Preserving the culture of breaking is what is important to James Alexander, founder and director of Flavor’d Flow Studio—the first hip-hop-culture-based dance studio in Columbus, Ohio.
Alexander, a Columbus-native, remembers when breaking reemerged in the 1990s and underground hip-hop events started popping up, which is where he was first introduced to the art form. “I fell in love with the culture primarily, because it was the first time I felt accepted,” he says. He went from being a wallflower at high school dances to dancing in clubs, competing in battles, and performing around the country.
In 2000, Alexander got his first teaching gig—a friend’s mom, Sharon Daye, was opening a dance studio in Columbus and was looking for teachers. As soon as she saw him dance, Daye hired Alexander on the spot, and she was one of the first studio owners to offer breaking in Columbus. “[Daye] ended up being like my second mom,” says Alexander. “I taught for her for 16 years.”
In 2016, Alexander knew it was time to open his own studio, Flavor’d Flow, which proved to be an unexpected and challenging journey. “There’s a lot of negative stigma around breaking,” he says. “A lot of people think, even today, that as long as you’re moving on the ground you’re breaking, but that’s not the case.”
Because of that stigma, Alexander had trouble keeping families coming to class. Although the kids loved it, the parents weren’t completely on board. Alexander realized that he needed to implement more than just breaking in his teaching, so he started including a deeper knowledge of the culture and history of hip hop, life lessons, and instilled a strong work ethic in his students. Soon, his classes started to grow.
Flavor’d Flow is located in a large backroom in a local community center, covered with graffiti by multiple generations of artists and positive messages that are important to Alexander. “I want to give a safe place where everyone can feel accepted,” he says. Alexander also wants to continue the legacy of breakers before him. “I want to give back to hip hop what hip hop gave to me.” Beyond that, his “mission is to help put Columbus on the map for [hip-hop] dance.”
Alexander spoke to Dance Teacher about breaking being included in the summer Olympics and his advice for studio owners looking to hire hip-hop teachers.
How do you feel about breaking joining the summer Olympics next year?
I am at a crossroads with [breaking] being in the Olympics. The dance and culture are split with it being in the Olympics. Hip hop is cultural dance first and foremost—it’s not even meant to be danced onstage. It’s meant to be danced socially in a circle. The Olympics definitely takes it out of its traditional form. I’m really trying to keep an open mind as I recognize that a lot of people now are not getting introduced to the dance the way I did. They get introduced to it through YouTube and dance shows. They don’t see the tradition and the culture side. They just see the competitive side of it. I teach the traditions and culture side of it. I tell my kids if we don’t know the history and knowledge of [hip hop], we’re just stealing it. I don’t want to judge and I might be totally wrong. The Olympics could do some great positive things, but it can also do some really harmful stuff to breaking. I’m just going to wait and see what happens.
What advice would you give studio owners who are looking to include more hip-hop styles in their program?
Be educated on hip hop, and if you’re not, seek a person that is educated on the dances. I don’t mean college degrees, but people that know the history and know the dances. The vast majority of studios in Columbus that offer hip hop are not hip hop. They are street jazz—jazz with a little tiny bit of hip hop. Hire street dancers. College education in dance doesn’t really matter. Choose people who have been dancing for decades and really put the work in. Hip hop is not a dance, it’s a culture. There are dances that come from the culture, like breaking, popping, locking. So do your research and hire actual street dancers.
What’s the biggest lesson you want to impart onto your students?
I do have a lot of life lessons I want [my students] to learn. I try to teach them through the dance—things like self-confidence and hard work. If you take the easy route, life will be hard, and if you take the hard route, life will be easy. I want them to know that they’re accepted and they’re not less-than. At the end of class, I make sure I tell them I love them. If they become big dancers, great, and if they don’t, also great. I’m confident that they’ll walk away better humans because of dance. My main goal is to help them become young professionals, no matter what they want to do with their career. I want them to learn how to set goals and achieve them. I want them to be goal setters and dream getters.