This article aims to offer the reader the following:
Urban Movement Arts is deeply devoted to house dance education. This stems from the impact that house dance and house music culture has had on my life. My interest in house music began when I was in high school, stemming from prior interest in freestyle music and trance. Around the age of 14, I had the privilege of early exposures to dancers like Ron Wood and other OG Philly house heads. By age 18, I was able to more deeply immerse myself with Philly’s community, most of whom were 5-20 years older than me. It was through Philly’s house community that I became hip to New York pioneers. Although Philly had a bedrock of amazing dancers with a unique voice, I soon recognized that many folks turned to New York as an authority on the dance. From my current vantage point, after having a bit more life under my belt, I’ve developed more clarity and confidence for the perspective of history that I am interested in emphasizing. More and more, my goal is to shine the light on Philly’s contribution and to imagine fruitful possibilities for Philly’s future.
The bedrock of this article is its celebration of regionality in vernacular forms, distinguishing between that which has emerged as an industry standard opposed to the nuanced and more personal features of a particular region. It is my hope that this article will catalyze my effort and capacity to provide growing access to Philly’s story. As a proud native of this city, I find increasing urgency to champion this great city’s cultural significance.
This article aims to identify the global standard of house that stems from the New York pioneers, while giving the utmost respect and celebration of Philly and South Jersey. The beauty of many Black Vernacular forms ranging from Jazz to House is that although birthing places can be traced for all if not most, they quickly migrated through the country to other cities. Early on migration had to do with the movement of people. Now ideas move at light speed across social media networks. When considering Jazz, it is commonly held that New Orleans is where the music was born. It then migrated to New York where it took on the aesthetic that we commonly associate with it. Similarly house music was born in Chicago and then migrated to the East Coast. New York is a juggernaut in how the city has the ability to capture a social phenomenon and then export globally. New York’s market power as it relates to many American made cultural forms is what has made so many of them ubiquitous around the world. In the case of house culture, Philly and South Jersey have a significant story in house dance history too. I hope to share a brief perspective on Philly’s uniqueness, naming my influences and qualities that distinguished Philly dancers from NY. The end goal is to make a statement that celebrates the New York trailblazers while celebrating Philly’s distinctive qualities and encouraging continued exploration and inventiveness.
Praise and Acknowledgement of New York Pioneers:
The way that we understand house dance globally stems from the trailblazing work of New York pioneers. They have codified the dance. Their work is immensely important for the rightful establishment of Black America as the origin of house music and culture, acknowledging the communal resourcefulness and genius of Black American people. The O.G.s of what is commonly referred to as Street Dance can be seen as doing better than some of their predecessors in protecting their collective I.P. Their success is likely hugely due to advances in U.S. race relations, opposed to certain groups of their Black vernacular predecessors like the inventors of Jazz dance and Blues Music who were not honored for their inventiveness and cultural innovation at the time when they were most active due to an overwhelming presence of racism. Still, around the world, for some there remains some ambiguity around house and techno music originating in Black communities in America. Fortunately, the hip hop and house dance O.G.s of New York have succeeded in making sure that anyone that does their dances in Asia or Europe or anywhere else knows who made them and where they come from. The great fortune in this case is that the same story of Frankie Manning, a pioneering Lindy Hopper, who had a significant length of time when he was essentially forgotten globally, but eventually brought out of a career as a postman by eager Scandinavians hungry for Black American authenticity, hasn’t been the case for Mop Tops and Dance Fusion members. They’ve held claim to house dance from the jump, codifying the form for all of us to follow. This is a victory for American Black people.
At UMA, we honor the New York trail blazer’s importance by teaching their language and celebrating their history.
Many of these amazing contributors to the canon are alive and well. Hop on the Mega Bus and go take class with them and club with them.
Here are a few that you should consider looking up (this list does not have a particular order and it certainly excludes other critical contributors. So it is important to go meet these folk in New York and hear stories from them directly. Also these individuals could be defined by their being classified as Mop Top/Elite Force and Dance Fusion. I will leave it up to you to look into who belongs to what):
Majory Smarth (R.I.P)
Shannon Whichway Sha
Voodoo Ray (R.I.P)
Brooklyn Terry (who lived in Philly for a period of time while performing in Rennie Harris’ Facing Mekka. Young Boul Philly cats, like myself, would see him at the gathering at the Rotunda. Philly certainly did not capitalize on the opportunity to grow with him when there was the chance for many in my generation. But a general theme in this article is that Philly has its own way and marches by the beat of its own drum, which I find beautiful.)
