Dance Week Diary, Part Two: Hip-hop class at Vega Dance Lab

Heather Wisner continues her National Dance Week tour: Today she encounters the hip-hop class of Latya Wilkins

You can dance, even if you think you can’t. You don’t have to have experience. You don’t have to be young and pliable. You don’t even need to buy special clothes or shoes (most of the time).

To prove it—and to alert you to National Dance Week, which is happening now and is more worth celebrating than most holidays, in my view—I took a different dance class in the Portland Metro area for five days running. Full disclosure: I have some dance experience. But I’m also old enough to qualify for an AARP card, and one of my knees has been acting up lately, so I’m not exactly waiting for a phone call from World of Dance.

Latya Wilkins teaches hip-hop dance class at Vega Dance Lab/Photo by Heather Wisner

Luckily, Portland is wall-to-wall with classes for all ages, skill levels, tastes and degrees of decrepitude; check out Dance Wire PDX’s useful Class Finder to find some that sound appealing. To narrow my choices, I set a few parameters: I’d only take a class that didn’t require the purchase of special shoes (sorry, ballet and tap), that you could drop into (workshops were out), that didn’t require a partner (see you later tango, salsa, ballroom) and that was open to beginners. Yesterday, I hit Laura Haney’s Be Moved class at BodyVox, and today I’m at the hip-hop mercies of Latya Wilkins at Vega Dance Lab.

Part Two: Hip-Hop at Vega Dance Lab
What is it? Hip-hop choreography for beginner and intermediate-level dancers
What makes it fun? A teacher with a sense of humor + a hip studio feel
Who is it for? Hip-hop lovers who want to dance it out
Who is it not for? Arthritic folks

“We’re doing Beyoncé today,” announces teacher Latya Wilkins at the top of the hour, “sooo … get ready to live your best life.” Her timing is impeccable: Queen Bey has just killed it so thoroughly at Coachella the weekend before that by the following Monday, New York studio Banana Skirt Productions has announced it will teach a class of her festival choreography.

Wisely, Wilkins doesn’t attempt such a feat with a classful of a dozen beginners, instead coaching us through her own choreography to “Flawless.” It starts out slowly enough, rising from a kneel on the floor into a few fierce poses before picking up steam with bounces, shoulder rolls and finally, some crazy fast backward arm swings (“Pretend there’s a serial killer behind you,” Wilkins helpfully suggests.)

In this upstairs studio on Southeast Water Avenue, with its exposed brick, graffitied north wall and the rumble of freight trains passing by outside, you actually can imagine for a moment that you’re in a New York studio, and when Wilkins turns on an industrial-sized fan at the front of the room, it’s easy to channel your inner diva, something she expressly encourages. “I want you to sell it,” she says, demonstrating how the choreography shouldn’t look (neutral expression; small, tentative steps).

Latya Wilkins teaches hip-hop dance class at Vega Dance Lab/Photo by Heather Wisner

The hour flies by: besides running the choreography enough times to get us comfortable with it (and to allow more experienced dancers to play with it as they see fit), she has a knack for coaxing us into really dancing, rather than just doing steps. “I don’t go to the gym to work out, because it’s boring,” she says at one point. “Dance is my workout, because it’s fun.”

I couldn’t agree more. Calling attention to the fun factor in dance is, in fact, the whole point of this endeavor, although I also take to heart her admonition that it’s still a workout, and if you aren’t a little sore after class, perhaps you could apply yourself more the next time.

Coming Up: Broadway jazz dance at NW Dance Project.

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