Zoom, December 2021
Ashley is a multi-award winning dancer, teacher and choreographer born and based in Edinburgh. She achieved an HND in Professional Stage Dance as well as training with hip hop and house pioneers for extended periods in New York, Paris and Holland. Ashley has a love of hip hop culture, imparting its history and foundations to her students and is House of Jack dance studio's Artistic Director and principal teacher. In recognition of her contributions to the dance community in Scotland, Ashley won Creative Edinburgh's 2018 Independent Award, and was named in The List's Hot 100 of 2019.
IA: Could you introduce yourself and describe what it is that you do?
AJ: My name's Ashley Jack. I'm from Edinburgh in Scotland, and at the moment, what I do is I run a dance studio called House of Jack which is a community interest company, a CIC. I'm also a dancer, teacher and choreographer within House of Jack and also outwith.
IA: The idea of kinships and chosen families are really prevalent in Hip Hop. With your role in both founding House of Jack and leading a crew I was wondering, could you talk about the idea of kinship, and the idea of a family that you choose?
AJ: So with regards to the studio and the space, kinships are important. What's lovely to see within the studio is that friendships grow, groups form and crews form - young people are finding themselves and finding the style that they want to do. They can relate to the teacher that teaches them, and then they form their own little communities within the community. With regards to the studio being the house for that, to help embody, embrace and encourage it, it's lovely seeing all of that grow. Outwith House of Jack, my journey...I have to say that my journey has been quite long through dance. I mean, it's one of those cliché stories. I watched The Box when I was younger, I saw Michael Jackson dance, I saw this and that. I grew up in Edinburgh in a really working-class environment...my mum was a single parent - it was me and her. So growing up, we typically…growing up in those sorts of areas, rap music is quite predominant because you can relate to it. However, I didn't know too much about this thing, this whole Hip Hop culture, because again, it was quite commercialised up here in Scotland, in Edinburgh and I was young, so I didn't know there was an underground scene, living in Muirhouse. As I got a bit older...I was always into music and I was always into moving my body, then I remember Missy Elliott, her album Under Construction and I remember seeing her music video and being like, ‘that's the dance that I do’. Because I was just doing this or doing what I thought was...I knew it as the robot because again, I was very young, there wasn't much education on it, but I just knew that was the one, that was what I wanted to do. And then from there it just, my body was doing it but I didn't know what it was...I saw someone else do it and I was like ‘that's amazing’. When you're growing up in an area like that, you don't leave the area, so you form your little groups and find your own interests and I must say, if it wasn't for...there was a few community centres around...me and a friend again were wandering the streets, nothing to do, but there was a new community centre called North Edinburgh Arts that was built at the Pennywell Shopping Centre. Then there was an advertisement there about…saying, ‘are you into music and do you like dance? Come along and join this. Girls only’. And we were like, ‘I’m gonna go to that then’. So we went along. At first, there was loads of people from different areas and at that time growing up in Muirhouse, there was huge rivalries between areas. Huge. We had lots of people from different areas. So...again, when you're that young, unfortunately, your mentality is quite different. You go into survival mode. Nobody got on, nobody got on and we eventually got an act together. We did a wee…we did a few singles. We were called Born to Perform, I can't believe I’m actually telling you this [laughs] And it was an all-girl...honestly, there was loads of us, we were like the Blazing Squad! [laughs] We made these singles and the two youth workers Karen and Laura were just absolutely fabulous. They really gave us the time of day, they made us really believe in ourselves as young women, they gave us a platform to really push and be ourselves and use these art forms, which was something that we never got the chance to do. That project in itself, we ended up winning an award for...being an amazing project that came out of such a deprived area. We won tickets to the MTV awards which happened in Edinburgh and I remember seeing Missy Elliott perform live for the first time...I had five wind-up cameras at the time, taking photos, and I just remember when you've grown up in the ‘Greater Pilton’ area and then you're at MTV awards. It's mind blowing, absolutely mind blowing. All when I was a teenager. So all that journey and getting into that…it really pushed me and then I found out - obviously school wasn't the best at the time - that you could do dance as a job. And selfishly, and naively I was like, ‘I'll just do that then’ to my guidance counsellor. But I had no idea of the work that goes into it. There's a lot of work that goes into it. I thought I could go on and do my own funky stuff. But then as I started branching out, meeting other people in dance and finding the underground scene in Scotland...there was dancers, breakers and other people doing this. I didn't do a lot of breaking, I was more into popping and Hip Hop at the time, which was quite hard. There wasn't a lot of people doing it, especially females when I was growing up and I’m not that old. Then I managed to meet a group and then formed a new family and new friendships, which inevitably got me out of where I grew up and showed me...I started being introduced to these cultures and it just blew my mind. When I found out about Hip Hop culture, I was like, ‘this is what I need in my life’. It's so interesting. I love it. I love the history of it. I love the way that people move. I love these different styles and I met people that love the same thing as I did. So we got together. But getting into the scene was quite difficult because there was a lot of breakers at the time and I wasn't a breaker. From there, it took me a while to jump in cyphers and get myself some recognition - obviously I'm not breaker and I would get responses like, ‘what is it you're doing?’ ‘Well, I'm doing a bit popping, I'm doing a bit of Hip Hop.’ What I thought was the robot I was like, ‘oh, no, they're doing it. Let's look this up’. So I was asking around - when I was a teenager we didn't use Google, there wasn't internet - and I started getting to know a lot of this stuff when I was meeting all these other people in Scotland who were part of these crews. I was being taken under their wing, trying this, being taught that I'm starting to know the elements, knowing where all this came from. Then all of a sudden Breakin’ Convention comes to Edinburgh. I was 18 and the Electric Boogaloos are here and my first popping class properly was with Popin Pete. It was a complete whirlwind from there and I became absolutely hooked.
