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A Philly subway dance group seeks to ‘inspire the youth’

Crowd Pleazers dance on the subway and Philadelphia streets, hoping to inspire young people.

Jayden Thompson, 8, does one of his moves as he waits with sister Tyanna, 10, and father, Donnie for a subway train on Nov. 10, 2018. CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer
Jayden Thompson, 8, does one of his moves as he waits with sister Tyanna, 10, and father, Donnie for a subway train on Nov. 10, 2018. CHARLES FOX / Staff PhotographerRead moreCHARLES FOX

Nyce and his crew — his three children — get on a Broad Street Line train just like other Philadelphians, but probably more times in a day, and a lot more in a week.

Once inside the car, they head in opposite directions, not in search of vacant seats, but calling and responding: "All donations are greatly appreciated; no donation is too small."

Only then do they begin their business for the day: dance. Hip-hop and trap music blasts from Nyce's stereo player, and the youngest of the three, Jayden, takes the stage  — the freshly cleared passageway — with the rest of the crew cheering on the side.

He flips back and forth a couple of times, twists and interlocks his limbs as if in a breakdance, and does a head spin. His siblings take turns after him, each doing mostly the same routine, but all with their own styles.

Finally, Nyce comes on, wrapping the session with a more complex and professional routine, the limb-twisting sometimes involving the poles. As the train approaches the next stop, Nyce winds up his routine, turns off the music, and, just as they had started, the dancers pace the car repeating their pleas, now with containers to accept funds.

Then they step off, ready to repeat the session on the next train.

Nyce and his family dance regularly on trains, even though SEPTA rules do not allow it. In 2012, Nyce and a fellow dancer were stopped by SEPTA Transit Police and charged with acquisition of services.

SEPTA's rule is mean to protect the safety of passengers and performers, said Carla Showell-Lee, SEPTA director of media relations.

"The performers let [passengers] know that they'd be doing some flips, and then the passengers either move their seats or they put themselves in harm's way," she said. "The poles on the trains aren't even designed for this activity, so the dancers put themselves at risk, too."

Some passengers complain about being asked for money on the train, she said.

"If there's a safe place for them to be able to do the same activity, then we're all for it, but certainly not on a moving train where other passengers are subjected to being harmed," she said. "They have to think safety first."

Nyce said he thought SEPTA discouraged them because they can make more than $200 a day by what some see as panhandling.

"It's not even about the money to me. It's about putting smiles on people's faces," he said.

Nyce, whose given name is Donnie Thompson III, has been dancing since he was 5. In high school, though, he became more serious about it to "keep himself out of trouble." Now 28, he performs with his family troupe and works with a dance company, Illstyle and Peace Productions. His best friend, Aaron Blackston, teaches kids to dance at CEG Performing Arts Academy at Broad Street and Fairmount Avenue, and Nyce sometimes helps Blackston out. Some of their students won first place in fall 2016 at the Amateur Night at the Apollo competition in New York City.

"He's very good," Cristina Guzman, CEO of CEG Performing Arts Academy, said of Blackston. "I've noticed he's very patient with the kids. The kids enjoy dancing with him, They're learning breakdancing as well, since he likes doing that."

Previously, the two friends were a part of Project Positive, a Philadelphia-based dance group established to "inspire the youth." After that, they formed Crowd Pleazers with their families. Blackston's family later moved out of Philadelphia for a while, leaving Nyce to continue the group with his kids.

They started the group because they wanted "to show the youth a better way of making an earning without [doing] negative [things] like violence, trafficking, and things like that," Nyce said.

As a teenager, Nyce, who's from North Philadelphia, was arrested and remanded a number of times for offenses such as receiving stolen property and selling drugs. He got probation. When he risked facing a lengthy jail term, he decided to focus squarely on dance. His daughter had made him promise to leave illegal activities behind, and his brother promised him a job at a Philadelphia dance company if he came home.

Now he uses dance to "try to not let kids go down the path I did, 'cause in jail, you're a slave."

Blackston's kids have been dancing since they were as young as 2. His son Mekhai, 11,  has been dancing since he was 5 and became more invested in it later "because my dad told me stories of what he was doing at my age."

"My favorite thing about dancing is getting people excited," Mekhai said. "People get negative energy, but when we're dancing on the train, we try to spread [positivity] and get that out of the way."

His brother Messai, 10, said: "Dancing makes me happy."