Underground Movement

Local hip-hop troupe Nebellen makes a break for the big time

At 15, she left home to attend the Harid Conservatory in Boca Raton, Florida, the country's only tuition-free boarding school for young dancers.

At 17, Rath began auditioning for ballet companies and, instead of returning to Harid for her senior year, moved to Phoenix. She found an apartment, finished high school through correspondence classes, and devoted her days to dancing with Ballet Arizona.

"It was a little scary, but also really exciting," she says. "I was really excited to be with a ballet company."

Nebellen's founders and co-artistic directors, Ben Howe and Ellen Rath.
Nebellen's founders and co-artistic directors, Ben Howe and Ellen Rath.
Flipping for Nebellen: Robert Lopez and Antonio Berumen.
Flipping for Nebellen: Robert Lopez and Antonio Berumen.

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Photography by Jeff Newton

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Her parents traveled across the country for every performance and eventually relocated to the Valley. After one year as a trainee and another as an apprentice, Rath was promoted to company dancer.

She had officially succeeded in the highly competitive arena of ballet. But . . . there was a but. "I've always been more strongly drawn to modern dance," Rath admits. Very modern dance -- cutting-edge styles being devised on the street, even as Nebellen perfects this Sunday's routines.

A white girl from Minnesota may be the last person you'd expect to see freestyling in a hip-hop routine rivaling the moves in You Got Served, a street dance movie recently released on DVD. But the kids who dance with Rath will tell you otherwise.

As will Howe, Rath's partner on and off stage. While Rath's dance background is in the studio, Howe's is on the streets of Cleveland, where he discovered "hyper hip-hop" in high school. Howe earned a dance degree from ASU last month, and has guested in Ballet Arizona productions of The Nutcracker and Swan Lake.

The two met while shaking their respective groove things at Tempe's defunct Insomnia nightclub. As they got to know each other, Rath, already four seasons into a career with Ballet Arizona, propositioned Howe.

"I just asked Ben one day if he wanted to make a dance show, and he said yes without really knowing what that was," she explains. "He always thought dancers were just back-up for singers or opening acts. He didn't know there were professional dance companies where people got paid full-time to dance."

"Dance, to me, was videos and concerts, and that's all," Howe says. "That's all that inner-city kids know."

"So we found a cheap place that would let us do a show without having insurance, and started rehearsing," Rath continues. "The First Nebellen was made up completely of friends and acquaintances from clubs and raves."

The show, which went down at Scottsdale's Kerr Cultural Center, sold out. Rath's mother, Kathy, helped the kids fill out some paperwork. And the nonprofit Nebellen Dance Company was born.

Nebellen, if you haven't figured it out, is a combination of Howe's and Rath's first names.

Though Rath is a no-nonsense leader -- "I know you need to talk to your partners," she chastises the group, "but shh!" -- she laughs loudly and often.

A dancer rips the seat of his pants. Another, explaining a partner lift, instructs, "Girls, on your knees." The room dissolves in laughter.

And then it's back to work.

The collective attitude, surprisingly, is neither competitive nor cocky. A kid in cargo pants politely raises his hand to ask a question. Dancers shout props and applaud wildly and take time to help each other master moves. They hug.

Like a track coach, Rath leads Nebellen through drills, hoping that repetition will help the dancers nail a tricky sideways jump. She then asks the dancers to shimmy their shoulders as they sidestep across the room. The exercise is both sexy and strenuous.

"I definitely use my ballet background and training when working on dancers' lines and picking out small details to make certain moves look better," Rath explains. "Ballet really trained me to have a very critical eye, which is what helps Nebellen look good."

But ballet isn't the only ingredient in Nebellen's success.

When Howe takes the rehearsal reins, he ups the comic relief.

"I'm Neb," he introduces himself to new members. He's given to clowning and exaggeration, both in his dancing and his delivery: "If there's something that hurts, don't do it," he announces. "Tell us. We're not here to kill people."

Breakin' is Howe's strong suit, and he leads the group through a poppin' and lockin' routine (there are no G's in hip-hop). Rather than leading with "one, two, three, four," he teaches the steps to "ba ba ba ba, uh uh uh uh," and his joints move like well-oiled hinges. In contrast, some of the white girls look, well, white -- their moves robotic and unnatural. But with five practices a week -- up to four hours at a stretch -- the kinks will be worked out in no time.

Though hip-hop is Nebellen's main gig, Rath and Howe like to maintain a well-rounded group. Each week, a different member leads a Nebellen company class, teaching a style of dance he or she finds particularly interesting.

On a Sunday in early March, Robert Lopez, 24, introduces his troupe mates to mambo, salsa and merengue -- and some very hip-hop interpretations result. The students master the basic steps in minutes, so Lopez kicks it up a notch -- and it becomes clear that this isn't your senior center Latin dance class. A horn solo wails from the boom box as Lopez caps a high-speed move by dropping his partner into the splits. He demonstrates a tricky sequence -- it's all about the timing -- wherein the man, by gently cueing his partner with his feet, repeatedly changes the direction of her spin.

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