Episodes of a Hip Hop Memory
Thursday 24th June, 1982. That day changed a lot of club dancer’s lives. Jeffrey Daniel from Shalamar performed A Night to Remember on the popular music television show, Top of the Pops. In that instance a new form of dance was nationally exposed to the United Kingdom. Jeffrey’s dance routine was a combination of popping, waving and boogaloo; little did I know that that moment would mark the beginning of my love of Hip Hop. One day I was a Jazz-Funkster, dancing and battling in the clubs, then overnight, I was eagerly practicing the now famous backslide. I was about to start my vocational dance training at Rambert Academy, ballet, contemporary, pas de deux and jazz were to become my new staple diet of daily movement.
Play, pause, stop, rewind
The beginning of my Hip Hop journey began at Rambert - unbeknowst to Rambert students and teachers alike - I would practice my popping in the studio during twilight hours. After my day’s training when everyone went to their digs, with tape cassette in hand, I entered the empty studio and I was alone with my thoughts of what moves I was going to practice. My Hip Hop mix tape - which I had recorded and compiled in the library during my breaks - used my 12’ vinyl imports of: Planet Rock and Looking for the Perfect Beat by Africa Bambaataa and The Soulsonic Force as well as Pack Jam by The Jonzun Crew; those tracks always gave me the energy to perfect my B-Boying. Once I had finished after a few hours, sweat pouring from my body, I would shower, leave the studio and head home to eat supper.
My Hip Hop training was punctuated by many feature films during the early 80s; they added to my knowledge and led me to breaking as another technique to learn. I watched Flashdance - which featured The Rock Steady Crew (RSC) - and Wild Style in the cinema in 1983. The scene in Flashdance was very short, however, it had a huge impact on me. During my summer break from Rambert, I would hire a VHS and watch how they did backspins and windmills. Play pause stop. Play pause stop play. Rewind slow-motion play. It was the only way to learn in the 80s, no YouTube, no social media, no teachers. The television screen was my shifu.
I watched the Rock Steady Crew and the McDonalds Double Dutch Girls (aka The Fantastic Four) at Olympia London (1983) twice in one day with my identical twin brother Stephen. We heard that they were having an exhibition tour so we went along and while we were waiting to be admitted, we got chatting to two female staff members who were checking tickets; being a twin certainly had its perks! After we watched them once they allowed us in again for free. We both learnt a lot from RSC - how to perform, how to get the crowd going and sheer showmanship.
Having a crew was really important to my Hip Hop peers in Leicester, so Stephen and I created our unique group, well duo, The Clone Crew; our names were Synchro Steve and Slick Mick! We did the pilgrimage to Covent Garden as that was the place to be seen breaking. Some breakers, I cannot remember their names, asked if we wanted to busk, so we did, we had a set that we’d already practiced so we were ready. They collected a lot money from the audience. However, we didn’t mind not getting a share of the collection, we just wanted to say we had performed at Covent Garden.
I watched a lot more films in 1984 which added to my growing knowledge of Hip Hop culture; Beat Street (Rock Steady Crew vs. New York City Breakers), Breakdance - The Movie and Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo.
Around this time I was part of a Ready Brek trade show with the choreographer George May; he was also a teacher at Laine Theatre Arts in Epsom, where my brother Stephen had trained. The trade show was designed to advertise the cereal brand to executives in a hotel room in London. George had wanted a fresh and youthful look to the show, so he used me and another breaker. We did popping and breaking routines with a Ready Brek cereal box, just like the TV advertisement that featured a young B-Boy and was going to be released soon. We went out to practice in a park and saw Frank Bruno who was giving out free Nike windcheaters; we both got one along with a signed picture postcard of Frank. I still have the blue windcheater.
80s UK TV ad for the cereal Ready Brek
Knights and Emeralds
In 1984 Quinny Sacks was looking for dancers for a film based in Birmingham. She came to the Rambert Academy and held an audition and I got a part as one of The Crusaders. As any choreographer would do in those days, they asked if anyone can do tricks. I said yes and now I’m immortalised in the 1986 film performing a windmill whilst wearing the Nike windcheater I got from Frank Bruno. It was around this time I had to apply for my Equity Card so that I was able to perform on stage and film. I tried to apply for my name - Michael Joseph - however, that name was taken. As a B-Boy I used Slick Mick as my stage name and I still haven’t changed it. All that practicing paid off because I could windmill over and over again which is what the director and camera crew needed for continuity.
