St. Paul dancer Jason Noer takes hip-hop from the streets to the ivory tower

AT FOUNDATION NIGHTCLUB in downtown Minneapolis late on a Wednesday night, a paper sign taped to a pillar reads, “break dance at your own risk.” Under a glimmering disco ball, individuals from three-person teams take turns competing on the dance floor: rocking, spinning, and scrambling across the floor in time to the beat. They kick their legs like mixing beaters and twist their bodies like gymnasts, an impossible game of human jacks. ¶ This is Unity Battle 6, a competitive dance-off, or, as it’s known in hip-hop culture, a “battle.” At first glance, the dancers, called “breakers,” or “b-boys” and “b-girls,” look like typical young urbanites riding city buses or hanging out at malls. But there are a few telltale clues: compact, muscular frames; clothes you can move in—tight jeans aren’t tight, yo—and a bit of fashion flair, such as the “Rhythm Queenz” trucker caps worn sideways by the lone female group, or “crew.”

During a pause in the competition, a guy dubbed Dancin’ Dave does the boogaloo, wiggling his body like a smooth wave of putty, casually chewing a toothpick through the entire routine. As a beatboxing/rap duo performs, Los Boogie, a bantam-weight b-boy whose slight build may have gotten him teased on the playground, supports his entire body vertically on one hand—and proceeds to do a few pushups. Then it’s back to the superfast footwork, windmills, and headspins that make a NBA dunk look like, frankly, a yawner.

Massive speakers pump beats big enough to create a small breeze as Jason Noer, one of the battle judges, stands near the deejay and surveys the scene. With his stubble-length haircut, oversized jacket, and dark knit cap, 30-year-old Noer blends easily with the younger crowd. But when the emcee introduces the “b-boy elder,” everyone applauds. Whether they call him J-Rock, J-Sun, or—as when Noer was mentioned to some North Side hip-hoppers, “you mean ‘Jason Abomination’?”—they know him as an ambassador of hip-hop who is helping spread urban dance from the streets to the stage, solidifying its place in Minnesota’s dance culture.

Breaking, or, as it’s come to be known, break dancing, is one of the four elements of hip-hop culture, which includes rapping, deejaying, and graffiti art. It grew out of the frenetic dance styles of the late ’60s, including the legendary steps of Sammy Davis Jr. and James Brown, and it is named after the break in a song when dancers, like the drummer, can improvise and get down. Breaking crews—groups of dancers who practiced together and competed against others—formed among youth in the South Bronx in the ’70s; gangs would dance-battle instead of physically fight, using body language in lieu of trash-talk. By 1981, the Rock Steady Crew had been dubbed “the foremost break dancing group” by the New York Times and had performed with the Lincoln Center Outdoors Program. Breaking was going mainstream.

Noer, then just a kid living in St. Paul, wouldn’t start dancing until junior high, after his family moved to northern California’s East Bay—where street dance carried the same status as sports. Noer returned to Minnesota for his junior year of high school, and, while living in Burnsville, formed a breaking crew called the Battlecats and joined the Rhymesayers Collective, a loose group of hip-hop deejays, rappers, and graffiti artists. At 21, Noer headed back to California to attend Orange Coast College in Long Beach and to break with the respected West Coast Rockers crew. In school—as the only male in the dance program—he learned a variety of classical forms, including modern, ballet, tap, African, and Indian, in addition to choreography. Meanwhile, he “battled” his way around the country, incorporating these influences into his dance style.

Noer with Elijah at the Stone Arch
Festival of the Arts

In 2002, Noer once again returned to Minnesota, to be near his son. (Yes, Elijah, now 7, breaks with his father.) This time, Noer found himself on the top of the heap, a confident “b-boy elder,” and the oldest competing breaker in town. (In terms of rocking, he says, “I’m not going to say I’m the best around here, but nobody will battle rock me.”) And now his training placed him in the unique position of being able to bring street dance into local schools and theaters. “I’m the closest to the actual culture that there is in the Twin Cities as far as choreographers,” Noer says. “That’s not to say other people don’t have as much credibility, but I still compete—and you can’t get any closer to it than that.” For the last few years, Noer has been a part of a crew known as the Faculty, whose members perform and compete as well as conduct educational workshops and residencies. He teaches hip-hop and breaking at local dance studios, such as Zenon and Ballareteatro, and, this fall he joined the University of Minnesota’s dance department as an affiliate faculty member to help teach “Exploring Hip-Hop,” the U’s first-ever semester-long hip-hop course. The class reached registration capacity within a few hours.

