World-renowned b-boy to lead hip hop and street dance festival in Calgary this weekend

Tara Wilson brought Ken Swift, a pioneer in break dance and hip-hop culture, to Calgary to help launch a hip hop and street dance festival. (Ellis Choe/CBC - image credit)
Tara Wilson brought Ken Swift, a pioneer in break dance and hip-hop culture, to Calgary to help launch a hip hop and street dance festival. (Ellis Choe/CBC - image credit)

Ken Swift still remembers one of the first times he saw people break dancing.

He was in his early teens in New York City, and he heard a DJ playing near a night-time carnival. A group of people had formed, and he thought there might be a fight.

But when he got a little closer, he says he saw people moving in ways he'd never seen before.

"I was kind of like intimidated and blown away," he said in an interview on CBC's Daybreak Alberta. "I kind of looked at it and was amazed by it, and you had to figure it out without asking questions."

But it didn't take long for the dance style to work its magic on Swift. He's now known as one of the pioneers of break dance and hip-hop culture, and he's in Calgary this weekend for a festival created to honour the art form and his impact on it.

"There's legendary dancers from Calgary," said Swift. "This weekend is just going to keep on adding on to ways to inspire people to dance and be motivated with hip-hop culture."

Tara Wilson — hip-hop dancer, instructor at the University of Calgary and owner of Pulse Studios, a local dance studio dedicated purely to hip hop — brought Swift to Calgary to allow the city's dancers to learn from him.

She met him about 15 years ago when he first came to Calgary to judge some competitions and teach a few classes.

Wilson says she'd already spoken with Swift about coming to the city to collaborate on a few projects this fall, but a few weeks ago, she realized what an opportunity she had.

"I feel that we're just so lucky that many of these pioneers and this history is still relevant today," she said in an interview on CBC's The Homestretch.

"The gift that this is to my community is beyond words because now they are not learning it from a book or from a movie or from some third, fourth source. They're spending time with him in the room and hearing him talk and seeing the way that he does it."

'It's a way of life'

Swift is known for his legendary moves, his work with the influential American breaking group Rock Steady Crew and his appearances in movies like Flashdance, Wild Style and Beat Street.

Throughout the weekend there will be film screenings, demonstrations, Q&As and of course some breaking battles, Wilson says, in what she hopes to be an annual festival.

Swift will also be talking about the history of the art form. He says breaking originated in the Bronx borough of New York City in the early '70s. He became aware of it a few years later, and he was immediately hooked.

"It's a way of life. You know, it's something that I fell in love with as a young person," he said. "There was something about it that, you know, at that age I felt this really cool freedom … that's powerful."

WATCH | Crazy Legs and Ken Swift perform on Late Night with David Letterman in 1983:

Swift has now spent more than four decades in the industry, and he says he's looking forward to sharing his knowledge of the struggles and trauma that contributed to hip-hop culture, as well as some of the mentors that he's learned from.

"I like to pass the torch," he said. "If a lot of people don't know what this has been through to get to where it is now, they're not going to know the possibilities of where it can go."

All of the weekend's events are happening at the West Village Theatre near 10 Avenue S.W. and 19 Street S.W. Tickets are available at the door for between $20 and $30.

A kids breaking battle gets going Saturday at 1 p.m. Walk-in competitors are welcome, Wilson says, and they're offering prizes of $150 for first place and $50 for second place.

A similar battle for adults happens Saturday at 6 p.m., as well as a pop-up market.

On Sunday at 7:30 p.m., participants will learn about some of the theatre projects Swift has been working on with dancers in the community.