IA: Generational hierarchy and lineages are really present in Hip Hop. Could you talk a little bit about your Hip Hop lineages? Who have you learned from and where?
AJ: I would be here for days. Because again, like I said, I fell in love with everything about it and I just wanted to learn. I was so hungry to learn. It's very important to know your history and to give praise to the generation above. I’ve always been one that's respected the generation above me. And that's even including the people who are in Edinburgh as well like your Tony Mills, like your Alan Irvines who were about when I was here, you've got people like Emma Ready who’re absolute gems for the scene. The crews, Random Aspekts…I used to do shows with them, you've got Flying Jalapenos - big respect to all of them. They're so important for Scotland. When it comes to outside, I think I was 18, I'd been doing it for a few years and was getting in the depths of it. Long story short, I managed to get into dance college, but it was like a Step Up movie. I turned up in a tracksuit, whilst everybody was in a leotard and tights and I got refused the first time. I was working from a really young age so I decided to go and work and I'm going to go to this class. After that I managed to get into dance college part time and then I got in full time. So again, it was one of them...the rest is history. One of my first times going to London, I went to this class, I think it was called a Nike Workout or something to do with Nike. It was a house class and it was Clara who was teaching it. My first ever house class. I didn't really know too much about it but I remember she was teaching and she was brilliant. I was doing it and moving and I was like, ‘oh, this feels nice. Like this feels like…this is what I've be looking for. My body is moving to this. I love the music’. And then when she says ‘the main groove’s called the jack, and I was like, ‘Oh my God, that's my second name. This was meant to be!’ So I thought the heavens had spoken, boom. So I went home, I worked, I finished college, I saved and saved and saved and then I moved to New York in 2010. That was the first place...the first stop I went to, to just rinse as much energy as I could. And it was just amazing. And one of my teachers who was great, his name was Sekou. He was a lovely man who took me under his wing. I remember the first class I went to, I was very nervous and I'm dancing, going full-out obviously, it's the first one and I need to make a good impression. He comes up to me at the end and he's like, ‘where are you from?’ And I'm like, ‘I'm from Scotland’. ‘They dance in Scotland?’ And I was like, ‘yeah, there's a few of us!’ So aye, there's so many people and I think it's important to appreciate everybody and what they do - especially people in the UK. A lot of people...you've already interviewed most of them like Dickson and Julia and Frankie J and Clara...they're all brilliant and all relevant. Everybody has their own story and their own information that they can give you about their craft. That's what it is, I love learning about all the different crafts.
IA: How long were you out in New York for? What was that process like absorbing all that juice?
AJ: It was mind blowing. I was there for three months the first time and I went back again for a further four months. You need to come back and forth and it was in an age where there was no video phones. I think that, luckily, with the type of person I am, I just went out to look for it all and just went and asked. I went to classes where I could meet teachers...I went to Ejoe Wilson's class and asked at the end ‘do you know if there's anything happening?’ You'd find events, you'd meet people and obviously, in New York, it's very different to Scotland. There's stuff happening all the time as it’s the birthplace of the culture. There's always something happening, there's always something to do. Whereas it's different in Scotland, we have very, very few events.
IA: In terms of your network and those people who are around you, who are the three people, and it's important it's only three, who nourish support, and feed you?
