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Back To Basics

Back To Basics

Brynja Pétursdóttir And Natasha Monay Royal Bring Street Dance To Iceland, One Step At A Time

Larissa Kyzer
Words by
Photos by
Matthew Eisman

Published September 29, 2014

Although contemporary hip hop culture is undeniably global in its scope, most people wouldn’t think of Iceland as a hotbed for street dance, one of hip hop’s most recognizable and fundamental off-shoots. And honestly, it’s not. Today there are—at a generous estimate—maybe 50 people actively involved in the street dance scene in Iceland, many of whom are kids and teens who are years away from seeing the inside of a nightclub. Nevertheless, two women at the forefront of Iceland’s street dance community—Natasha Monay Royal, a 41-year-old Brooklynite who is part of “the generation to start street dance,” and her former student, Brynja Pétursdóttir, a 29-year-old Icelander from the outlying Reykjavík neighbourhood of Breiðholt—have set themselves a rather formidable goal. That is, to not only create an entire dance culture from scratch in Iceland, but to also “do it properly,” instilling their students with an understanding of the foundations of hip hop culture and the street dance movement, a tradition that honestly could not be further removed from Iceland’s own cultural and political history.

Given their very different backgrounds, Brynja and Natasha have, of course, taken very different approaches to becoming Iceland’s veritable street dance experts, and both have their own takes on where the culture currently stands and how it might (or might not) develop in the future. But as teachers, they both share a passionate belief in the importance of infusing their classes with historical context and proper technique.

“I could not teach ballet, so I do not advertise ballet,” Brynja states matter-of-factly. As far as she and Natasha see it, a lot of dance teachers in Iceland are trying to cash in on a fad without really knowing what they are doing. This has seemed all the more apparent following this year’s ‘Ísland’s Got Talent’ (the Icelandic version of the popular TV franchise), in which Brynjar Dagur Albertsson, one of Natasha and Brynja’s students, performed a series of popping routines that won him ten million krónur. “It was funny when he won,” says Natasha, “He’s fifteen years old and you have dance schools calling him and asking him to teach. And he’s like, ‘I don’t know how to teach!’ But they ask him to come because it’s good for business.

It makes street dance here unbalanced,” she ends. “And it’s never gonna grow if they keep doing it this way.”

Stops and starts

“I brought street dance to Iceland—I was the first person to teach it,” says Natasha. She explains that there had been a few break dancers who had come to Iceland before, people who, like her, learned to break dance at the very beginning. “But they left after less than a year,” she shrugs. “That’s why it’s still so fresh in Iceland. They left so early.”

Of course, Natasha didn’t exactly plan to become Iceland’s one and only break dancer when she first arrived sixteen years ago. Rather, she came as a tourist. “I went to Kolaportið—there was a big jam there, some American DJ came,” she remembers.

“I started dancing and everybody just stopped. Everybody just completely froze. Like they’d never seen this before. But I just kept dancing and then the whole place was really crowding me, making me dance again and again. I was showing them moves and that’s when this guy came over and said his uncle owned a dance studio. I started at his dance school and then went to [the downtown dance school] Kramhúsið, and I’ve been teaching there since.”

 “They’re all so open. If you love the community and you love the culture, then they want to give you everything they have.”

But it wasn’t easy to funnel the enthusiasm Natasha experienced at Kolaportið into actual class attendance. Her first break dance classes had less than ten students. (Compare this to today, when she and Brynja have as many as 350 students between them.) Luckily, one of Natasha’s first students—and one of the most enthusiastic ones, at that—was Brynja. “Teaching her, I knew that she had it in the heart,” Natasha remembers. “She was always there. It’s not a surprise to me that she’s where she is today, because she was always dedicated.”

It’s perhaps no wonder that Brynja was so enthusiastic about Natasha’s classes, since she had, ostensibly, been waiting for them for her whole life. “I remember being nine-years-old at my friend’s house, sneaking into her older brother’s video collection to watch a show called Yo! MTV Raps that was aired on MTV after our bedtime,” Brynja remembers.

