Category Archives: Blog

Fun Family Activities Around Grand Avenue

Heads up, the coming weeks will have lease event closures and routine maintenance to prep for the fabulous summertime ahead (here is a taste of what’s to come).


Yes, patience is needed in the coming weeks, but never fear, Angelenos, there are plenty of fun options nearby to keep the whole family cool and entertained:

Credit: Henry Salazar

Tour The Music Center! Free, self-guided tours of its spectacular Walt Disney Concert Hall can be reserved from 10am-2pm each day July 5-8. Guided tours are complimentary and offered at 12pm and 1:15pm Thursday-Saturday. More info: 

The Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) is free for children 12 and under, 2 for 1 admission ($15 for adults) with a TAP card, and open every day except Tuesday. Free admission to MOCA for the whole family is accessible on Thursdays from 5pm-8pm. More info:


The Broad is just a stone’s throw from MOCA and also offers exciting contemporary art for free. The museum is open every day except Mondays. Admission for the onsite standby lines is first come, first served, based on availability. The wait time in the onsite standby lines is 10 to 45 minutes on an average weekday. More info:


The Wells Fargo History Museum is open 9am-5pm Monday through Saturday and offers free guided tours, historic Los Angeles maps, and a replica stagecoach you can board. More info:


For a breezy view of beautiful downtown Los Angeles, check out the observation deck at City Hall. You can check in with security at the 201 Main Street public entrance and they will direct you onwards and upwards to the 27th floor. Open M-F 10am – 5pm. Deets from WelikeLA

Thank you so much for your patience, please come back with the fam to visit Grand Park throughout throughout the year.



My oh my. Five years together – how awesome is that? Let’s continue to kick it during the 4th of July Block Party, let loose during a whole season of The Music Center’s Dance DTLA, or be silly with the little ones in the beloved splash pad. It will be a magical summer in the park for everyone.






Part of a three-location festival, Grand Park + I3 Arts Fest’s Interaction Park will host large-scale interactive art installations, transforming Grand Park’s Event Lawn into an urban art gallery.

INTERACTION PARK Musical artists:

The Gaslamp Killer, Mike G (of Odd Future), Oscure, Bartek, Earthquake State, Captin’ Jay

Works include:


Through the Cattails by Aphidoidea

40 coroplast hexagon abstract cattails that provide shade during the day and emit animated light by night


Anthropocene by 5Gyers

A response to plastic pollution and inspired by Da Vinci’s Vituvian Man – the piece sends microbeads and light throughout the piece via attached stationary bicycles.



Melting Rainbows by Aaron Axelrod

The artist uses his face and various body parts to press up against a transparent plexiglass surface to create psychedelic drips and effects that are then live projected onto a theater screen


Jabba Barge by Adam Mostow

A large metal mutant vehicle fabricated and sculpted by David Haskell




Infinity Boxes by Matt Elson

An interactive social piece where participants’ faces are turned into contemporary portraiture.



Mechan9 by Tyler Fuqua

A giant fallen robot that is 35-feet in diameter.



Grand Park + I3 Arts Fest’s Interaction Park will be held on the Event Lawn. For more info about I3 Arts Fest, visit


BOOTCAMP // EVERY TUES JUN 6 – SEPT 26 // 5:30 PM – 6:30 PM

All summer long, Grand Park visitors can explore the entire park and get a free workout at the same time at Grand Park’s Bootcamp. Open to everyone and all fitness levels, this free series is a fun way to connect with others and make an end-of-day workout accessible and fun. Boot camp sessions are held on Grand Park’s Event Lawn.



Grand Park’s Sunday Sessions celebrates Los Angeles’ contributions to the global art form of dance music. As a vibrant music scene bursting with ingenuity, creativity and boundary-pushing music making, Los Angeles offers a particular blend of urban spaces, global cultures, enticing weather, collaborative spirit and open mindedness.