AJ: [long pause] Three people that nourish and support me...my business partner, who is also my friend, and helps with House of Jack. She is a lot of the backbone who keeps House of Jack going. Her name is Becky Enoch. We met through...she was coming to my classes - naturally - and after a while and fell in love with dance. It was lovely see and she's a very smart woman. When we came together, we managed to build something great - this hub and a social enterprise that teaches all the different styles. My mum, obviously, because she's such a little legend and a rock...through experiences good or bad, I wouldn't be where I am today without her. And...I guess this isn't just a person but it's more everybody who supports. Everybody who comes to classes, everybody who comes to support the young ones, my shows, my work, the crews and the events. All those people...because again, without the community there would be no community. They're the biggest and the main ones that need the big shout out.
IA: Olympics. Paris 2024 and breaking being included for the first time, what are your thoughts on its inclusion?
AJ: Like I said before, I'm not a breaker. I have been lugging into some conversations that people are having and it's good to hear some people are positive and some people are not so positive. I've not really got too much of an opinion, but I'll support anything that's going to help, as long as it's done the right the right way. I support the breakers who are authentic breakers, who want to push it for the right reasons.
IA: What's your relationship like with Edinburgh as a place and as a culture?
AJ: Me in the city? Like I say, I grew up in a more working class area...I've always been...when I say the word community it’s very important. I wouldn't be where I am if it wasn't for a community centre and those two youth workers who put their time of day into me. I think they really changed my life path...they gave us a good push to build our confidence, which...by the way, my old youth worker, her two daughters now come to my classes - seventeen years later. Which is amazing. For me with Edinburgh, I love working with people. I've always loved working with people and I think that's my strongest point. I felt it was really important as I got to an age - I must have been in my mid twenties, getting into my late twenties - where I wanted to come back home because I was travelling a lot. Working a lot and going up, down and everywhere. I felt it was really important to give back to the community, to help them keep it going and keep it alive. I always said to myself that I wanted my own community centre and House of Jack is pretty close, it’s pretty close. I just love working with people. I was about loads, I was going in and out the youth centres, hanging about with the young ones - teaching them, I was working in women's prisons, I've done theatres, I was in all the dance centres and I was doing workshops. When I came back, I had built so much knowledge...with house, I brought the first house class to Scotland back in 2011 or 2012. There wasn't a regular one on, so I did that. At the time, with my love for house and with it being a club dance I was at an age when I was going out and dancing in clubs...I loved that people could come together, dance together and express themselves and I felt that there was so little opportunity, especially for young people who didn't have access to this. If I hadn't had access to dance from a younger age. Who knows? But if we can bring access to dance, let somebody find it, love it and try it for the first time...it can change your life and blow your mind. It doesn't mean you're going to go off to be a dancer, but it can really change your mood and change everything.
IA: This is a nerd question. What is it about house that really gets you excited?
AJ: The bass and the hi hat. Mostly the bass. That's what gets me going. In the movement...I found a movement in it that related to my body. I'd already grown up with a lot of house and trance and rave and stuff…that culture was getting pretty big. But the music was lovely like it is, it’s that bass. But when I found the jack, when I found that groove, it was just like…I just didn't want to stop doing it.
IA: Part of what these interviews are about is about archiving and documentation. Can you talk a little bit about how you think about your archive? How do you document the things that you have done and what is the legacy that you want to leave behind?
AJ: I look back at my career so far and I need to pinch myself. As a young girl from Muirhouse growing up, and in Pilton and Granton as well, I would never have dreamed that I would be in a position like this. My first proper big job was...when I left college I managed to get some really big gigs dancing with some artists which was great, then I did stuff for Breakin’ Convention - I did the first Back to the Lab and that was when I met Botis and I got to watch him and his magic happen live. I've just been very lucky...but when I say lucky, I have worked really hard as well. I've put in a lot of my own time, I've worked really hard, put my own money into travel, to learn things and meet new people...and I really try to do things the right way so I've got the right information to pass on. When it comes to working with people making sure I've got the right tools to work with them and make sure it's safe...if they're interested in this sort of style, how can I guide them? Where can I send them off to do it because there's only so far I can go with them, then they need to branch their wings out and start doing it themselves. I see myself as a bit of a good stepping stone. That's what's great about the scene...that's what's lucky about me travelling so much. I've met loads of people who are amazing at their certain craft, so there's lots of people in different areas who I can send people out to and ask them for their advice.
IA: What was the first Hip Hop theatre work that you saw?