Jazeartremote (a dope dancer, but mostly known for his work as a DJ. He was a major influence on how I listen and reflect on the dance.)
I’ve had direct interaction with a handful of the people above. But overall, all of these individuals were a part of the lore that fed my development within this vernacular form.
Lifting Up Philadelphia
How I learned New York’s Language From Philly:
Now looking back on more than 20 years of study of the dance and music, I am at a position where I can’t help but consider how I could have done more to study Philly’s unique language. In fact, I’ll go as far as saying that there was pressure by key Philly leaders to measure ourselves in the shadows of New York’s, not necessarily acknowledging that there is a special Philly thing that should be elevated into the canon. Currently, as an educator and sharer of my perspective in lieu of the dominant stories, shining a light on Philly’s significance is increasingly important.
There are two individuals that are incredibly important mentors to my generation of Philly community dancers, namely in preserving and prioritizing vernacular codification across multiple Black American dance forms. This is Clyde Evans and Moncell Durden. If it weren’t for these Philadelphia mentors to predominantly young Black men and women, Philly would not have the overwhelming presence of native Philly and South Philly Black Millennials that are essentially historians of contemporary Black American vernacular dance. Clyde Evans is still local and folks should seek him out. Moncell has a ton of info online.
The more prevalent figure in my life is Moncell. Moncell embraced me with compassion and love when I knew nothing and was very bad (not to claim that I have arrived at being good now). Moncell had a number of mentees that included Kyle, Dinita, Courtney, Tyger-B, the Hoodlockers and more. I was one of the worst of the bunch, but he still poured a tremendous amount of care, encouragement and investment into me as a dancer, artist and professional. I owe a tremendous amount to him. My relationship with Moncell was very much one that can be characterized by oral transmission, which is a staple in how tradition is passed down in vernacular practices. Moncell didn’t technically break down moves for me. Instead, he gave me exposure to wisdom, stories and information. He also gave me exposure to the pioneers of New York. He gave me and many of his other mentees a pathway for community and camaraderie.
Moncell is MopTop/Elite Force family, so linked very closely with the New York pioneers. These dancers influenced him greatly, as his development as a house head from Harrisburg, PA was informed by his frequenting NY to party and build communally. He championed the New York dancers and as an invested mentee, naturally so did I. I am forever grateful for the path that Moncell set me on. It provided me with a knowledge set and perspective that I wouldn’t have otherwise accessed. My prioritization of Black American vernacular dance scholarship is a direct result of Moncell Durden. And given my current mindset and general constitution, my early teens and early 20s were the ideal time for this sort of focus. Although, I wish my attentiveness to Philly’s unique language and contribution were more pronounced, I am not sure whether I would have known how to maximize use of such perspective back then.
Philly has always been a dance city, dating back to the days of hoofers. In fact, reaching back to the early nineteen hundreds, Philly can easily be argued as being at the forefront of dances like hoofing. So this is to say that Philly has a long tradition of having a local dance industry. There are many dancers that came up in the late 80s and 90s in Philly that were very much steeped in house and electronic music culture. Many of these dancers have had prolific careers. They were not in the global business epicenter of New York, nevertheless, these O.G.s have had very impressive careers. Most have not become the global ambassadors of street dance culture like the N.Y. pioneers. However, I can’t think of any other city in America in the early to mid 90s, aside from New York, that has given rise to the same quantity of dance professionals steeped in house culture as Philly.
I often observe that Philly dancers have typically resisted adherence and strict observation of tradition and standards of many of the foundational Black Vernacular dances, ranging from popping, breaking to house. Philly cats do things with Philly grime and rawness. The grit and irreverence of Philly Black dance should be celebrated. Many of my house head O.G.s danced house their way. From my vantage point, my O.G.s as well as cats from my generation have typically become more adherent to standards imposed by O.G. West Coast Funk Headz or O.G. NY House or Hip Hop headz when there is a pursuit to assimilate into their industries.
It can’t go without saying that Rennie Harris is a predominant force who has influenced how Philly vernacular dance communities have a way of straddling foundational standards and more regional grit and irreverence. Rennie’s personal language as a vernacular dancer has always had this tension between Philly-ness and the mainstream. In many circumstances, I’ve witnessed Rennie’s work lean towards service of the West Coast and New York pioneers. However, I believe the world would benefit from more Scanner Boy and GQ knowledge, because it has had enough exposure to New York and California’’s contribution in the 70s, 80s and 90s.
Most of the O.G. Philly house headz that I grew up watching danced differently than the New Yorkers. It wasn’t and isn’t wrong. It is just Philly.