SUN JUN 11 // Aaron Paar // Tony Watson // Scott K // Vikter Duplaix

SUN JUL 16 // Kristi Lomax // Thee Mike B // Lars Behrenroth // Mark de Clive-Lowe

SUN AUG 13 // Kaleem // Jun // Tony Powell // Mystery Guest (announced soon)

SUN SEPT 17 // Sunday Sessions Gets Deep: Celebrating 18 Years of DEEP-LA.



A summer favorite now in its 13th year, The Music Center’s Dance DTLA is an evening of dance under the stars on most Friday nights in the summer months, from June – September, 2017.


Hosted this year entirely in Grand Park, the series features Dance Downtown, every other Friday night, where participants can learn new dance moves in a judgment free zone with a different dance genre at each event.


Hosted this year entirely in Grand Park, the series features Dance Downtown, every other Friday night, where participants can learn new dance moves in a judgment free zone with a different dance genre at each event.



Grand Park + The Music Center’s 4th of July Block Party returns with a wonderful way to celebrate America’s independence. Featuring picnics, play, music, dancing and a new fireworks show, the event is jam-packed with ways that make Fourth of July the ultimate summer holiday celebration. The afternoon offers games and art making for all ages including soccer, tag, bubble fun and chalk art. Two musical stages with DJs throughout the day and live performances in the evening will entertain audiences with sounds from America featuring everything from 70s Funk and Soul, to a full-scale Pops orchestra.



Grand Park teams up with FLAX (France Los Angeles Exchange) to present an international collaboration and dance performance by French video and performing artist Lola Gonzàlez and Los Angeles-based artists, choreographer Oguri and composer Paul Chavez. Inspired by the complex landscape of the city, the trailblazing performance entails a traveling processional, which tackles ideas of community, collaboration and the impact of urban living. Sixty performers, a mix of professionals and nonprofessionals, will set off from several distinct locations throughout Los Angeles. Echoing recent unrest in this country and the world, the groups will march through the corridors of Downtown to gather together at the iconic Grand Park for an epic performance, punctuated by individual actions and gestures as each participant acts out their role. The public is invited to join the journey! For the “call for participation” and to learn more, visit


L.A. TACO FESTIVAL // AUG 26 // 12PM – 8PM

Benefiting the non-profit Jovenes, Inc., the L.A. Taco Festival welcomes more than 30 taco vendors from all around Los Angeles to Grand Park. Angelenos can enjoy the many varieties and flavors of tacos made throughout the county. DJs, games and art-making round out the day’s festivities and make for a full and fun day in Grand Park.



The Music Center continues its series of intimate events that invite the Los Angeles LGBTQ and ally community to celebrate and connect with each other with Grand Park + Outfest Present PROUD Movie Night. Developed in collaboration with a coalition of partners and partner organizations to reflect the diverse interests and experiences of the LGBTQ Angeleno community, Grand Park partners with Outfest to present a picnic and screening in celebration of fresh and diverse voices in film. Filmmakers and actors will introduce the showcase of short films from the Outfest Fusion Festival and share insight about their craft. Guests can come early to enjoy a late summer afternoon in the park with the sights, sounds and tastes of the summer including DJs, food trucks and the park’s popular splash pad and playground. The screening will be held on the Performance Lawn.

Outfest Fusion is an annual film festival celebrating queer communities of color. To learn more, visit

Information subject to change


Grand Park is an LA County park powered by The Music Center.

Los Angeles County. Grand Park. The Music Center.

Our L.A. Voices found in PUBLISH! Deconstructing Emily

This weekend’s Downtown Bookfest was ah-mya-zing. showcasing over a dozen literary partners and activities, performances by some of L.A.’s best emerging and established writers, artists and musicians, and the beautiful balmy weather added jelly to the proverbial toast.

As you sat on the park’s fabulous pink furniture, Peter, Jessica and Douglas of Writ Large Press gave a quick lesson on how to work a vintage typewriter and you were released into the writing wild – stamping letters, words, and lines with the intent of deconstructing Emily Dickinson’s poems, and creating something new.

