INTERVIEW WITH YVON SOGLO (CRAZY SMOOTH)

By Anita Malhotra

Yvon Soglo (Crazy Smooth) is a Benin-born, Ottawa-based dancer, choreographer and teacher who specializes in b-boying, the original form of hip hop dance. He is also the founder and director of the dance company Bboyizm, which will present Izm, a one-hour work he created, at the 2011 Canada Dance Festival on June 18, 2011.

Anita Malhotra spoke with Soglo on June 11, 2011 at his rehearsal space in Ottawa’s west end, just before one of his final rehearsals.

Yvon Soglo at his rehearsal space for "Izm" before his Artsmania interview (photo by Anita Malhotra)

Yvon Soglo at his rehearsal space for “Izm” before his Artsmania interview (photo by Anita Malhotra)

AM: What is a b-boy?

Soglo: A b-boy is a “break boy.” The “b” stands for “break,” so when you’re practicing the dance you’re b-boying, and if you’re a girl you’re b-girling. The break in the song is when there are no more words. The melody goes down and the song is carried by the drummer. That’s why we’re called b-boys and b-girls, because we dance to the break. So my name being Crazy Smooth, in the dance world they would call me “B-Boy Crazy Smooth” or “Break Boy Crazy Smooth.”

Bboyizm promo shot

Bboyizm promo shot

AM: How did you get that name?

Soglo: It was another dancer named T-Swift – Technical-Swift, a famous b-boy from Montreal. After we did a battle and he beat me, he asked me what my b-boy name was and I didn’t have one. Then he saw me dance and said, “We’re going to put ‘Crazy’ in your name because you move very fast, but even when you mess up, you can’t really tell because the way you move always looks smooth,” so “Crazy Smooth.” When he gave me the name, I didn’t think of it, but today I definitely think that it’s the one that defines me the best.

AM: How would you describe b-boying?

Soglo teaching a class

Soglo teaching a class

Soglo: Hip hop is the name of the culture, and within hip hop there’s b-boying, which is hip hop’s first dance. In the ‘80s, they used a wrong term to describe this dance – breakdancing. Breakdancing was an umbrella term that encompassed every type of street dance there was, so when you said you were breakdancing, you would do the moonwalk, then you would do a body wave, then you would spin on your head, which technically is nothing because each dance has its own history.

Soglo in triplicate demonstrating some b-boy moves

Soglo in triplicate demonstrating some b-boy moves

For b-boying and b-girling, the foundation of the dance is doing “toprock,” which is dancing when you’re standing up, a transition to go down on the floor – some people call it a “go-down,” some people call it a “drop.” Once you’re on the floor you do what we call footwork – shuffles, kick-outs and a bunch of footwork moves. And then there are what we call freezes, which the crowd usually likes, when people stop in a certain position for a second. And then traditionally what we call power moves would be the spinning – so spinning on your head, spinning on your back. So these are the main core elements of b-boying. Now, there are other street dances such as popping, locking, and waacking, so there are a whole bunch of other styles.

AM: Can you tell me a bit about the history of b-boying?

Soglo: B-boying started in the early ‘70s, got very popular in the late ‘70s, and got its media explosion in the early ‘80s. When it started, it was mainly the African American community in New York doing it, and as it got more popular in the late ‘70s with block parties, more communities were exposed to it. The two main communities were the African American community and the Latinos of New York, heavily influenced by the Puerto Ricans.

B-boy crew competition at Platform 3 Hip Hop Festival at the Eveleigh Carriageworks in Sydney (Andy Tyler, Flickr Creative Commons)

B-boy crew competition at Platform 3 Hip Hop Festival at the Eveleigh Carriageworks in Sydney (Andy Tyler, Flickr Creative Commons)

And then movies came out in the early ‘80s, like Beat Street, Wild Style, even Hollywood movies like Flash Dance. That’s why it became an international phenomenon. B-boying being a part of hip hop culture, there’s also DJing, there’s MCing, there’s graffiti, and then there’s the dance. And when people would see this they were like, “Wow. What is that? I want to be part of that.” And then, in the mid to end of the ‘80s, it died down and other dance forms came forward. As it was dying down, it became big elsewhere – Europe picked it up in a major way. And now today, the same phenomenon is happening where the media’s getting into it and you can see it everywhere.