AJ: First Hip Hop theatre work that I saw ever, this was before Breakin’ Convention, I went to see ZooNation Into the Hoods. It was fantastic. I remember there being such a beautifully diverse cast with such amazing talent. I remember this one girl, I think she was Spinderella, she came out and she had this eight pack. I remember going ‘whoa!’ It was lovely to see because I had been doing Hip Hop and studying these different styles in my own time, because we didn't have that at college, it was all musical theatre at the time. So I struggled because I didn't do ballet, jazz or tap from a young age. I had to work extra hard. So it was nice to see something that I was really interested in, that I could see on stage and it be a possibility for me being like, ‘I'm never going to be a ballerina, I'm never going to be a good jazz dancer. I'm never going to be this, I’m never going to be that, but I could be that’.
IA: I want to go back now to some of the early Jackin’ The Box works and hear your thoughts on them now. Things like IDance and Misled and Piece of Mind when you were going down to Newcastle.
AJ: I’ve still got that giant iPod at the studio.
IA: Looking back...because it’s ten years on from some of those early works. What is it like looking back on them as a maker, you in that group and company?
AJ: I started Jackin’ The Box because I was tired of dancing by myself. Really. At the time there was there was a lot of breaking crews, but there wasn't a lot of people in Edinburgh doing what I did. A lot of people didn't know any information, so I thought, I'm going to do this and I thought I'd get a group of dancers together who have an interest, I could have conversations with and tell them about this and maybe start to train them up with what knowledge I had...so I could have people to dance with and create another family...which got off to a really great start. Plus we were all female at the time. I'd been dotted in crews at that time, but there were all males, not that that’s a problem because I love all my brothers, but I just wanted to dance with some females. Jackin’ The Box started off with some club gigs and I was doing some battles - not everybody was at that point yet, they were still building confidence again - because the battle scene isn't huge up here, so unless you're seen all the time or want to be involved, it's quite difficult. We started doing more gigs, we performed at Just Jam - which was great, we did Breakin’ Convention. I created IDance because I had a group of dancers who were actually...the girls were really comical. They were really funny and we did a wee section in IDance where we would mock our friends the breakers at the time wearing costumes like the old school breaking movies. It was just a laugh and I thought, ‘why can't we watch something that's just pure fun, for all ages, adding as many styles as we can, so people can be like, what's this?’ You're getting variety...at the time, with such a big group of dancers, some were stronger in other things and they were becoming stronger in different styles. It was really fun, it got around and it was child friendly - hopefully kids could watch it and be like, ‘what is that? I'd like to do that’. From there onto Back to the Lab, that was a good experience with Jasmin Vardimon and Jonzi D were our mentors. I then started doing some solo work and it started getting a bit darker after that. I did a solo based on a sociopath and I did a duet which was...that was quite terrifying. In my mid twenties my mood started to change...my body started to change and my movement started to change - which looking back now I find quite fascinating. The different stages in my dancing changed with my ideas and certain stages in life. When I started putting Mini Jackers together...Mini Jackers started because I used to teach a lot of kids up at Dance Base and some of them were getting so good. I was like, ‘I need to do something with these guys’. So I was like, ‘look, I says to Dance Base, can you give me free space? I'm just going to teach them for free. I don't want them to pay. I just want to see what I can do here’. What started off as me just hanging around and teaching them has gone onto...they've done amazing things. They've been five star reviewed at the Fringe and they've performed for Breakin’ Convention, they've done brilliant. They became Mini Jackers into Jackin’ The Box. For their first performance at Breakin’ Convention, I was getting them involved...cause obviously I wasn’t their age, I was like ‘what do you guys think about…let's get a theme, something that can relate to you’ and then we would start getting together and they were right into the whole...getting a bit darker and more in depth, finding a song that was quite entrancing...they’ve just done absolutely brilliant.
IA: Going back to that first Back to the Lab. That's a historic moment. It was you, Ivan, Toby, Simeon and Botis. What were you working on during that process?
AJ: I’m trying to remember...it was that long ago! I remember at the time thinking to myself, like, ‘Och I'm the only female!’ I knew Ivan and Simeon already because I had auditioned for Birdgang and successfully got in, but I didn't live in London, so it was quite hard to commute, so I decided that the work at home was important at that time. I met Botis. Botis was absolutely amazing, a lovely man. Toby was great as well. Who else was there? That was it, eh? It was good. I was quite terrified to go down, really terrified it at first. Because I didn't know what to expect and obviously, I knew Jasmin Vardimon’s work but I wasn't too sure how that was going to work with Hip Hop and how my ideas at the time were going to be perceived and whatnot. I remember meeting all these fantastic dancers and it was such an experience...I got to meet lots of new people, people I'd met before and catch up with friends and be in London. Jonzi and Jasmin pushed us to go out of our boundaries which was quite daunting. When it came to the final show, I was happy with the dancers that I had who performed the piece that I created. Unfortunately, there's no footage of it, which sucks. It was a privilege to be in a line-up with such fantastic choreographers, to be there and represent Scotland.
