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.

Koro performed anyway, to the great delight of the ballet dancers. But Kathy Wood is practical in her idealism: She chalked up the JCC's initial reaction to the fact that the guys looked "too rough" in their baggy jeans, T-shirts, do rags and gold chains. From now on, they would wear costumes.

A true B-boy would have balked at this point. Scheduled rehearsals, classical music and costumes?! Hip-hop is about being spontaneous, about going with the flow, about doing what feels good. Could hip-hop even survive within concert dance parameters? Could it survive Kathy Wood? The guys caught a lot of flak from their friends.

"At first they were calling us commercial and saying that we sold out the hip-hop culture and this and that," says Mario. But the prospect of fame is a powerful motivator: "You see other dancers that made it out there doing commercials for Coca-Cola and Gap, you know. What do you call them? They don't tell them that they're selling out. It's just jealousy."

Pre-Kathy, Koro had, in fact, scored an audition for Coke, but the group couldn't get it together to attend. Ragland says he went to church instead. This wasn't going to happen on Kathy's watch. She would drive to their houses to pick them up, nag them into submission, even make them spend the night on the studio floor before an early show -- but they would not miss another opportunity. "With the help of Kathy..." echoes a grateful Ragland. "She took the few of us that wanted to work, and we became serious... I guess."

Those who weren't serious enough came and went quickly. A year after Kathy found Koro at the street festival, the guys started to "abandon" her for another choreographer. Kathy gets a little misty when she remembers that "they liked her studio better, they liked her perks better, they liked her better...." They talked back to Kathy, made fun of her and finally refused to do a paying gig. So she fired them all. All, that is, except now-returned member Mario. Kathy points out that he was already quitting the troupe to focus on school.

After a year of struggling steps forward, Kathy Wood was left with nothing -- except a guy named Shadow Williams who sort of refused to be fired. But Koro was a sprawling street group, and she hadn't yet scratched the surface of its raw talent. She recruited Ragland and the shy and lanky Chris Gamez and banished bad memories by changing her group's name from Koro to Fly.

Shadow didn't last. No one's quite sure whether it was because Kathy got sick of bailing him out of jail for performances or because he never paid her back the bail money. This time the fields of Koro yielded hip-hop ham Toby Junious and the return of Kathy's initial contact, Mario. But by then Chris had decided he would make his living selling cars, so Kathy scooped up the new kid on Koro's block, Amado (a.k.a. John) Ramirez.

Since early 1998, when Chris decided he didn't want to be a car salesman, there have been no more Fly personnel changes. Kathy, Mario, Ragland, Chris, Toby and John all agree that they're like family. In fact, when a young upstart in a tie and a leather jacket showed up at a recent rehearsal wanting to audition, Kathy gave him the standard Hollywood brush-off: Don't call us, we'll call you. "I don't feel like raising..." she laughed, stopping herself from saying, "another child."

Ragland used to dance on his knees before he learned to walk. "God put me here to be a performer," he says. Kathy agrees that he is Fly's best improvisational dancer -- inspired by everything from his older brother's basketball game to Michael Jackson videos to cartoons, which he watches to help him "think of crazy stuff that people won't try." Like most young artists, Ragland wants to someday make a living doing what he loves, and he has a not-so-secret desire to see his name in lights. Kathy Wood and Fly might just be his ticket.

But today, Kathy says, Ragland is in deep trouble. He was supposed to show up early this morning with his girlfriend and baby daughter for a performance at the First Unitarian Universalist Church. It wasn't a paying gig like the company usually requires, but Kathy owed a friend a favor -- besides you never know what connections you might make at a performance of any kind. When the rest of Fly stormed the sanctuary like altar boys on acid, he was nowhere to be found.

Kathy just shook her head -- about the fact that some of these boys have babies when they can't even take care of themselves, about the fact that Ragland didn't show up, about the fact that she had to make some quick changes to the choreography, about life in general. It was a trying morning.

The head-shaking continued after the performance, when Kathy recounted her version of the Fly guys' recent trip to Los Angeles with Koro: 15 hip-hop dancers survived on sandwich stuffs for two days as they drove a van to the B-boy Summit at UCLA. When they got there, they slept three to a bed at the motel and danced -- illegally -- on Venice Beach for spending money. The cops raided the convention with shotguns and arrested the organizer because they thought it was gang-related. Mario took pictures of the whole thing. Somehow they came back with 17 rather than 15 bodies in the van. "They're crazy," Kathy says. "Just crazy." Shake, shake, shake.

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