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hip hop storms Moldova

In a former life, S was a dancer. She had majored in dance at college and even briefly considered pursuing a career in the arts before shifting course towards public health when she applied to graduate school. One of the surest – and saddest – signs of adulthood is when family life and work responsibilities crowd out one’s youthful passions, relegating them to the realm of memory and nostalgia. Sometimes though, at the most unanticipated of moments, life presents opportunities to relive one’s glory days. Just such an opportunity unexpectedly presented itself to S last month.

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The State Department has an excellent Arts Envoy Program that promotes a greater understanding of the diversity of American culture by sponsoring visiting artists. Last year, the Embassy brought a troupe of Native American dancers to Moldova and they toured the country, giving performances and workshops. D was asked to introduce the group at one of their performances in the predominantly Russian-speaking city of Bălţi, giving us both a chance to see Native American dance for the first time.

This year, the Embassy invited a Houston-based hip hop dance company, Soul Street, to perform, conduct workshops, and mentor youth. S attended their mid-week performance at the Chisinau Philharmonic, which included a guest appearance by a local hip hop crew. The energy in the room was palpable. Not only did the audience clearly enjoy the performance, but the media did as well.

The show brought back a flood of memories for S and she jumped at the opportunity to accompany the group the following day to introduce them at their workshop in Comrat, the capital city of the autonomous region of Gagauzia in the south of Moldova. The Gagauz people are descended from Orthodox Christian Turks and predominantly speak Russian in addition to their native language.

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Arriving just in time for a presentation at Comrat’s university, the group members explained that they all came from rough neighborhoods and used dance as a way to make better lives for themselves and their families. They showed videos from their trips to Haiti as well as Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia. The students asked nonstop questions, from how dancers join a hip hop crew to whether they carry guns to protect themselves in their neighborhoods back home. The talk ended with a live demonstration of Popping, one of the original funk styles, which was met with exuberant cheers and applause. Of course, everyone wanted a photo with the dancers, particularly Rock with his long dreads.

After lunch, Soul Street organized a hip hop master class at Comrat’s cultural hall. The small dance studio was packed with kids of all ages wearing a range of footwear. The dancers jumped right in with an aerobic warm-up and stretches. Then they taught a Popping and later a Breaking sequence. At the end of the class, the guys started an open cypher and tried to get all of the kids to go into the center to freestyle. It was fun to see the kids’ individual styles come out, but most impressive of all was the translator, who not only rephrased everything in Russian without missing a beat, but also endeavored to follow along with the moves.

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There was little time to see much of Comrat other than the central cathedral, but on the way back to Chisinau, one of the Embassy’s local staff invited the group to visit his childhood home. His mother and uncle greeted the dancers with warm plăcintă, roasted wild chicken, and homemade wine. To thank their hosts, Rock played some music off his phone and stood in the living room to perform a sample of Popping. The technique is based on quickly contracting and relaxing muscles to cause a jerk in the body, known as a pop. The old woman seemed intrigued at first and stood with her mouth agape by the time he was done. It’s safe to say that she had neither seen anything like this before nor imagined it to be in the realm of the possible.

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