The Very Moving Rennie Harris
Rennie Harris and street dance grew up together. Today, he’s celebrated as the pioneer of hip-hop dance theater, but it took a while before he ever got paid.
Rennie Harris is a pioneering dancer, choreographer, and dance instructor. He is best known as the founder of Rennie Harris Puremovement, the first hip-hop dance touring company.
Born Lorenzo Harris in 1964, he grew up in Philadelphia and formed his first dance group at age 12. His outfits The Step Masters and The Scanner Boys performed with Salt-N-Pepa, Run-DMC, Madonna, Grandmaster Flash, and other pop artists of the 1980s. He worked on TV dance shows Dance Party USA and One House Street. In 1992, he formed Rennie Harris Puremovement to fulfill a commission from Movement Theater International. Since then, the ensemble has toured throughout the world, as has its youth offshoot RHAW.
Harris’s work has also been commissioned by Pennsylvania Ballet, Colorado Ballet, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and numerous other companies. He is the founder of Illadelph Legends Festival, the world’s longest-running hip hop dance festival.
Some people learn to dance. Others, like Rennie Harris, pioneer of hip hop dance, are born to it.
Harris grew up in North Philadelphia in the 1970s. And from the very beginning, he was constantly in motion.
Rennie Harris: My mom used to say, “Turn off that radio!” It’d be like 6:30 in the morning, I’d turn on the radio, start dancing, dance into the bathroom, come back, you know. Or I’m at the table, I’m dancing. My mom would like, smack me ’cause I’m trying to animate water with a glass of water without trying to spill it. You know, trying to. And so, like, it’s really a part of your day to day, like, for those who are like, who love, who are just like for some reason we just have to move.
AJC: You are a dancer, you don’t just dance.
Harris: Right, exactly.
Harris, the oldest of seven, was raised in a Catholic home and studied briefly for the priesthood. But ultimately, religion didn’t call to him as powerfully as movement. For him, dance binds body and spirit. It has a unique power to heal. At age 12, Harris formed his first dance group with his brother and a friend to compete in a church talent show. By age 15, he had founded The Step Masters and a popping crew called The Scatter Boys who would go on to perform with the whos-who of 1980s hip hop acts, including Salt ‘N Pepa, Run-D.M.C., and Grandmaster Flash. When he was passed over for the movie Krush Groove, the last in a string of popular films about street dancing, a discouraged Harris headed back home. In 1991, after a year of scraping by, a Philadelphia based dance company offered him $1500 to create a work that would premiere the following year. He still remembers getting that call from Michael Pedretti from Movement Theater International.
Harris: It was the first time someone offered me money ahead of time, a year before the gig. And I told him, I said, “Hey man, “I might not be here.” I said you know. He said, “What do you mean?” I said, “Well, they just had a shootout right outside of my room at my house. I could be, not here.” I said, “Well, I’ll take your money, and I don’t know if I’ll show up but if I show up, we’ll do it.” And so he gave me half the money, and I was like, I showed up and the company was born from that moment.
Today, Harris’s touring company, Pure Movement and his youth spinoff Rhaw, short for Rennie Harris’s Awe-inspiring Works have been thriving for more than 25 years, performing across the world, in Europe, Asia, Africa, and beyond. Major dance companies around the US have also commissioned work from him. Harris develops each piece on-site, based on the town at hand. But since so much comes together organically in rehearsals, it’s often impossible for him to make, let alone communicate the master plan.
Harris: Almost every project that I’ve done, whether with my company or another company, I’ve always heard whispers of, “I don’t think he knows what he’s doing.” And, you know, it used to hurt my feelings but then I kinda got over it because yeah, that’s the part that you’re expecting me to create expression via a formula. I don’t approach it that way. It’s a difference than just, you know, making a salad or soup. You know that that’s pepper and what the pepper’s gonna do. You know what the tomato’s gonna do. With bodies or spirits, you know, you don’t know what you’re gonna get.
Rodney Hill: So when it comes to like, a normal recipe for what a choreographer would normally do, their normal process, Rennie just takes that recipe and he just rips it all up and scatters it all around. And say okay, let me see what I can get outta this. He trusts the dancers, and we trust him.
Joshua Culbreath: Rennie allows for people to be themselves. To be the individual. So for me, I’m a breaker, I’m a complete b-boy. I know how to do different styles, but he allows me to be me and shine as me throughout his work.
Phil Cuttino Jr.: You gotta be willing to take it somewhere. And he trusts that you can do it. It’s just that you also have to believe in him and believe in his vision and believe in yourself at the same time.
In the past few years, Rennie Harris has had to learn to trust his dancers more than ever. Now in his mid-50s, the choreographer has had both his hips replaced. He just can’t move the way he used to.
Harris: I can’t really actually demonstrate the movement. I have to, like convey the movement to the dancer and like, slowly process them through this movement. So in that way, I don’t know if the body was sort of betraying me, but sorta going through a transition to say okay, I need to slow you down and let’s see what you, you know. Let’s hone the practice, let’s hone what it is that you’re doing in a whole other way. I feel like I have a completely different insight now.
And for many of his dancers, Harris’s work hits close to home. His dances delve into the social, the political, the personal. Everything he brings to the stage an honest representation of his own experiences and observations. And this authenticity is what makes his dancers, including eight-year company veteran, Phil Cuttino Jr. trust Harris’s vision. In 2019’s “A Day In The Life,” Cuttino closes the show in a duet about two brothers who, while hanging out in their own neighborhood, become involved in a violent altercation with the police. It ends when a cop shoots Cotino’s character dead.
Cuttino Jr.: The reason why that piece is so important to me is because I got shot before, like. It wasn’t by a cop, but it was like, through crazy street violence and all that type stuff. So, it was just crazy to really see all of these different dynamics and ways of, he’s being my real reality. And to have to die on stage in front of like, hundreds and hundreds of people sometimes, that stuff is crazy. To really like, live that moment, and really like, tell that story and help people understand.
Harris has always been driven by a desire to help people understand both themselves and others. To find catharsis by pouring his deepest emotions into dance.
Harris: Work is actually a relief to get the thought out, process, and then to watch it morph in the body to say, you know, there’s still breath in what you’re saying. I put this pain in this body but that pain is not really radiating the pain I’m really feeling, but it also there’s a pain and I begin to see the beauty in that pain, the humanity in the pain that I’m putting into the body, right? And so then that affects me in a whole other way. Like, it’s almost, it kind of releases me from that thing.
Present at its birth, Rennie Harris continues to create dance that reflects his life, the communities that shaped him and the evolution of hip hop from the street into an international cultural phenomenon.