“We need someone to battle her,” the dance instructor says from the corner, while a blonde girl with pink cheeks and hair unraveling from her braids waits expectantly.
The dancers sit in a circle around her on the floor. A hand shoots up from a tiny girl wearing ripped dance tights. The instructor nods, switches on the music, and the battle begins.
A dance battle, if you’ve never seen one, is like a sassy conversation without words. There is inevitably a winner and a loser. But in order to reach that conclusion, first there is dance.
There are high kicks and hair flips, shoulders tipped and hips popped. Dance battles originated in urban areas around the country, such as the Bronx and Philadelphia, but at DuHadway Dance Dimensions in Alma and in hip-hop classes at Central Michigan University, dance battles seem like a natural fit for the energy that flows from each room.
At the center of that energy is dance instructor Ricky “Bird” Clarkson, a 29-year-old wearing a baseball cap tipped to one side, a medal hanging from his neck, and trademark black harem pants.
Clarkson is used to standing out a little. As a military kid who moved around with his mom from base to base most of his life, he’s often been the odd one out in new schools and neighborhoods. And in most of those situations, he used dance to his advantage.
Clarkson remembers challenging other kids on the sidewalk to a dance battle after school from the time he was 8 years old. He mixed in different freestyle elements that he picked up from all the different regions he lived in.
“It’s (dance) given me a home,” Clarkson says. “When I dance, it’s universal.”
He would go on to travel with a Philadelphia hip-hop dance company and perform for huge crowds in New York City, dancing in everything from halftime shows and parades to music videos for local artists. His team from DuHadway Dance Dimensions won the national Applause Talent Competition in 2012.
In addition to teaching street dance at his studio, Clarkson is also a faculty member at Central Michigan University, teaching a hip-hop class to college students. Some of Clarkson’s friends have urged him to move to more urban areas where street dance is a larger part of the culture. He brushes them off.
“Street dance in a small town—I started this from scratch,” he says. “I like seeing kids go from ‘I don’t understand what’s going on’ to [having] a strong confidence. I love seeing that from places like this and kids like this.”
At the end of class, Clarkson instructs the dancers to do their best move. “You have to do a dope move to stay. If it’s whack, then you can go,” he says.
Although the world of competitive dance can be fierce, Clarkson’s brand of dance puts the competition right out there in front of everyone’s faces. The effect is interesting: sometimes dancers cry tears of frustration when they can’t complete a tricky move.
“You get this challenge, and then greatness comes out of that. That’s why we battle, to push each other,” says Clarkson. “Can that create a tense environment? You’re darn right. Welcome to street dance.”
Many of Clarkson’s students emerge with a new level of confidence and a new kind of swagger in their step. Simply put, they put their best move forward.