On the 50th anniversary of hip-hop, we step into a West Kootenay city that could be breaking records for the number of dance studios in a small community. Grab your ghetto blaster, Mom. It’s time to krump. By Jayme Moye. Photos by Louis Bockner.

It’s a blue-sky summer afternoon at Kootenay Co-op Radio’s annual community block party in Nelson, British Columbia’s Lions Park. The irresistible pulse of hip-hop music and a high-energy performance by local dancers lure a crowd to gather at the outdoor stage. Slava Doval, the founder of DanceFusion, a local studio, jumps onstage and teaches the crowd a couple of basic moves—how to bounce and rock. Suddenly, hundreds of residents are throwing their hands in the air and, as OutKast has been singing since 1996, waving ’em like they just don’t care. A spontaneous dance party breaks out. The crowd forms an open circle, or cypher, where people take turns dancing in the centre, throwing down their hottest street-style dance moves.

Above: Dance instructor Slava Doval powers up a workshop at the Kootenay Co-op Radio Block Party, Lions Park, Nelson, BC, June 2023. Photo: Colin Burwell. Top: Cindy Spratt jumps up to get down at the DanceFusion Showcase, Capitol Theatre, Nelson, BC, April 2023. Photo: Louis Bockner.

If you’d stepped back for just a moment to admire the scene, as I did, you may have wondered, how do they know how to move like that? This isn’t Vancouver or even Kelowna. In fact, the closest large urban centre is three hours south in Spokane, Washington. How did residents of this small mountain town of 10,000 get so adept at hip-hop? It turns out, there are a whopping nine dance schools in the city, not to mention a variety of gyms and fitness studios offering dance-inspired cardio classes like Zumba. That’s more than any town in the Kootenays. Dance studios outnumber outdoor gear shops in Nelson. Here’s a fun fact for your next dinner party: your kid can choose from nine different dance schools but only one orthodontist office.

Long-time locals attest that dance is deeply woven into Nelson’s social and cultural fabric. “There’s always been a dance scene here,” says Danielle Gibson, an instructor at Dance Umbrella, Nelson’s oldest dance studio, which opened in 1997. “Growing up, I danced, even before Dance Umbrella started. I did modern and contemporary with a woman here in town. And there were contact improvisation dance workshops and raves and all kinds of dance going on.”

One of many kids performances at the April 2023 DanceFusion Showcase, Capitol Theatre, Nelson, BC. Photo: Louis Bockner

Nelson sees an influx of electronic dance music aficionados every summer during the four-day-long Shambhala Music Festival, which has been held along the Salmo River and now in its 25th year. But Nelson holds space for a dizzying variety of dance, with performances and instruction in everything from burlesque to salsa to the cultural dances of India. Once a week, residents gather at DanceFusion’s studio for JusDance, a jam session where, unlike a club, participants don’t drink alcohol, stand and watch, or even speak. They just dance. In the summertime, Dance Mission, also known as Dance Church, organizes an ecstatic dance (a type of freeform dance) session at Lakeside Park at least once a month. Latin dance socials abound. Even if you don’t dance, you can’t help but encounter it—not only at regular venues like summer festivals but also in unexpected places, like an intermission performance during the Nelson Boxing & Athletic Club’s most recent Fight Night.

Hip-hop is a newcomer, relatively speaking, to dance instruction in Nelson and the world in general. The infectious street-dance style started in the 1970s in the Bronx borough of New York City, in Black and Latino communities. It began crossing over into mainstream culture in the mid-1980s and exploded in popularity in the 1990s. These days, it’s offered alongside ballet, jazz, contemporary, and lyrical at nearly every dance school.

Opportunities abound to get your groove on outside of the studios in Nelson, BC. For example, Dance Church (above) is a regular event in which community members are invited to pay homage to movement in whatever form they choose. The weekly JusDance event is a barefoot, speechless, alcohol- and substance-free evening of freeform expression, and Contact Improvisation Dance (top) has dancers moving on and around one another. You can also shimmy up to more traditional dance classes, including swing, samba, and tango.

HIP-HIP HAS ALWAYS BEEN POPULAR WITH YOUTH, but according to Doval, it’s not only the kids driving Nelson’s hip-hop craze—it’s also their parents. Her studio started offering an adult hip-hop dance class in 2018. By 2022, the class had grown to 19 participants. In 2023, the number skyrocketed to 54 and counting. “All my classes are expanding, but that’s the one where we can barely keep up,” Doval says. For fall 2023, DanceFusion upped its offering to four adult hip-hop/street-style dance classes per week.