Over ONE HUNDRED poems were written Saturday afternoon in Grand Park by Angelenos of all ages and backgrounds, here are the works – published, signed, sealed and delivered:

Big ups to the Writ Large team, the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs for providing free copies of Emily Dickinson’s works and all Downtown Bookfest partners for helping make Grand Park’s Downtown Bookfest a feel-good, inspiring day of unleashed OUR L.A. VOICES!

About Writ Large Press

Writ Large Press is a DTLA based independent press founded in 2007. In addition to publishing unique literary titles, Writ Large Press is dedicated to challenging the role of the book to engage community and respond to the times through three ongoing project: Ghostmakers, a book that was written, presented, and destroyed through the course of 2015; Publish!, a community writing and publishing project; #90X90, 90 consecutive days of literature as resistance. #ResistanceIsLit


PUBLISH! is our ongoing participatory, community writing and publishing project. Kicking off in 2013 in the Old Bowery Subway Station in NYC, PUBLISH! has traveled from art galleries, to train stations and parks, engaging writers, new and experienced, in DIY publishing through the use of typewriters, speech-to-text software, broadsides, Instagram, and mathematical equations.

Publish! is about more than writing a poem. It is about more than a book. It is about you. It’s about authoring your own narrative. It’s about owning your own stories and sharing them with your community through the act of publishing.


Spring is for OUR L.A. VOICES

An intro to Grand Park’s Our L.A. Voices, a season-wide celebration of Angeleno expression.


Photo by Javier Guillen for Grand Park/The Music Center

LUNCHTIME! Concerts // EVERY THURS MAR 2 thru MAY 25 // 12:15PM – 1:15PM

Young Angeleno artists voice their creativity and expressions through music.


Photo by Javier Guillen for Grand Park/The Music Center

LUNCHTIME! Writers’ Meetup// EVERY TUES MAR 7 thru MAY 30 // Noon – 1:30pm

Write where you are. Grand Park’s Teaching Writer-in-Residence traci kato-kiriyama curates writing exercises for all levels. Meetups will have special guests, including leaders in journalism and script-writing to support cultivating new writings or to nurture existing works.


Photo by Javier Guillen for Grand Park/The Music Center


In collaboration with the City of Los Angeles’ Big Read Festival honoring the poetry of Emily Dickinson, Grand Park’s Downtown Bookfest welcomes all to an afternoon of readings, performances and activities geared towards families.


Photo by Javier Guillen for Grand Park/The Music Center

PROUD Story Slam // SAT MAR 25 // Noon – 4PM

Part of Grand Park’s ongoing PROUD Series celebrating LGBTQ L.A., the PROUD Story Slam presents narratives about how Los Angeles connects us no matter who we are or whom we love. From L.A. gay rights pioneers to Angeleno trans comedians, hear amazing stories that transcend geography, generation, gender, race and background. Be prepared to laugh and perhaps even shed a tear.


Photo by Shared Studios

PORTALS PROJECT at Grand Park // MON APR 10 thru SUN APR 23

The Portals Project brings an immersive space – a gold shipping container with screens and speakers – to connect Angelenos to faces and places that are curious about L.A. life.  Exchange thoughts, ideas, recommendations for music, recipes, and anything in between in this two-week activation.


Love is in the Air…

Are you looking for a last minute date idea for Valentine’s Day?

Grand Park is your perfect (and free) romantic destination.

Grab your special somebody and stroll side-by-side among the glimmering (electric) candlelight – a little more sparkle to an already spectacular vista.

Hold hands to the tunes of classic Motown and sultry R&B – playlist lovingly selected by Master of Love Adrian Younge.

Pack a picnic and head on down after sunset – tables are first come first served – but make sure to leave the vino at home.

Last minute ain’t no thang, when Grand Park is your personal Lover’s Lane.


Let Grand Park be the place where love of one other flourishes. Donate today on behalf of someone special or on behalf of the love you feel for a special place like Grand Park.

