Brooklyn-based dancer Reggie “Regg Roc” Gray never imagined that a street dance style he invented during his lunchtimes at school would go on to become a global craze. Used by Madonna, Beyoncé, Jay-Z and Nicki Minaj, to name a few, Gray’s “flexing” dance became a phenomenon thanks to the audacity of its moves – many of which look physically impossible – and its powerful political comment.
“The style itself was an evolution of the bruk-up and a lot of dancehall from the early 90s,” Gray explains of flexing’s Jamaican roots. “Bruk-up means ‘broke up’ and in flexing, moves are broken up and limbs flexed awkwardly. We contort our bodies into something that looks impossible, taking our inspiration from things like The Matrix, anime cartoons, Dragon Ball Z.” One of the moves, “bone-breaking”, looks as if limbs are being dislocated as the dancer’s bodies “fold like origami”, as one critic noted. “That’s very much our wow factor,” Gray beams.
Born in school canteen dance-offs, inter-school competitions followed, as did a high-profile appearance on America’s Best Dance Crew. Gray formed his own dance collective that developed through various incarnations; his HyperActive crew evolved first into Maineventt and later to the Brooklyn Ringmasters and FlexN. Now, he has a 30-strong dance company called the DREAM Ring, which stands for “Dance Rules Everything Around Me”.
Recruiting dancers from predominantly underrepresented and impoverished urban backgrounds, Gray says that flexing gave people a voice in communities where they were historically silenced. “There are ways of conveying a message when you dance. A lot of the time it can be pure entertainment, but flexing is a mode of storytelling. It’s a lot more than just entertainment or a wow factor: it’s a vocabulary, a means of expression for those who previously had none. Our bodies become the vocabulary.”
Telling stories through vignettes of the everyday became a part of a much bigger narrative for flexing too, with performances often tackling the political or, as Gray puts it, “difficult issues that our community face every day”. He elaborates further: “We’re dancing about the issues that are happening around us, all of us as people, no matter where we are all experiencing those issues. We’re all going through the same thing, just in different ways.
“I think the vocabulary with flexing is what allows it to speak to people all over the world because it comes from a human place. When you see the realness and the emotion and the feel of it, people connect with it.” Yet dealing with issues such as race divisions in the US alongside a pioneering new dance style meant initially people didn’t know how to interpret them. “There was so much scepticism about who we were. We had to work extra hard to make people believe in us.”
Following projects with MIF in 2015 and 2017, for this year’s festival Gray’s dancers are teaming up with Young Identity – a Manchester-based arts organisation and charity that works to empower young people from working-class backgrounds through spoken word. Working with artists such as Lemn Sissay, Saul Williams, Linton Kwesi Johnson and Kate Tempest, the collective encourages individuals to tell the stories of the here and now through poetry, their ethos chiming with Gray’s.
“We started Young Identity because we thought black, working-class voices in poetry were just not heard,” says Shirley May, its CEO and artistic director. “And of those that were heard, they were male. We started a poetry slam called The Word Cup that helped to give a voice to young black men and women. In many ways, we mirrored what happened to Reggie with flexing: he gave a voice to those without one through the power of movement; we give it through the power of spoken word and poetry.”
Alphabus will bring together dancers from New York and poets from Manchester in a project that utilises ideas from African, Greek and east Asian mythology to help understand the present day through language and movement. As one of the project’s writers, Billie Meredith, explains: “Humanity is timeless and, regardless of location, all of our stories stem from something universal: a moral question that’s relatable to now, to forever.
“The project revolves around language and movement. Alphabus – ‘alpha’ as in alphabet, ‘bus’ as in movement – is the central character of our narrative but at no given time is Alphabus one person. He or she is many identities and all of us. The overarching message is about the human condition and the relationships we have.”
The universality of the message has a political edge too, with May revealing that Brexit was an issue many of Young Identity’s young poets wanted to explore in the project’s early planning sessions. Part of the Alphabus story seeks to explore the dystopia of the debate through generational divides in a way that may ultimately make their audiences see alternate points of view.
“It’s a modern story and the journey of a relationship and how that relationship can change, can cause revolution, war, peace,” she says. We’re not here to preach or testify. The beauty of art is that it is completely subjective and the information we give in the show is for our audiences to go away and wrestle with their feelings over that.”
Gray agrees: “The poetry and the dance are to be interpreted the way the audience see it. I don’t look for it to be a definite definition. It’s the interpretation of the audience and how they feel. That’s where more powerful and unifying dialogues begin.”
Gray says the way the poets and dancers have worked together over a gap of almost 3,500 miles has been impressive. Having spent time together earlier this year to “explore space and ideas”, they are still in constant communication online too. Gray says he is excited to see the project finally come to life.
“Alphabus is totally different from anything I’ve ever done. It’s a whole new approach to combining dance and poetry,” he says. “Everyone involved comes from a more urban street background. The poets have an edge to them that flows very well with the edge in the vocabulary of the dance. Together we will say something of the moment and it will hopefully make people think and open minds.”
• Alphabus is at Unit 5, Great Northern Warehouse, 235 Deansgate, Manchester M3 4EN, 5-7 July
• The Guardian is a media partner of Manchester international festival.
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