By Benjamin Leatherman
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By Katrina Montgomery
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By Ray Stern
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Beautiful bodies fueled by Wild Cherry Pepsi and tall cans of Arizona Iced Tea crowd into a tiny North Central studio on a hot Sunday afternoon. The myth that dancers are celery-nibbling ethereal beings is just that.
Adrian Mendle, sporting bright orange high-tops, cargo pants, and a stocking cap, leads the class through warm-ups before today's choreographer, Rufus Rodriguez, teaches the first bit of a new hip-hop/R&B routine.
Mendle bends his tall frame forward in a yoga stretch. "You wanna make sure your spine is concave," he cautions, and the dancers immediately pounce on his word choice.
Ribbing is accepted and expected among the EPIK crew, a professional street fusion dance company knit as tightly as its dancers' low-slung sweatpants — now sadly out of season at Walmart, as one company member laments.
Sarah "Saza" Dimmick and Luis "Weezy" Egurrola met, as did much of the crew, in the WNBA Phoenix Mercury's Hip Hop Squad. Dimmick started there in 2001, while Egurrola, who remains the squad's coach, started in 2005. Together they started EPIK Dance Company two years later as a way to create "an outlet for amazing, incredible dancers who would have to move to dance professionally," as Dimmick says.
Still, they move. "I think we're going to lose him. Send him on his way to L.A.," Dimmick sighs, watching a statuesque Rodriguez goof off with another dancer about Gay Day at Wet 'n' Wild. "The revolving door is part of the business. We're wishing him the best."
Dimmick and Egurrola serve as co-artistic directors, young super-hip parental figures to this group of 17 street — poppers, lockers, house, and b-boys and b-girls — and technical contemporary dancers.
"A lot of our dancers are not studio-trained," says Egurrola. "They're raw. We like our dancers to think and use their talent."
Dimmick agrees, "Yeah, Weezy and I aren't dictating from the top. We have so many unique personalities in the company. We're not homogenous at all. It makes the company so much richer when it's not coming from one perspective."
While each dancer has his or her strengths, Dimmick and Egurrola prickle at the thought of being pigeonholed. They expect dancers to perform all types of dance with equal abandon and enthusiasm, and it's not unusual to see a b-boy spinning on his head one minute and leaping balletically across the floor the next. All dancers transition in and out of styles, often during the same routine.
Take EPIK's energetic character-driven piece that includes swing, breaking, jazz, and hip-hop: "Swing Set" by Jurassic 5. Although Dimmick conceived the number, the choreography was a typically collaborative effort. The dance incorporates three guest dancers from Furious Styles Crew, many props and parts, and, actually, the entire company. "We love high-energy, complicated pieces like this one," Dimmick says. "There's so much going on."
Dimmick, who devotes most of her energy to the company, dreams of having all EPIK dancers on salary.
"We want to be the Alvin Ailey of Arizona," she says, fully aware she's in tall-order territory. Although, arguably there has never been a better time for local dance, as it rides the wave created by recent television shows like Fox's So You Think You Can Dance and MTV's America's Best Dance Crew.
"TV has been great for dance. A lot more non-dancers are enjoying it. It used to be you just danced for other dancers," Dimmick points out. "Dance is getting so much more respect."
That respect was evident last fall when EPIK sold out the Saturday performance of its Herberger Theatre première, Common Ground, a show that is being revamped for November in what will be a newly remodeled Herberger. The premise of Common Ground is the commonality of the human story in a diverse world, a sameness EPIK communicates as it speaks in tongues.
"Who said dance is the universal language?" Dimmick asks of no one in particular during a rehearsal.
"Elmer Fudd?" offers Mendle.
Further evidence of EPIK's cool: Every second Saturday, the crew hosts EPIK Solstice at Bar Smith in downtown Phoenix with DJs Senbad, Pete Salaz, and M2. "This is the club where all the local dancers come to get down. You will find plenty of cyphers full of b-boys, poppers and house dancers," Dimmick says.
This crew may be the freshest thing in the club, but don't let that gangsta jargon fool you. EPIK's successes are growing almost faster that it can handle. It's what Dimmick calls "a good problem to have." This company succeeds (whatever that means in the hardscrabble financial reality of local dance) and maintains a charity and education-minded focus. Urban art should address tough themes, but EPIK, sort of a Brady Bunch of hip-hop, toes a line. "We do address tough themes," Dimmick says. "But we don't make it offensive. We don't use music with profanity."
What the what?
Mendle agrees. "It's about trying to evoke emotion rather than push buttons."