Happy Valentine’s Day.



Master Altar-Maker Ofelia Esparza: L.A.’s National Treasure

Ofelia Esparza at Noche de Ofrenda. Photo by Rafael Cardenas

For Ofelia Esparza, Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is her busiest time of the year. The weeks leading up to Día de los Muertos are spent planning and creating altars at numerous locations are town. She’s gives presentations at college campuses on the meaning and history of this celebration. With Día de los Muertos growing in popularity every year, community leaders like Ofelia are essential in keeping the essence of this tradition alive and well. Her unwavering commitment can be seen in the altars she creates. As a retired educator and life long artist, she has no plans to stop anytime soon.

With the support of her family and the community of artists that she belongs to, Ofelia has been able to instill the true meaning of Día de los Muertos with countless individuals. For her, the meaning of Día de los Muertos is something that was instilled in her at an early age by her mother. Usually in coordination with the Catholic calendar, her mother had altars at home at various times of the year. They weren’t elaborate or large like the ones Ofelia makes today, they were small enough to fit on top of a dresser, table or shelf, emphasizing intimacy. They were adorned with flowers from the family garden, which included the traditional marigold, also known as the Cempasúchil.

Community Altar created by Ofelia Esparza, Grand Park. Photo by Javier Guillen, Oct 2015

Community Altar created by Ofelia Esparza, Grand Park. Photo by Javier Guillen, Oct 2015

Her mother never went into detail to explain why she placed certain items or did things a certain way because her practice of the tradition was rooted in an indigenous tradition – it was simply something that was done generation to generation. However, through Ofelia’s own research, experience, and learning from others who celebrate Día de los Muertos, she has been able to piece together the meaning and significance of items commonly found on altars. For example, the Cempasúchil attracts spirits through its bright color and distinct scent. In addition, calaveras (skulls) have been used since pre-Colombian times to represent the dead. Artists like Jose Guadalupe Posada, who used calaveras in his political cartoons and artwork, contributed in establishing the skull as part of the Día de los Muertos language of symbols and icons.

While the visuals of the tradition have changed over the years, the spirit of the celebration has not, which is to honor and remember ancestors and loved ones. In our lives, we go through what Ofelia explains, is three deaths. The first is the day we take our last breath. The second death is when we are buried, never to be seen again. The third, and the worst death anyone can go through, is when we are forgotten. “We’re only here for a short time and just like a flower that wilts or gold tarnishing, all things are temporary, but we live on in the memory and hearts of our ancestors because we are all here for a purpose.”

Los Angeles’ own Self Help Graphics & Art has been instrumental in growing the tradition of Día de los Muertos in the United States. Through happenstance, Ofelia’s beginnings at Self Help Graphics & Art date back to 1979 when a posted sign for instructors lead to her first meeting with founder Sister Karen Boccalero. In need of instructors for Día de los Muertos community workshops, Ofelia was hired on the spot after sharing her family’s history with the tradition. Since that day, Ofelia and her family has been a staple at workshops, but also in creating the community altar that has come to define Día de los Muertos at Self Help Graphics & Art.

Starting out as a participant in the building of the community altar and eventually leading the project, the altars themselves took a life of their own. Community residents would share their personal items and display personal pictures to honor their loved ones. With her families’ help, Ofelia also created themed altars in the downstairs space of the old Self Help Graphics & Art building called Galeria Otra Vez, which lead to the creation of Noche de Ofrenda, a Self Help Graphics & Art tradition that continues to this day, now in Grand Park. Noche de Ofrenda began in the mid-90s by Tomas Benitez, and the event was intended to host guest in the space to see the altars and art for that year’s celebration. Over time, the night transitioned into more of a community-oriented space for individuals to contribute to the community altar, but also for Ofelia to talk on the history of Día de los Muertos and its tradition.

