When he started teaching hip-hop dance at the Peninsula Ballet Theatre, Isaac “Stuck” Sanders says he wanted to emphasize the joy of a different kind of movement.
“It was a really good change for ballet students to open up to hip-hop,” he said. “We were giving it to them in phases, and then those doors open. What’s universal about hip-hop is it’s fun. My goal was to let them have fun and connect and let them be free and experiment more.”
Incorporating hip-hop moves into ballet was a similar experience for Alee Martinez, who also taught at the Peninsula Ballet.
“When I started, I had a lot of ballet students and it’s cool to offer something different,” she said. “There are dancers stuck in the same routine, and you ask them to do the exact opposite, like it’s OK to drop your shoulders. It’s a whole new thing.”
In 2010, when the Peninsula Ballet moved to the former Circuit City building with 30,000 feet and six studios in 2010, executive director Christine Leslie decided to use the space for dance of all kinds. Hip-hop classes are some of the most popular and always full, she says. In 2016, she asked Martinez and Sanders, partners in life as well as dance, to create a hip-hop Nutcracker.
It’s been extremely popular, selling out every year. But when Leslie asked them, neither Sanders, who’s from Sacramento, where he did street dance, nor Martinez, who grew up in San Jose with parents who took part in salsa competitions around the Bay Area, were familiar with the 1892 two-act Tchaikovsky ballet with its mice, prince, and Sugar Plum Fairy.
They watched a recording and immediately had ideas of what they could do, involving flipping the story on its head but keeping what people loved about the ballet.
“When we were first watching it in our apartment, we were trying to get an understanding of the characters and there was some trial and error,” Martinez said. “For those people who come to the show annually, they definitely notice things that we fix or change.”
They try and keep it as Nutcracker as possible, Sanders added.
“For example, with “Waltz of the Flowers,” we use the music,” he said. “We’re not necessarily waltzing, but we do a lot of gliding, and it’s pretty graceful and beautiful.”
The dancers in the Nutcracker, many of them battle and street dancers, look forward to being part of the ballet each December, Sanders said.
“It’s the highlight of a lot of the dancers’ year, and it’s so pure and so exciting,” he said. “We all put in so much work and it’s like a huge puzzle we’re putting together. It’s so fulfilling.”
Sanders loves children’s reaction to the ballet and the wonder it inspires. His and Martinez’s daughter has grown up with the Nutcracker, and she’s a big fan.
“We started doing this five years ago and now my daughter is 4, and she’s so familiar with the Nutcracker,” he said. “It’s cool to see her. No matter what song comes on, she knows right away, and she says, ‘Daddy, it’s the Nutcracker.’ So now that tradition is in our family too.”
The show has been so successful that the Peninsula Ballet also added a hip-hop Halloween and an upcoming hip-hop Cinderella (premiering March 11–12).
Leslie says after the performances at Redwood City’s Fox Theatre, often the audience members and the performers will dance together in the square outside. She credits Martinez and Sanders for the enthusiastic response to the shows.
“Stuck and Alee are so good at it,” she said. “It’s not just that there’s hip-hop music. They’re weaving a narrative and telling a story.”
Leslie says hip-hop dance moves will become more incorporated into what they do at the Peninsula Ballet — like in the upcoming performance of Guys and Dolls.
Fredrika Keefer, Grrrl Brigade Manager at Dance Mission Theater, started training in ballet when she was 4 and in hip-hop a few years later. Both styles played a huge role in her development as a dancer, she says, but hip-hop offers a kind of freedom, while most ballet classes follow a formula.
“You know what you’re buying when you’re going to a ballet class,” she said. “You can anticipate what’s going to happen.”
At 14, Keefer started studying with influential hip-hop choreographer and director of the dance company Mind Over Matter Allan Frias, and that played a huge role in who she is as a choreographer, dancer, and teacher, she says.
“My teacher was a very flamboyant Black gay man who was a huge presence and influence in my life,” she said. “He’s a large guy, like 6 feet, 3 inches [tall], and he broke barriers of a dancer needs to look a certain way. I learned his way of integrating dances and a formula that worked to make dances look good onstage and how to create a dance and use music to shift the piece.”
Sanders and Martinez think of hip-hop as an art, but they’re excited that breakdancing is being recognized as a sport in the 2024 Paris Olympics. Particularly since a former student of theirs from the Peninsula Ballet, Bboy Morris (Morris Isby), will be competing.
“He’s a Sacramento dancer who’s done a couple Nutcrackers with us and an amazing guy,” Sanders said. “I see so many things in the Olympics that I think if this is in it, why isn’t dance? Breaking and battling is so gravity defying and amazing, where if you’re the strongest, you go the highest. It deserves to be in the Olympics.”
Martinez says she can’t wait to see the dancers who have worked so hard compete in Paris.
“The fact that we have friends in the Olympics who are pursuing their passions is incredible,” she said. “I’m super excited to watch it on TV.”