IA: You mentioned it earlier, but in 2019 you worked with Oona Doherty to create The Sugar Army performing at Edinburgh International Festival. Can you talk a little bit about that as a process?
AJ: Oona is absolutely fantastic. I think when people come to Edinburgh...what I am known for is the work that I do in the community and if you're looking for people, then get in touch with me. We did Akram Khan’s mass performance and the majority of the dancers in my ‘supergroup’ were people that I recruited from House of Jack...you have to actively be within the community to do work with that number of people. I think that's why they got in touch for Oona because...the International Festival know I do residencies in some high schools, they know my background, they know where I’m from and how I work in that area with that age group as well. So, with Oona I recruited the young folk, we got the studio and did it. I was looking after the young ones and I would rehearse with them and be that lead for that. When it came to the movement that was Oona - she led that. Obviously now I do have a background in jazz, contemporary and whatnot, which all came into play within my practice. I'm really grateful for what I learnt...even though I wasn't the strongest at college, but it has helped my movement and helped my body grow in different ways and to develop and use it in different ways to express it in my way.
IA: One of the recent things you’ve done is with Starcatchers Mixed Up, Could you talk about your role in that because that looks absolutely joyous?
AJ: It's absolutely brilliant. I choreographed it...I was approached by a friend of mine, Katie, who had been given funding to do a project and she had an idea about dancers and Hip Hop and paint and beatboxing. She got in touch and said, ‘can you choreograph for me?’ I was like, ‘of course’. I'm quite confident and I know what looks good, I could visualise it and knew that'll look good. So I got two of my dancers. Gabriele, who's a breaker - these are two teachers at House of Jack - he's Italian and a breaker and Urusla, who's originally from Nepal, she teaches Hip Hop. I got these two together and Katie wanted a journey for the children...it's about these two people, one’s alone and then they come together and they have this friendship, but then all of a sudden, somebody is lost. She wanted that emotional journey for the young people to go through and she wanted to express that through Hip Hop. I think it was really important to have a male and a female dancer in the film for the kids to watch...it was great because we brought in basketballs and one of Scotland's best beatboxers Big Tajj - he was involved in the project as well - and the film was amazing. I think you'd absolutely love. It is colourful, it's great and kids love it. We’re in the process of bringing it live this year, within schools for young people, in loads of different schools, so I’m looking forward to that.
IA: Shifting away from theatre, can you talk a little bit about your experiences at House Dance Forever and going out competing and being in the cypher?
AJ: I can't remember the last time I went to House Dance Forever. When I was going to the competitions...when I first started, it was terrifying. Nerve wracking. Because you go in and it's that feeling of...up in Scotland the scene is still quite small and when you go somewhere else and there's hundreds of people doing the same thing you're like ‘oh my god, this is mind blowing. Absolutely mind blowing’. I loved to dance at House Dance Forever and I used to go every year, but I was very unsuccessful at getting through the pre-selections...but I just loved being there and trying, being at the after parties, you get to meet people and all of a sudden it becomes a yearly thing and you meet your friends again who have travelled from France and Morocco. This is where you meet...again it comes back to family question...you start making little families everywhere. Even from New York, I'm still talking to some of the people from when I went to New York who are doing absolutely amazing at the moment.
IA: And then to Rock What You've Got, the battle that you created with Room 2 Manoeuvre. Can you talk a little bit about the origins of it and how it's evolved?
