B-boys to Men

Kathy Wood choreographs her troupe's dances. Books their gigs in Europe. And makes them turn off their beepers during rehearsal.

Mosquito-bitten dance devotees had snoozed respectfully through more than an hour of Karen Carpenter music, dancers on dollies, women dressed as men, sleep-dancing, and performers with buckets on their heads at last fall's Miller Outdoor Theatre Weekend of Texas Contemporary Dance, when they finally sat up on their blankets and took notice.

"This is Fly," a young man said, nudging his date. He was surprisingly young, in fact, to be at a concert like this -- and surprisingly nonwhite.

Of course, he didn't seem nearly as out of place as the performers who had just taken the stage. The black and Hispanic 20-year-olds dressed in white parachute pants were throwing themselves with athletic aggression into back flips, head spins, twirling handstands and impossible shoulder rolls that flared their feet up into open space. These were tricks you might see in the center of a nightclub circle, if you were lucky enough to stumble onto some B-boys battling for position in the hip-hop hierarchy. These were not maneuvers typical of an earnest, fuddy-duddy dance concert -- some would even say they don't belong there.

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But what was even stranger than Fly's mere presence at the modern dance showcase was how much the hip-hop group had in common with the high art all around it. There was order underneath the apparent chaos: Head spins came out in counts of eight; boneless body waves mimicked classical piano riffs; fancy footwork was performed ensemble; and flares formed an unmistakable choreographic pattern.

How did these two worlds manage to collide so peacefully? The extremely unlikely hip-hop/modern dance liaison, Kathy Wood. Dancing vicariously in the wings at Miller that night, the white, middle-aged ex-drill team captain carefully rolled out the skateboards for the Fly finale -- a perfect ballet parody in which the boys coasted slowly across the stage waving giant white flags or posing grandly in awkward arabesques. The scene was ironic, sure, but also strangely serene -- that is, until the group's charming show-off, Ragland Babineaux, lost control of his skateboard. It sailed right off the front of the stage into the orchestra pit.

The crowd had already been giggling; now it guffawed. Wood, however, was not amused by the unplanned flourish. It seems that worlds don't ever collide peacefully.

Kathy Wood was a star as a Kilgore Rangerette and a Dallas Texann. She went on to direct the Alief/Elsik Revelliers, the Memorial Markettes and the Friendswood Wranglerettes to many a drill team championship. She performed everywhere from the Cotton Bowl to The Johnny Carson Show. She tossed batons, twirled flags and high-kicked in lines, but she didn't exactly follow the leader: "I wasn't about to sit around and do pom-poms all the time." Kathy's drill teams danced. Sure, they cheered on the home team, but they did it with pirouettes and grand jetes. Kathy says she's a maverick by nature, that she likes to do the unexpected. Her daily prayer: "Don't let me die ordinary."

Perhaps that's what made her approach then-18-year-old Mario Jaramillo at the 1995 Westheimer Street Festival. He and the street hip-hop group Koro were moving in ways she'd never seen before -- well, except maybe on TV. They were free and loose and spontaneous; they were, as Kathy puts it, "a whole other culture." She was fascinated; then inspiration and opportunity struck. Kathy learned that Koro usually had to practice in garages, so she offered them the use of her Montrose studio in exchange for a few performances.

This made Kathy's husband, Mike, nervous; he stayed downstairs in The Duplex's studio for the early rehearsals with Mario and his four friends. "He was afraid they were going to steal us blind," says Kathy. "But it was a mutual distrust.... They didn't know what I wanted from them either."

Kathy didn't think she wanted too much -- just that they show up on time for scheduled rehearsals and turn off their beepers while they were there. But she had to fight tooth and nail for these things that most choreographers and directors take for granted. Nothing worked until Kathy started telling the dancers that rehearsals started 45 minutes before she actually wanted them to start, and the dancers started keeping their beepers on vibrate and surreptitiously making necessary phone calls when they felt the buzz.

She didn't want to change the dance style that had attracted her to Koro in the first place. "People kept asking me, 'When are you gonna get them into a ballet class?' " she says with a laugh. "And I'd say, 'Never.' " But she did think the fledgling group would fare better in its concerts at places like the Jewish Community Center with classical music than with the rap and house music of hip-hop.

Kathy may have been right. When she was first invited to the JCC's "Contemporary Choreographers X 6," it was because a dance committee member had seen one of her shows with the Koro guys. But they asked that she not bring the street dancers with her this time. A few Houston Ballet dancers were set to perform in the concert, and the JCC was taking great pains not to upset them in any way. "Blind prejudice," Kathy tags it. "As if they expected a gang fight backstage or something."

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