Free your mind and the rest will follow; the words from EnVogue’s latest release played all day on the radio. Every time I got in the car to hunt up real estate listings, I heard that song.
I worked in an industrial building along an industrial highway in San Diego. I shared a warehouse with twelve men, eleven of them tall, weight trained football on Sunday guys, who ate at expensive restaurants amongst a club of commercial real estate agents, where they’d be noticed. They were pretty decent guys, except the partners who each had severe a case of ego malnutrition and competed for attention like two tottlers. Greg was the only short one in the bunch, and he wore a rug, manicured his nails, and surfed on the weekends. He was always talking about his Karate black belt, and how he knocked guys out. He rarely laughed and when he did he sounded like a chirping bird. Greg used to give me his wife’s unworn clothes and waited in my living room while I tried them on. It was sort of strange, but he never played the trump card and asked for anything in return.
One day in the summer of 1992 I called the office secretary.
“Gail, I’m not coming in for awhile. Will you forward my calls to my home?”
“Are you all-right?”
“Oh yea. I’m fine.”
“What should I tell Sam?”
“Tell him I’m on leave of absence.”
I lived in a little cottage house in North Park. It was all white with a picket fence and a squared grass yard where my dog played. The front room was small but the carpeting was new, so I could curl up on the rug and watch the clouds from the windows.
I threw my nylons and navy pumps in the garbage, and folded the business suits into boxes. I knew I wasn’t going back, but where I was headed was a throw of the dice.
Mornings I ran through Balboa Park before the crowds arrived, and got to see the zoo keepers feeding the animals, and the actors going into The Old Globe Theater. I filled my senses with virgin light and morning silence, unfamiliar sensations to office workers living with florescent lighting and partition walls. In the afternoon I lounged around in sweats watching music videos, reading magazines and dancing.
I watched some new music videos, maybe EnVogue or Bobby Brown, and tried to imitate the hip-hop moves on the carpet. It was like watching a cat in the snow. I called all the dance schools, and no one was teaching hip-hop. I didn’t know back then my mother was a dancer; so this impulsive and implausible scheme to start a dance troupe startled me as much as everyone I told.
The last lease deal I did was for a group of soccer players from Jamaica. They needed a space to open a reggae dance club. They told me they’d called other agents and no one would take their business. I found a disheveled warehouse and struck a deal for them. They fixed up the warehouse themselves, with colored lights, and some tables, but Rockers was really about the dancing. I walked into the club one night, and they were all doing their part; greeting customers, spinning vinyl, and serving drinks. I danced with Leroy, the leader of the group, and watched him unfold from the waist down. He danced so low to the floor, he appeared boneless.
“Leroy, I’m going to start a dance troupe. You guys inspired me.”
“What kind of dance?’
“Hip-Hop and jazz funk.”
Leroy covered his mouth with one hand and laughed.
“What’s so funny?”
“You’re a business woman; I didn’t know you was a dancer.”
“Well, I took lessons a long time ago.”
“No, Jazz. I’m going to find the dancers to teach. I know there out there.”
“Yea, they out there all right; lots of them.”
“Well see! I’d like to use your space, pay rent of course, when you’re not open.”
“Well that’s all right. You don’t need to pay me.”
I hugged him, and he shook his head. “I don’t think there’s much money in teaching hip-hop.” he said.
At the community college I posted a sign for dancers, and observed some classes. When I got the call from Piper, he asked me to come see him teach at the Church on University Avenue. I drove over one night, and found Piper in a little room upstairs, teaching Jazz Funk to one woman. He was tall and lanky with a smile that creased his whole jaw. He came over, shook my hand, and said, ‘How you doing? I’m Piper.’ He wore an immaculate shield of confidence that defied his nineteen years, and moved at the intersection of Michael Jackson and James Brown. The groove spiraled through his body.
“I’ll help you get it started; if you’re not a trained dancer you need help.”
So Piper and I met every week and finally landed on a group that incorporated Jazz-Funk, Hip-hop and Afro-Cuban. I named the company United Steps Dance Productions, and the Jammers were the hip-hop troupe.
I’ll never forget the look on the partner’s faces when I told them I was starting a multicultural dance troupe. They just stared at me blankly. Then within weeks all five of my unclosed lease deals were signed at the same time. I walked out with enough money to live six months. That was real security in my mind.
Piper and I held our first audition at Rockers. When I opened the doors that morning, dancers were already lined up outside. They came dressed in street clothes; wearing scarves, baseball caps, loose pants, and tank tops. I watched them leap, kick, split, and turn inside out for the job. I knew that I was in the right spot. One dancer walked out, stood still for a moment, and then leaped into a break-dance pop-lock routine that silenced the crowd. “Him Piper, definitely him.” He’s bad, yea he’s real bad.” At the end of the auditions, Piper mocked me.
“Lue, we can’t sign every dancer just cause they hip-hop. Anyone can do that.”
I can’t hip hop and it’s my company.”
“Yea, and you’re crazy. I swear, Lu you’re crazy.”
We agreed on pop-locker Vince-Master Jam, and Monique, a young Afro-Cuban dancer. That was the beginning.
When Vince and I met, he told me he lived in Escondido.
“But that’s an hour away.”
“It’s cool, I’ll be here. Just give me the chance.”
Vince showed up twice a week at night for his class. Many times, we sat in the cold damp club, listening to music and Vince tried to teach me to pop-lock. I apologized for not having students and he looked at me, and said, “ Don’t worry Lue, will get it going on.”
Our first performance was at the Red Lion Hotel. I hired a video tech to record the performance. We got a free dinner and a hundred dollars. We had a good crowd, and everyone loved them. Afterwards in the dining room, they were talking, laughing and elbowing each other. Piper was ranting about Monique taking too much time, and Vince was telling Piper to chill because Monique was so good. I sat there just listening, with a big smile on my face.
The Jammers belonged to the no smoking, no drinking, no drugs group. For the first few months, they taught on tiled floors under a leaky roof, without any heat. But they kept coming back to teach and their dedication moved me to find a better location. We relocated to a well-heeled Health Club downtown San Diego and the classes filled up with students, dancers, and office workers searching for a new lunch. They came from all different races; Asian, White, Hispanic and Black. I danced with the classes and promoted our troupe. The Jammers laughed at my attempt to be a soul sister, and I laughed with them. We were reviewed by KPBS magazine, and a photographer took pictures of us and featured us in the magazine.
Searching for gigs proved to be an exasperating struggle. I called department stores, festival producers, shopping centers, nightclubs, hotels and everyone had the same line, “I don’t think hip-hop is right for our clientele.”
When I ran out of money I took a job managing a condominium project, where I lived rent free. After a time of observing the Jammers self expression, I asked myself, what is mine? I still refused to get on stage. Vince used to bawl me out because I made Piper introduce the group.
After two years Piper moved to Los Angeles to launch his dancing career, and I let Vince take the troupe where he wanted it to go. He turned it around, adding twelve dancers and broke more ground in San Diego. Monique developed into a serious stage actress and we all lost touch. They were the sparklers in my life; like that star you think you’ll never hold. I left the Jammers a different woman. They put the rhythm back in my spirit and soul.
When I recently located Vincent on an Actors website, I called him right away. He is a missing link in the chain of my life. Without that adventure, I might still be imitating the kind of business woman I wasn’t. We met in Los Angeles, and watched Vince perform in a club. He kept his vision and now acts on television and video. “ Lue, now you have to find Piper.”
It was Piper, who said to me one day after reading some of my poetry, “ Lu, you’re not a dancer. You’re a writer.”
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