Once the exclusive practice of kids in New York’s African-American and Latino neighborhoods, hip-hop has transcended race and class to become what U of M dance department head Carl Flink dubs “truly an international phenomenon.” Hip-hop’s playing field is as level as the breaking floor: there’s no need for expensive hockey equipment or sleep-away ski camp. “It’s been an amazing dance that has moved through cultural and language barriers,” Flink says, describing how, locally, it has put upper-middle-class kids from the suburbs in contact with inner-city kids. “That kind of fusion effect that hip-hop has is one of its most important qualities,” he notes. Noer sees this diversity in his classes, instructing children as young as 5 and those old enough to be their grandmothers. One of his students has a wooden leg, another, only one hand.

At Noer’s Tuesday night class at Ballareteatro in south Minneapolis, three teenage girls sporting pony tails and Converse high-tops practice their six-step—a push-up-cum-360-degree scuttle. The girls are panting when they finish. “It takes a lot of energy to do footwork,” Noer says sympathetically.

A five-foot-three-inch corkscrew of muscle, Noer demonstrates another move and calls out more instructions, indecipherable to the lay visitor, but understandable to the girls: “You’re going to do a swipe, but your hands go into baby position.” There’s plenty of hip-hop curriculum—and lingo—to master: rocking (steps based on a vertical, back-and-forth motion), popping and locking (tensing and releasing groups of muscles, as with the Robot and Moonwalk dances), breaking (moves on the floor), and boogaloo (sexy and loose, lots of rolling hips and shoulders).

Noer uses these styles as his base but layers his own choreography with abstract movement. His experimental attitude seems reflected in the evening’s choice of music: while one track sounds like gangsta rap, another could be Miami Vice background music, and a third has hints of Cab Calloway. The girls are quick to learn, but their thudding footsteps betray their beginner status, compared to Noer’s fluid, marionette-like hops. “I don’t want to hear you falling,” he says, stomping his foot on the ground to demonstrate.

“Stay light, stay on the balls of your feet.”

Finding a place for hip-hop in mainstream dance has certainly kept Noer on his toes. For all his success, including a commission from the Walker Art Center, he has encountered his share of resistance. While classical dancers build their resumés with the names of prominent venues, breakers have no equivalent Kennedy Center, and must demonstrate credibility through battles or by dancing with other respected practitioners. What would the names Mr. Wiggles and Skeeter Rabbit—two legendary breakers Noer has studied with—mean to local arts boards reviewing grant applications, anyway?

But Noer says he is patient—and confident in the credibility of his art. “Whatever dance form anybody else is in, they don’t want to bring it against breaking,” he says. “It has the most virtuosity of any other dance form: the big moves, the quickness. You have to be a good dancer on top, you have to be able to dance on the bottom. You have to be able to handle yourself in the air, and standing, and on the floor.” Flink agrees, calling hip-hop and breaking “equal in beauty and power to ballet, modern, and jazz, and any other form you can think of.” He says he would like to include them in the department’s proposed MFA dance program.

Bringing these dances into an academic context promotes the study of hip-hop’s rich history, which both Noer and Flink see as integral to the art form. Flink compares these American street dances to the Afro-Brazilian slave dance called capoeira and Negro spirituals, which helped to uplift oneself and rebel against the powers that be. “There really is a social criticism function in dealing with feelings of being downtrodden and exploited,” he says. “It’s a way of finding something positive in your life.”

Institutionalizing hip-hop, Flink notes, has its risks: it could lose its rebellious edge and become stunted, or stilted. Yet it’s a chance worth taking, Flink believes, as bringing the dance into academia allows students to go deeper into the art, learning the movement alongside the philosophy. Noer, who hopes to one day become a professor of hip-hop culture, dance theory, and history, defines the tradition as “a blueprint for self-improvement.”

“You get a lot of confidence and respect and discipline,” he says. “It teaches all the important things in life.” And Noer hopes the future brings even more institutional support from schools, theaters, dance troupes, and arts organizations. “Hip-hop is only 30 years old,” he says. “If you really want to get into what’s new and what’s fresh, then you really gotta start supporting hip-hop.”

Rachel Hutton is associate editor of Minnesota Monthly.