Part of the Tribe
I met Micaya in her beginner’s class. She was teaching at a strip mall in Mill Valley, and I was learning hip hop for no apparent reason. My previous experience with dance classes was a long time before that, when I took ballroom lessons with a co-worker. Lurching among Financial District types, I was not a particularly good student.
In Micaya’s class I was so terrible, so out of step with everyone else, that she called me “Homer.” I laughed. Everyone laughed. There is nothing more endearing than a middle-aged white dude trying to bust a move, especially to a popular tune by an artist he thought was actually a large beer (E-40).
My previous enthusiasm for hip hop was a long time ago, in the late 1970s, when people mostly called it rap. I knew The Sugarhill Gang were dope (long before dope became an adjective), but I was into hard rock, so I didn’t pay much attention to hip hop as it evolved from an urban house party into a global phenomenon that inspired National Geographic magazine (seriously) to call it “the world’s favorite youth culture.”
Still, there I was, learning to stay low and heavy and thick, and to jump so that the landing was the thing (“Bam!”), and to attack the next eight-count without telegraphing my intentions (“Surprise!), all under the watchful eyes of a tall, angular instructor who prowled through the class asking “Do you feel me?” I had no personal experience with people who went by a one-word name; until then, I thought they were strictly pop superstars and streetcorner thugs.
Micaya is kind of a pop superstar in the Bay Area. She’s been on the cover of regional magazines and featured on local news, both for teaching and for her role as impresario at the SF International Hip Hop DanceFest. But she’s humble about her role as co-founder and artistic director of the festival. In fact, when I asked her what it was like to be a legendary part of the hip hop scene, she corrected me. “I’m not legendary. The festival is legendary.”
She makes a case for non-stardom by pointing out that she didn’t come up in the hip hop scene. “I wanted to be an actor,” she says. “I didn’t spend a lot of time on hip hop in the early days. Reggae, yes. Hip hop, not so much.”
Growing up in Atlanta, she attended the prestigious Northside School of Performing Arts. “My best friend at school was RuPaul,” she says, “and we’re still best friends now. I actually showed him how to put on make-up.”
Which is kinda funny, since Micaya spends very little time wearing make-up nowadays. From her home base in Richmond, she teaches at studios around the Bay. Some of them, like Dance Mission, have been her home-away-from-home for almost 30 years.
“Yeshuah grew up in dance studios,” she says, referring to her son. “He spent so much time waiting for me to finish teaching, or sitting with me at the front desk, that he hated dance studios. He swore he would never dance.”
That changed. Her son, who now has a son himself, has danced at an elite level for some time. “Meanwhile, I’m a grandma now,” Micaya says proudly. “Isn’t that cool?”
There are many things that could be described as cool in Micaya’s life. Her teaching; her festival; her family; she also has a dance company, SoulForce. She’s been choreographing original routines for SoulForce for more than 16 years, sometimes for corporate commissions or in support of dance films like the Step Up franchise, but more often than not for herself and the legendary (there’s that word again) Mission in the Mix workshop she teaches each year. “I love DanceFest and it’s a huge highlight of my year,” Micaya says. “But workshop has my heart and soul.”
I myself have been part of Mission in the Mix and seen how Micaya pours herself into every nook and cranny that her students offer. It’s quite something to behold, as she turns beginners into stage-worthy performers in a six-week process. Some of the intermediate-level dancers graduate with the chops to become professional. Some already professional dancers join workshop year after year simply because it is an amazing experience.
The writer Sebastian Junger has a book called “Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging.” He makes an argument that we have a strong instinct to belong to small groups defined by clear purpose and understanding. This tribal connection is mostly lost in modern society, and regaining it may be the key to health, for ourselves as individuals and our society as a whole.
This might explain something about Micaya. She has created a tribe. I’m lucky to be a part of it.