Many of the images in last year’s “Beauty CULTure” exhibition at the Annenberg Space for Photography provoked discussion: the blank stare of a child beauty contestant, a pair of taut lips being poked with a surgeon’s needle. The exhibition touched on issues of vanity, acceptance and self-worth. After catching the show, a handful of dancers from the urban dance collective Culture Shock L.A. were inspired to put their own spin on the concept. This Friday at the Ford Amphitheatre, they will premiere “BEauty,” featuring their own work alongside contributions from contestants of “America’s Best Dance Crew,” guest MCs, and actress and Culture Shock L.A .board member Tamlyn Tomita.
For 19 years, Culture Shock L.A.'s main focus has been on outreach and education. The nonprofit community dance organization offers in-school, after-school and public classes in urban dance styles, mostly in neighborhoods lacking arts education programs. Armed with music and dance, they aim to cultivate dignity and combat stereotypes. In 2005, the collective decided to produce benefit shows. “BEauty” will be its eighth, and its third big production this year.
Allison Tanaka is one of Culture Shock L.A.'s co-executive directors. She is slight, almost fragile. One week before “BEauty” premieres, she is gliding graceful as a feather around rehearsals at the South Bay Dance Center.
“With our dance education programs, a lot of times the feedback we get from class teachers and school administrators is how surprised they are after they see the kids and what they’ve learned,” says Tanaka. “They realize they’ve stereotyped us in the negative ways the mainstream media portrays hip-hop, and they didn’t see the value of what it is that we do, or the art form that’s involved.”
Everyone involved with Culture Shock L.A. is a volunteer, from the dancers to the administrators. Most of them have full-time jobs or are students. Arnel Calvario, the president of the Culture Shock Board of Directors, is a doctor of occupational therapy in pediatrics. They consider each other as close-knit as family.
“About midway through the season we asked the dancers to write about their lives and some of the struggles and triumphs they’ve had,” says Michelle Castelo, Culture Shock L.A.'s other co-executive director. The resulting stories focused on finding the beauty in struggle.
“We were inspired as a collective to bring those stories to life,” Castelo says about the inspiration behind Friday’s showcase. “One of the big things about hip-hop is that it rose out of struggle. We’re paying homage to where hip-hop came from, how it has grown, and where we have taken hip-hop.”
At the recent rehearsal, Diane Palaganas, 28, the group’s artistic director, instructs the dancers to form a cipher, or circle. The practice is an integral part of hip-hop dance performance.
“With hip-hop, there’s so much beauty in expressing yourself,” Palaganas says. “When you freestyle in a cipher you can just be yourself. You do things that you never thought you could do. You can relate it to life.”
In another room, two b-boys spin effortlessly on their backs and heads and hold freezes that resemble yoga poses. Dancers wearing plastic masks spill into the center space, some working it like the Fly Girls from the ‘90s TV series “In Living Color,” others wacking like Madonna in her “Vogue” video. Huge images from mainstream media will flash on a screen in the background. Some of them border on grotesque, says Tanaka, in an effort to challenge damaging ideals of beauty.
“We come from all different backgrounds, cultures, body sizes, ages,” says Tanaka. “We’re trying to use all of the different shapes and abilities of everybody, and show that they are beautiful.”
For “BEauty,” Tanaka and Castelo are putting on their dancing shoes again. They are both Culture Shock alumni and asked to be a part of this show. Tanaka says that it is a special group of people this year.
“I feel like Culture Shock is such a family,” Tanaka says. Her voice cracks and tears begin to stream down her face. “Dance is a way for us to support one another. This show is about the beauty in the moments; finding the beauty in people and the world around you.”