AJ: Yeah. Recently I've not been as active and able to travel and battle because I’ve got the studio to run and it takes a lot of energy and I’ve invested a lot my time in the young ones. There used to be a big event in Edinburgh called Castle Rocks which used to be run by a good friend of mine called Peter Maniam - he used to work for Breakin’ Convention. Castle Rocks was amazing. It was in the fringe and it was the biggest breaking battle in the UK. I remember I saw B-boy Pocket there for the first time. Everybody would travel. It was in a nightclub called City, which was huge and you looked forward to. We would dance on after the battle - because I didn’t break - but it was just mind blowing. However, like I say my friends Pete and Jenny moved to London so there was no more Castle Rocks. And there was nothing really for a long time. I was busy doing a lot of theatre, doing a lot of community work and travelling a lot. So a few years back, I sat with my good friend Tony Mills and we were like ‘we should do battle’. There used to be...the scene used to be great when I was in my early twenties. I was reading Emma Ready’s interview and she mentioned The Bongo Club...but there was a really great scene and for a while it died down. I think that there was that wave, a lot of people were getting older, getting jobs and whatnot. But then the next generation never really took off. I think the club scene plays a big part in the dance scene and a lot of clubs in Edinburgh stopped having Hip Hop nights. So there wasn't anywhere to go and dance. We started noticing that there was a wave of new people coming in and so we said, ‘we need to do something, let's put on a battle’. I had a connection with a big nightclub in Edinburgh and Tony and I sat down and we were like ‘what are going to do?’ Tony has lots of amazing ideas, but we thought, ‘let's get one done, we'll do it in the Fringe and we'll make it a two vs. two all styles’. The reason being we don't have enough dancers up here to create separate style categories. At the moment. We're hoping that's what it's going to build up to. So we'll have two vs two all styles, we’ll make it family friendly because we need to people to know about it. Unless we're educating the younger ones and making things accessible for everybody to go to, nobody's gonna know about them. So aye, we did the first Rock What You Got. Tony and I, House of Jack and Room 2 Manoeuvre. It was a great success and because we have a lot of people coming to Edinburgh from all over the world performing Hip Hop theatre shows, we can reach out to them be like, can you come and do a showcase? It may get people to buy tickets, and they're obviously like, ‘OK!’ It's a five hour event where you're getting acts like...we had to Shlomo performing his beatbox show. We had two, then the pandemic hit and we just had one in November.
IA: How did that go? What was it like after having that pause?
AJ: It was really good. I think everybody was hungry for it. The pandemic's not been great, but for people who are involved in dance, they’re hungry for it now, because they've not been allowed to dance. It’s making people push and want to go to these events. We are all about pushing for unity, love and respect. We got some of the wee kids who entered as well, that's what we want to encourage otherwise how are they going to learn? We need to get them started somewhere. So aye, it was a great success. House of Jack over lockdown has been a great success as well because over lockdown we put on free classes for kids through from the beginning to end.
IA: Can you talk about that, because they aren't small names...you’re giving free access to Mamson and Dey Dey...it's not your man who lives down the road. Talk to me about the thinking behind that.
AJ: Aye, so obviously, the pandemic hit, which was rubbish. At the House of Jack we keep our prices as low as possible and we give scholarships for young people so families can bring their children along without that worry of fees. Throughout the pandemic I was like ‘we're not charging young people for classes, we're not doing that.’ I was also worried about my self-employed staff, the teachers and keeping them in work. Like I says before, I mentioned my business partner, she's very smart and runs the business, she's great and we were on it together. She really took the pandemic in our stride and we've managed to keep...not a lot of classes, but we managed to keep some of the self-employed dancers teaching regular adult classes, even if it was one class a night. We have a waacking teacher, a Hip Hop teacher, a popping teacher, a locking teacher. Then we did a whole day, every week for the kids for P1 up to S5. They could come for free. Becky wrote a great application and it was very lovely of Creative Scotland to give us some funding for a programme that we had in mind - to put on some classes and some training. We realised with the whole Zoom thing, we might as well try and push for classes with people that we wouldn't really be able to get in the studio, because it would cost a lot of money. When you get people to the studio, it is great, we've had Mamson at the studio, but travel costs and everything adds up. We managed to get funding from Creative Scotland to put on this higher level free programme for...we're still open to anybody. You could try it if you want, whether you're a beginner or young...but we always advise please be of an age so that you have some experience in dance. For a lot of the older dancers - because I still work with a lot of professionals now and work at the colleges - they needed something as well. It was like who can we get to teach all these classes - so getting Ruben to do locking, getting Dey Dey, Mamson again. We had Marty Kudelka - Justin Timberlake’s personal choreographer - I did his class when I was 17, I travelled to London to take his class and I loved it. At the time for me, it was just a huge thing. I've always liked his old school commercial style, that's what I grew up with, that's what was in music videos at the time. So I remember going ‘I wonder if I message him, he’ll say aye?’ But then I thought ‘I doubt it’ but then I messaged and he was like, ‘yeah’. I’m like ‘oh my god!’ Can you believe it? It was amazing. Obviously the dream, the absolute dream, is to have every single one of those teachers and amazing dancers here in Edinburgh, teaching this programme live and in the flesh. But it’s something to work towards, eh?