Self Help Graphics & Art, along with Galería de la Raza in the Mission District of San Francisco, is one of the oldest institutions in the U.S. that have helped popularize Día de los Muertos. By continuing the tradition of bringing community together, these organizations are true to the spirit that inspired Sister Karen as she began building the tradition.. At the same time, she also involved community artist to participate and share their works on Día de los Muertos, a tradition that is continued to today, culminating in artist and community members coming together in celebrating the lives of loved ones.

Self Help Graphics & Art Day of the Dead circa 1970s. Photo by Self Help Graphics & Art.

Self Help Graphics & Art Day of the Dead circa 1970s. Photo by Self Help Graphics & Art.

As Día de los Muertos continues to grow and change, Ofelia is steadfast to remind individuals that Día de los Muertos isn’t just a “Mexican Halloween” celebration, despite the days being right after each other. “One shouldn’t consider Día de los Muertos a holiday because it devalues the tradition and meaning behind it.”

Ofelia Esparza. Photo by Javier Guillen

Ofelia Esparza. Photo by Javier Guillen

Ofelia encourages the curious to ask questions about Día de los Muertos and to not be afraid to inquire more about altars, or to contemplate and reflect on the idea of how our loved ones are remembered once they leave this world. “It’s not my job to say you can’t do this or you can’t do that. What I want to pass on is the tradition of remembering our loved ones, celebrating their lives, and keeping up their legacy for the next generation” says Ofelia, remembering what her mother used to tell her: “Ojala sigas con las tradiciones (I hope you carry on these traditions).”

-Guest blog by Erick Huerta, @ElRandomHero

See Ofelia’s Community Altar revealed at NOCHE DE OFRENDA on OCT 29, as part of GRAND PARK’S DOWNTOWN DÍA DE LOS MUERTOS. All altars will be on display thru NOV 6.


Fall and Winter Magic in Grand Park


A warm welcome to the changing seasons as we deepen roots one gathering at a time.




Presented in partnership with Ryman Arts as part of the global initiative The Big Draw.

The concept is simple: drawing, doodling, simple expression no matter what age or background. Let the park gardens and breezes inspire you (the morning Starbucks jolt will help).




Presented in partnership with Self Help Graphics & Art.

The night evokes memories of the past and passed. Traditions are linked and Angelenos connect with traditions across borders and states.




Each individual altar comes with its unique story –  from family history to social justice narratives. Connect with these stories by walking through the park’s paths and gardens.




Trucks come to two locations – Olive Court and the Marketplace (near CIty Hall).


Breathe, relax and sink into Grand Park bliss. Bring your own mat or borrow one from Grand Park at no cost.





30 unique angel sculptures by local artists spread their wings in Grand Park.




Grand Park shines and glitters with the spirit of the season




Ring in the New Year at the flagship West Coast public New Year’s Eve countdown.



PAPER AIRPLANE Takes Flight in Grand Park



Yay! The Paper Airplane shade structure has landed in Grand Park!

An example of public art with a practical purpose, the structure can be moved and relocated to “take flight” in any area of Grand Park.

Dean and Elenita

Artists Dean Sherriff and Elenita Torres came up with the concept of the giant paper airplanes, and after a public vote, Los Angeles agreed that their concept would be the one to take flight to make A Cooler Grand Park.  Each plane represents one incorporated city in Los Angeles County and in its entirety, represents the 88 incorporated cities in the County.


Canvas Specialty’s engineers and industrial designers took the artists’ concept, then created the airplanes and structure and brought the concept to flight.  This project was fabricated in East Los Angeles and took six months to complete from concept to installation.


This inaugural public art project in Grand Park would not have been possible without the support of the Goldhirsh Foundation’s My LA2050 Grants Challenge.

BTW If the inspiration hits you and you have an idea for a better L.A., this year’s My LA2050 Grants Challenge is up and running! Propose your vision by OCT 4.

Beat Swap Meet at Grand Park


The final event of 4 Days of Hip-Hop Dance at Grand Park and the Music Center is the Beat Swap Meet on Sunday June 19th. Coming on the heels of the Ain’t No Half Steppin’  panel, Sleepless at The Music Center’s Walt Disney Concert Hall and Compagnie Käfig at The Music Center’s Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, a palpable spirit hangs in the air on Grand Avenue in the Cultural Corridor.

