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Versa Style Dance Company

The members of Versa Style Dance Co. pose for a picture in this courtesy image.

Editor's note: This is part of a series highlighting some of the music and performers coming to the Montana Folk Festival July 8-10 in Uptown Butte.

Hip-hop is an art form that’s often misunderstood, says Jackie Lopez, co-founder of Versa-Style Dance Company, a Los Angeles-based ensemble.

The group is comprised of “young, committed and conscientious’’ artists who represent the diversity and complexity of Los Angeles.

“We create highly energetic work that fuses dances that are culturally significant to our community,’’ according to the band’s website.

Lopez started Versa-Style in 2005 with Leigh Foaad, and since then the group has blossomed into a robust arts organization, showcasing performances in 90s-era hip-hop, popping, locking, whacking, house and Boogaloo, along with Afro-Latin dance styles, such as salsa, merengue, cumbia and Afro-Cuban forms.

Versa-Style also has a nonprofit, Versa-Style Next Generation, aimed at getting young people off the streets and into the dance studio.

Lopez said the media often misrepresents hip-hop, associating it with crime, drugs and sex, but for her the art form has been a life-saving force imbued with positivity.

A first-generation American, Lopez grew up in Los Angeles in a “tough neighborhood,” where she was exposed to hip-hop culture from an early age.

By connecting with hip-hop culture and meeting a few dance mentors along the way, Lopez said, she managed to stay above the fray and devote herself to dance.

“It changed my life,” she said.

Lopez went on to get a degree from the World Arts and Cultures department at the University of California, Los Angeles, where she graduated Suma Cum Laude.

Today she serves as an adjunct lecturer at UCLA, where she teaches hip-hop and is the director of the university’s performing-arts summer intensive for high-school students.

She added that hip-hop is nothing new and draws from established forms in Latin and African culture.

Hip-hop grew out of the street scene in New York City, Lopez said, and is a social form of expression, making use of improvisation and collaboration between artists.

Lopez noted that hip-hop dancers often share, borrow and build upon the work of each other, especially within the context of social media and video sharing.

“We’re all exchanging in the moment,” said Lopez of improvisation. “What do we feel, and how do we exchange within that dance?”

Versa-Style Dance Co. has performed world-wide, including in countries like India, Israel and Scotland.

But the group isn’t just an ensemble – it’s also an educational organization driven by its founders’ desire to help young people discover a creative outlet and a possible career path in dance.

“We love to give back to the community,” said Lopez, noting that many of her students come from under-served communities.

Lopez said Versa-Style Next Generation is committed to students completing their education. Students need to be enrolled in high school or college to take part, she said, and what’s more, many have gone on to attend UCLA or have entered into the professional dance industry.

Through the non-profit, Lopez said, she hopes students will discover what’s possible when one devotes him- or herself to art.

Lopez added that she and Foaad can serve as examples of how hip-hop can provide an alternative to a life of drugs and violence.

“We literally lived it. We are living it. And now we can give back,” she said.

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