From Subway Cars to Festivals

It’s Showtime NYC, a city-funded program, offers train performers a route to above-ground stages.

By Christopher Tibble

It’s Showtime NYC dancers perform “Festival of Dreams” on Sunday at the Weeksville Heritage Center, in Brooklyn. photo: Chloé Mossessian

“Remember, ladies and gentlemen, dancing is not a crime. It is art.” The presenter uttered this phrase on Sunday, as he ushered the crowd along a lean, wooden platform near the back end of Weeksville Heritage Center’s garden, in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Behind him, spread across a lawn, 20 hip-hop dancers popped, flexed and curled their bodies with ease, seemingly oblivious to the 90-degree heat drenching their bodies in sweat. The hour-long spectacle concluded a two-week residence undertaken by the performers with the famous Congolese choreographer, Faustin Linyekula, as part of the Crossing the Line performance festival. What’s more, it was the direct outcome of a greater effort, led by the nonprofit It’s Showtime NYC, to offer street dancers legal alternatives to dancing illicitly in subway cars.

Created two years ago with funding from the Department of Cultural Affairs and the Shelley and Donald Rubin Foundation, It’s Showtime NYC provides subway dancers with regular and remunerative performance opportunities in parks, on summer stages, and at cultural events and festivals throughout the city. “The goal is to get them off the subway cars, where dancing is illegal,” says Mai Lê Hô, the program’s director. “If they are performing in the train cars, it’s out of necessity. It’s because they are trying to make a living and they don’t have many options. New York’s theaters, cultural institutions and universities don’t really embrace hip-hop culture. And we want to change that.” In addition to organizing paid gigs, It’s Showtime NYC offers street dancers workshops on video shooting, social media, and event management, among other skills, in order to help them become professional artists.

The program, currently representing 30 performers, including the 20 who participated in Sunday’s event, appeared at a crucial time for subway dance culture. Soon after taking office in 2014, Mayor Bill De Blasio appointed William J. Bratton as his police commissioner in an effort to build bridges with the NYPD. Bratton, a known advocate of the broken-windows theory, a controversial policing strategy that operates under the assumption that cracking down on small misdemeanors reduces major crime, decided to make his case against subway dancers a staple of his second tenure as New York police chief (he had previously served under Mayor Rudy Giuliani in the 1990s.) It did not take long for the subway performers to feel the heat: in 2014, the number of dancers arrested more than doubled, from 153 in 2013 to 368. In the following years, though, the arrests declined, falling to 203 in 2016, a trend that has been in part the result of It’s Showtime NYC’s emergence, and to its partnership with MTA officers, who began handing out cards inviting the dancers to join the program instead of arresting them.

“In 2015 one of the members of my crew showed me the card,” recalls Kester “Flexx” Estephane, a dancer in the program and its associate artistic director since March 2016. “It was an opportunity to make money in a stable fashion. So I went one day, saw their setup and, because I enjoyed the vibe, I kept going.” Before joining It’s Showtime NYC, Flexx hit subway cars for about a year, mainly on the Q line, often combining popping, waving and breackdancing, or performing his signature move, an elaborate piece that takes him in a matter of seconds from pushing his hands off the subway car’s roof to sliding his body past the shoes of commuters. For Flexx, it was a quick and efficient way of making money: he could earn more than $200 for a day’s work — an amount that, he argues, has dissuaded many performers from joining the program: “I think Showtime NYC has made an impact on subway dancing, but I wouldn’t say it has been huge, because if it had been, we would have a great deal more dancers. Some simply don’t join because they need to continue making large amounts of money in order to provide for their families. And Showtime doesn’t generate that much income.” On average, the dancers make $100 in an It’s Showtime NYC performance, and perform between five and 10 shows every month, according to one of its members. They also receive $25 to attend weekly Wednesday rehearsal sessions.

Although subway dancing has been around since the birth of hip-hop in the 1980s, when breakdancers began windmilling and head-spinning in the narrow spaces of the cars, its popularity spiked in the late 2000s with the advent of litefeet, a style developed in the boiler rooms and parks of the Bronx and Harlem. While breakers work their way down to the floor, litefeeters remain standing, performing flips, hat tricks and other acrobatic moves to the rhythm of upbeat tracks. In recent years, WAFFLE, a litefeet subway crew, has garnered a great deal of media attention, featuring in magazine cover stories and short documentaries. Most It’s Showtime NYC performers, though, dance in another style: flexing, a reggae-inspired Brooklyn genre also known as bone breaking. The dance, features contorted, limb-locking moves, a sort of physical, kinetic form of first-person, origami-like storytelling.

“I was 21 years old when I got into flexing,” says Joseph “Klassic” Carella, another of the program’s dancers. “I was a business major in a nursing college when I came across a crew performing a show during a university event. Soon enough, my love of dance flourished and it began to take over my idea of doing business.” Even though for Klassic it has always been “more about the love of dance, and less about the money,” his years of hitting on subway lines were marred by several clashes with the police. Now 26, he’s still baffled by the memory that he was arrested three times for “doing something I love.” Nonetheless, Klassic, one of the dancers who performed at Sunday’s Crossing the Line event, remains optimistic: “In recent years I’ve been able to travel to Canada, Japan, China, Australia, and France with my dancing. I see myself dancing for a long time, specially with other cultures,” he says. “That’s my way of understanding my life.”

For Simon Dove, the director of Dancing in the Streets, the parent organization of It’s Showtime NYC, optimism is important, but he is also cautious. The fact that dancing in subway cars is still illegal, and that the city limits with permits the number of spaces in which street dancers can perform above ground, stems from “a particular type of racism,” he says. The British educator and curator (who is also part of Crossing the Line’s curatorial team) explains that New York’s cultural institutions have historically rejected hip-hop because they “are built around Eurocentric notions of cultural practice.” That is why, according to Dove, hip-hop is not part of the diet of most art centers in the city, and the reason there are no residencies, centers, or institutions dedicated to promoting hip-hop. “It’s a massive irony. When you are a young kid emerging from a community in the city, and dance gives you a sense of purpose and discipline, and it articulates the inner senses of who you are as an individual, when that is marginalized and criminalized in public space, you feel rejected by the very system that needs to hear you and engage with your voice,” he says. “And maybe that’s what the white institutions fear the most: engaging in a powerful way with the articulate black body.”

It’s Showtime, NYC is trying to change that attitude. Some 50 audience members witnessed the spectacular results last Sunday.

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.