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."

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.

Fly was trying to get discovered in the City of Angels. They plastered street corners with flyers and "represented" as best they could at the Summit. But L.A.'s agents weren't awaiting their arrival with open arms, so now they're back at the Unitarian Church doing a free show -- most of them, anyway. Kathy says the experience did put them back in the hip-hop state of mind: "I hate to give them any time off 'cause it's such a monumental task to get them back in gear."

Kathy doesn't like to have to nag them all the time, but she thinks deep down they enjoy it a little. "I think they get a sense of attention out of it," she says. "I think they want somebody to set those boundaries."

She once set the boundaries for a dancer planning to quit school by taking him into her own home. "His parents obviously didn't care," she says, "or weren't able to." At least not as much as Kathy cared. She got him out of his "environment," made sure he got to class and helped him with his homework. He became the first in his family to graduate from high school.

Kathy remembers this story as she's dropping the youngest member of Fly, John, off at his friend's house in a rough part of the Second Ward. John jokes about the gang activity in his neighborhood as he hops out of the van, saying, "You don't want to be wearing a lot of red over here." He's wearing red parachute pants from the show. John doesn't live at home either. Not far away from the friend's place where he's staying is the tiny duplex housing eight members of his extended family. But that's where his uncle used to beat him up.

John is Kathy's latest cause within the company. The high school senior is sweet, shy, obedient and the best head-spinner of the bunch. He's got a tough past and a future that Kathy thinks she can influence. "John hasn't given a thought to college, but I'm going to find some money somewhere," she pledges. "He's gonna need to go to school. Otherwise he's not going to make it out of that area over there."

As we leave "that area" Kathy notices a lot that used to have a building on it. "Oh, they tore something down," she sighs. "I hate it when they tear something down.... I just hate to see a waste."

Like most moms, Kathy spends a lot of time in her minivan, shuttling the Fly guys to and from work, school, home, rehearsal and performances. The kids sit in the back, of course, and Kathy keeps an eye on them in the rear-view mirror. She smiles when they fall sweetly asleep; she chides them, "Those who party must pay," when they're hungover; she educates them when she hears a cell phone beeping Beethoven; she beams when they tell stories about Paris, Helsinki, Estonia or any other foreign destination where she has managed to book them; she blushes a little when they compliment her new haircut ("Got the layers working. Right on, Kathy Wood."); and she drives like a bat out of hell when they're late, which is often.

It can take more than an hour just to get Fly to a local elementary school for one of its bread-and-butter Young Audiences of Houston edutainment shows. On a typical trip, Kathy loaded Fly's considerable costumes and props into the back of the van and then waited -- and waited -- on Mario to show up at the studio. He was on hip-hop time. At Toby's house, Kathy honked and fretted for nearly ten minutes before the dancer's face appeared at the window of the front door. She immediately adjusted her future pickup strategy: "Next time I'm going to tell him to be standing on the curb waiting." Kathy rolled down her window to tell Toby to hurry as he ambled out of the house. His relaxed gangsta gait never changed rhythm.

The adventure grew even more absurd at Ragland's house. Mario and Toby didn't seem to understand Kathy's anxiety about Ragland's failure to respond to the minivan's horn -- even after she told them they were pressed for time. Mario strolled up to the door and gave the bell an easy push. No answer. Kathy took matters into her own hands: She rang the doorbell, she banged on the door, she knocked on the windows, she called out Ragland's name, then she went around to the back of the house and repeated the summoning process. Meanwhile, Mario and Toby argued over whether Toby would cut Mario's hair later. Toby's sly excuse: "I'm gonna be pressed for time -- just like Kathy is." They've obviously learned more than modern dance from her.

Finally, Kathy called the house on Toby's cell phone. A very confused Ragland stuck his head outside -- phone still attached. He had fallen asleep.

Thankfully, only these three performers were needed for this particular Young Audiences show. "I'd be gray-haired if I had to round up five of them all the time," she says, without much relief in her voice.

The Fly guys didn't have time to warm up, but they didn't need it. They're always on.

Even when they're only dancing for the mirrors at The Duplex, the boys ricochet off the walls like bouncing rubber balls and crack each other up with cheesy, come-hither stage faces. "They throw away more movement than I ever thought of in my entire life," says Kathy.

When they're not dancing, they huddle like some kind of MTV boy band, snapping their fingers and harmonizing with their boy-band-brethren Az Yet's remakes of Chicago classics like "Hard to Say I'm Sorry."

"After all that we've been through (snap) / I will make it up to you (snap, snap) / I promise you..." Watch out, teenyboppers: The Fly guys are out to steal your heart.

When they're not dancing or singing, they're eating. It turns out that the food in the fridge is the only thing Kathy's husband, Mike, needed to worry about. But Kathy doesn't mind: "I don't think they get enough to eat at home."

Mike still gives the guys a hard time, but these days it's often about less controversial subjects, like the proper line for pants. Modeling, to the boys' hysterical delight, his slim-fit jeans with the waistband that actually hits him at the waist, Mike commands, "None of that baggy crap that y'all wear. Tight and skinny."

