Despite the bright lights and mirrors, the space has the feel of a small party. The music is loud, and over it, the dancers throw jokes around and laugh.
But this isn't a party--it's a rehearsal of the Human Project Urban Dance Theater, a Tucson-based hip-hop dance company. Formed in June 2002 by Anton Smith, 25, a graduate of the UA dance program, the Human Project's mission is to carry what was once a predominantly underground urban dance form to places where larger audiences can see it.
Since its inception in June 2002, Smith's company has performed more than a dozen shows, organized and presented a hip-hop film festival, created and shot a dance film, sent three of its members to Brazil to study with the Folkloric Dance Company of Bahía, and taught hip-hop and breakdancing classes to young people.
Their latest assignment is to inspire young people to talk about tricky issues like racism and discrimination. On Oct. 16, the now eight-member troupe will open the YWCA's "It's Time to Talk" Youth Forum on Racism with a dance choreographed especially for the event. They will join Funkamentals, a Tucson-based hip-hop music duo that raps on the merits of staying in school, to address issues of identity, race and ethnicity.
The forum, now in its third year, draws more than 500 middle and high school students throughout Pima County gather to dialogue about racism, prejudice and diversity, says Lisa Winton, YWCA's manager of events and communication. Throughout the day, the students work together to create action plans to work on eliminating racism from their schools and communities.
There may be no better genre than hip-hop music and dance to motivate young people and to communicate important messages to them. "We need to be able to talk about racism to youth in their own language," says Smith. "That's what hip-hop is, their own language."
Though the form traces its roots to African-American and Puerto Rican neighborhoods of the South Bronx, it has spread across the globe to become a language of youth culture almost everywhere, says Smith. "(Hip-hop dance) has become a universal style of movement. I think that's why it's so useful."
The Human Project's repertoire draws from hip-hop, breakdancing, salsa and capoeira, as well as more traditional forms such as modern, jazz, ballet and African dance.
While each dancer specializes in different forms and styles, "there's no discrimination," says Rafael Moreno, 19, one of the Human Project's founding dancers. "It's all dance; it's all body movement; it's all what you're feeling inside and pouring it out through movement."
It's that feeling, its members say, that can help rouse young audiences to take a more active part in their communities or in their own lives.
"We're committing our bodies and our time and our mind to seriously work on a craft," says Carly Goodner, 21, one of the company's founding members. "I think that says to young people out there that there's another option, you know, 'I can do this.'"
When 19-year-old breakdancer Charlie Luna, a graduate of Sunnyside High School, joined the company seven months ago, he had his first encounter with choreography.
"I'd been dancing for six or seven years, but it was all on my own with my friends, just practicing everyday wherever we could find a place to dance--you know, a floor, some music, at my house, at school, a gym."
Luna says the youth of the company's dancers--ages range from 17 to 25--helps them communicate with young audiences. "When you're young, you want to look to friends for advice, because the adults are harder to relate to. So (other young people) look at us and see that we're their age, and they can be more open-minded to us."
While their youth may be an asset, the dancers' individual identities make the company something of a poster child for diversity. They represent Mexican-American, African-American, Asian-American, Native-American, Puerto Rican and Anglo cultures.
"Children of the Nebula," the dance Smith created to kick off the day-long discussion on racism, tells the story of three aliens visiting Earth. Distinguished by their "other worldly" movements, they don't easily blend in with the humans, "who want them to look like us, act like us and move like us," says Smith. Each "alien" deals with the discrimination in different ways: one tries to conform, another fights against assimilation and another loses his identity without realizing it.
The piece came out of Smith's own feelings of separation as an African-American male living in a city with a predominantly white and Latino demographic. Originally from Philadelphia, Smith moved to Tucson to earn a BFA in dance at the UA. "There have been lots of times when I just felt like I didn't belong, in particular crowds or in certain situations where I act and react differently. Sometimes I'd say, 'Ack, I can't be from this world. I don't understand humans.'"
Though somewhat of a "thinky piece," Smith says the costuming and the music, an original score by Funkamentals, give the dance a lighter, science-fiction feel.
Over all, it sounds like "Children of the Nebula" will speak to the kind of alienation many adolescents, regardless of their race or ethnicity, often feel. And at the end of the day, it's likely that the Human Project will have done what artists everywhere do--interpret what it means to be human, only done in a language most young people can understand.