Terpsichore in Hoodies: Hip-Hop Inspires Stanford Dancers

The initiation of Stanford’s first hip-hop dance collective begets a multi-generational wave of dance innovation.  Former students Juanita Brown, Allison Williams, Magili Chapman, Parijat Desai, Ashanti Trent, Cheryl Clark, and Donna Esparut founded Jam Pac’d (or, the first initials of each founding member’s name).  In addition to hip-hop, Jam Pac’d specializes in jazz and modern dance forms.  The group’s inaugural performance, “Piece, No Peace,” premiered at the May 1992 Spring Migration, garnering notable acclaim.  Other past performance venues include local schools, community carnivals, Black Liberation Month events, charities, fashion shows, Stanford and NBA Golden State Warrior basketball games, and the annual campus Spring Show.  Jam Pac’d identifies itself not only as a dance group, but as “an expression of cultural and ethnic harmony, and the multiculturalism upon which Stanford prides itself.”


Dv8 founding members clad in their signature blue hoodies, September 24, 2001


Following in the footsteps of Jam Pac’d, students Michelle Florendo, Filamer Kabigting, and Anh Tan co-founded Dv8 in 2001.  Dv8 is both rooted and transcends authentic hip-hop technique, and has morphed into “an ever-evolving trendsetting group with a unique style all their own.”  Along with professional guest artists, Dv8 has appeared at Stanford’s annual Blackfest, co-sponsored by the Black Community Services Center and the Black Family Gathering Committee.  The more recent addition of Hip Hop Congress provides a forum for students to design, produce, and initiate hip-hop creations that inform the Stanford community by “using hip hop as a tool for activism and positive change.”

Poster for Debbie Burke’s production of Strange Fruit: The Hip-Hopera


In 2003, Deborah Burke (class of 2005) expanded Stanford’s hip-hop repertoire through her production of Strange Fruit: The Hip-Hopera (currently being worked into a film). The idea for creating a hip-hop musical came about through Burke’s interactions with Stanford faculty.  “I was first inspired by Professor of Drama Harry Elam, who taught us hip-hop theatre and revolutionary social protest drama – the importance of creating drama that makes social change.”  On a quest for her dramatic subjects, Burke began to research slave narratives, which, according to Burke, “led to me discover much about African-American history that shocked and fascinated me, and then when I discovered hip-hop, it was like I found a voice for myself.”  In Burke’s story, a modern African-American financial planner dreams of marrying the love of her life, a white journalist.  But the moment he proposes, she gets haunted by her ancestor, a lynched slave girl who refuses to allow the marriage to happen – not wanting her legacy to be betrayed.  By staging this collision between two different historical moments, Strange Fruit “allows viewers to see slavery from a black woman’s perspective, and through the funky contemporary medium of hip-hop.”  This experimental work of fusion proved to be a smashing success; the final show was completely sold out (some audience members even returning for an additional performance), and Burke received a standing ovation.  “But,” she recalls, “the most emotional part was when an elderly black woman came up to me afterwards and said, ‘Thank you for telling my story.’ At that moment I knew I had to take this to Hollywood and beyond.”  The Black Community Services Center awarded Burke with a plaque for her artistic achievement.

Featured image: Jam Pac’d dancers strike a pose in front of the Cantor Arts Center, spring 2006