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Local group uses hip hop to teach kids about civil rights and more

Hip Hop Fundamentals uses popular music to reach at-risk students who might be otherwise tuned out.

From left are Mark Wong, Steve Lunger, and Aaron Trois -- the organizers behind Hip Hop Fundamentals, a group of break dancers who use hip hop to teach physics and lead anti-bullying crusades.
From left are Mark Wong, Steve Lunger, and Aaron Trois -- the organizers behind Hip Hop Fundamentals, a group of break dancers who use hip hop to teach physics and lead anti-bullying crusades.Read moreDN

THE GUYS from Hip Hop Fundamentals don't look like the performers who used to show up at my school assemblies.

They arrive in fly Kangol bucket-style hats and mock turtlenecks. On their feet, they rock Adidas Gazelle sneakers or Clyde Frazier basketball shoes, by Puma. And if I say they dance their butts off, I'm not exagerating.

Trust me.

These dudes can pop lock, head spin and floor rock with the best bboys around.

Watching them perform on YouTube videos, I couldn't help but wonder why they aren't big stars doing their thing on VH1 or Fox's "So You Think You Can Dance" instead of leading school assemblies. But fame and fortune aren't necessarily what they're after. They're much more interested in perfecting their art form, which they call breaking, and using it to get kids tuned into education.

"Overwhelmingly, students are bored," pointed out Aaron Troisi, 27, Hip Hop Fundamental's education director, whose onstage persona is as the corny Professor Peabody. "They are bored out of their minds.

"Students are bored because of no interactions with their teacher or content that is relevant to them.

Today at noon, at the African American Museum of Philadelphia, Hip Hop Fundamentals will peform one of their popular shows, "Civil Rights Movements: The Power of Youth Engagement Through the Eyes of Dr. King."

So, instead of another tired lecture about what must seem like ancient history, students will bop to high-energy music samples by rap star Rakim and deejay Skeme. They'll also practice their backspins and locking dance moves. Woven into all the fun will be important lessons about racism and the role that young people played in all the sit-ins and boycotts.

Hip Hop Fundamentals' methods are reflective of a larger trend of using elements of pop culture to engage students who otherwise might not be reached through traditional education methods. That's an important mission to the museum, too.

"We know that learners come in all stripes," said Adrienne G. Whaley, AAMP's education curator. "This is a really dynamic method of sharing important information about our recent history and ongoing cultural context."

From Bermuda to breaking

Hip Hop Fundamentals co-founder Mark "Metal" Wong, 32, became infatuated with all things hip-hop as a kid growing up in Bermuda. Back then, he used to practice his dance moves to videos on MTV.

"Breaking to me just epitomized everything cool about '80s culture," explained Wong, who is of Chinese heritage. "I wanted to consume everything that I could in terms of breaking."

Fundamentals co-founder Stephen "Steve Believe" Lunger, 31, grew up in central Pennsylvania, where he attended a Quaker school. He credits his adopted brother, who's African-American, with introducing him to hip-hop music. But Lunger really became hooked on the art form after seeing his first bboy Freestyle Session dance competition.

"At 17, you want to be cool, and that was the coolest thing I knew," Lunger recalled. "And I saw some white boys doing it and I felt like I could do it as well - not that color matters all that much."

Lunger and Wong gravitated toward each other as undergraduates. Lunger was studying psychology at Temple University, and Wong English literature at Haverford College. They became friends while participating in Temple's popular open-dance practices. They also are both members of a group called Repstyles Crew that got its start performing at Rittenhouse Square but has since traveled abroad, participating in battles against other bboys.

After graduating, they both held menial jobs while continuing to work on their breaking, as traditionalists call it. Lunger is associated with the Rennie Harris Puremovement dance troupe and Wong with the Olive Dance Theater.

Around 2006, a now-defunct group called the Hip Hop Handbook began booking Wong and Lunger to perform at local school assemblies. Gradually, it dawned on them that they were really good at connecting with students, so they created Hip Hop Fundamentals, which had its first booking in 2007, at Plymouth Meeting Friends School. They began to get more bookings at local schools, along with requests to incorporate anti-bullying and other lessons into their dance performances.

"The appeal of breaking is that everybody thinks it's cool," Lunger pointed out. "It's easy to reach kids with that."

Meanwhile, Troisi, who's getting a masters in education at Temple, saw the potential of what the troupe was doing, and in 2012 joined to help the group get more gigs. He and Lunger are childhood friends. Troisi isn't much of a dancer. His role with the group is to help with its educational goals.

"It's the best assembly program I've ever seen," said Troisi, who works as a substitute teacher. "It's really rare that I see so many students actively engaged and involved and invested in learning. There's such a huge opportunity to use this as a method of teaching."

Backspins & kickstarts

Isaac Ewell is an educational consultant who has worked with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to direct funding programs that target at-risk youngsters.

"You've got to meet people where they are," he said of the ways students learn. "It's not one-size-fits-all."

These days, Wong and Lunger work fulltime for Hip Hop Fundamentals. They maintain a roster of about 15 dancers, many of whom they met while working at various after-school programs. Performers hang out in Lunger's attic, in the 4400 block of Pine Street, to practice. Wong lives two blocks away.

Last winter, Hip Hop Fundamentals organized an online Kickstarter fundraising campaign to raise $10,000 to underwrite their performances in light of severe local school budget cuts that laid off teachers and staff, closed schools and cut extracurricular activities.

Since then, Fundamentals has taken "Civil Rights Movements" to 10 schools, including Gompers, Mayfair and Southwark elementary schools. Their most requested show teaches the principles of hip-hop, created by blacks and Puerto Ricans in New York City in the 1970s.

So how, I asked the Hip Hop Fundamentals' creators, do they handle the fact that they're using a largely African-American medium to teach, when they aren't black?

"With kids, it doesn't come up," said Lunger, who is white. "But with adults, it's a little more often, because they are set in their ways."

In 2013, Hip Hop Fundamentals presented at TEDx, in Bermuda, an offshoot of the popular annual Technology Education Design conference at which former President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore have both spoken. Hip Hop Fundamentals' focus was on teaching physics and student engagement.

Since it took place in Bermuda, Wong's parents got to see Hip Hop Fundamentals perform. Before, he said, "they were like, 'Can you move the couch out of the way so you don't break the TV when you do your roll-around thing?' "

This time around, watching their son dance produced an entirely different reaction.

"They did get it, and they liked it," Wong said, happily.