Trailer for Knights and Emeralds, 1986, Dir by Ian Emes
Towards the end of my third and final year at Rambert, we had party with students and teachers and The Clone Crew made an appearance. We had our routines down and had added some throw somersaults to our set; as we both trained at different dance schools, we were able to add an extra flavour of performance skills to our show. A circle formed, lights up, music was pumping and we had had our names iron transferred on the back of our hoodies to emulate the Rock Steady Crew. It was an ecstatic time for us both, living the dream of performing and utilising all we had learnt through our intensive vocational training. It was a fantastic way to celebrate the end of training and look forward to becoming a professional dancer.
After my training at Rambert, I joined Union Dance as a freelance dancer. It was here I met Doug Elkins, who was performing at Dance Umbrella at Riverside Studios in Hammersmith in 1993. He asked for local dance artists to perform with his company and I got the job through recommendation; I didn’t have to audition, it was my versatile skills that Doug needed.
We (David Nuemann, Doug and I) rehearsed a locking routine to Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine by James Brown as a college prom dance skit for a couple of afternoons. We were:
"…Historically re-enacting best friends at the time in my life (essentially part of my puberty) and we juxtaposed it with what was happening in the post modern movement simultaneously." (Doug Elkins 2021).
The Doug Elkins Dance Company had a full ensemble of dancers and I was in the first half of the program; all three of us were contemporary and classically trained alongside our background in Hip Hop dance. This energy of being a club dancer, showing off and battling transferred to my performance on stage; it was an easy metamorphism to make and this was a new beginning of fusing Hip Hop with contemporary dance.
Music was a big influence in my life as a club dancer. Looking for and listening to new and obscure tracks was a prerequisite for club dancing practice. I came across DJ Shadow’s debut album Endtroducing.....(1996) when I was looking for instrumental Hip Hop tracks to choreograph to and Stem/Long Stem/Transmission 2 had all the ingredients I needed for my type of fusion choreography. DJ Shadow was primarily a Hip Hop music producer, sampler and turntablist. His other side, producing obscure tracks, is a source of inspiration for my musical choices and I still regularly use his tracks. I own a lot, if not all, of his albums on CD.
Dance Tek Warriors was premiered at Queen Elizabeth Hall, South Bank in 1997. The whole programme was themed on the journey of the warrior and was based on the Sony PlayStation video game Tekken. We played this game in our downtime and on tour after performing in theatres up and down the country. Most of the dancers in Union Dance trained in dance schools so their experience of Hip Hop was little to none. I had to train them how to pop and wave during workshops alongside teaching them routines in the original Hip Hop dances before it was developed it into a choreographic piece. I used robotic movements as a way of showing glitches in the game and combined this with waving and capoeira - which were my main movement forms. From my clubbing days to now I’ve honed my choreographic skills and had a lot of movement influences that have helped me develop my style. The company trained in various martial arts like capoeira, aikido and tai chi; I enjoyed martial arts workshops as they reminded me of all the Asian martial arts movies I used to watch and emulate in the early 80s.
Martial arts were a strong influence in the Hip Hop community; I later found out the windmill power move is very similar to the coiling dragon in martial arts. All these movements excited me because I could pick and remix movements to make interesting choreography. If I liked it, I was certain audiences would like it too.
Doug Elkins also choreographed for Union Dance. His love of mixing different dance styles rubbed off on me and I felt a strong affinity with Doug because we shared the same dance language and had similar backgrounds.. He also referenced popular culture in his pieces and wove a tapestry of movement that aligned with my sensibilities .
My training continued over the years and none more so than with Breakin’ Convention’s Pioneers teacher training week-long workshop (2011) with Ken Swift. So, not only did I see him in the movies and at Olympia, now I was going to meet him in person. He was very thorough, put us through our paces and I learnt a lot that week. It really opened my eyes to the possibilities of different combinations in top rock, footwork, get down, freezes and threading. We learnt how to apply breaking techniques and more importantly how to teach them to fellow students, as there were a few teachers in the group. At the same time, the other company member Garry Benjamin (who had a similar background to me, clubbing, training and Hip Hop in his back pocket) took part in a locking workshop with Suga Pop, so we crossed over and taught each other what we had garnered. I grew in knowledge with all that I was being fed and utilised these forms in my choreography.
Michael Joseph talking about Dance Tek Warriors for Dance TV / BBC Paul Wu
Hip Hop Don’t Stop
Around summer 2004, I choreographed Are you right, am I wrong? for Contact Dance Company in Malta after being invited by their artistic director Francesca Abela Tranter; Francesca invited me as I had taught on their summer intensive dance course for a few years in the mid nineties. The company members were all female and boasted strong classical ballet and contemporary dance techniques and I came in the studio with an idea after a conversation with Francesca. There had been some disagreements and friendship shifts within the company, so I used this as a springboard for my choreography. I utilised wavework (a term used by Doug Elkins to describe popping and waving techniques within contemporary dance), capoeira and locking to weave a narrative story with a projected backdrop of Malta that I filmed that morning. All the dancers worked in the day and danced in the evening which reminded me of my earlier daily training and evening B-Boy practice at Rambert.