IA: You as a teacher, as an educator, as a sharer of knowledge - it feels really important to you, that's one of your central drivers. What is the most important part for you in sharing and working in Hip Hop dance?
AJ: I fell in love with Hip Hop culture and it changed my life, but I don't force it upon anybody else. But when I see someone who is doing this, who is following those same footsteps as me, I love watching it...when they find it and they love it and they start expressing themselves through it and want to do more of it...it’s just lovely. I love watching people move. My adult beginner classes are my favourite, because you have...I have loads of guys which is really unheard of. Sometimes it's half and half, which is amazing, because dance should be for everybody. These styles are accessible for everybody. I love watching someone who's maybe not done any dance, they come along and struggle the first time but then give it a few weeks and they’re starting to get the swing of it. Then they're starting to get even more in the swing of it...I know it's not going to be something they're going to go off and do professionally but you can tell they just love it. They love it. It’s part of their week, ‘this is where I come, it makes my day and I love it’. I had a woman come to me when I broke up for Christmas saying ‘I'm so glad I found you, this has just changed...I've been looking for something like this for years and I haven’t found it’ stuff like that makes it worthwhile. When you get the young ones as well, a lot of my young ones...some of them I have been teaching for years - from Primary 3 and now there in S 6 - they’re growing up and now they’re off to Dance College, one of my old students is in Manchester, a few are in London, one’s in Australia. They’re off doing their thing and it's nice to be a stepping stone to help somebody get to that point. It's how I look back at me growing up at that community centre and the people who helped me along the way. They were there, they opened my mind a little bit to something and if I can do that for somebody, for loads of people, then that's great.
IA: You've mentioned craft a few times earlier. I'm interested in your relationship to craft and practice within Hip Hop?
AJ: My craft...are you asking me what I do train?
IA: What do you do, how do you prepare, are you drilling - things like that?
AJ: With my house class...I take how I feel on the day. How my body is, listening to my body, what is it I'd like to work on. I go in, read the room, see how everybody's feeling, do they want to be pushed today? Do we want to do some footwork? Cardio? Do we want to have a wee bit of a cypher? Because I've been doing this for so long...I listen to music religiously - if I was to pick a song I know I could do something very quickly...a lot of people who I work with are like, ‘it's a gift you have Ashley, it is a gift’. I had a photographic memory when I was learning, so that was quite useful to have...I can pick up quick, I can mirror people quickly and I can figure out how a song makes me feel and how the movement has to look. I always match the movement to the song, I let the song do a lot of the talking because the music's very important. With training at the moment, I currently offer the studio to a crew based in Edinburgh for free, because I want them to have a roof over their heads and somewhere to train. They’re a younger crew - TMRW Crew - and they've got a lot of different styles within that. They've got breaker, Hip Hop, locker, a waacker. I give them space to train and sometimes I'll go and join them. They’re a lot younger and fitter than I am! No, it's good. I mean, I still go to classes. I go to classes at my studio when people are teaching there. I go to every workshop. We had Shawn Aimey and Bagsy up doing...I've known Bagsy for years and Shawn's was great as well. I think it's really important to keep it up and to try classes even if they're not your forte. It’s a really good lesson to be teaching the people in your studio and let the young people see you in the studio, see that you're trying all these things out and it's OK to fail at them and not feel confident all the time.
IA: What do you want to dismantle in Hip Hop?
AJ: Being in Scotland, it would be good to have more opportunities for young people who are interested in Hip Hop and more accessible information about it and the roots and the culture because it's very different from what we see commercially when you delve right into it and what you get from the books. [pause] More unity. I know that there's rivals within different parts of the world and stuff, but I’m the person who likes it when everyone gets on, when everybody's coming together...I know that's the perfect world. I think there's starting to get more representation coming along, especially when you watch TV know - they're using dancers from the Hip Hop scene in concerts and people are being recognised for their work and for their talents. When I saw the wave of when Hip Hop dancers were being accepted into the contemporary world. They were amazing, making some of the best works coming out of it, with the best dancers. Look at Dickson, his work is fantastic.
IA: Could you just elaborate on that? Other Hip Hop dancers moving in contemporary spaces.
AJ: Aye well, it’s seeing artists who are in the Hip Hop world delve into the theatre world and making different sort of art and being taken seriously. Being trusted to make work, rather than just being known as a battle dancer and being involved in the Hip Hop scene. Their brain is...I mean, look at Botis. Prime example. That man's mind is a...he's a genius and it's lovely to watch. To see Hip Hop be taken even further and evolve into this beautiful...I grew up with people like Kenrick Sandy and Boy Blue stuff, seeing all that and ZooNation. It was great seeing it done in a different way and looking at all these people who were also creating work for people from that scene, another massive tick. There was a road where people could do this as a job, full time and be artists.
