Ashley Perez is co-artistic director of Mix Mix Dance Collective with whom she has co-created two full-length works and represented Canada at the 2017 Jeux de la Francophonie in Abidjan. She was a co-recipient of a 2018 Dora Mavor Moore Award for Outstanding Performance, Ensemble in the Dance Division for Floor’d presented by Holla Jazz in 2018 and has since made works that allowed her to travel and perform in places such as New York, London and Paris. Her most recent teaching enterprise has been Class with Colours, created to share the essence of Whacking – the glam, sass and punk – with people of all backgrounds.
The Dance Current’s executive editor spoke with Perez about her practice. The conversation was the precursor to a panel on Whacking/Waacking – a partnership between the Festival of Original Theatre and The Dance Current.
Emma Doran Could you tell me a bit about how you got involved in dance and Whacking/Waacking?
Ashley Perez I’m originally from Calgary, where I danced with a Caribbean. I learned Caribbean folk dances – calypso, reggae, gospel. From there, in high school, I got more into pop music. I loved Britney Spears, ’N Sync, Mýa and Janet Jackson videos full of dancers. I started to research who the choreographers were, and I realized that they were a handful of hip hop choreographers that included some street dance vocabulary, and I started to take more hip hop and performance-based classes.
In 2006 I took a few workshops at the GET DOWN camp with Pioneers of Hip Hop and Streetdance based out of Calgary with Tara Wilson, who was the creator of the camp and dance instructor at the University of Calgary. She taught funk styles and brought street dance pioneers to Calgary, like Popin’ Pete, Link and Suga Pop. One year she brought Caleaf Sellers and Jojo Dancer. That’s when I learned house, Whacking/Waacking and voguing and a little bit of the vocabulary around them.
I started researching Whacking on early YouTube. I couldn’t find anything on Whacking. What I found was mostly about vogue femme. I was like, what is going on? Because I learned the form as Whacking and voguing, kind of like pop locking (which is not a style), I was learning it in a very different way and it was on the come up again in 2006. Whacking died a little bit in the 80s and 90s. Brian Green, based out of New York at the time, was teaching Whacking with the intention of letting the pioneers come back and making a space for them to come back and teach the dance. It was a bit challenging for me to fully understand what the dance was. It felt like a dance myth. It looked similar to vogue, so it took a while for me to figure out the difference.
I moved to Toronto in 2011 and met Emily Law, who knew about Whacking and would sometimes travel to Montréal’s Bust A Move, created by ‘Spicey,’ which was one of the biggest dance festivals in North America. Everyone would go and battle. It was the big one for the Whackers. It brought out Ana Sanchez and Toni Basil and some of the early pioneers of the dance to come out and judge, and Tyrone at the time was a big judge on the scene.
ED For someone that doesn’t know much about Whacking, what’s important to understand?
AP There’s so much that’s not known about Whacking. But yet there’s so many classes and there’s so much interest, and it’s a really big business right now. You can win a battle and fly all over the world and teach and make pretty good money doing that, and I think that’s just kind of how this dance has survived, through the battle scene. But even when you talk to people who take Whacking classes, some still have no idea what the dance is. I hear many questions: ‘What does the name mean?’ ‘Where does it come from?’ ‘Who does the dancing?’
There’s so much to learn. Our last OG, Viktor Manoel, speaks to this. He wants people to learn about the history of the dance and the people behind it.
ED In that vein, are there misconceptions about the form?
AP So many. With street dance, there’s no syllabus. There’s no school for street dance. These dances have been underground. You had to go to the source and find it. Now with the Internet, with YouTube, you can pick and choose what you want to see from the dance. There are misconceptions about the music we dance to, about what we wear and how we present ourselves. You see a lot of women doing the dance now, but it’s originally a dance done by Queer men. But now it’s mainly performed by women.
It’s interesting because the form doesn’t seem as popular in Los Angeles, where it originated. A lot of our Canadian dancers were in Montréal, and this is also one of the cities where the form came back to life right now. But it has shifted. Now Japan, Korea, Mexico and Russia are some of the new hubs for Whacking. Street dance culture tends to travel and come back home after.
There are lots of unknowns in the history of the dance, but it’s said that it was inspired by the book The Four Fabulous Faces with photography of Crawford, Swanson, Garbo and Dietrich. The intentions of the movement are based on these Old Hollywood images, angular, feminine and face-framing. Thinking about this is another reminder to bring the movement back to the source. I tend to embody an androgynous energy with my dancing, but I bring it back to a little bit of grace. When I see those images, I see breath and power. They own the image.
Right now we’re picking and choosing what we want from the dance and leaving out specific histories that made the dance accessible. I think everyone who participates in Whacking has to get really real with that.
ED You’ve spoken before about honouring the originators of the dance and their intentions. How do you acknowledge those pioneers?
AP I try to listen more. In street dance, there’s so much activity on Instagram and Twitter. We often won’t get the whole story. My experience of street dance is often that I don’t know what the source is. Being from Calgary, I had to do a lot of searching for what is real and, more importantly for me, what feels real in the moment. So I try to listen. It’s important to take classes, and from different people all the time. Everyone has a different experience of the dance. When we teach in a dance studio, I encourage people to ask questions about why they’re there. Why do you want to learn Whacking? I ask questions to make sure their intentions are in the right place.
I also want to recognize that people do make good money doing the dance, but it’s not always the people that created the dance that are getting the opportunities. So I’m teaching less and listening more.
This feature was originally published in the March/April issue.