“I had no idea who those people were, but I loved the music, the way they dressed and how they looked so, so, so cool. I was hooked on hip hop culture and soon got to reading, listening and studying every bit of it that I could get my hands on. I waited for The Source magazine, XXL and Vibe to hit the shelves every month. I loved how TLC, Mary J. Blige and Aaliyah dressed and danced, and I tried to imitate everything I saw in the videos. Without really paying much attention to it, I was always practicing some move, for example, the hand gestures when people rapped were so smooth and effortless. My friends did not understand me at all—I clearly remember being the odd one out and I always hated the music played at parties. I was a pain in the ass too, probably, trying to get my music played.”

back to basics

Brynja started taking belly-dancing classes when she was six years old, but was always on the look out for hip hop classes because she loved the music so much. “Finally, when I was fifteen, I found Natasha’s class,” she smiles. “I always helped her advertise. I always put up posters in my school to make sure that the classes would stay open.”

Less than five years later, Brynja and Natasha decided to start teaching together. “I started teaching when I was nineteen and that was out of pure desperation,” Brynja laughs. “There was nothing going on here.” She shakes her head. “Seriously. I just really wanted to create a dance class that I would want to go to. But oh my god, I was so nervous. I was building something from nothing. Nobody was doing it.”

She gestures one hand to the left, one to the right. “Me and Natasha, we had to make it known that street dancing is this, not that. And that took years to get across, in part because many studios advertised street dance and hip hop without having any teachers who were educated in those styles. We’ve kind of accomplished that now—people see the difference. So that’s good. But it’s been a huge struggle.”

This is what it’s about

Although she had already started teaching, however, Brynja still felt like she had a lot to learn, particularly since she was teaching styles, such as dance hall and waacking, that no one else in Iceland was. “It’s a bit scary to be the only influential person,” she admits. “So I try my best to teach everything correctly, just as I learn it from my teachers.”

Every year, she saves up—“all my own money,” she laughs, “this is the reason I don’t have a car”—and goes abroad for a couple of months to dance. She’s studied in New York City, London, Paris, Stockholm, Copenhagen. “When I went to New York for the first time, my brain just opened,” she laughs, “and my world became complete.”

More than just studying in the right places, though, it was important to Brynja that she learn from the best. “I follow the pioneers,” she explains, which isn’t always easy. Even in New York, “it’s an underground scene—hip hop is an underground dance and it always will be. So you have to find these people, but when you do, the whole community just opens for you.” She mimics getting a list of instructions from one of her mentors. “You have to go to these clubs on this day and this club on that day, but that club on this day. And then you have to go to that class here and this class there.” She trails off, smiling.

“I went to private classes, too. But now, these are my friends. They are people that I talk to and respect and hang out with. When they go to London, I meet them there and we just hang out. And those are the pioneers! That’s the crazy thing,” she laughs. “They’re all so open. If you love the community and you love the culture, then they want to give you everything they have.”

Of course, for Natasha, who grew up in hip hop and break dance culture, it hasn’t been so important to get the kind of training that Brynja has wanted. “I go home to see my family. Maybe I take a class here or there. With Brynja, of course, I understand. But me, I have it in me. So I don’t really have so much to learn, unless I want to learn something new.”

And sometimes, it should be pointed out, she does: after spending four years taking classes in toprock, a jazz- and funk-infused vertical dance style that breakers use to transition into floor moves, Natasha just started teaching the style herself this month. “I’m gonna do it for free at first,” she said, “to get people into it… Every dance in Iceland is so new—what is toprock? What is house? It’s still new! You have to really introduce them to it: this is what it is, this is what it looks like, and this is what it’s about.”

back to basics

Never go solo

Given that these dances are still so fresh for most Icelanders, it stands to reason that, at least in this respect, the local club scene leaves something to be desired. Laugavegur may be  a great place to get your djamm on, but Icelandic nightclubs—and clubgoers—are still a bit lacking as far as street dancers are concerned. (Both women hasten to point out that they think that Reykjavík’s DJ scene is great, with Brynja noting that her favourites—such as Benni B-Ruff, Árni Kocoon, Addi Intro, and Logi Pedro—have regular sets at Prikið and Dolly, and Natasha adding that “I feel like I’m in New York with some of these house DJs.”) But where is a good spot to actually go dance?

“Here?” asks Brynja. “Oh, geez louise. I’m Not. A. Fan. But maybe that’s also because we [street dancers] sometimes catch a lot of slack when we go out.” (She pauses for a moment to emphasize the golden rule: “Never go solo!”)

“When we go dance, we go all out,” she continues. “Sometimes it’s very sexy, and sometimes it’s very rough. There’s a lot of attitude. But now that people recognize us more, they give us space and they like to watch. That’s a nice development.”

