ALL IN THE FAMILY
Quite often in our society, fields, courts, and dance studios end up being one of the first places where children are instilled with a sense of work ethic, pride, and discipline. Especially in urban centers, they serve as spaces to learn and compete in, becoming institutions of competition and camaraderie. And as we all know, chasing your dreams is never easy; one needs to work, to push, to excel—to go hard. You’ve heard it said on football fields, at practice, in the studio, in the office, and on the radio. But what does it really mean to go hard? To one community of dancers in Harlem, specifically on Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard, it means everything. And when it comes to dance, no one goes harder than the founders of the Go Hard Dance studio: Harlem natives Shea Evans and Cheryl Thomas, who has been dancing since she could walk. “Growing up in Harlem, there was a lot going on, but I was just always dancing. I used to love variety shows, and I used to love Fame and watching Debbie Allen and Gene Anthony Ray (who infamously played Leroy). I always knew I had to dance. I thought, ‘I’m going to join a dance studio!' When I was eight years old my mother and I got the Yellow Pages out and she started flipping and we found Ruth Williams Dance Studio. Ms. Williams truly was an institution – she’d been teaching for so long that quite often she ended up teaching the great-grandchildren of some of her former students. She was a legend, a local celebrity."
And as Kara McGinley discovers in her piece, dance is handed down through the generations in Harlem. Which is why it’s not surprising that Cheryl’s daughter, Dakota Hill, also went on to become a dancer and that together they wanted to build something of their own. They dreamed of a training ground for the next generation of dancers—a place for others in their community to learn the traditions and new styles of dance right in their own neighborhood. So when Dakota met choreographer Lacey Thomas at Dance Theatre of Harlem, it seemed like the stars aligned; almost a foreshadowing of sorts. The historic theater is known for its traditional roots in ballet, jazz, and tap–strict forms of dance that date back at least a century. The work and dancers that Dance Theatre of Harlem has produced cannot be understated, but when it came to hip hop dance, the theater wasn’t too open with the idea of teaching it. They certainly weren’t the only institution to initially turn their noses up at hip hop, rather, they were following in the footsteps of Soul Train and MTV before them.
“The Dance Theatre of Harlem never had hip hop dance before,” said Dakota. “That’s where I attended my Summer Intensive program, but they never had hip hop dance, which was what I always wanted to do. Finally I saw a hip hop class on the calendar one day and everyone was talking about it in the locker room. Everybody was saying, ‘what’s going on with that hip hop class? Hip hop? There’s hip hop here now?’ And that’s how I met Lacey, because she was the one teaching it! But funny enough, she had to pay them to let her use the studio for that. She was actually paying to teach,” Dakota explained. “Lacey’s always been surrounded by ballet. So when she wanted to get into hip hop dance, the Theater was against it, but only because they didn't really know what it was. They didn't really support it as much because they didn’t know much besides ballet there. So, I was ready to do hip hop, and I was ready to go further into what Lacey wanted to do.” READ MORE HERE
Eventually, Lacey’s class became so popular that she gained a following that continued to grow organically. Dakota started assisting Lacey’s classes and soon Cheryl truly saw how hip hop dance was a totally different experience. It hadn’t become an institution yet in their community simply because there was nowhere for the kids to go, stay, and learn hip hop dance. “Watching what Dakota and Lacey were doing, I saw there was no consistency. They rent whatever and wherever studios are open. It was like Wednesday, Friday, Sunday ‘where are you girls today?’ ‘Oh, we're on 57th Street.’ Okay, the next rehearsal right after is on 72nd Street. The next one is on Chambers. And I was like, ‘wait, wait, wait, wait. This isn’t right!’ They had their students following them all over the city to all these studios for over a year. And I thought, if I were their parents, I would be a little annoyed. The kids are from Harlem and the Bronx. And I thought damn, there’s really nothing going on like this up here.” Lacey and Dakota had a vision for their own company and to create something fresh in their community where they could teach traditional dance and hip hop on their own terms. The girls were serious, organized and already had a following. After some missteps and many long nights, they took the leap and with the girls’ own true grit, LEGACY, the company, was born.
