The Jewish B-Girl With A Dream
“Dance is a real powerful tool to give people hope,” says the break dancer who battles with her all-female crew, Fox Force Five, on the streets of New York. Courtesy of Ephrat Asherie
by Dvora Meyers
Special To The Jewish Week
This is the kind of question that drives Ephrat Asherie crazy. The Israeli-born Harlem resident has been break dancing for nearly six years, and no, she will attest, she’s hardly the only Caucasian at practices or club dance battles.
“We’re in the 21st century,” Asherie says. “Hip-hop is worldwide. I mean, the Koreans are the best b-boys in the world right now.” As she says this, she laughs and gives a “Can you believe that people still think like this?” look, rolling her hazel eyes and tossing her long brown hair.
To Asherie, dance — any type but especially the street styles of breaking house and hip-hop — is a language that anyone, anywhere in the world can
Asherie, 26, has witnessed firsthand the way dance transcends borders and circumstances. Through the nonprofit organization she cofounded, Dance for Peace, she has taught breaking (and to practitioners, it’s not break dancing; it’s breaking and those who do it are b-boys and b-girls) to impoverished children in Peru and South Africa, all through the generosity of private donors. “Dance is a real powerful tool to give people hope,” she says.
Asherie has taught kids, “who have absolutely nothing, no running water, no electricity, but came to class and gave everything of their spirit and soul to us while they were dancing. I remember this one little kid that would do flips on his way to the bathroom,” she recalls, smiling giddily.
While Asherie is proud of the work that Dance for Peace, founded last year, has done so far, she wants to take it to a whole other level. Literally. She hopes to take the project to Israel where a lot of her family lives, including an older brother who made aliyah some years back.
“What was in my head from the beginning was obviously the Palestinians and Israelis. That’s why we called it Dance for Peace ... I was watching a documentary about 1977 in New York City. [In] it was an interview with the owner of Paradise Garage, which was the biggest club in New York City and he was like, ‘Everybody came to the club: gays, straights, blacks, whites.’ He said, ‘If you can dance together, you can live together,’ and that’s what’s in my head.”
But so far, she does not know how to proceed because of the security situation in the country. On a recent trip, she practiced with the Israeli (crew) Lions of Zion, and when she asked the b-boys if they ever session with or battle Palestinian b-boys, they told her that they didn’t for the same reasons Asherie hasn’t organized a workshop in the region. “Can something like Dance for Peace be successful without some sort of truce?” she wonders. “I’m not sure. Maybe not. Or maybe we can figure out a way to get 20 Palestinian children over [to practice with the Israelis]. I mean, [they’re only in] East Jerusalem — they live together! We can make it happen.”
As she vacillates from her usual optimism to skepticism and back again, she fidgets in her seat, and it’s not hard to see why when she battles with her all-female crew, Fox Force Five, she does so under the name, “Bounce.” When she’s in the middle of a circle of b-boys, she jumps and swaggers and rocks to the beat, shoulders thrown back and chest open to her opponents. This hypes her up for the floor portion of the dance, the footwork, which to some may look a lot like running around one’s hands, but Asherie prefers to think of herself as very rhythmic spider. “My body remains still as my limbs move all around me,” she explains.
Asherie developed her quick, precise style in a community center in Bushwick, Brooklyn, under the tutelage of Richie Santiago, a 40-year-old accountant who was known as Break Easy back in the day when he represented the crew, BIS (Breaking in Style). Asherie, a Barnard alum, had found him after returning from her junior year abroad at the University of Bologna. It was in Italy that she spotted some teenagers breaking under the porticos that stretch from one end of the city to the other, and asked if they could teach her a move or two. “They said, ‘You’re from New York — you should be teaching us,’” she remembers. “But I didn’t know anything.”
“Papa Rich” (as he is called by the new generation of b-boys and b-girls he’s taught) would argue otherwise. “When Bounce came to me, she had knowledge of dance,” he says. But he taught the Westchester-bred Asherie, the raw form, the roots: the breaking, the rocking, the old-school style.
This was quite a departure from the ballet she had begun studying at age 10. Asherie’s mother, a dancer herself before entering the Israeli army, encouraged her only daughter to try dance. Up until that point, Asherie had been playing soccer in her quest to emulate her four older brothers, but after just a few dance classes, she was hooked. She practiced upwards of four times a week, though to look at her you wouldn’t think “ballerina.” She’s short, about 5-feet-2 and without long legs. “Ballet didn’t fit my body type,” Asherie acknowledges.
But breaking does. Most b-boys are short and Asherie’s broad shoulders and upper-body musculature are perfect for the strenuous moves that lure people to the b-boys in Union Square, though this is not what attracted her. What appealed to Asherie was the freestyle nature of the dance. “You could tell that everyone was dancing in their own way, doing their own thing. It was totally refreshing.” She bounces in her seat before adding, “You know what I mean?” She punctuates a lot of her sentences that way, with a question, as though she is not convinced that words alone can convey her intention. She wants to get down on the floor and show you.
She does this regularly as a breaking instructor at Peridance Center in the East Village and the Broadway Dance Center on West 57th Street. Asherie teaches her students many of the same drills that Santiago used in training her. And though she skips around the studio cheerfully and shouts encouragement in her raspy voice, she is adamant about the importance of these exercises in building the strength and endurance the dance demands. “What makes breaking so hard,” Asherie explains, “is that you dance on top, upright, on two feet and you have to dance on the floor, on all fours.”
Not that she doesn’t adapt the drills to suit the varying needs of her students. “I have a lot of students who have a lot of different problems getting various moves and I understand that what works for somebody may not work for someone else. Different body types, different mindsets, different hang-ups, especially when dealing with the adults. Sometimes I need to tell them to turn away from the mirror so they stop focusing on what they look like and just dance.”
Which is precisely what Asherie does every chance she gets. All that practice, according to Santiago, has paid off. Asherie is already creating her own style. “She is part of the second wave of b-girls. These girls will not just battle girls. Like not before,” he says, with pride.
In breaking, every dance set ends in a freeze. To explain this momentary pause, usually held in a position that seems physically impossible (such as upside down), Asherie once more invokes the idea of language. “Freezes can be like punctuation. They let your opponent know that you said what you needed to say and it’s a wrap.”
Though not for Asherie. Not yet anyway. She’s still got loads left to say.
For more information about breaking or Dance for Peace, go to: http://www.myspace.com/ephrat.