The Beat Swap Meet for those that do not know is a travelling record swap meet that started back over 8 years ago. The Grand Park edition is the 8th anniversary and it promises to be an exciting afternoon of several dozen vendors selling vinyl records, apparel and lots of miscellaneous music related merchandise. Several local independent record labels are on hand selling their wares and also lots of vinyl collectors are there selling rare records and hard to find collectibles. As much as the event is associated with Hip-Hop, there are thousands of records from every genre including Blues, Funk, Jazz, Reggae, Rock, Punk, Soul, Metal, Dancehall, Hip-Hop and the undefinable all will on be on hand.

Jeremy Sole with Mike the Poet

Prominent local DJ’s like KCRW’s Jeremy Sole will be there selling gems from his own personal collection. Zulu Nation member and venerable Los Angeles Hip-Hop artist L. Scatter will also be in the mix selling records and sharing conversation. DJ Abel, known for his great DJing skills and time at Stacks Records in Cerritos will also be in attendance fixing turntables for any DJ’s that need help with that. Among the many local record labels on hand with their own table, one of them is MoFunk and its co-founder XL Middleton.

XL Middleton

XL Middleton is a Pasadena-born musician and one of the key figures in the Modern Funk Movement. Earlier this week, he shared with me his enthusiasm for Beat Swap Meet, Los Angeles and funk records. “I started MoFunk Records with Eddy Funkster,” XL exclaims, “one of the deepest collectors of 80’s funk records that I’ve ever met, who is also one of the resident DJ’s at Dam Funk’s Funkmosphere night here in LA. We were already aware of what a worldwide phenomenon that modern funk music was becoming, and we found it ironic that there was so little of it coming from the city that had really adopted it as its signature sound, decades prior. So we wanted to start this label to give people our unique take on the funk. It’s based on things, both positive and negative, that we saw growing up in LA in the 90’s – backyard parties, low riding, popping and locking, breaking, gangbanging, all the things that, for better or worse, were an integral part of the landscape, so to speak. The music is an amalgamation of synth-heavy 80’s R&B, electro hip hop, and 90’s g-funk.”

XL has a lot of enthusiasm about the Modern Funk Movement. He explains that there is a burgeoning scene of many artists and LA is one of the epicenters. “I can’t name them all because there’s just so many,” he confesses, “but I’ll give you a few. Zackey Force Funk, in many ways we think of him as a part of MoFunk too. He was the vocalist on “Press Play,” which me and Eddy Funkster produced, and is now considered one of the essential tunes in the modern funk canon. There’s Brian Ellis, another amazingly talented multi-instrumentalist and recording artist. Psychic Mirrors from out of Miami, they’re another favorite of mine. Their tune “Charlene” is probably still my favorite modern funk song ever.”

On the MoFunk label he has several artists. “First there’s Moniquea,” he says. “She was the first artist we released on MoFunk, with the 7″ single “I Don’t Wanna Get Used To It,” as well as our first full length LP release, “Yes No Maybe.” She’s got a really unique voice and she grew up listening to tons of 80’s funk and new wave,” he explains. He has also recently signed an artist from the Bay Area, Diamond Ortiz, a multi-instrumentalist and composer/producer. They have already released a 7″ from him and an EP, “The Boomerang EP.” Ortiz just finished his first full length, “Loveline,” and it’s coming out before the end of the year. Beyond that, MoFunk also just put out a 12″ from a group called Shiro Schwarz out of Mexico City. They are planning to do much more with them in the future. XL tells me there is much to be excited about with MoFunk and the Modern Funk Movement.

XL Middleton loves Los Angeles, the Modern Funk Movement and Beat Swap Meet. He’s been participating in several ways with the Beat Swap Meet over the last 3 years. In 2013 Moniquea and he performed when Beat Swap Meet was in Chinatown. “I remember thinking how amazing it was, in every sense, but especially on a cultural level.”