IA: There's lots of talk at the moment around sustainability, environmentalism and climate change in the world. Big picture items. What are your thoughts on the idea of slowness or degrowth? How might that manifest in your work and the work that you do with House of Jack?
AJ: It's funny you mentioned about the climate change and stuff, I recently finished a show at the last Edinburgh Fringe where I was a choreographer for a show on climate change and sustainability. I was approached by a company called Food Tank from America and they had a script and it was about three aliens who were travelling from their planet, Hanyana, to come to Earth to tell us that if we don’t change our ways...we're all gonna die. There was another language in the script as well, which was written by David Peterson who did the languages for Game of Thrones and Marvel - which was pretty cool. The Hanyana planet is a real planet. I was emailed about the job and my business partner got the email, and she's an exoplanet scientist - that was her previous job - so when this came through, it was like, ‘oh, my God, this is meant to be’. We got on a Zoom call with the New York company and we went for it. The reason why I was involved is because I know how to make choreography accessible for people who haven't got much experience in dance...it was definitely a family show and it was good fun. It was quite a whirlwind actually, we were a part of COP26, the costumes we used were all from recycled and sustainable outfits. We did a lot of speaking about it all and being educated about what we can do to help out. The audience was great. Food Tank had a food truck with sustainable Hayanese food as well. The show was really well received, every audience member that came along joined in and it was all family friendly. Very upbeat and very hype. It was good to be a part of, especially after the pandemic, this was the first time people were performing and all of a sudden we've got people in the room dancing along - I think that's why everybody joined in. I got my name in the New York Times, which was pretty cool. I was very chuffed at that. I can quit now. [laughs]
IA: Anxiety, mental health, grief, all these things have been really real for a lot of people during COVID in the past two years. As an inversion to that could you talk about some of the kindnesses or good things that you've received from Hip Hop over the years?
AJ: Rock What You’ve Got was a prime example of support...there was loads of people there, the dancers were there and they were all there supporting the event. They were hungry to dance, hungry to listen to music and hungry to see each other. That's a kindness in itself. We've been taking our time with the studio, not having overcapacity in the studio because we want everybody to feel comfortable getting back into dance, because everybody's in their own journey. Some people are a bit further ahead than other people and we need to be mindful of that. Just because somebody is at a different stage, doesn't mean it shouldn't be accessible to them. Luckily we've had most people come back, the parents have been great with the young ones. The adults have been coming in back and they're ready to get going - so the support from them has been great. The funding from Creative Scotland and other organisations for House of Jack has been overwhelming because they know what we do for the community. We're very involved in it. It's about the people and it's nice to see everybody wanting to have a good time again, to have some fun and get back into dance. It's been great that we've been able to have workshops in the studio again and we're able to get people up, the first person we had up for our workshop was Frankie J after the pandemic lifted. He's a big family member to the studio and we'd have him up every day if we could. It's nice that those people are still coming up, wanting to come up and do workshops and we’re able to support them and they're able to support us.
IA: What's the future for House of Jack? What's the plans going forward?
AJ: House of Jack is one of a kind. It's the only studio in Scotland that offers pretty much every style and that's the aim. For House of Jack to be the place for Hip Hop, street and club dances where people can go and pick their class...hopefully every class under this massive Hip Hop umbrella at the studio, so people have access, can be educated on a certain style, practice and see if it’s for you. I wish I had when I was growing up.
IA: What is your strongest memory of dance?
AJ: You’re really putting me on the spot here Ian. Strongest memory of dance...I don't even know there's so many. What would be my strongest memory of dance? [Pause] I think one that popped in my mind is when I left college I did my first ever gig...I danced for David Guetta which is pretty funny. That was with some of the Flying Jalapenos crew back in the day which was pretty cool. Breakin’ Convention, the first time, meeting the Electric Boogaloos and seeing them perform as well as Frank II Louise. I’ve won a couple awards. I won Creative Edinburgh’s Independent Artist of 2018 and I was in The List top 100 award which was pretty good. The Oona Doherty show was great. There's just so much Ian. I'm so grateful. I think when Mini Jackers...we did a piece called Machine that I created with them and that sticks out a lot because they did the Fringe and they got five stars. They absolutely smashed it. The crew was made up of half boys and half girls and it was a grown-up piece for their age and they performed it like a professional company. I was so proud of them.