Ron Wood, an important bedrock figure in Philly House Dance:
Above, I gave a shout to the mentor that influenced my more scholarly approach to the vernacular. However, my current spirit and presiding ethic around house dance is more closely related to Ron Wood. Ron epitomizes a Philly dancer that came up in the late 80s and early 90s. Ron represents a well articulated expression of Philly’s mix of punk, club and hip hop culture. It is all wrapped up in him. He is also a representation of a Philly hybridized dancer. For dancers like Ron, as well as many of his contemporaries that came up in Philly, there is a potent intersection of many styles and influences. In New York, a dancer is either Bboying, Hip Hop or House. The New York dancers make clean and delineated transitions from one form to another. Philly dancers are infamous for being everything at once, mutts so to speak. I now have the greatest love and appreciation for myself as a Philly mutt and my peers. Even in my generation, Philly dancers often come up against criticism over whether they are pristinely confirming to a particular style. In the past, Philly was known to have tickers or pop lockers. However, this terminology was aggressively phased out by “foundational” indoctrination. One may agree that a unique language and approach that was native to Philly was pushed to extinction as a result of an overriding standard from another more dominant region. One might argue that the ticking of my generation was more closely related to the language of Rennie Harris and Scanner Boys.
Returning to a figure like Ron Wood, he is a house head in and out. He embodies the music and club culture. However, he has done this on his own terms, remaining true to his voice and that which has stemmed from his community, a place that had a distinct cultural landscape from that of New York’s.
Ron is also a prime example of a Philly dancer that has had a prolific career, not necessarily as a global ambassador of a particular form. Nevertheless, he represents the impactfulness of Philly grown dancers.
From the standpoint of the global community, Ron as well as many Philly and South Jersey dancers are representative of a floor and groundwork vocabulary that is little known. In fact, many global dancers seek to insert the loft acrobatic stylings of someone like Ejoe into their dance, primarily modeling after him without a diverse source of references. Little do they know, there was a predominant Philly language of house dance that blent the water like flow associated with New York lofting with breaking, martial arts and gymnastics. Philly O.G.s like Ron Wood, James “Cricket” Colter and Brandon “Peace” Albright are examples of this Philly language. However, it has not been sown into the global language of house. Pound for pound or move for move, it would be very interesting to compare footage of Ron Wood to Ejoe Wilson when they were in their prime performance years. Both were incredible acrobatic dancers. Whereas Ejoe employed a more coy, flowing and laid back approach, Ron had a more intense attack. I’ll argue that Ron had more unique and sophisticated transitions between various ground move vocabulary as well as a robust array of transitions from up top to the floor, whereas Ejoe is known for his unique cadence and placement of explosive moves in synchronicity with the music. Both are giants. They never shared the same stage, but to my knowledge mutual respect is shared between the two. It’s just too bad that the global community has not been made more privy to Philly folk like Ron Wood.
Shouts to Philly Dancers:
There are countless individuals that have been on the scene that have made impact. I am going to do my best to name a few and possibly indicate my perspective on what they represent and their significant contribution. Like the NY list, there are going to be people that I miss.
Gen X and Older
**Not in any particular order
James “Cricket” Colter
Brandon “Peace” Albright
The above are all individuals that had close affiliation with Puremovement at some point in their careers. Some of these individuals were not full on house heads like Ron Wood and Cricket, but the language that developed from Rennie Harris Purement in pieces like Asphalt impacted the way that many dancers in my generation from Philly approach house dance.
Others from this older generation are:
All of Montazh Crew
Tori and Flo Motion Crew
Dave Austin (Jersey)
Conway Casey (Jersey)
Somewhere in between Gen X and Millenial
Bryant aka Diddy
Brandon Boog Harris
All of Versatile Crew
-Vince, Lou, Dre Toney and more
Face Da Phlave/ Hood Lockers
Ricky, Brice, Marcus, Dru, Kenny and more
Chosen Dance Family
John Bullock, Dave and others
Mark and Shanika Boston
Danzel, Christian, Julian Sophiann and D2D Crew/ Temple University Crew
Just Sole (Kyle and Dinta Clark)
Tribal, Sketch, Jazmin, Brittany, Marcus Branch and more
***Kyle and Dinita are two of the foremost ambassadors of house dance globally that work in Philly. They are important authorities on the New York codified language. Along with being critical community dancers, they’ve played an integral role in educating many of the dancers in Philly that have received institutional training from local Universities like Uarts and Temple. In many ways, they are carrying the baton of our mentor Moncell Durden.