Similarly, when MJ Armstrong opened Intuit Movement Studio in Nelson in 2021, she offered two adult street-style dance classes per week: hip-hop and a sexier version she calls SASS. In two years, demand tripled. “It’s the most popular part of my business,” Armstrong says. At the same time, Jennifyre Saje, the founder of Trillium School of Dance, which turns 17 this year, is not only teaching “hip-hop Afro-fusion with cyphering, grooving, voguing, waacking, and freestyle” at her studio in Nelson but also in the outlying rural communities of Winlaw and Crescent Valley. “Hip-hop dance has a distinct power,” Saje says. “It brings a certain force with it that people are just really appreciating right now.”

Even dads rock in the DanceFusion Showcase, Nelson, BC, April 2023. Photo: Louis Bockner

One of those people is Kirsty Holt, the owner of Kootenai Pilates Centre and co-owner of the Sacred Ride, a mountain bike, ski, and snowboard shop. Her 14-year-old daughter dances competitively with the Nelson School of Dance. Holt herself has no dance background, but she spent years watching various styles at her daughter’s competitions. Hip-hop was her favourite. “My background is in competitive basketball, and so the athleticism of hip-hop just really appealed to me,” Holt says. “You see it, and you’re like, ‘I want to do that!’”

Holt signed up for a class at DanceFusion in 2022 and got hooked. She says she loves the music, a throwback to earlier years when her teammates blared Run DMC, MC Hammer, and Salt-N-Pepa on the basketball court during warm-up. “It’s also really good for my brain—learning and memorizing choreography is really challenging,” she says.

Doval, Holt’s teacher, regularly travels to big cities, including Vancouver, Calgary, and New York City, to keep her hip-hop instruction fresh and authentic. She says the music is a big part of the draw for adults. Part of it is nostalgia—today’s middle-aged people were solidifying their musical tastes in the 1990s, which is considered the golden age of hip-hop. Another part is that the music is just so damn good. “It makes people want to move their bodies,” Doval says. She also cites hip-hop’s ubiquity. “I call it the global dance because it’s in every country,” she explains. “You can go anywhere, and someone knows how to do hip-hop.” Plus, it’s accessible. Everyone can bounce and rock, which are the foundations of the dance technique.

Samantha Jade Miranda, who teaches hip-hop classes for youth at Doval’s studio, moved to Nelson from Toronto in 2019. “I know hip-hop dance, for me, is so healing,” she says. “And I know also, from the hip-hop culture, from the Black American culture, that it comes out of oppression and [is] a release and a transformation of that. It’s very freeing.”

Miranda hopes to continue to grow the hip-hop scene in Nelson by hosting regular “Fam Jam” sessions at DanceFusion, where people of all ages and abilities can come together and dance informally to hip-hop, reggae, and house music, much the way she learned growing up in a big city. Demand is there: tickets to attend the prototype she held this past summer were completely sold out.

It was in this spirit that I somehow found myself, at age 47, performing hip-hop on stage in Nelson’s largest theatre in 2023. I had injured a tendon in my forearm while bouldering at the local climbing gym and needed a replacement form of indoor fitness to supplement my winter skiing. I joined an adult hip-hop class at DanceFusion, alongside Holt and a bevy of others, including a physiotherapist, a medical radiation technologist, a local politician, a boutique owner, a restaurant server, and a dean at Selkirk College. When it came time to volunteer to be part of DanceFusion’s annual spring performance at the Capitol Theatre, everyone else was doing it, so I thought, why not?

In Nelson, your kid can choose from nine different dance schools but only one orthodontist office.

For nearly all of us, it was our first time dancing in front of an audience. But for all our jitters, the crowd loved us, screaming its approval as two dozen “hip-hop moms” threw down moves like the Bart Simpson and the Gucci. As part of the show’s finale, nearly 30 middle-aged men took to the stage and performed a choreographed routine to the Beastie Boys’ 1986 hit “(You’ve Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party).”

“It’s the first time I’ve ever had this many adults wanting to perform,” says Doval. “That stigma about dance—that if you hadn’t done it when you were young, then it’s too late to do it as an adult—seems to have vanished.” She also points out that getting through a global pandemic has heavily influenced people’s decisions about how they want to spend their time. “People are prioritizing connection and community,” she says. “And hip-hop dance gets you straight to the core of that.”

Since writing this article, Jayme Moye’s forearm has healed and she can rock climb again; however, she’s decided to continue hip-hop dance class.