From the club to the classroom — evolving the dance program at Mount Holyoke

Caleaf Sellers sees dance as a form of cultural storytelling, and his work preserves the movements of dance as living, evolving expressions of history, culture and joy.

Dance at Mount Holyoke is a living, evolving art form, and this semester students had lessons from one of the original masters of street dance.

It was a confluence of coincidences — between COVID-19 and maternity leave — that led Shakia Barron, assistant professor of dance, to reach out to Caleaf Sellers, one of the pioneers who came out of New York’s dance movement in the late 80s.

“We are changing the dance curriculum to be more diverse,” she explained. “I wanted to bring more street dance styles into the curriculum.”

Barron was on maternity leave in 2021, thinking of ways to expand her work of bringing non-Western styles of dance to Mount Holyoke’s dance department, when she remembered Sellers from training with him in her own dance crew in 2006.

She contacted him and asked him to share his art in the Mount Holyoke classroom.

Sellers mixes hip-hop and house to create his own unique dance style, and he pioneered the formalization of social club dances into repeatable movements. He currently tours the world teaching the art of house dancing. His goal is to share the culture of the dance through performances and by teaching movement foundation, technique and history from an originator point of view. He is committed to keeping the culture of street dance alive for future generations of dancers.

”I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to learn a new perspective from someone who helped start this genre and who has many years of experience.”

Sellers has toured for music videos with greats like Mariah Carey, danced on the small screen with hosts including David Letterman and Arsenio Hall, appeared on the big screen in movies like “New Jack City,” and danced on Broadway in the hit musical “New York Hip Hop Legends.”

But teaching, which he thinks of as sharing, is his central calling and something that arose naturally for him out of his love of both the art and the clubs — he’s been doing it since 1989.

“I wasn’t thinking about teaching when I was 19, going to New York clubs with my friends to let loose and have fun,” he said.

But when he began to formalize elements of the club dances he was seeing into repeatable steps, the dances began to catch on and take hold in the clubs in a new way.

He’s quick to point out that he is not the originator of the moves he’s preserved.

“I didn’t create the moves, but I am helping preserve these movements,” he said. He and his crew began collecting dance steps as a way of recording them in cultural memory — and they gave them names. The Farmer is one example of a move he named. “We shift our weight and move from the left side to the right side and hop back and forth — now we have a name and we know what that means.”

As the moves he popularized gained wider audiences, they began to migrate beyond the clubs.

“More people were interested in what we were doing,” he said. “Our moves started popping up in street dancing, like popping and locking.”

Now as a teaching fellow in the dance department, Sellers has brought those movements into the classroom. In the last semester he has taught a class of 15 students 40 social dance moves that create a foundational physical vocabulary they can use to express their own stories. What’s more, Sellers also encourages them to use their own knowledge of dance and culture to make the movements unique and new to them.

“I tell them not to forget the training they already have but to incorporate it, to marry it to what they are learning with me,” Sellers said.

Kayla Samuel ’23, from New York City, is a double-major in psychology and dance.

“I took this class because I wanted to grow my technique as a dancer in street and club styles,” she said. “I heard last semester that Caleaf was coming, and I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to learn a new perspective from someone who helped start this genre and who has many years of experience.”

The class allowed her to connect her movements to the richness of the music in a new way, she said. “There were moves I knew from dancing with Shakia, but when Caleaf came, we learned different variations of those steps. We learned quick footwork steps and floorwork, and we constantly drilled the movements. What I enjoyed the most was having partner work because it allowed all of us to connect with each other and find joy within the space. I really appreciated this experience. Learning from a pioneer was such a privilege.” The class culminated in a “friendly battle” during which the students faced off against each other in a competition-style dance-off.

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