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World’s oldest hip-hop dance crew gettin’ its swagga on at Las Vegas competition

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Mona Shield Payne

The “Hip Op-eration” Crew from New Zealand gets down and dirty while rehearsing for their upcoming exhibition performance for the World Hip Hop Dance Championships at Red Rock Resort in Las Vegas Wednesday, August 7, 2013.

‘Hip Op-eration’

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Atlanta rapper 2 Chainz was among those performing March 20, 2012, during MTV's "Spring Break" at the Palms.

When manager and choreographer Billie Jordan hears about “popping and locking” from her crew, she has to make sure they are talking hip-hop dance moves and not the condition of their artificial hips.

Indeed, several members of the world’s oldest hip-hop dance crew, New Zealand’s Hip Op-eration, most likely have more metal in their worn joints than rapper 2 Chainz typically wears around his neck.

“We’ve had a few people aggravate old knee or shoulder injuries,” said Brenda “BB Rizzell” Long, 80, a Hip Op-eration member. “A lot of people have had heart surgery or have artificial hips or knees.”

The crew’s 36 senior citizens range in age from 66 to 96. Some are deaf; one is legally blind. Ken “Big Deal” Curtis, 72, says he can feel old rugby injuries haunting him at times, but the dance crew has motivated him to work out on his own, as well.

The crew is in Las Vegas for the World Hip Hop Dance Championships as an exhibition team — only winners of national tournaments are eligible to compete — with 26 members, because several people on the team were warned by doctors they were medically unfit for the long journey from New Zealand to Southern Nevada.

The senior dancers may move more deliberately than the adolescents and 20-somethings that make up many of the competing dance crews, but Hip Op-eration gained notoriety quickly. A current-affairs television show from Australia has followed the crew to Las Vegas and a documentary film crew has been chronicling the team for almost a year.

The real beginning for the most unlikely of hip-hop dance crews started with the February 2011 earthquake that hit Christchurch — New Zealand’s second-largest city — and killed 185 people.

Jordan lived in the area, and although she escaped relatively unscathed, the tragedy changed her view on life. Jordan moved to New Zealand’s Waiheke Island. The island is about half the size of Washington, D.C., with a population of 8,000.

“I wanted to seize every moment of life (after the earthquake),” said Jordan, 43. “I thought seniors would share this passion for enjoying each day. But I also thought, you don’t see seniors dancing. A lot of times they spend their time reliving the past or holding on to memories. I thought they should be looking forward to doing new stuff.”

In August 2012, Jordan organized a flash mob for seniors, posting fliers and approaching the elderly on the street to see if they would join her public dance performance. The event was a success, and Jordan thought she could form a regular hip-hop dance team. The only problem was that Jordan was trained in public relations and knew nothing about dance. So, she started learning from watching videos on YouTube.

“The first movement I taught them was the crotch grab,” Jordan said. “I figured that would separate the wheat from the chaff, and a couple of people did leave.”

Those who stayed have been invigorated. The dancers say learning the routines keeps them mentally sharp and physically fit.

“I used to stand all hunched over. I have a couple spinal defects,” said crew member Rona Weston, 82. “Now I stand up much straighter, and feel great. We have four flights of stairs at home, and now I zip right up them.”

Crew members all say dancing is adding years, and a lot of fun and camaraderie, to their lives.

“It’s not easy being 93,” said Kara “Bang Bang” Nelson, who performs with a cane. “It is very easy to get comfortable and let others do things for you. This keeps us up and active.”

Crew members perform in black T-shirts and baggy black pants with black-and-white high-top Converse Chuck Taylors over highlighter-bright, neon-colored socks. Each dancer wears one black, metal-studded glove and a wallet chain with a peace symbol attached. The crew focuses on choreography and timing, with carefully coordinated movements, but it has to steer clear of the more acrobatic moves that youthful championship teams display.

Participating in the crew has also given them a new appreciation for hip-hop music.

“Oh yeah, I listen to the music now. I listen to Missy Elliott, Will.i.am, and Nicki Minaj. Some of the lyrics I don’t like so much, because they are a bit rough, but I like the beat,” Long said.

When Hip Op-eration went to its first hip-hop dance performance, Jordan was worried the crew wouldn’t be well received by the young people who dominate the competitions.

Other crews gave the seniors a warm welcome to the world of hip-hop dance, Jordan said, but the members did hear jeers from some other seniors who “thought they should be home knitting.”

The dancers have basked in the support, however. They refined their act, set to original music with the chorus “life is for living,” to earn their invitation as an exhibition team. At Wednesday’s rehearsal for their performance at 4:30 p.m. today at Red Rock Resort, the crew seemed inured to the film crews buzzing around them.

“The reception has been amazing,” Long said. “We love and respect what the young people are doing, and they respect what we are doing.”

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