How Hip-Hop Dance Legend Rennie Harris Came to Pioneer Street Dance Theater

Save ArticleSave Article

Failed to save article

Please try again

If Cities Could Dance is KQED Arts' award-winning video series featuring dancers across the country who represent their city's signature moves.

Before Hamilton and hip-hop theater became mainstream, there was dancer and choreographer Lorenzo “Rennie” Harris, who helped pioneer the artform.

In 1992, Harris founded the country’s first and longest running street dance theater company, Rennie Harris Puremovement (RHPM). As choreographer and artistic director, he’s created celebrated works like “Rome and Jewels,” a recasting of Romeo and Juliet with rival gangs in his hometown of Philadelphia; “Facing Mekka,” an exploration of the global face of Islam; and “Funkedified,” a tribute to the funk music he came up dancing to in the 1970s.

Black and white photo of Rennie Harris captured mid-jump.
Dancer, choreographer, artistic director Rennie Harris. (Bob Emmott)

In the 1980s, funk morphed into hip-hop, and Harris became a well-known popper and danced with the crew The Scanner Boys. He performed on the country’s first hip-hop tour, The Fresh Festival, with Run DMC, Fat Boys, Kurtis Blow, and Whodini. He also hosted the popular TV show One House Street, which rivaled Club MTV in ratings.

A hip-hop dance and dj crew in the 1980s featuring young male dancers performing on stage while the djs in the back get ready to play a record.
The Scanner Boys, featuring Rennie Harris on the top left. (Courtesy Smithsonian Institution)

The eldest of seven kids raised by a single mom in North Philadelphia, Harris bounced around between life at home and the houses of his aunties and family friends. In his early solo work, he references experiences of being molested and growing up under the constant threat of violence. His approach to dance, even when creating work for concert stages, has always been about his own healing—a way for him “to see and feel God,” says Harris. With a through line in his work of spiritual enlightenment, he’s been dubbed the “High Priest of Hip-Hop” by Dance Magazine, who recognized Harris with a “Living Legends” award in 2017.

Sponsored

Audiences and critics weren’t always so accepting, says Harris. In the early days of his company, “You had people picketing, and they would send police to our shows. They’d show up, verbatim, ‘I hear there’s some hip-hop here,’” he says. Officers would arrive prepared to break up fights. Instead, Harris’ stage manager would offer them seats to watch the show. “Their faces were like, ‘What?’ They didn't get it.”

A still from a hip-hop theater production featuring several dancers on a stage of a theater with a big projection screen showing childhood photos of Rennie Harris.
Still from “Funkedified,” a Rennie Harris Puremovement Production. (Courtesy New Victory Theater, powered by New 42)

Before long, Harris would become a highly sought-after choreographer and artistic director, and RHPM toured globally after Harris was appointed a cultural ambassador for President Obama's Dance Motion USA program. “For the first 20 years of the company, people had never seen anything like it—they've seen hip-hop in theater, the acrobatic entertainment part of it, but they hadn't seen street dance used in an expressive way, with a narrative, abstractly,” he says. “We shifted their concept of what hip-hop or street dance was.”

A still from a hip-hop theater performance that shows dancers and singers on a stage in front of an actor playing a priest.
Still from “LIFTED,” a Rennie Harris Puremovement Production. (Courtesy Bates Dance Festival)

Over the years, San Francisco has proven to be a loyal audience for Harris and RHPM productions, with performances at Stern Grove Festival, the San Francisco International Hip-Hop Festival and YBCA. Bay Area audiences were first introduced to him in 1999 at Theater Artaud with “Rome and Jewels.” The story centers on rival street gangs battling for control of the city, and integrates the East and West Coast hip-hop wars that claimed the lives of Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur. “The title is a dig at the hip-hop community. ‘Rome’ is short for roaming. ‘Jewels’ is short for jewelry—roaming for jewelry,” says Harris of the show, which is being restaged for the 30th anniversary of RHMP.

Harris recites the opening lines, written and performed by dancer Ozzie Jones. “‘BIG and Pac roam for jewels, but don’t we all? / We ain’t nobody until we a mural on somebody’s wall.’ I love that. If you’re really listening to what is being said, it’s prophetic.”

In this If Cities Could Dance special release, Harris breaks down five major moments from his life. — Text by Kelly Whalen

ICYMI, also check out our Philadelphia house dance episode, in which Harris makes a cameo.