Local dance group teaches academics using hip hop

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

This guest blog post comes from Aaron Troisi, a board member of the Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools.

With the School District cutting programs and closing neighborhood schools, the city’s children may soon receive some educational assistance from an unlikely source – Philadelphia’s hip-hop community.

Hip Hop Fundamentals, a local group of dancers who use breakdancing to teach academic content, are gearing up to tour their empowering “Civil Rights Movements” assembly to 10 neighborhood public schools at no cost to the local schools. But first they have to raise some money.

“With all these education cuts, young people in Philly are losing their ability to participate in the arts,” said Fundamentals co-owner and performer Mark Wong, who has been an active dancer in the Philadelphia scene for more than a decade.

“We want to provide that opportunity to the students who need it most in our communities.”

The crew’s show is an exciting mash-up of hip-hop performance, history lecture, and participatory theater. The hour-long assembly focuses on student involvement in the American Civil Rights Movement, as seen through the eyes of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., as performers guide students through a number of interactive activities.

Hip Hop Fundamentals will offer a free performance at 11 a.m. Sunday, May 5, in West Philadelphia’s Clark Park.

To raise the money necessary to provide the assembly for free to local schools, Fundamentals launched a Kickstarter campaign earlier this month. The crowd-funding website allows people from all over the world to contribute to projects they’d like to support. But it’s all or nothing: Either the crew will raise the $10,000 to tour their show or they — and the schools — get nothing.

“It’s an amazing assembly,” said high school student Tyrell White, who performed at the debut of the show at the African American Museum in Philadelphia on Martin Luther King Day in January.

“It’s the best history lesson I ever had.”

An elementary assembly adaptable for older students, the show uses King’s speeches, dance performance, audience participation, and a variety of activities to explore the social conditions that gave rise to the Civil Rights Movement, the heroic work necessary to end segregation, and the critical role that young people played in winning equal rights for millions of Americans.

Students engage in activities that illustrate the pains of segregation, the importance of cooperation, and the power of overcoming adversity together. In case you’re wondering what hip hop has to do with King or the Civil Rights Movement, they cover that in the show, too.

The best part is that students are learning. A quick peek at the thank-you letters written to the crew from a group of elementary students who saw the show reveals that they are having fun, but also retaining the important stuff.

“Thank you for teaching me about segregation and Civil Rights,” wrote Cole, a 3d grader. “I think you are awesome.”

To learn more about the campaign or to make a contribution, visit www.kickstarter.com/projects/1056346415/hip-hop-dance-teaching-social-justice.