed, though: all eight performers are current or former UAA students.

The dancers hail from Underground Dance Company (UDC), an alumni-owned studio that performs at countless events across Anchorage and at competitions around the world. UDC Hardcore-the professional company-has taken top trophies in England, traveled through Paris, and entertained their fair share of Christmas parties, weddings and quinceañeras across Anchorage, always sporting a variation of the trademark purple (they even have purple kuspuks they wear to competitions Outside).

The UDC motto-'Dance without regrets'-is painted on the walls at their studio off Arctic Boulevard and alumnus Gabe Harvey hasn't regretted a day since he opened the hip hop studio a decade ago.

Uncharted dance territory in Alaska

Alumnus Gabe Harvey founded Underground Dance Company and now serves as an adjunct professor in the Department of Theatre and Dance (Photo by Ted Kincaid / University of Alaska Anchorage).

Alumnus Gabe Harvey pulls double duty on dance in Anchorage. He founded and owns Underground Dance Company and also serves as an adjunct professor in UAA's Department of Theatre and Dance. (Photo by Ted Kincaid / University of Alaska Anchorage)

Watching Gabe-UDC's founder-glide across the stage with endless energy, it's hard to believe he's been running his own company over 10 years. An Anchorage native, he danced throughout his youth, but didn't get into hip hop until moving to Colorado for college. The new surroundings exposed him to a wider world of dance, and he spent a season touring with a Boulder-based professional company. Later, when he returned to UAA to complete his degree, he brought his newfound street style with him.

"There really were no hip hop classes up here, it was just sort of jazz," Gabe recalled. So he went about changing the scene in Anchorage, sharing not only the fun of hip hop dancing, but also its message.

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Stephen Grantier (left), Cherish DeBoard (center) and Michelle Wilkins perform during June's Miss Alaska Outstanding Teen pageant at the Wendy Williamson Auditorium. (Photo by Ted Kincaid / University of Alaska Anchorage)

"I'm a really huge advocate of hip hop. It's a lot more than twerking and drugs and alcohol," he said of the culture's negative connotations. "The big picture behind it is that it's all about living life to the fullest. It's OK to be you and it's OK to express who you are." Gabe started hip hop lessons at various studios in Anchorage, often providing the only local class. Originally, he shunned the thought of owning his own studio and taking on the unglamorous trappings of a small business (like taxes, payroll and insurance). But eventually the allure of a studio completely dedicated to hip hop-where sweatpants trumped leotards-won him over. Underground Dance Company opened its doors in 2005, becoming a space for hip hop music, fashion and attitude. "Hip hop is a life lesson," he said. "We want everything we do to be positive."

Thankfully, he started with a lot of support. "There really aren't a lot of dance companies that just focus on hip hop," explained Michelle Wilkins, a UAA graduate and one of the first instructors to join Gabe at the new studio. "All of us on Hardcore have been dancing for a really long time, so it's just like a family," she added. "Twice a week we meet up, we talk, catch up on things and just be creative together."

Cherish DeBoard, another member of UDC's top team, learned from both Gabe and Michelle early on. "I was blown away by how much fun they were and how positive they were," she said. "I joined and I never left." Aside from participating on UDC Hardcore, Cherish also teaches and coaches a teenage team.

"It's like a culture," added Irene Antonio, another UAA alumna. "You just kind of fall in love with the music and the vibe. The beat just brings energy to all of us and makes you want to move. I think that's what is appealing about hip hop-it brings the crowd together and you just vibe off each other."

UDC members performed last year at the grand opening of the Alaska Airlines Center (Photo by Philip Hall / University of Alaska Anchorage).

UDC members performed last year at the grand opening of the Alaska Airlines Center. (Photo by Ted Kincaid/ University of Alaska Anchorage)

Progress and swag

UDC has come a long way since its early days. With a cringe crossing his face, Gabe recalled their very first Outside competition-an Orlando event where the group's CD skipped during their performance. "That's when I said OK, I need to push this in a different direction," he said. A lot's changed since. For one, CDs are a thing of the past. And now, UDC has over 150 participants on nearly a dozen teams, ranging from Gabe's professional company to touring high school teams. They've taken first place trophies internationally, opened for Bow Wow and hosted traveling dance icons in Anchorage, like the recent visit from Darren Henson (the choreographer of NSYNC's 'Bye Bye Bye' music video-a major moment in early 2000s pop culture).

Gabe--performing at the Alaska Airlines Center in September, 2014--makes hip hop look effortless (Photo by Philip Hall / University of Alaska Anchorage).

Gabe-performing at the Alaska Airlines Center in September, 2014-makes hip hop look effortless. (Photo by Ted Kincaid / University of Alaska Anchorage)

Hip hop requires swag, and UDC members exude that confidence. The studio's youngest team includes several three year olds ("They are amazing-the most confidence in the world," Gabe noted) and UDC also offers a team for special needs students that emphasizes focus, teamwork and character. "Not only is it healthy, but it's a great way to express oneself. And a lot of people find it therapeutic," Gabe said.

All UDC dancers convene for one immense end-of-the-season performance in spring. Most recently, they staged a retelling of the Wizard of Oz at West High School to close out their 10th season in May.

It may look intimidating, but UDC is clearly all about inclusion. On the fence about trying out hip hop? Gabe has some words of encouragement. "Go for it," he smiled. "Go for it go for it go for it."

You can enroll in his classes at UAA (he's an adjunct dance instructor, offering hip hop each spring and fall semester) or stop by UDC and practice under the studio motto-'Dance without regrets'-painted, of course, in bold purple letters. "I'm a huge believer of that," Gabe said of the motto. "You learn from your mistakes, but you have to go for it."

'Ready to step up to the streets? UDC offers regular drop-in classes for first-timers, and Gabe teaches hip hop at UAA each semester. Check out UDC's website and Facebook page for more information.

UDC will be on campus again at Convocation on Saturday, Aug. 22, at 3:30 p.m. in the Wendy Williamson Auditorium. Click here for more information.

Click here to see UDC Hardcore explain hip hop (and show off their moves) in a recent Alaska Public Media video.

For a quick hit of hip hop, click here to a 90-second street performance outside the 4th Avenue Theater from Summer Solstice 2010.

UDC Hardcore performs during the Miss Alaska Outstanding Teen pageant in June (Photo by Ted Kincaid / University of Alaska Anchorage).

UDC Hardcore performs during the Miss Alaska Outstanding Teen pageant in June. (Photo by Ted Kincaid / University of Alaska Anchorage)

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