Sporting track pants and a baseball shirt that read “Attabomb,” Alan Mure practiced his popping and locking in front of the floor-to-ceiling mirror at Straightline Dance Studio in northeast Minneapolis.
“You go, boom, pop, boom boom, pop!” said choreographer Herb Johnson, contorting his body into a sharp jerk, then unspooling into a loose roll. A couple of feet away, Jaime Ramberg and Kylie Redding executed perfectly coordinated ballet pirouettes.
It wasn’t, as it first appeared, some sort of dance-off between Old World Euro-tradition and B-boy street. All four belong to Shapeshift, a 17-member collective that laces its hip-hop base moves with other dance styles. The troupe was in mid-rehearsal for its debut this weekend as a Cowles Center headliner.
Not yet two years old, Shapeshift is a young company in another way as well. Members range in age from 16 to 28, with a few in braces. Some, such as Ramberg, have classical training, but prefer dancing with Shapeshift because “it’s more freeing; there’s more room to be yourself rather than following specific technical rules,” she said.
Others, such as 18-year-old Nic Baier, a recent graduate of the St. Paul Conservatory for Performing Artists, live for hip-hop.
“My whole life revolves around it, since I was 7,” he said. “Back in the day, people put a negative vibe on it, associating it with fighting. But this is what you do instead of fight. Dance.”
Johnson, a 2009 graduate of Perpich Arts High School, does choreography for the dancers in the Timberwolves halftime show. He co-founded the collective with Ashley Selmer, who earned a degree in dance from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2010, where she trained in jazz, contemporary, ballet, hip-hop and African. Both recently shot a video with Prince’s band 3rdEyeGirl.
The two have created dances to tracks including “Blue Sky” by Common and “It Takes Two” by Rob Base & DJ EZ Rock, but also incorporate other types of bands, such as electro-pop Clean Bandit, into their Shapeshift shows.
“They’re a new generation who come from different backgrounds and training, joining together to create a movement style all their own,” said Michèle Steinwald, community engagement consultant for the Cowles Center. “Their youthfulness is infectious and filled with optimism.”
Shapeshift’s two youngest members, 16-year-old twin sisters Iman and Khadijah Siferllah-Griffin, are sophomores at Southwest High School in Minneapolis.
They’ve been performing since they were 8, imitating the moves they saw in movies such as “Breakin’ ” and “Beat Street,” and have won a prestigious Sage Award, named for dance philanthropist Sage Cowles.
A piece they danced in called “We’re Muslim Don’t Panic” so impressed hip-hop star Brother Ali that he invited them to L.A. to dance in one of his music videos.
Sounds like these two could have their pick of fledgling dance companies to hitch up with. Why Shapeshift?
“Because it really gets us out there in the hip-hop world,” Iman said. “No one here is selfish; everybody supports each other.”
The pair wear hijabs that cover their hair while dancing, which surprises people who think dancing is forbidden for Muslims.
“We consider it their sport,” said their mother, LaKisha Hollmon-Griffin, who used to teach dance at the YWCA. “And their dancing also has a message.”
The twins plan to keep up with their sport of choice in college.
“I’ll be studying dancing and dentistry,” Khadijah said.
“For me it’s dancing and science,” Iman said.
Awakening that old feeling
Shapeshift’s performance this weekend is titled “XI:XI The Awakening,” a more finely developed version of a show the troupe premiered at the Lab last year.
“We could have called it ‘Eleven-Eleven,’ but this looks and sounds better,” Selmer joked.
The show tells stories, through movement and music, on a wide range of modern social issues from chemical dependency to discrimination to, of course, the highs and lows of love.
Most important, Johnson said, he and Selmer want to convey the old-school feeling of unity conveyed by the original hip-hop scenes of the early 1970s, when the break dancers of the East Coast and the poppers and lockers on the West Coast had no formal training but plenty of rhythm and groove.
“Back then the dancers would throw block parties and DJs would set up right on the street in the ’hood,” Johnson said. “We want to get it back to that feeling.”
“And take the audience there with us,” Selmer said. ”You can express such a wide range of emotions through hip-hop.”