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'Flexn' dance style stretches limits of self-expression
Hari Sreenivasan: One of New York City's newest art centers -- The Shed -- is currently featuring a performance piece rooted in a unique type of dance called "Flexn." but to its creators and practitioners, Flexn is far more than simply a dance style.
NewsHour Weekend's Ivette Feliciano has our story.
Reggie Gray: Where you at? C'mon, ladies in the house! C'mon, ladies! Y'all ladies good? Where my ladies at?
Ivette Feliciano: Dancer and choreographer Reggie "Regg Roc" Gray's new show at The Shed--called "Maze", created with co-director Kaneza Schaal--is steeped in a dance style that gray helped develop in the 90s called "flexn". He says the name came from "Flex in Brooklyn"--a former public access show that he and his crew danced on.
Reggie Gray: We didn't even dub it Flexn, like the youth did. We would--we would go to Chi--Chinese restaurants. And they would be, like, "Hey, like, you guys--you the flexn guys." And we were like "What--what is that?" You know?
Ivette Feliciano: Flexn takes the full body twisting of the Jamaican dance style, "bruk up", and hones it into moves known as "pauzin", "gliding", and "bone-breaking". Gray says that these moves help dancers dramatize their own stories and surrounding issues of social justice. For example, one scene in "Maze" recreates the 2014 police shooting of Laquan McDonald in Chicago.
Vocalist: One officer begins shooting. He immediately sinks to the ground. And the video clearly shows I sink to the ground...
Reggie Gray: It's not just entertainment. It's more self-expression. And--I think that's where it kinda started to really get its--its form from.
Ivette Feliciano: As flexn became more mainstream--appearing in music videos, movies, and commercials--Gray and his dancers began touring the US and the world. They caught the attention of The Shed's artistic director, Alex Poots, who wanted to help increase gray's impact.
Alex Poots: Reggie hadn't really had a creative team around him before. He'd done it all on him--on his own pretty much. And so to me it seemed important to offer him that support.
Ivette Feliciano: The Shed--which just opened this year--commissioned Gray and his dancers to develop--not just a flexn performance--but a program called FlexNYC to bring the art form to more than five hundred New York City students in twenty schools and community centers. The students--mainly from underserved communities--range from five to nineteen and receive free classes from gray's dance troupe all school year long. Gray says the program gives kids a creative outlet.
Reggie Gray: When I go to some of the schools to check them out, they'll, you know, some of them be havin' a hard day. And then they'll go through, "Hey, I'm not havin' a good day, but can I dance this out real fast?" It's been part of their way to get through--the everyday struggles of just being a kid. You know?
Ivette Feliciano: Two of those kids are Emmanuel Hernandez, 16, and Ebony Sexius, 17, who attend Landmark High School in Manhattan.
Ebony Sexius: They will give us, like, fake homework to, like--build up the lesson for the following week. Like, "Oh, like--whatever happens around you during, like, the weekend, come back and tell us a story."
Ivette Feliciano: That's interesting that you call it fake homework. That sounds like homework--
Emmanuel Hernandez: That's real homework.
Ivette Feliciano: Is it 'cause it's more fun than regular--
Ebony & Emmanuel: Yeah.
Emmanuel Hernandez: When you go to class and they tell you, "Oh, go home and practice," it's, like, I'm already doin' that.
Ivette Feliciano: Ebony Sexius says that FlexNYC helped her discover unknown abilities.
Ebony Sexius: I'm not double-jointed at all. But my teacher, Jason, he stretched me so much that I'd be--I'm, like, able to bone-break now.
Ivette Feliciano: Go ahead and show me.
Ebony Sexius: All right. It's, like--
Ivette Feliciano: Oh wow!
Ebony Sexius: Yeah, it's like--
Emmanuel Hernandez: And did ya see that? I--I--no. No.
Ivette Feliciano: They also say the program helped them deal with difficult issues. Hernandez composed a dance about his parents' troubled relationship and Sexius composed one about the absence of some of her family members.
Ebony Sexius: I am a crybaby. But I honestly, like, never cried in front of my school before. So it's, like--
Emmanuel Hernandez: Yeah.
Ebony Sexius: I just started crying, like, before I even started dancing. 'Cause it's just, like, I f--like, my--the story behind it was, like, really strong.
Ivette Feliciano: The new performance at The Shed features audience participation and live music from vocalists and drummers. And in addition to Gray's regular dance troupe, two FlexNYC students have been asked to perform--Ebony Sexius and Emmanuel Hernandez.
Reggie Gray: Since we were already working in the schools, it was like, "Why not?" You know, why not just say, "Hey, guys, come on out. Let's have this experience."?
Kaneza Schaal: There are all these dancers who you've been working with since they were babies--
Reggie Gray: Yeah.
Kaneza Schaal: --who have now been ushered into the company. And there's a way that incorporating the young people felt like this natural flow from the broader practice that Reggie and the company has created.
Ivette Feliciano: Both Hernandez and Sexius say that flexn will always be a part of their lives--even after the show closes.
Emmanuel Hernandez: I've learned stuff about myself that I didn't know before. I've been able to connect with people that I've never known before. I've had a teacher that I never talked to come up to me and tell me, "Oh my God, that solo that you did was amazing." So I feel like I'll always dance to have those moments, so I can always carry those moments with me.
Ebony Sexius: You know when somebody says, "Come home"? That's what it makes me feel like. I wanna take this with me in my future just to, like, make this keep goin' on for years and years so it won't be forgotten.