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Rennie Harris

Born in Philadelphia in 1964, Rennie Harris has spent much of his youth immersed in the urban dance culture of hip-hop. This magnetic form of dance was the language of the neighborhood where Harris lived. His life’s work has been bringing this “street” form of dance to the international stage, thereby giving it the artistic credibility and recognition it deserves.

Harris credits “The Campbell Lockers,” a dance group featuring Don Campbell, who promoted the “locking” dance style, as his earliest inspiration [source: Stanford University]. While still in high school, Harris began to form hip hop groups that performed locally. Excited to perform to larger audiences, Harris joined a group called “The Scanners.” Their style was “popping,” a form of dance with “stop-start, freeze-frame, or slow motion gestures” [source: Gottschild]. From there he leapt into other styles of hip-hop — break dancing, also know and B-boy, stepping and house dancing—all of which have emerged on urban streets over the course of the last 20 years. He began incorporating African dance techniques as his style matured.

In 1992, Harris founded his acclaimed dance company, Rennie Harris PureMovement (RHPM). His company encapsulates hip-hop as the “voice of the new generation.” It seeks to educate people on the merits of this style of dancing as an art form. Harris believes that shaking off stereotypical portrayals of hip-hop in media will help it transcend cultural boundaries. He also sees this as a way to up-end the notion that hip-hop is the domain of men [source: RHPM]. One of the most famous and influential pieces he directed and choreographed was Rome & Jewels, loosely based on Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, as well as on West Side Story. The work incorporated his experiences growing up in North Philadelphia as an African-American male. Harris won the Harman Shakespeare Theater award for the piece, and the company has performed it throughout the United States.

RHPM is dedicated to helping at-risk children and teens living in North Philadelphia. In 2000, the company began an After School Mentoring program at schools and community centers. RHPM also tours its educational programs. Its “History of Hip Hop” lecture/dance program works with educational facilities and college campuses across the United States. Rennie Harris’ achievements have garnered world-wide recognition. He has been compared to Alvin Ailey and Bob Fosse for his innovative style of choreography. His many awards include a 2010 Guggenheim Fellowship, a medal from the Kennedy Center as a master of African-American Choreography and an honorary doctorate from Bates College [source: Stanford University].

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