Positive movement

From an open doorway on Tacoma’s Pacific Avenue comes an insistent hip-hop beat. In the darkened interior of the club, a circle of teenagers watches as each takes a breakdancing solo. In other rooms kids are sketching, spinning turntables and listening to headphones with a fierce focus. It’s all part of a Saturday morning L.I.F.E. class, run by local hip-hop organization Fab-5 – and for some of these teenagers, it’s turning their lives around.

With the L.I.F.E. classes, “we realized we could create a movement. Hip-hop has the power to move people into one positive direction,” says Jason Hulen, 30. Along with some friends from Pacific Lutheran University, Hulen started Fab-5 back in 2000 as an organization committed to holding positive drug- and alcohol-free hip-hop events for Tacoma youth. Realizing Fab-5 needed to give more attention to education, members began teaching in Metro Parks’ SPARX after-school program – and then Hulen got the idea for the L.I.F.E. classes.

Starting with just four weeks in spring 2005, the L.I.F.E. classes aimed at helping youth achieve skills and self-expression through all hip-hop art forms: breakdancing, legal graffiti, DJing and music recording, with lunch provided. Since then, the program has expanded with funding from major local foundations to its present 10-week format running April through June. Executive director Eddie Sumlin, 23, would like to see it run year-round.

“It’s more than just us being here doing music and art,” says Sumlin, who has worked at L.I.F.E. since the beginning. “It’s about mentoring, helping kids make healthy life decisions.” Sumlin also works as a college prep associate for the Northwest Leadership Foundation, and steers the L.I.F.E. students toward that goal.

And the evidence is that the classes work. Of the 15 paid instructors, some are former students, now professionals in their art form. Many are college-bound. Others credit L.I.F.E. for turning their lives around.

“I think it’s great,” says Mangley Ben, 18, a Bellevue College student who was introduced to the classes through a Fab-5 instructor while he attended McIlveigh Middle School. He now helps out in the breakdance classes. “If I didn’t go to this program I’d be in a really bad place now. It’s more than just dancing, it’s a life saver.”

The L.I.F.E. classes happen every Saturday at downtown dance venue Brick City. Youth from 8 to 24 years are grouped according to age and ability. Around 30 attend per day, so the teacher-student ratio is high. In separate rooms, each art form is taught with all equipment provided – this in itself is a huge opportunity. In the sound production room, the basics of layering on drum beats, turntable scratchings and vocals are seen through to a final CD product – skills that can lead to professional jobs. In the art room, students learn typography, design and drawing skills, and eventually get to practice with paint on an outside wall.

They’re also taught the legalities and ethical issues surrounding graffiti.

“This isn’t for the streets,” says Sumlin. “You’re not going to be out there tagging. We teach that if you’re focused, you can bring this into a gallery or get a mural commissioned, like our instructors have done. Or you can get into graphic design.”

And at L.I.F.E. classes, kids can also get some life skills.

“Students that have skill in dancing can compete,” says instructor Ash Cornette, 25. “There’s opportunity for travel, for networking, for social skills. That’s something that a lot of kids don’t have these days, with all the passive online talking they do.”

It’s a rare chance for youth from all backgrounds, ethnicities and localities to interact: Students come from all over the city and even Seattle’s Eastside, saying there’s nothing like it anywhere else.

And it’s just plain fun. Emahni Lavergne, 14, is one of three girls in the breakdance class on a recent day, and as she finishes up a solo, she’s smiling shyly. “I like it, I’m soaking it in. It’s friendly, they encourage you and help you out,” Emahni says.

The final component, says Sumlin, is teaching the students how to plan a community event through an end-of-session performance that gives students skills in identifying local needs, booking venues and event organization.

“We try to teach them that it’s not just about them and art,” Sumlin explains. “It’s about serving the community.”

Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568