In the end, Cheryl knew where to go for help finding a space of their own—back to the very boys who kept her off the streets and in the dance studio back when she was a teenager. One of those boys happened to be Shea Evans, founder and CEO of GOHARDBOYZ, a community organization of street bike riders focused on excellence and competitive alternatives to street life. It was Shea who first tapped Cheryl to take charge in organizing complicated events around the GOHARD community, relying on her devotion to the ethos, skills as a communicator, and all around abilities to get shit done. “When Shea Evans needed the bike community organized with the new league, Motorcross Freestyle Street Riders Association (MxFSA), I helped organize the awards show and upcoming events for GOHARDBOYZ. At the first show, the Police were treating Shea and the bikers like shit, but they do a lot for the community and I wanted to help them. So, when I needed help, Shea was like ‘you helped me, now I’ll help you do this.' The reach of our arm is long, everything we touch within our community deserves our approach to go hard, to be successful. With regards to our children, our peers, our elders, and the community in itself, our reach is long - we go hard for them.” So after a lot of aimless driving around during lunch breaks, Cheryl finally found the right studio. “I took Lacey in to see the space and said ‘can you work with this?’” said Cheryl, “She nodded and said, ‘Yeah, I can work with this.’" READ MORE HERE
Go Hard Dance opened in 2017 and they now have around 50 students. And LEGACY, the company, whose home base is now officially the Go Hard Dance Studio, has become an exclusive company that dancers compete to be in. Cheryl, Dakota, and Lacey are continuing the tradition of passing down the art and the discipline of dance to generations within their community. And Go Hard Dance Studio doesn’t just serve as a place to learn different aspects of dance—it’s become a neighborhood hub. A place for kids of all ages to gather. It’s not unusual to see all kinds of people going in and out, socializing, parents dropping their kids off before they go to work, community BBQs, yoga classes, and a whole lot more. It’s already become so much more than a dance studio—It's becoming a Harlem institution. “If I could pull her back right now I would tell Miss Williams thank you. Because if she didn't make me so disciplined I wouldn’t have been able to do this. Everything she told me to do, she said to do it with heart. I did it. And I did it without complaint. You know what I mean? So, it's like, I'm bringing Miss Williams traditions to this new studio. Her studio was filled with children from our neighborhood. She had a family business. So, Go Hard Dance is my family business.”
photographed by Janette Beckman for The Culture Crush
Nothing exemplified going hard in New York City in the ’80’s quite like the movie Fame. It follows the lives of teenage students auditioning for then attending New York’s School of the Performing Arts. It was an eclectic group of actors, some who were no-names and a few who found real fame after the release of the film. Famewas British director Alan Parker’s third film, and spun off in several directions after its debut - it was a hit television series, a musical play, and the inspiration for countless other shows about overly talented teenagers. But unlike those remakes and G-rated TV shows, this dark yet beautiful high school movie wasn’t for kids at all.
In the story, the students were separated into drama, music, and dance departments, along with regular general education classes like math and science. The drama department consisted of characters Montgomery MacNeil, who was struggling with his sexuality, Doris Finsecker, and Ralph Garci, who turned to drama after failing to succeed at music and dance. In the Music department, Bruno Martelli was an aspiring keyboardist with electronic equipment that shook the previous traditional, music foundations of the department. Lisa Monroe got accepted in the dance department, despite feeling ambivalent towards the subject. Coco Hernandez (Irene Cara) got into all three departments, making her the token triple threat character. And Leroy Johnson (played by Gene Anthony Ray, Harlem native, real life Performing Arts School dropout, and coincidentally a cousin of Go Hard Dance co-founder Shea Evans) only auditioned to the dance department to help his girlfriend get in by assisting her with her sequence, but ended up outshining her and stealing her spot away in the freshman class.
Although there are some impressive dance moves and music throughout the film (its title track won an Academy Award), it also shows how hard one has to go to truly pursue their passion. The characters struggle to try and reach their adolescent dreams as we watch and listen to them develop into more hardened and more mature adult performers. All of this drama was made ever more real with the backdrop of the gritty New York streets. The film could easily be written off as a bit dark and depressing, but it’s also inspiring. It shows that going hard for what you want isn’t always pretty.