He sees the event as a microcosm of the city itself. XL concludes our discussion by saying, “Beat Swap Meet is a cultural cross-section of everything in the city that falls outside of what LA is stereotyped to be. It’s so much more than just a place to buy used records. It’s where people can come together and feel free. That sounds so cliché, but what I mean is – There’s no dress code, you don’t have to pay $30 to get in, it’s not a place that’s overrun by aspiring stars and Instagram models. It’s everything that LA truly is, that is sometimes hard to put into words. But, if you come out and experience it for yourself, I think you’ll understand.”

Considering Grand Park is in the center of the city and the place for everyone, there is no better place for Beat Swap Meet to be on Father’s Day than the iconic rectangular three-block park connecting City Hall and the Music Center.

Mike the Poet, guest blogger/social media host #hiphop4days

Ain’t No Half Steppin’ at Grand Park

Left – right. Dr. Imani Kai Johnson, Thelma Davis, Dr. Rennie Harris, Damita Jo Freeman, Lil’ Cesar Rivas, Lucas Rivera

On Thursday June 16th at 6pm, in Olive Court at Grand Park, the dynamic panel “Ain’t No Half Steppin,” thoroughly educated and entertained the crowd of b-boys, b-girls, Angelenos and passerby’s who stopped to listen the panelists break down the evolution of street dance. The tone was immediately set by Grand Park’s Director Lucas Rivera when he introduced the panel by saying, “Grand Park is the only place where head spins and ballet slippers fit on the same stage.” This inclusive spirit defined the panel and their action-packed discussion.

The conversation was moderated by Dr. Imani Kai Johnson, an interdisciplinary scholar, professor at UC Riverside and leading voice on Hip-Hop dance in international communities. Dr. Johnson was joined by Damita Jo Freeman, one of the original “Soul Train” dancers, Thalma Davis, also one of the original “Soul Train” dancers, Julio Lil’ Cesar Rivas, the founder of the Hip-Hop School of the Arts in Pomona and an original Los Angeles b-boy dating back to Radiotron in the early 1980s and Dr. Rennie Harris, the founder, artistic director and choreographer of one of the most influential Hip-Hop dance companies.

The Story Must Be Told By Those Who Were There

In the course of their nearly-90 minute conversation, the panelists not only discussed the evolution of street dance, they discussed the importance of getting the story right. One of the key themes of their dialogue was that, “if the story is not told by the people who know it, the facts and details will be twisted incorrectly and not represent what actually happened.” They each told their story with heartfelt authenticity and the audience enjoyed every minute of it.

To this end, each of the panelists talked about their own history with street dance. Thelma Davis and Damita Jo Freeman talked about how they began as “Soul Train” dancers at 17 years old in 1971. Davis noted that her parents were activists and that her dancing was informed by the Civil Rights Movement, the Blaxploitation era and all of the spirit that was in the air in the early 1970s. She also mentioned that she had been dancing as a ballerina from her early childhood and that her own style melted ballet, freestyle, jazz and evolved into its own amalgamation that Don Cornelius, the host of “Soul Train” allowed her to express on the show’s stage every week. As time went on, Davis opened up for the Jackson 5 and did choreography for a wide range of artists.

Damita Jo Freeman echoed many of the same thoughts as her longtime friend Davis. Freeman not only danced on “Soul Train,” she also had a background in ballet and danced in Los Angeles clubs like Maverick’s Flat and The Climax. As her career went on, she crossed paths with James Brown, Cher, Lionel Richie and countless other artists as she danced and choreographed on television and with events like the American Music Awards and the Soul Train Music Awards. Both Freeman and Davis described their formative years as, “a period of awakening.” Above all, they said their dancing came from the heart and was about having fun. They also said that they were never competitive, it was about building rapport, finding identity and sharing spirit. They also stressed the importance of “Soul Train,” in the transmission of street dance and the fashion across the country.