AM: Who have you been inspired by?

Soglo: I have different types of inspirations, and they don’t necessarily come from the b-boy world, but I can name groups that pioneered this movement. There’s the Rock Steady Crew, which is from New York. There are the Floormasters, which later became the New York City Breakers. There’s another group called Dynamic Rockers. In Europe, there’s a very legendary crew in England called Second to None and there’s a crew in France called Actual Force. So, there are crews all over the world, but definitely Dynamic, Rock Steady Crew and New York City Breakers are probably the three most influential crews in b-boy history.

AM: When did you start b-boying and why?

Soglo: My first memory of dance would be Michael Jackson’s Thriller, when I was a kid, my Dad showing me some of the videos, and so I can say that I’ve always been dancing. But when I was in high school, one of my friends got one of those ‘80s movies from a friend called Breakin’, so when I saw that movie, something clicked and I told myself that that’s the type of dance that I would like to do.

From then on – I must have been 16, 17 – we started watching videos, putting the dancing in slow motion so we could try to imitate the moves. And then in 1997, we did a performance at this talent show called Hip Hop Fest. And after that show, we continued dancing and practicing and getting more videos and getting a bit more into the culture. And then, in 1999, I went to New York for my first Rock Steady Crew anniversary, which is a kind of jam/convention that goes over three or four days. When I was there I saw a lot of people that I saw in the movies, so it was a big revelation. And just being in New York where this culture started, it really clicked. After I came back, I started researching, studying the dance, and practicing hours and hours and hours.

AM: Tell me about your studies in New York.

Soglo: In 2005, I got a grant from the Canada Arts Council to go to New York to study the dance, and that’s when I had the opportunity to meet some of the pioneers. When I say study, it’s not necessarily that they showed me how to dance, but for me, which is essential, I had the opportunity to “kick it” with them, which is basically to just chill out, ask questions and hang out. And they’ll tell you about how it was back in the day – “When we were at the jam, this happened,” or “We went to this club, this crew came in and we battled them, and this person made this move up.”

I also managed to take workshops in Philadelphia with Rennie Harris, who’s a famous choreographer in the States, and with Crazy Legs, who’s a legendary b-boy and president of Rock Steady Crew. So when I say study, it’s deeper than just somebody showing you how to do a trick or a technique for a move. It’s understanding the dance and somebody’s perspective of the dance.

Soglo teaching a class

Soglo teaching a class

AM: What are some of the biggest technical challenges of b-boying?

Soglo: I would say it is very physically challenging. So for the floor stuff – you kneel down or you crouch down to really try out how to do the footwork – the challenge is adjusting all the foundation moves to your body. And some people are naturally stronger, some people are naturally more flexible. It’s when you stick with it and discover how your body works, how you’re going to have to adjust your body in order to be able to perform these moves. It’s hard, but at the same time it’s really a matter of conditioning and training.

AM: Do you train just by doing the moves or do you have other ways of keeping yourself in shape?

Soglo warming up before a rehearsal

Soglo warming up before a rehearsal (photo by Anita Malhotra)

Soglo: Everybody has a different regimen of training. I’m an athlete and I’ve been in sports before, so I train to dance but I also train a lot of calisthenics, push-ups, sit-ups and yoga.

AM: What is unique about your style of b-boying?

Soglo: The essence of hip hop culture is to aspire to be unique, and this is in every aspect of the culture, whether it’s fashion, dance, whether you’re an MC or a DJ. I’ve been told, by some older pioneers from New York, that when they look at a certain b-boy, they can tell, “Oh, you studied with this guy.” But one of them said to me, “You, I can’t say, I’ve never seen anybody move the way you do.” I’m from Benin, West Africa, and I think I have an African way of moving, and so my movement is very unique, and my philosophy of dance is also a bit different from other people’s. I truly believe in expressing yourself honestly, and that if your expression is honest it’s always going to be impressive. I’ll always do something that comes from the heart.