There was an informal sharing at the end of the week in the studio with invited guests, friends and family. I left Malta and returned to the UK as I knew Francesca would develop the piece with the choreographic notes I had given her.
The following year I returned to Malta to re-stage the piece on some different dancers. Garry Benjamin came too because we were performing Hip Hop Don’t Stop as part of the performance. It was basically sections of pieces from Union Dance repertoire with added choreography and improvisation from both of us and we used Hip Hop, Be Bop (Don’t Stop) by Man Parrish as our introduction and entrance music. The costumes were sheer black hoodies and belts made to order from a specialist shop in Camden, London.
Hip Hop Don't Stop by Michael Joseph & Garry Benjamin, Malta Dance Festival
My most ambitious piece for Union Dance was Celestial Dawning. I really wanted to use breaking as my main source of movement, so the dancers needed a lot of additional training as this was not their main movement vocabulary. Mixed with contemporary and martial arts I began to fuse the different styles and make it accessible for the dancers. My workshop started out as a Hip Hop class with a warm up, then onto drills and then to foundations. This really helped the dancers understand the forms and gave them the strength and confidence to improvise when they were given tasks to create their solos and duets. There was a lot of floor work and working on their backs, so I would research and pre-plan classes that had all the necessary components so they could understand the foundations of breaking. I really wanted to incorporate flares in my work, so I found a way to do it with a partner holding onto a foot; the standing partner would be circling around, swooping up and down as the floor dancer shifted their hands as their foot rotated.
I worked with Union Dance from 1985 to 2008 and in that time I met many different choreographers, but none - in my opinion - had the versatility and eclectic mix of Doug Elkins. Once I left Union Dance, I went on to form my own company and was made an associate artist at The Hat Factory in Luton. Here I devised a piece called Ramblings of an Old Man with music especially composed by Derek Richards that had undertones of electro, contemporary music and Derek layered a speech by Crazy Legs about breaking as part of the soundscape too. I had a film projection of graffiti as a backdrop that was created by Kerry Andrews from University of Hertfordshire and the costumes designed by Keeley-Sue Merrill.
This piece toured to a number of venues and received really good reviews; it was originally created for five people but I also performed it as a solo on several occasions too. This experience built my confidence to go it alone and create work as an independent dance artist.
Opening solo from Ramblings of an Old Man by Michael Joseph, Hat Factory, Luton
In 2012 I auditioned as a street dance teacher for Hot House Dance in Hitchin. They were setting up a class specifically aimed at boys and out of this grew Street Dance 4Boys. It was aimed at 5-13 year olds and was incredibly successful until COVID struck. We went online and it did not flourish well on Zoom; however, I have recently started face to face teaching again and we’ve recruited new boys and some of the older members have returned as well.
During class they learn breaking, popping, locking and grooving foundations enabling them to show off their freestyle skills; quite a few parents have commented that learning street dance has given the boys much more confidence in their everyday lives.
Turntable of Life
Hip Hop has developed and moved on since my original training, so I attend workshops to top up my own vocabulary. I especially like LiteFeet which gives me that exciting feeling I felt when I started learning the backslide. Choreography and teaching are my new inspirations, as I can use everything I’ve learnt throughout my dancing years, to develop my style and ideas to share with my students. Nothing is wasted, only passed on to the next generation.
It’s an evolutionary circle, it goes round and round on its spinning disc and I intend to continue to ride that turntable of movement for a long as I can…
Commissioned for Ink Cypher, November 2021
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Having trained at Rambert, Michael has worked with choreographers such as: Doug Elkins, Bill T. Jones, Laurie Booth, Rafael Bonachela, Bawren Tavaziva and Vincent Mantsoe.
As choreographer of Union Dance his dance works include Mass Equilibria in The Sea of Tranquillity, Celestial Dawning, Zenith and Nadir for the professional company and Dance With Digital for the youth group, Union Too.
Inclusive work for State of Emergency includes Choices and Consequences (2015). As a Level 2 Wheelchair Dance Sport Instructor in 2016 Michael continues making choreography for people with disabilities and Tutorial Videos for Para Dance UK.
In 2017, Michael was appointed Street Dance Company Co-Leader for Step into Dance at the Royal Academy of Dance, and from 2010 has been a visiting lecturer for the University of Bedfordshire.
Michael is video editor of Union Dance archives and videographer and movement tutor, on Dance with Digital Online 2021.