Freestyle Lab Festival judge Popping Danys: 'The club is where you need to be'

Hugues Makaba

Sophie Soukias

The Freestyle Lab Festival will bring different communities from the street dance scene together at the end of June. The Brussels dancer Danys “Popping Danys” Vanderhaeghen will swap the floor for a spot as one of the judges that, through a series of battles, will help decide the fate of other dancers.

Contemporary dance in the capital

  • From all nations
    Krump, coupé-décalé, African house, dance hall, the Nations Dance Festival shines a spotlight on Afro-Caribbean urban dances and the Belgian stars who represent them internationally. The programme includes battles, workshops, and talks.
    Nations dance festival 14 & 15/6, Espace Magh,
  • D-Day
    Last year's Brussel Danst dance battles organised by TIMISS had the Ancienne Belgique jumping like never before. The platform for street culture is back for a day devoted to hip hop, house, krump, and ksaar, with a particular emphasis on the themes of sharing and transmission.
    Brussel danst dance battles 11/7, Ancienne Belgique,
  • Season of the cyphers
    Every Wednesday during the summer, assemble in the centre of Brussels for the unmissable Detours Cyphers. Whether you are a professional or just love dance, do not hesitate : join the party! (SOS)
    Detours cyphers 10/7 > 22/9, Beursplein/Place de la Bourse,

Popping, locking, waacking: the dance styles of the funk and disco culture of yesteryear hold no secrets for Danys Vanderhaeghen. His record is impressive and includes a title as the runner-up of the 2019 world locking championship as well as numerous appearances in television, theatre productions, and cyphers at home and abroad.

Vanderhaeghen is a self-taught dance prodigy and a key figure of the Brussels street dance community with a hunger for more, because if he could, he would add jazz. “Jazz is the missing link between Africa and the funk and disco dance styles of the late 20th century,” that is what this 28-year-old street dancer and choreographer firmly believes.

In Europe, we tend to cling frenetically to the basics, while in the United States these cultures remain very much alive and innovative

Popping Danys

You are going to be part of the Freestyle Lab Festival as a jury member as well as a panel member. Does that come from a stated commitment?
Danys Vanderhaeghen: Sometimes it is good to take a break from dancing, spend some time together, and reflect on the culture and community that you are part of. The talks taking place during the festival offer such a moment of reflection: we talk about positive and negative developments in the scene, what could be better, what has changed, and so on. Opinions vary, but these are usually constructive moments of exchange.

In the spring, you danced along in Giuseppe Verdi's opera piece Rivoluzione e Nostalgia at De Munt/La Monnaie. How did you experience the move to opera?
Vanderhaeghen: I already shared the stage with four other dancers and the Brussels Akhtamar Quartet in Freestyle Classics, an earlier dance performance with Freestyle Lab. But opera is another completely different thing. There, you have the orchestra, the choir, solo singers, all in a three-hour performance! For Verdi's play, choreographer Michiel Vandevelde insisted on working with street dancers. As the play is also about revolution, we were asked questions during casting interviews about our view of revolution and its relation to the dance styles we practise. De Munt/La Monnaie took the time to learn about the different street dance styles thoroughly which is something we respect them for, because we did fear that they would not fully understand us as street dancers.

Is that feeling of incomprehension often there?
Vanderhaeghen: The tendency now, more than in the past, among street dancers is to react when culture is portrayed in an inauthentic way or when biased interpretations of culture become the norm, as if a dance style has stood still in time. In Europe, we tend to cling frenetically to the basics, while in the United States these cultures remain very much alive and innovative.

When did you realise you wanted to be a dancer?
Vanderhaeghen: In 2010, my brother and I discovered Poppin John, a dancer from the United States who, at the time, left an incredibly deep impression on me. We had seen him at work in a video and that gave the both of us immense enthusiasm to master this dance style. We practised every day after school and watched all kinds of dance videos to improve. At some point, my brother stopped and I carried on on my own.

Was the fact that your parents are from the dance world as well a factor?
Vanderhaeghen: My mother was a dancer until I was born. My father still dances in Italy where he lives. But they are not the reason why I started dancing, although I was exposed to African American music a lot through my parents. My mother is from 1976, her teenage years were in the 1980s and 1990s during the hip-hop and R&B boom. So she loves Mary J. Blige and Eminem.

SLT20240529 Popping Danys kleinere foto

Sophie Soukias

| Popping Danys: "Sometimes it is good to take a break from dancing, spend some time together, and reflect on the culture and community that you are part of."

How did you find your way to the Brussels street dance scene after that?
Vanderhaeghen: The Brussels, and so by extension Belgian, scene was small so battles where little advertised and you had to have the right contacts. That takes time and then you have to show yourself regularly within the circuit. The Brussels-Luxembourg station is also a very important place for the street dance scene, as all generations since the 1980s have been coming there to dance, meet each other, and transfer knowledge. You will find breakdancers, krumpers, waackers, and hip-hop dancers there. For a long time, there were just two of us doing popping in Brussels, so we often practised with hip-hop and house dancers.

What was the greatest obstacle in your development as a self-taught dancer?
Vanderhaeghen: I regularly watched interviews and videos with American dancers, but I often missed certain nuances in language because my English was not good enough back then. As a result, it took a lot to capture the true essence of the dance. The positive aspect is that the way I got to that essence has contributed to my own style.

As a judge during the battles, what will you be paying attention to?
Vanderhaeghen: I have a range of criteria around musicality, technique, creativity, originality, and self-confidence. But I don't judge everyone the same way, because not all criteria are equally important in all genres. For example, in dancehall musicality is less important than in waacking or krump. Nor do all dance styles offer the same freedom to customise steps. With my knowledge of different dance styles, I take all of these criteria into account to make a fair judgement.

So how do you become a better freestyle dancer?
Vanderhaeghen: Technique is important, but so is showing an interest in the origins of dance movements. They come from teenagers and young adults who went to clubs, hung out on the streets, and developed small dance concepts that subsequent generations kept building on. Dance studios are also great because the information is centralised there, but if you really want to feel the energy, the club is where you need to be.

The Freestyle Lab Festival takes place from 24 to 30 June at Théâtre de la Vie,

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