Anjelica “Snookie” Escarcega dances at a Diggs Deeper event.EXPAND
Anjelica “Snookie” Escarcega dances at a Diggs Deeper event.
RJ Digital Media

How Diggs Deeper Is Shaking Up the Freestyle Dance Scene

The average freestyle dance event in Arizona looks something like this: Dancers battle, usually one on one, in a circle of spectators and fellow performers. They’re judged by a panel and the judges don’t speak. The dancers don’t speak to them either, or to the audience, and since the music (usually hip-hop) is blasting, there’s barely any speaking at all, except from the emcee.

Diggs Deeper, however, is different.

The quarterly Phoenix gathering brings together performers and audience members in an intimate and often quiet setting, and it’s not a competition. Instead, participants dance impromptu solos just for the sake of sharing, and they offer a short monologue before they perform.

There’s more talking. There’s also more listening.

Besides solo dance performances, Diggs Deeper events feature a local guest speaker, or a panel of people knowledgeable about the culture, history, and current climate of freestyle dance, an art form that can use any style and that isn’t choreographed. All genres are welcome, from tap, jazz, and break-dancing to popping or ballet.

These events are part of a growing movement of Diggs Deeper gatherings that take place consistently in 15 cities across the United States, including Los Angeles; Las Vegas; Portland, Oregon; Dallas; Tampa, Florida; and Salt Lake City. There’s also a Diggs Deeper in Berlin.

Diggs Deeper provides a platform for all types of dancers, whether they have a studio background or street-dance background, says Kayla Tomooka, 25.

“This event always brings honesty, vulnerability, and emotion to the community, and I’m happy to be a part of it,” she says.

Tomooka grew up in a competitive choreography studio and wasn’t exposed to freestyle until adulthood. She’s now a co-emcee of Diggs Deeper in Phoenix.

“The first time I was part of Diggs Deeper, one of my closest friends sang a song a cappella for me while I danced,” Tomooka says. “It was such a great place for me to be surrounded by like-minded people where we could move however we wanted and in whatever facet we wanted.”

Diggs Deeper was founded by Jojo Diggs, 40, a dancer and choreographer who has battled, judged or participated in dance events in 23 countries. Diggs, a member of the crews Culture Shock, MOPTOP, and the Waackers, is a Las Vegas resident. She started Diggs Deeper in 2013, with an event in L.A.

Since then, about 150 events have been hosted nationwide, including a Phoenix series for kids, in which the performers and most volunteers are younger than 17. The kids’ version has the same goal of bringing the community together in a reflective, cozy space devoid of competition.

Ryan “Rhyno” Evans dances at a Diggs Deeper event.EXPAND
Ryan “Rhyno” Evans dances at a Diggs Deeper event.
RJ Digital Media

The lighting at Diggs Deeper events is usually low and no videography is allowed. The videography ban is intended to help participants stay in the present moment, a moment that must be experienced in the flesh since it can’t be shared later electronically.

Despite each event following a similar template, every city’s gathering has its own specific feel, Diggs says.

“All are intimate and raw. There’s an authentic culture of street dance to it, but the tone of the events is different,” Diggs says. “But it’s not only the city it’s in that influences the tone — it’s also the leader.”

Local leaders book the performers and event space, emcee the event, and staff the door. These volunteers handle everything from marketing, to setup and cleanup. The lead organizer of PHX Diggs Deeper, Andy Jeune, says that planning the event helps volunteers improve their leadership and organizing skills.

“What I learned is that the event’s smoothness is based on how much time I prepare in the weeks or months in advance,” Jeune says. “Any type of procrastination has a serious effect on the event as it draws closer and on the day of.”

Organizing Diggs Deeper is time-consuming, but worth it, according to Jeune, 32, a desktop engineer with Banner Health. Jeune, also known by the dance name AJ Bangz, is a member of the international dance crew Creation, and teaches Chicago Footwork at Jukebox Dance Studio in Mesa, where Diggs Deeper events are held.

“Organizers in different cities say how much this event means to their community because of how it provides a space that they didn’t have before,” Jeune says. “The recurring theme of Diggs Deeper is that each performer brings their story into that space. We always get an understanding of where the dancer is at in their journey. There’s something intimate about having a glimpse into each person’s life.”

For dancers — who tend to be more comfortable sharing emotions and experiences physically rather than verbally — the night provides an alternate way to communicate. Often, their monologues are insightful outpourings of painful experiences that have influenced their dancing. Intros can be light and funny as well.

For every emotion displayed at the event, music is integral. Nathaniel “Panic” Hawkins Jr., 31, deejays regularly at dance competitions across the Valley and sees great value in those events, but the lack of competitive zeal at Diggs Deeper is refreshing to him.

“My drive to continue to spin for Diggs Deeper events is founded in the event’s ability to truly give dancers a safe space,” Hawkins says. “The energy of the room itself is filled with so much love and acceptance — it often reminds me of why I started to deejay in the first place.”

Hawkins, also a dancer, appreciates the supportive, sensitive environment of Diggs Deeper. The intimacy of the event is akin to close friends talking in a living room or around a camp fire.

Grace Ma dances at a Diggs Deeper event.EXPAND
Grace Ma dances at a Diggs Deeper event.
RJ Digital Media

“Within the confines of a regular jam, we’re often more times than not under a microscope,” Hawkins says. “Whether it be from fellow dancers, contest judges, the audience … Whereas with Diggs Deeper, the event is more focused on a dancer saying exactly what they would like to say within that given moment without fear of constant judgment or expectations.”

This safe space is exactly what the event’s creator wanted.

“There wasn’t an outlet for street dancers to express themselves for the sake of expressing themselves,” Diggs says. “Diggs Deeper gives people in this culture a chance to say whatever’s on their heart, and have a place to acknowledge people who came before us. The intention isn’t focused on the outcome.”

The purpose of the event is the event itself — and to provide an emotional challenge.

“You can go with what’s easy for you and you can show off and that’s fine and that can be great,” Diggs says. “But other times you can do something that’s really tough and vulnerable, and then you grow to greater psychological depths. It’s a very journey-based event.”

Every type of dancer is welcome at PHX Diggs Deeper, but street dancers are among the most common. They practice styles such as breaking, krumping, popping, and locking, but at Diggs Deeper, they can experiment with any style they feel at that moment. Street dancers are part of a vibrant community that hosts dance events every weekend throughout the state.

These events have created a tight-knit community and have made Arizona a force to be reckoned with nationally and internationally. For instance, Arizona dance crews took home first, second and third in the “mega crew” division of Hip Hop International in August 2017, and Arizona scored high in many other categories as well.

The healthy competition at battles helps participants improve and helps them score well in high-profile settings such as a Hip Hop International. While camaraderie and support is rampant at competitions, the events are rarely quiet, sensitive places where vulnerability is on display.

Diggs Deeper fills that void.

The next PHX Diggs Deeper is Friday, December 8, from 7 to 11 p.m., at Jukebox Dance Studio in Mesa. Admission to this all-ages event is $10. For information, visit diggsdeeper.com.

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