Certainly the list above is not complete. There are many others that could be worked into such a list. Many of the millennials listed above may not consider themselves full blown house headz. And out of those that are not full blown house headz, you would never see them back off the floor when house tracks hit. They’d all kill it, some with more unique and special Philly-ness than others. There are many individuals listed above that come from an education lineage of Rennie,Clyde, Peace, Cricket, Ron and Moncell. Those particularly learning from Clyde and Moncell closely adhere to New York vocabulary. However, some that have learned from Peace might have more of a Philly twist on their approach and this is beautiful.
Many of the people listed above are still in Philly. Seek them out!
A Vision For UMA:
This document has given some speculation on why and how Philly’s unique house dance history and language has not been celebrated more prominently. The primary argument is that Philly is not the global market epicenter that New York is. There has also been a habit of essentially undermining elements and characteristics that were once uniquely Philly in service of the New York standard. This turning the cheek on Philly aesthetics makes sense when considering market relevancy. By speaking the language that is becoming more globally recognized, dancers are able to expand career possibilities. And there is no denying the fact that the collective engagement around house culture was vastly more intense in New York. The hours that night light is able to function is an incredible booster to the nightlight economy and cultures that arise from it. New York is the heart of house dance culture. For Black dances in America from 1970-1990 it was only ever going to be LA or New York at the helm. In the age of digital media, more players have entered the game. With this said, UMA is devoted to teaching the New York vernacular and acknowledging the trailblazing achievements of its pioneers.
The New York language presents a reliable way for newcomers to house dance and dance in general to learn. It is a way for folks to pay homage to the history while entering dance life more broadly. However, a sole alignment with New York aesthetics is only one direction. Where many ambassadors around the world will take an orthodoxical approach, I see scope for how my Philly-ness can inform an expansion of how house culture is nurtured in the humble illadelph, embarrassing a more heterodoxical way (as it always has been). For example, we are not like Western Europe, Asia or other regions of the world: Philly has had a Black centric community dancing to house music since shortly after its birth in Chicago. Furthermore, what is House Music without Disco? Some might argue that The Sound of Philadelphia is the seed of disco. The music and culture of Philly is a part of the tree that has given rise to house music. Philly has had its own house scene without the direct business based transactionalism that has led to the proliferation of the style to other parts of the world. And aside from dancing the codified dance language of New York, there is a growing presence of house and various electronic genres in Philadelphia. The scene is way more pronounced than its more underground status when I was coming up. Along with celebrating the achievements of New York, UMA aims to inspire people learning dance in Philly to continue to feed Philly’s unique regional identity.
The truth is that folks that come to a studio like UMA to learn the New York vernacular or people that learn through University are liken to most people that have learned Jazz music post bebops hay day. Once North Texas opened its halls to Jazz music programming, the age of learning solely on the bandstand in clubs like Peps or the Showboat in Philly was over. Street Dance’s assimilation into higher education along with the rise of Europe’s professional class of competition dancers are sure signs that the club and social events are not the primary fertile spots for Black American house vernacular. The dance no longer maintains a grassroot existence as it is etched into institutional canon and the market. This achievement is particularly significant given the fist hand involvement of the New York pioneers in shaping the standard, naming the moves and staking claim to the dance as coming from Black people in NY. But as house music, techno and electronic music evolve and become more widely listened to among the masses, should there be no more branches in the evolution of the house genus?.
In 2023, most of the off grid and grassroots house music gatherings in Philly are younger millennial and Gen Z anchored, mutli-racial, multi-ethnic and queer. The scene does not mirror the afrocentricity of that which I grew up in. In the end, the most interesting developments of house dance culture likely won’t be Making Time or some droning consortium of the modern day derivative of a Paul Oakenfold or Armin Van Buren fist pumper. In fact, with more dancers receiving technical and history based training in more spaces and with the limitless access to information via modern digital media and the stronger prevalence of social integration and multicultural exchange, the potential for the genesis of new forms is quite strong. Innovation and evolution can take place while traditions are celebrated and preserved.
While championing the legacy of New York house, UMA strongly encourages dancers to build and fertilize communities that only can come into existence as a result of Philly’s context. Philly’s OG time frame of the 90s and early 2000s in house was a time of heterodoxy. Present day has the ingredients in perpetuating a heterodoxical path. UMA encourages folks to embrace and celebrate traditions while remaining curious and explorative.
RHPM Performs Asphalt
Philly Legends Represented, including UMA's own Ron Wood. Although this piece focuses on "big" theatricality and physical feats, it nevertheless provides a glimpse into the vibe, energy, moves and people who danced in Philly clubs. (