These are good times for Fly. Kathy has gone "from wanting it my way to doing it our way." She's consulting the guys and giving choreographic credit to both herself and Fly. Mario, Ragland, Chris, Toby and John know and accept what's expected of them. And the whole gang's looking back at accomplishment and forward to opportunity. They've performed at every major modern dance venue in town; they've got their own evening-length concert coming up in June; they've performed all over Europe; and well-respected choreographers from Yakov Sharir to Doug Elkins want to set pieces on them. Hip-hop roots aside, Fly has taken the modern dance scene by storm. Next they'll work on a long, seamless touring production like Stomp or Tap Dogs. And, of course, Fly will need a New York agent.

But first there's the matter of when they'll rehearse next week. Ragland is, as usual, reluctant to commit. Kathy's temper flares, and she asks him to step outside the door to discuss the issue. Waiting inside, we hear the muffled sounds of an argument -- not between an artistic director and a dancer, but between a teen and a parent.

Kathy: "Saturday is our designated time... I deserve some consideration!"
Ragland: "That's not the point!"
Kathy: "You're not listening!"
Ragland: "Everything in my life doesn't happen ahead of time!"

Ragland and Toby arrived early to their out-of-Kathy's-earshot interview at the Daiquiri Factory. But sipping his bright red, frozen Cardiac Arrest, Ragland apologizes for wasting my time. It seems he has nothing to say -- he's no longer a part of Fly.

The drama started at rehearsal earlier that evening when Kathy and the boys were trying to rework an old piece. Ragland thought they might as well just come up with an entirely new number, which seems innocent enough, maybe even a little ambitious. But you can guess that the suggestion probably came with a little attitude, a tinge of defiance. Then he pushed her: "If there's a big problem, why don't you fire me?" Kathy is not a woman to be dared. She took Ragland up on his offer.

With that off his chest, Ragland's got plenty to say, and Fly's PR party line has flown out the window: You know, he never liked dancing to classical music. In fact, he'd like to do some of his own choreography once in a while. And he wants more variety in the venues Fly plays; he worries that the modern dance community doesn't think they're up to par because they don't do plies.

And while we're on the subject, he's offended by Kathy's stories about how the boys are hard to work with and how she saved them from the street. Ragland went to private school, he points out: "I'm not dancing because I've got nothing else to do." Toby chimes in about the black-guy-with-a-beeper stereotype that shows up in many of Kathy's interviews: "She's got a cellular phone, what's that?"

Toby is here with his own Cardiac Arrest as a sign of somewhat ambivalent solidarity. He's going to stick with Fly, but only if Kathy "starts listening to us" and stops "trying to seem like she's the mom or something."

Ragland, on the other hand, claims to be happily fired. "I need a break from everything," he says. "I need to focus on myself... my music." He runs his hand over his half-shaved, half-ponytailed head and contemplates going to barber school. He could cut hair for the whole hip-hop community.

But he doesn't seem to be convincing himself. Ragland has peppered his entire rant with reminders that Kathy has done a lot for him and his friends and that Fly has a shot at really making it.

"It's just like any other relationship," says Kathy, by way of explaining the firing. "We had a knock-down-drag-out." Then they had another knock-down-drag-out and an un-firing. And Ragland was back.

Since their reconciliation, Kathy says her relationship with all the boys is better than ever but that Ragland, in particular, is more affectionate. "We talked about some things that we hadn't talked about," she says with protective ambiguity. "I guess we just needed to do that."

At the beginning of a recent rehearsal, it seemed as if she were right. The boys showed up at 7:20 p.m. for their seven o'clock rehearsal, shaving nearly 25 minutes off their usual 45-minute hip-hop time delay. But they weren't exactly ready to work. There were haircuts to be taken care of first.

Toby put John in a smock, plugged his clippers into an outlet on the front porch and started shaving meticulously, despite the less-than-ideal outdoor conditions. At first Kathy thought the entire situation was a riot and set about teasing poor John with expressions of mock horror: "Oh, John," she grimaced. "Toby, you shouldn't have done that." But as Toby's careful cutting took longer and longer, she realized she had been had. Why were they so late? Why hadn't they warmed up yet? And where was Ragland? He just had knee surgery, but he's still included in much of the choreography. And he should definitely be at rehearsal.

As Kathy stormed around the studio trying all of Ragland's phone numbers, Mario took over her post giving the hair cuttee a hard time. The normally softspoken John would have none of that: "Man, I already got Big Mama rushing me," he complained.

At about eight o'clock, Kathy finally got the reluctant boys rounded up for their rehearsal -- all except Ragland, that is, who never showed up at all. She sighed at the partial accomplishment, realizing perhaps that the Fly guys will always be rambunctious teenagers, never the obedient children she dreams of. "You either accept it," she says, "or you make an old woman out of yourself."

With that, she set to work trying to get the boys to complete a seemingly impossible combination of fancy footwork, direction changes and drops to the floor in a few quick counts of eight. First Kathy counted a little more loudly, then she clapped out the speedy rhythm. Finally she got up and marked through the combination herself. "No, it's faster than that," she directed the dancers. As usual, the Fly guys didn't seem that interested in Kathy's sense of time.

Fly performs June 26 and 27 at the Jewish Community Center. For more information, call (713)551-7255.

E-mail Lauren Kern at lauren_kern@houstonpress.com.

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