Natasha seems to agree that as far as the club scene goes, street dance is still mostly a spectator sport. “It’s pretty sad,” she says. “Everybody’s just, like…” she shrugs, waving her hand dismissively, “with their beers. Nobody’s dancing. They have to have a little bit to drink to make a fool of themselves.” And although she’ll brave the dance floor alone or with the occasional friend from out of town, Natasha says that there are still just not a lot of Reykjavík clubs that have the necessary square footage.

“In New York City, you’ve got factories,” she says. “Here, they’re all coffeehouses. But now we have a club called Lavabarinn—they have a lot of top house DJs. I went there when it opened and I was like, ‘Wow, I’m gonna come here and dance my butt off because they have the space.’”

 “I started teaching when I was 19 and that was out of pure desperation,” Brynja laughs. “There was nothing going on here.” She shakes her head. “Seriously. I just really wanted to create a dance class that I would want to go to. But oh my god, I was so nervous. I was building something from nothing. Nobody was doing it.”

It doesn’t help matters that some of the scene’s best dancers are still teenagers and too young by far to be partaking of the local nightlife. “We’re used to going out with our peers and people who are older than us,” Brynja says of her and Natasha’s experiences dancing in other cities. “But here, of course, we’re the oldest—the others are so young. So a club? It isn’t really in the picture yet.” She laughs at the thought. “Come to the club! Just don’t look at the bar!”

And so, Brynja says, they host their own bi-monthly jam sessions in gyms and studios where there’s no minimum age and where less experienced dancers can get a taste for the more spontaneous dancing that they’ll (one day) find in a club environment. “We just freestyle—blast the music and get everyone into the mind-set of creating for themselves.”

And no two ways about it: ”freestyle” is the key word here. When asked if a jam session or a club might be a good place to try out choreographed group routines, á la your favourite dance movie franchise, Brynja just laughs. “Busting out choreography and dancing at the club? You would get slapped if you did that. That’s the first thing I say to my students: ‘You’ve been watching ‘Step Up’? Well, you’re about to learn something new!’”

You need your foundation

Although today the pair work independently from one another, they see themselves as a team with courses that complement one another. In 2012, Brynja founded her own dance school, Dans Brynju Péturs. Natasha teaches classes there, as well as at Kramhúsið. Brynja focuses on dance hall and waacking, while Natasha teaches break and house dance. Both teach hip hop and popping. The end goal is to create a full and well-rounded curriculum, a set of “vocabularies,” as Brynja puts it, which their students can draw on when dancing outside of a classroom setting.

The knowledge that there are dance teachers and schools advertising street dance classes without the proper training, however, really rankles both women, who see this as an epidemic that is stunting both Icelandic street dancers, as well as the culture at large.

“There are teachers teaching break dance who don’t know anything about break dance,” Natasha says. “They’re lifting their toes up like in ballet. We don’t lift our toes up in street dance. The students are getting ripped off.”

What makes her and Brynja’s classes different, she believes, is ultimately the greater context they provide their students with. “I do history classes,” she says. “I sit my kids down and let them know, Hey! This is what I was doing when I was eight, fifteen… Some dance schools, they basically, like, just teach ‘five, six, seven, eight,’ and don’t say nothin’ bout why—why are we doing this step?”

Brynja agrees. “Most of us—we’re stuck here, we can’t go travel every time we want. So it’s very important that students go to the people who can actually help them learn and advance. Don’t go to people who don’t have the education! Some people act like, ‘Oh, you just put on a hoodie and baggy pants and dance to the newest Jay-Z song…’” She growls a little in frustration.

“That’s what’s been done here in Iceland. There are people coming to my classes who think that they’ve been studying hip hop for years. It’d be like going to a ballet class without knowing how to pirouette. It’s that bad. And I’m like, sorry, but you have to start at the beginning. You need your foundation.”

back to basics

It’s a family

Despite their frustration with the status of local street dance education, both Brynja and Natasha have been gratified to see the culture thrive and grow here. Two years ago, in fact, after a successful crowdfunding campaign, Brynja staged the first ever Street dans einvígi, or Street Dance Battle, in which dancers competed in hip hop, dancehall, waacking, break, popping, and original crew (group) choreography.