AM: Is there a particular type of music you like to dance to?

Soglo: I really like James Brown, but classic songs would be “Apache” from Incredible Bongo Band, Jimmy Castor and the Funky Bunch “It’s Just Begun,” “Hot Pants” by Bobbie Byrd, so there’s a lot.

AM: What do you express through your dance?

Soglo: Dance for me is one of the best ways to express myself, so that could be expressing joy, being really angry, being very emotional, you know, feel like crying, so it’s the one way that I express pretty much all the emotion that I have. It also comes through the music too, so some songs can give me that dark feeling that I have, and some songs just express joy and the love dancing and the love of moving my body. Some stuff could be political – it varies.

Still from "Izm," Soglo's first piece to be presented in a performing arts setting (photo by Jonathan Maher)

Still from “Izm,” Soglo’s first piece to be presented in a performing arts setting (photo by Jonathan Maher)

AM: When did you found your dance company, Bboyizm?

Soglo: After I came back from New York in 2005 I had the idea of the name Bboyizm. I had a crew with some of my best students and some of my friends, and as we grew, and I grew in terms of my personal career, it was the smartest thing to do because I wanted to start doing stuff in theatres and I wanted to be known not just as my crew but as a company.

AM: What is your show, Izm, about?

Soglo: Izm is our first piece in a performing arts setting. The “izm” represents expressing yourself honestly, not letting other things influence you too much, because we dancers sometimes want to impress people. When you’re on stage and everybody’s whooping and hollering, you want to impress, so when you wanted to impress, you will compromise your artistic integrity to do whatever they want to see. So Izm talks about the fact that there is an entertainment part to what we do, but then there is a very deep substance and artistic part to it too. The piece also has a bit of history of the dance. It pretty much sums up everything that we do.

AM: What role does teaching play in your life?

Soglo: I love to give back and in that sense I’m a purist about my art form and I don’t think you should learn from somebody who doesn’t really know. It’s also the mandate of my company to be authentic and not just teach 1-2-3-4-5, but to teach where it comes from. So the teachers that work for me have to know their stuff too, because we’re making sure we’re going to carry on tradition. Also, it plays a role in the community because we’re educating the kids about dance and about hip-hop culture.

Soglo and a child in the community of Pond Inlet, Nunavut

Soglo and a child in the community of Pond Inlet, Nunavut

AM: You’ve done some social work related to dance. What was that about?

Soglo: I was part of a crew called Canadian Floormasters, which is one of Canada’s oldest b-boy crews. The leader of that crew is Stephen Leafloor, who has a Master’s in Social Work but is also an old-school b-boy. And so he combined both of his passions and created a company called Blueprint for Life that does social work through hip-hop. I was part of the first group that did the pilot project in Iqualuit, Nunavut. We did this program with 100 kids from the high school. The project was such a success that Stephen ended up quitting his job and doing this full-time. Blueprint for Life basically changed people’s lives out there. We’re talking about places with probably the highest suicide rate in Canada and a lot of violence, and to bring something positive and something that the kids identify with is tremendous.

AM: Do you find it a struggle to get people to accept b-boying as a legitimate form of dance?

Soglo: Things are changing slowly, but people associate us with acrobatics and tricks, so if you’re with a friend and you tell them that you do ballet and you’re walking in the mall, they probably won’t say, “Okay, show me a pirouette.” But if you tell them that you do b-boying or b-girling, they’ll be like, “Oh yeah? Let me see you spin on your head.” So to make people understand that this is an art form just like ballet, jazz or anything else, takes work, and it’s part of my company’s mandate too. I want people to understand that this is an art form that has substance – it’s deep, it has history.

Bboyizm will present Izm at Ottawa’s National Arts Centre as part of the Canada Dance Festival on Saturday, June 18 at 7:30 p.m. For more information about Yvon Soglo and Bboyizm, visit the website Bboyizm.ca.

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