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Rennie Harris' Mideast mission of movement

TEL AVIV - After coughing regularly for half an hour, Rennie Harris, artistic director/choreographer of Philadelphia-based hip-hop company Rennie Harris Puremovement, paused a hotel-lobby interview last month to order a cup of tea.

TEL AVIV - After coughing regularly for half an hour, Rennie Harris, artistic director/choreographer of Philadelphia-based hip-hop company Rennie Harris Puremovement, paused a hotel-lobby interview last month to order a cup of tea.

"It's sandstorm season in Cairo, or something," he apologized.

Harris had just finished the first leg of his company's frenetic March 9-to-April 6 DanceMotion USA tour of Egypt, Israel, and the Palestinian territories, during which he and his dynamic dancers taught, performed, loved the food, loved the people, and spread the hip-hop gospel: Be young, be free.

This cultural-diplomacy mission, funded by the U.S. State Department and produced in partnership with the Brooklyn Academy of Music, sent its first round of three companies abroad in 2010. Now, in Round 2, it has expanded to four companies, which are visiting a total of a dozen countries to introduce thousands to the diversity of American dance.

Harris, 48, born and raised in North Philadelphia, founded Puremovement in 1992 and marks the company's 20th anniversary this year. He is widely considered one of the most successful American choreographers to transfer hip-hop dance from the street to the stage. But he never imagined bringing it here.

Though the region rarely lacks for conflict, when Egypt was selected for the itinerary in late 2010, no one could have foreseen the upheaval that was to begin just a few months later.

"It was a bit of a glitch in our planning process," said Michael Blanco, DanceMotion's project director. But after monitoring the situation carefully and getting the thumbs-up from the State Department, the tour moved forward as scheduled.

Harris says he had no concerns about making his first-ever trip to the Middle East amid the roil of the Arab Spring. And asked if he'd been worried a few days before, while at Israel's Ben Gurion University, where rockets fired from Gaza recently fell nearby, he simply says, "No."

The company's stay in Egypt unfolded without incident. Harris speaks fondly of the experience - "The Egyptians took care of us" - while also calling the country "viciously crowded" and the car traffic simply terrifying.

His conversations with the locals about the political situation revealed that, from many Egyptians' perspective, nothing has changed since the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak in February 2011. "It feels like they're waiting for something."

So into this more free yet still-anxious society, Rennie Harris Puremovement brought the gift of hip-hop, compliments of the United States.

"Rennie's art is so much about empowering youth," said Blanco, explaining why the company was given this itinerary. "Hip-hop started as a nonviolent, artistic way of giving voice. [It's] a valuable connection with youth in Egypt, the Palestinian territories, and Israel."

Blanco says this second round of DanceMotion is emphasizing two-way exchanges through person-to-person engagement. What the Puremovement dancers learn on the tour is as much a goal of the program as what they share of American culture. In other words, DanceMotion USA is very conscious of not being, as Blanco put it, "a great, imperialistic American dance machine."

During their activities, Harris and his dancers have encountered young people who learned much of what they know about hip-hop from American media and music videos, and by mimicking clips on YouTube.

"When we talk to them we say, 'You have to add your own culture to it,' " Harris explains. "That's what hip-hop is. You have to bring your own brand of cultural understanding."

He speaks excitedly about how young dancers in the Palestinian territories started to incorporate traditional Palestinian dance into their hip-hop, embracing it as "their voice for their generation."

Hip-hop has been a voice for several generations since its emergence in the 1970s in the United States. In just a few decades, hip-hop culture has spread internationally, providing youth around the world a new form of expression that allows them to say, as Harris proclaims, "I have the right to be heard."

That same sentiment led to Mubarak's overthrow last year, and other popular uprisings across the region. Harris and his company see hip-hop as having a role to play in the emerging consciousness of a new generation in the Middle East.

Puremovement has had ample opportunity to spread the gospel of hip-hop on the tour. A packed itinerary has sent them sprinting from one activity to the next - master classes in Cairo and Alexandria, Egypt; workshops at an Arab-Jewish community center in Haifa, Israel; a hip-hop festival in Modi'in, Israel; and a four-day "hip-hop camp" in Nablus in the West Bank.

"Honestly, I didn't know I was going to do all this!" Harris says. In subsequent conversation, he delicately hints that the U.S. Embassy's schedule has been daunting; perhaps it's not surprising that, between nonstop activities and travel, nearly half the company's members have been injured in some way.

At a Tel Aviv cafe after teaching a class, the dancers recount moments of enlightenment throughout the trip, indicating that DanceMotion's goal of a two-way exchange has been achieved.

"Just as they're inspired by American hip-hop, we're inspired by their culture and what's going on here with the uprisings," says dancer Melanie Cotton. She gives the example of a young Arab woman she met at a workshop in Nablus, one of the few women who participated.

"I was telling the girl, 'You're a revolutionary,' and I don't think she understood how important her presence was there."

Joel "Teknyc" Martinez's revelation came before the company's first performance in Ramallah. After posting an update on Facebook about the show, he got a message from a Tel Aviv-based break dancer wishing him a good show.

"He said, 'If by any chance these b-boys from Gaza go [to the performance], tell them myself and my crew, Kosher Flava, we hope that one day we get to dance together.' That was really emotional and shocking for me."

During a Q&A with Israeli dance students here, Martinez shared his experience.

"We've been to the other side," he told the approximately 30 teenagers gathered in the studio. "They love hip-hop. They want to meet you. Palestinian students told us to tell you, they wish they could be here with you today."

Back at the cafe, in addition to the major epiphanies they've had as temporary cultural emissaries, the dancers also talk about the little discoveries of being in a new place for the first time - the sights and smells and tastes.

They admit to eating too much bread, too many pastries. They make a pact to find more fresh fruit. And as they wipe clean a bowl of hummus, perhaps the most political question of the day comes up: Which stop on their itinerary had the best version of this famous regional dish?

For the sake of international diplomacy, the answer remains classified.