Seven years ago, Joshua Sage Morales was dancing without an identity. And then he found Flexn. At a dance battle event in New York, Morales stumbled on a hybrid style of street dance defined by its liberty. It clicked.
“At the time I was dancing, but I didn’t have the concept of styles,” he says. “This style was so free and oriented around feeling and character that when I saw it, I thought I don’t need to learn a specific technique; I can just kind of do what I want. Be who I am.”
Now 24, Morales is the associate creative director for Flex Ave., a production of D.R.E.A.M. Ring Inc., a Brooklyn-based dance company that’s the brainchild of Reggie “Regg Roc” Gray, a pioneer of the art form. D.R.E.A.M. — Dance Rules Everything Around Me — Ring opens its Flex Ave. tour with a show at Acadiana Center for the Arts Thursday. The company is in residence this week, with workshops planned at Northside and Carencro high schools.
Flexn, rooted in Jamaican street dance styles that immigrated to Brooklyn, is an emerging dance language — pauzin, get-low, bone breaking and others. It was developed in the improvisations of house party dance competitions like the one that first captivated Morales. Gray hosted a number of those contests at his own house in Brooklyn, eventually putting the style on the map in 2009 when he brought it to MTV’s America’s Best Dance Crew.
Social media, YouTube in particular, spread Flexn internationally. Now it demands a place among more conventional performing arts, and it’s worked its way into the vocabularies of contemporary dance and opera.
Flexn is a frank and honest artform, its subjects the tragedies and tribulations common to neighborhoods in east New York City. Gun violence, poverty and police brutality are confronted directly in a mix of choreography and improvisation, personal narrative and scene-setting. In contrast with earlier D.R.E.A.M Ring productions, Flex Ave. explores the psyche of emotional distress alongside the typically more literal scenes from a life lived in Brooklyn. Emotional distress, Morales points out, is a universal human experience, regardless of the cause. Confronting it so directly builds immediate rapport with audiences. They don’t have to squint to understand the message, and that’s part of the catharsis between performer and viewer.
“The street art form was used as a healing mechanism,” says D.R.E.A.M. Ring company manager Abena Floyd, who came to Flexn with a background in contemporary African dance. “It was started by young black men, who were experiencing gangs, police brutality, sadness, anxiety. And they used the street dance form to express those things, instead of getting caught up in selling drugs and being part of a gang.”
The style can be jagged and contorted, even uncomfortable to watch. It’s supremely athletic and visceral. Joints pop and limbs bend in impossible angles. Dancers stretch their faces into exaggerated characters, often superhuman versions of themselves. That’s the freedom Morales discovered, the freedom to be a superhero of his own making.
Witnessing Flexn today is like watching the emergence of hip hop in the 1970s and 1980s. And D.R.E.A.M. Ring is at the vanguard of the movement. Gray himself invented pauzin, one of the major techniques that make up the language. Corey Gutta Batts, a company choreographer touring the Flex Ave. production, created the connecting technique.
Flexn’s popularity has opened career opportunities for a growing generation of young dancers learning outside of conventional dance academies. The company travels with choreographers, directors, dancers, lighting designers and other support staff. D.R.E.A.M. Ring’s road show typically involves outreach to local communities, showing students around the country that a career in the arts can be available to anyone.
“When we dance, we create a world,” Morales says. With each new production, D.R.E.A.M. Ring is making that world bigger and bigger.
D.R.E.A.M. Ring launches its Flex Ave. tour Thursday, Jan. 30, at Acadiana Center for the Arts. Tickets and info are available here.