“I decided to jump the gun and put on the battle that we’ve always wanted to do,” says Brynja. And, even better, in addition to herself, Natasha, and some of the other teachers at her dance school, Buddha Stretch, a dancer who has choreographed for Michael Jackson, Will Smith, and Mariah Carey, among others, acted as a judge. “That was insane,” says Brynja. “My students get to learn from the best. That’s crazy. I was always like, ‘One day, I’ll have Buddha Stretch and [Henry] Link teaching in Iceland,’” she laughs. “Yeah, right. But it happened!”

That first battle proved to be an inspiration for local dancers and is now an annual event that they can look forward to. “It’s a huge thing for our culture,” says Brynja. “I already see people preparing for the next one. They’re training really early and they expect more from our classes, which is fantastic. They want to ask and they want to know and they want to do better so that they can win in the battles!”

If this sounds like it is a strictly competitive and aggressive environment, however, Brynja assures that it is anything but. “After every battle, everybody hugs. Because it’s all about love… It actually brought me to tears. I saw everyone come together. The breakers were like, ‘that’s waacking?’ And the waackers were like, ‘Oh yeah, so that’s popping?’ And everyone was just exchanging information. It was a beautiful thing.”

Outside of teaching and practicing with her own crew, the Element Crew, whom she plans to compete abroad with next year, Natasha’s latest project is with “the little generation,” a kids’ crew called the Little Rascals. “They’re excellent dancers,” she laughs. “And they’re only five and six.” The Little Rascals practice twice a week and even performed during the National Day festivities this year.

In her opinion, however, Natasha says that street dance still has a long way to go before it really becomes a flourishing culture in Iceland. “You’re gonna have to get off this island to get a name,” she says of up-and-coming dancers. Moreover, she believes that people here need to learn to diversify, to expand their familiarity with other styles of dance. She herself has tried tap dance and modern dance, for instance, and found ways to incorporate certain techniques from those styles in her break and hip hop dancing.

“If you want to be a good street dancer, take up different types of dance. “Try not to be in this little bubble—go out and try new things! Buy a new pair of sneakers,” she jokes. “Think, I’m not going to wear Nikes anymore, I’m gonna wear Adidas!”

But even if the street dance community still has a way to grow here in Iceland, both Natasha and Brynja intend to stay here and work to strengthen it in the long term. “I love what I’m doing,” says Brynja. “I think it’s really important. And I’m so in love with the kids that I’m teaching. I can see them getting into the mindframe and understanding the dance styles. It’s a family, it’s a whole culture.”

Bringing Street Dance To Iceland

back to basics

Natasha Monay Royal was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1973 and, as she says, is part of “the generation to start street dance.” She began dancing when she was ten years old, learning a lot from her older brother who had his own crew. Her brother wasn’t always happy to have his little sister tagging along, she says, but she learned a lot from watching them practice in empty buildings that were under construction around Brooklyn.

“They would just put a cardboard box on the ground and dance,” she explained in an interview with the newspaper Vísir. And then one day, Natasha decided to go to a practice and show them that what she could do. “I was so young then,” she remembers. “And they had no idea that I had been practising.” They were obviously impressed with what they saw, however, because after this she was allowed to join the crew.

Natasha came to Iceland as a tourist in 1998 and was “discovered” by a local dancer at a hip hop party at Kolaportíð, the downtown warehouse which now houses the city’s weekly flea market. “They probably thought I was crazy,” she says. “I was spinning on my head and everything.”

She began teaching dance classes around Reykjavík, eventually moving to the dance school Kramhúsið. “I don’t have my own school,” she says. “But I call Kramhúsið my school because I was like, basically born there. I got started through them.” Slowly but surely she began building up a student base. It was the teaching, she said, which really kept her here at first.

“Sometimes, I did want to stop,” she admits. “But then I was like, ‘No! I don’t want to do that. Then, the street dance would die.’ That was keeping me here. And, of course, now I have a child here. He’s five now, so okay. I already said to my partner I’m going to be here at least until he’s fifteen. After his confirmation, then I’ll see from there.”

“This is like my second home,” she says. “I have a lot of friends and family here that I call my family. It keeps me here. And then I have my family calling me from the United States like every other day, so I feel like they’re next door.”

