Mandy Helmlinger, founder of Richmond Urban Dance, leads a class along Richmond's Canal Walk. (Photo by Jay Paul)
A tiny girl in braids and sparkling silver shoes.
A lanky guy in striped socks.
Young women who move with unstudied grace.
Two little boys, engaged in their own manic routine in the back.
Some move crisply. Some are hesitant. Some move with ease. Some struggle. The one constant is their expressions as they dance: happy, and serious.
It’s a strange thing to see a roomful of people who are at once happy and serious. It feels a little like church, which is apt; while not a religious organization, Richmond Urban Dance (RUD) has its roots in ministry. Call it the First Richmond Church of Hip-Hop, led by an unlikely pastor: Mandy Helmlinger, a self-described “40-something-year-old mom from the suburbs.”
Since founding her nonprofit dance studio a year and a half ago, Helmlinger has signed up some 200 students, from preschoolers to people in their 40s and 50s. On this Monday night, about 40 have gathered at the Robinson Theater in Church Hill for the Master Hip-Hop class, in which dancers learn a new, choreographed routine each session.
“Criss cross! Roll!” shouts Marquis Davis, one of the two instructors teaching tonight, as the dancers execute a fast-paced sequence of steps. “5, 6, 7, 8. Draaaag. Snap!”
It looks hard. Is it?
“I’ll tell you: It’s not easy,” says Christina Cooper, a member of the Richmond Urban Dance leadership team. The good thing, she says, is that “you do not have to be, like, a dancer. You can come here and just have raw talent. You can come here just because you want to learn how to dance.”
Erica Stratton had no experience with choreography outside of Zumba classes, but she soon learned that it didn’t matter. “Once you get comfortable in your general ability, you’re just OK with messing up and realizing that nobody really cares.” Although, she says with a laugh, “it’s a little disheartening when the kids are so good.”
When 12-year-old Ansley Deal signed up, her dad said, “What about me?” Bryan Deal has always loved hip-hop; he was a DJ in college at Virginia Tech and used to do shag and swing dancing. “I’m half-Cuban,” he says, “so I’ve always been able to dance.”
Now they come to class together. “I just think it’s cool, a daughter and a dad,” he says. “Being able to share that with her.”
Jade Poole, 15, has studied ballet, jazz and contemporary dance, but her true love is hip-hop. While living in Japan, she often watched videos of urban dancers in California and longed to go there. “But I can’t — I had to move here,” she says. Then she was delighted to discover RUD. “Oh my God, this is what I’ve been dreaming of,” she says.
As a child growing up in Richmond, Helmlinger watched MTV and danced out on the blacktop with her friends, putting together hip-hop routines. Trouble was, no one took Helmlinger’s love for it seriously. So she turned to traditional dance instruction instead — ballet, jazz, tap and modern — and received her degree in dance from Virginia Commonwealth University.
Helmlinger taught, performed and choreographed dance all over the United States, then for 10 years ran the performing arts program at the former Richmond Outreach Center. She tried to teach the church’s children ballet and tap, but what they really wanted was hip-hop.
She understood. When Helmlinger was growing up, she says, hip-hop dance was considered an entertainment, not an art form. “I kind of beg to differ,” she says. “To me, art is a form of expression. And hip-hop is a form of expression.”
Photo by Jay Paul
So in 2015, she founded Richmond Urban Dance. As a nonprofit, RUD sponsors students who can’t afford the fees. Classes include hip-hop, kids’ breakdance, fitness and street tap.
Almost immediately, the classes attracted a diverse crowd, including VCU students, serious dancers, young professionals and children from Church Hill Activities and Tutoring. In the beginning, some people asked for separate classes for after-school kids and adult students. Helmlinger said no, because she wanted everyone to learn from each other. “This is real hip-hop,” she said. “We’re going to keep it real.”
In teaching street hip-hop, as opposed to studio hip-hop, instructors discuss the origins of certain moves, the story of each artist and the meaning of lyrics. They choose songs that are appropriate for kids to hear. Tonight, the teachers play just the hook of Chris Brown’s “Kriss Kross” over and over, omitting the verses that get naughty.
“We are coming from a place of positivity,” Cooper explains. “So yes, hip-hop has a very rough background and history and exterior, and we embrace that. But we want to take that power and make it positive.”
In one recent class, Helmlinger asked each of her students, in turn, to say the words “I am a dancer.” Each one spoke the same words, but they all said it differently. That’s the hip-hop way, she says: “I may teach you the moves, but you don’t have to do it exactly like me.” You can pop, lock, wave or crump in a way that fits your body and your personality.
At the end of each class, the dancers perform their new routine — sometimes on Q Street, in the red glow of the theater’s neon sign. See them in action on YouTube, or in person every Saturday morning at 10:30, when dancers meet for a “street session” at various outdoor locations around the city. Richmond Urban Dance will have its first formal performance June 2 at the Robinson Theater.
Helmlinger has big hopes for RUD. She’d like Richmond to have an urban dance scene as vibrant as that of Los Angeles or New York. She’d like famous choreographers and dancers to come here. And she’d like to have a dedicated studio space, although the Robinson location has helped RUD raise its profile.
“Oh, that’s hip-hop!” a mother says, surprised, passing by on her way home from the store with her little boy, as Chris Brown croons through the open door. “Can I go in there? I just want to check it out.” And they do.
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