Lil’ Cesar Rivas agreed with them both about the influence of “Soul Train.” He spoke of watching the show in El Salvador when he was 7 years old in the late 1970s, a few years before he would move to Los Angeles. Rivas would go on to become one of the most influential b-boy dancers in Los Angeles, the founder of the Air Force Crew, a performer in the film “Electric Boogaloo,” and one of the key participants in Radiotron, the seminal space located across from MacArthur Park in the mid-1980s. Rivas spoke of an influential moment in his life that led him to begin the Hip-Hop School of the Arts in 2007-2008. The turning point for him was in 2007 when he was flown to Korea to participate in a huge event to celebrate Hip-Hop dance. Korean politicians spent 2 million dollars and brought artists from 16 countries to Seoul to participate in a monumental Hip-Hop festival. He wondered way Hip-Hop did not get this type of love in America.

The experience was life changing and it made him come home with the desire to document the history of Hip-Hop. He started collecting all of the books and films ever made about Hip-Hop. “I wanted to create a Hip-Hop library,” he said. From this inspiration, he put a proposal together and started the Hip-Hop School of the Arts in Pomona to chronicle the movement’s history and carry on the spirit to the next generation.

Dr. Rennie Harris shared this intention of documenting the history of street dance as well. He explained his youth in Philadelphia and his early years in dance. He also noted that in different cities, street dance was called different names and had subtle differences. In Philly it was “GQ” dance, in Washington D.C., there was “GoGo,” in Chicago it was “House,” and the West Coast he said was about dancing to funk like Parliament and Funkadelic. Harris noted that the term “Hip-Hop” was first used in a historical context in a 1981 Village Voice article. He essentially said that many of the participants never named it because they were too busy doing it.

Harris had danced with groups like Run DMC and others in the early 1980s, but he the said the life changing moment for him that led him into more choreography and dance theater was sometime in 1990 when he was approached to choreograph a Hip-Hop dance routine for $1500. This made him realize that his lifelong participation in dance was meaningful to the world at large. From this time, he began to organize experimental theatrical dance productions he called, “Black Performance Art,” where he would have dancers responding to work by the Last Poets and other similar thoughtful work. He aimed to tackle racism and wanted to use dance as a force for social justice. Before he knew it, he was doing events at the Lincoln Center and the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Harris shared that he even had some of his shows picketed because they were too incendiary for some audience members. Harris has gone on to teach at UCLA and the University of Colorado at Boulder and he continues to choreograph and speak on dance around the world. He sees Hip-Hop as the most original American art form.

At one point early on in the panel, Harris and Davis debated about the influence of “Soul Train” versus dance in smaller community venues. Davis emphasized that since “Soul Train,” had a national television audience, it spread the spirit of street dance around the world very quickly through the 1970s and 1980s. Harris did not disagree with this, but he said that many of the street dancers in various cities around America were so engaged in their local community, that early on, the movement was not named, they were just young people having fun and doing their best to express individuality and innovation. After some playful dialogue, they came to the agreement that the roots of street dance were in the generations even before them. One of them noted that there were people doing the Moonwalk in the 1930s.

As the panel concluded, Dr. Johnson asked each of the panelists how dance connected them to politics.

Rennie Harris said, “Dance is the most dangerous art form because it is movement.” The visceral and immediate nature of dance makes it timeless because it happens in the moment. Rivas noted that in 1985 when the city tried to shut down Radiotron, all of the dancers he was with marched to City Hall to oppose this. He said that their desire to keep b-boying made them political in that moment because they realized how important Radiotron had been to their own growth and identity. Harris and Freeman reiterated what they had said about dance leading to their awakening.

All and all, the panelists closed the discussion by saying, “Its 2016 and we are still dancing.” The audience gave them a standing ovation, many photos were taken, a few moves were captured on film and everyone went home happy as the sun slowly set over Grand Park.

Mike the Poet, guest blogger/social media host #hiphop4days