Natasha says she has a huge family that she goes home twice a year to see. In addition to her older brother, she has a twin sister. “She was so upset that I was leaving,” she remembers. But her whole family has been very supportive of her move here, even if they miss her. “My mom was a bit sad that I was leaving, but she just told me you have one life to live—enjoy it. Just make sure you take care of yourself. ‘Call home and come home,’ that’s all she said. So every time I’m in a newspaper article, I send it to her. And she’s so cute—she has a little book that she shows to everybody.”

Know Your Street Dance

Brynja And Natasha Break Down Some Of Their Favorite Dance Styles

back to basics

Breaking

Break dance is very physically challenging, Brynja explains. Dancers must maintain their rhythm when dancing upright and great strength and originality is required when it comes to floor moves. Break dancing, or B-Boying, is the first dance style to come out of hip hop culture. “This is what they were doing in the beginning of the 70s,” she says, “spinning on their heads on concrete streets at block parties. You used to recognize B-Boys because they had actual bald spots from doing head spins.”

Dancehall

“Dancehall comes from Jamaica,” Brynja explains. “That music is so addictive, it’s… it’s crazy. But that is where I really felt that I could get into feminine steps. Because the female vocabulary is often concentrated on your hips. It’s a lot of winding—you have to build up a technique with your hips… It’s sexy—the attitude is so rough and raw with dancehall. It’s very, very nice. The groove is kind of complicated, but when you get into it, you can’t get enough of it. ”

Hip hop

“Hip hop comes from the streets of New York,” says Brynja.“It’s basically what people do at the clubs. It’s social dancing—everyone’s just learning from each other and from that environment, the curriculum and vocabulary has been building since the 80s. And that’s where our foundation comes from. It’s a party dance. It’s what we do when we have fun. You go to the clubs and you’re sweating down to your knees and everything is a mess but it’s beautiful.”

House

House dance originated in the same clubs around the same time as hip hop: the mid-80s in New York City. Every weekend, says Brynja, dancers would go to clubs like Union and the Roxy, “creating and bouncing ideas off each other.” With minor changes, many hip hop steps became house steps, she says, and vise-versa. “House incorporates African, salsa, hip hop, tap, hustle and other dance styles with the general idea that everything and everyone is welcome inside this House. Inside this House we are one.”

Popping

Brynja and Natasha have slightly different interpretations of this popular style. “The thing that people don’t realize about popping here in Iceland,” says Natasha, “is that it’s not all these head isolations [makes creaking noises]. All this ‘ent, ent, ent.’ It’s boogaloo. We move our bodies. People need to know that the background of popping isn’t all this robot. It’s boogaloo inside.”

For her part, Brynja says that popping can be both “robotic with accurate isolations of your body parts and also very groovy, incorporating illusions into the performance. You have to have muscle control to make your body POP. Popping dancers have to have all of those elements in their art. The style has subgenres like the Robot, Boogaloo, Animation and more. Hip hop, for example, was created under heavy influence from popping (and Toprock).”

Toprock

Toprock is the foundational dance in break dancing, basically a vertical dance style that breakers use to transition into floor moves. It’s recently gained popularity as a style all on its own, though. “It’s growing so fast… it’s all funk music, jazz music, salsa music—all together,” says Natasha.

Waacking

“Waacking comes from the gay community, from LA,” Brynja explains. “It was contained in a few clubs in Los Angeles for over fifteen years. They did it only in these clubs, the drag queens, and they were dancing and imitating famous actresses like Greta Garbo and Rita Hayworth—embodying all these characters. The beats are disco, but it’s not like this disco [gestures ‘Saturday Night Fever’-style], but ‘funky disco,’ like Diana Ross and Donna Summer. They talk about heartbreak and it’s very dramatic, it’s all about your performance. You have to embody the emotions, you have to have your heart in shambles. You have to go there. And then you have to catch the beat with your hands… So you melt in and out of characters and you use your hands to catch the rhythm.”

Brynja and Natasha teach dance classes in Breiðholt, Árbær and Laugardalur, for all ages in various street dance styles, as well as themed choreography classes. More information at www.brynjapeturs.is, or if you need information in English, email her directly. Natasha also teaches at Kramhúsið; see the school’s full schedule (in English) here.

Brynja will host this year’s Street dans einvígi, or Street Dance Battle, on October 25 at Íþróttahús Seljaskóla. Henry Link of the Elite Force Crew will be coming to Iceland from New York to judge the battle, as well as to teach classes in the week before.

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