The Groovaloos Shake It Up

June 21, 2007

Energy oozes from the stage as a gaggle of dancers executes heart-stopping head-spins, swaggering b-boy moves, and cool popping machinations to the scratching sounds of DJ Wish, AKA, Randy Bernal. When red-headed Alison Faulk bursts onto the scene and morphs from balletic arabesques in sneakers to high-octane hip hop, she also talks—in voice-over narration—about growing up in Miami in an uber-disciplined dance world.

Faulk is a member of the Groovaloos, the Los Angeles-based troupe of hip hop, funk, and street dancers that wowed audiences last summer at Burbank’s Falcon Theatre in a stage show called–what else–“Groovaloo.” In the 90-minute work, directed by Danny Cistone, other dancers tell their own tales, including Groovaloo founder and show co-creator Bradley “Shooz” Rapier, and Stephen “Boogie Man” Stanton.

Groovaloo is not only a noun and a verb, but also a way of life for this band of 18 performers who mix street cred with heart, soul, and jaw-dropping gyrations. Officially founded in 1999 by Rapier, a Canadian who, without formal dance training, joined StreetScape, Calgary’s top street dancing troupe while in high school in the ’70s. Immediately hooked, Rapier continued honing his skills before migrating to Los Angeles 10 years ago, where he has since choreographed for MTV, VH-1 and NBC, and performed with artists from Diana Ross and Queen Latifah to Cameron Diaz and Fat Boy Slim.

An African American who also claims Trinidadian, Spanish, and West African heritage, the 6’ 1” Rapier sports a huge Afro and ready smile, his rampant optimism always in evidence. Rapier credits his wife, Joanie, with riffing on the word “groovy” to arrive at the name Groovaloos.

“It was 1996 and there were four of us then,” recalls Rapier, “including Joanie and Alison. We were all about dancing and freestyling and we won an international street dance championship.  But the success was short-lived,” he adds, “except for in my head—until 1999, when Debbie Allen hosted National Dance Day and we presented the final piece.”

Rapier, who currently teaches at Center Stage Dance in Studio City, was, at that time, instructing at L.A.-based Joe Tremaine Dance Conventions. He was also dancing in commercials for Jeep, Lincoln, and Sketchers. It was through these endeavors that the group came together. “Groovaloos is a family in the way it happened,” points out Rapier. “We’ve never had auditions.”

Indeed. What began as informal gatherings on the roof of Rapier’s pad or at backyard barbecues, where dancers dropped by to try out moves or just hang out, has become a weekly jam session at Center Stage Dance. Dubbed “Groove Night,” friends and guests bop in—for only two bucks—to freestyle and let loose while a DJ spins tunes.  On any given Wednesday, you might bump up against choreographer Toni Basil or original members of the street dance crews, Electric Boogaloo and The Lockers.

“When I got to L.A.,” says Rapier, who’s also worked with Poppin’ Pete, Flomaster, and Skeeter Rabbit, “I wanted people to see the beauty I saw in street dance.  I wanted to be a liaison to the industry. Dancers stuck around and, after a time, I would get into what that person was about—their character, integrity, funniness, and their uniqueness.  It wasn’t about talent only. That’s when it became Groovaloos.”

Groovaloo, the theater piece, was a natural evolution for the company.  Described in press notes as a cross between A Chorus Line and Bring in ’Da Noise, Bring in ’Da Funk, the dance-drama, co-created and directed by Danny Cistone, played for 10 sold-out weeks last year and is slated to be remounted in Los Angeles soon.

Weaving the personal stories of more than a dozen dancers—the company ranges in age from 22 to 44 and is a mix of Asian, Latino, Caucasian, and African-Americans—the kid-friendly show also features cutting-edge choreography and gasp-inducing performances. The L.A. Weekly called it “nonstop entertainment” with “exhilarating movement [that] emphasizes the artistry of dance and hip hop.”

Cistone, who studied jazz, tap, modern, and ballet while growing up in Philadelphia, segued into hip hop in the ’80s. Now 32 and the veteran of some 70 films (both behind and in front of the camera), the multi-hyphenate made his Broadway debut at 14 as a newsboy in Gypsy, directed by Arthur Laurents and starring Tyne Daly.  “I was the last of 500 kids to audition. They cast me and I stayed with it for 886 performances,” says Cistone. “I learned so much seeing Tyne and Arthur work.  At the last performance Jerome Robbins came. After the show, I cried, thinking I’d never work again, and the next day Jerry called, wanting to see me for a project.”

That project, The Poppa Piece, in which Cistone played Robbins as a child in workshops, was never completed.  Cistone then went on to appear in the Broadway shows, Grease and She Loves Me, before heading to Los Angeles in 1995.  It was while performing in a dance-drumming number at Universal’s CityWalk with Faulk, that Cistone says his passion for dance was rekindled. He hadn’t been to class in eight years when Alison Faulk invited him to a Groove Night. After seeing the inspiration behind this dance, Cistone realized that he and the Groovaloos shared a vision.

Faulk says the Groovaloos are her family and best friends. And, like many of the others, she counts stints with pop mega-stars like Janet Jackson, Britney Spears, and Madonna as part of her resume.   

“We have a common love for dancing,” adds Faulk, who also teaches and appeared on the hit TV show, So You Think You Can Dance, with the troupe. “But the fact we have a show is icing on the cake.”

Steven “Boogie Man” Stanton, like Rapier, grew up street-dancing.  But this Groovaloo’s story took a horrifying turn when he was shot in a Vancouver nightclub nearly three years ago. “I was teaching hip hop and my students took me out to say thank you. I got hit by the crossfire in my lower spine,” says Stanton, 42. “Doctors weren’t sure I would walk, let alone dance again.”

Stanton’s ordeal—and triumph—is part of the dance drama, as he takes to the stage with a cane and, in true Groovaloo fashion, shows terpsichorean mettle.

As for Rapier’s nickname “Shooz,” it jives with his and the group’s basic philosophy: “I’m the kind of person who will walk in other peoples’ shoes and try and identify with everybody—and not judge.” Rapier’s dancing rocks, too.

Victoria Looseleaf is a Los Angeles-based freelance arts journalist and regular contributor to the Los Angeles Times, Reuters, and La Opinion.