DAT Krew Academy 'changes generations' through hip-hop, street-style dance

·6 min read

Aug. 13—Mix together a former gangbanger, Marine, dancer and father figure to 34 kids and you have Luther Gray.

The 35-year-old Bakersfield man's easygoing demeanor and broad smile belie a seemingly incongruous past, which includes time spent with the Eastside Crips, as well as the Marine Corps. But both influence his approach as the founder and owner of DAT Krew Academy, which includes 30 dancers under the age of 19 years old.

DAT Krew — which stands for dance, art and talent — recently won a Beautiful Bakersfield Award in the arts and culture category and frequently appears in local holiday parades. The dance team has been invited to perform in other counties' parades, participate in competitions and even appear on televised dance shows seen by millions.

And on Sunday, Gray's students will perform in a dance battle on Caffeine TV, a live-streaming service.

But students don't only get dance lessons from Gray. He lavishes them with attention and offers lessons often not learned at home, with instruction on leadership and the importance of confidence.

"This is way more than dance," Gray said.

'Make them superstars'

Though dancing is his life, it wasn't always that way for Gray.

It all happened when his childhood split into "two different worlds." Gray lived with his father until he was 15 in a life with "privilege," he said. It's where dancing first mesmerized Gray. His father would invite his friends over, and they would pop-lock.

"And, I would watch and watch and watch and practice and practice and practice," Gray said in a recent interview at a downtown cafe. "I wanted to be just like him."

But his father decided to leave Bakersfield, and Gray wanted to stay. That required moving into his mother's apartment in southeast Bakersfield and transferring to South High School from West High for his senior year.

The change also led to Gray living with seven other people in a one-bedroom apartment.

"It was a total culture shock for me," Gray said. "It was a change for me and it made me super, super, super tough because I had no other way."

Dancing became an escape. A reprieve. He avoided his house, and would often practice with his friends in the parks.

But his influences changed. Alcohol and drugs appeared within his reach. His cousins were members of the Eastside Crips, and it was easy to fall into that lifestyle, Gray said.

"Too easy," he added.

His peers belittled Gary for his love of dance. That's when he stopped expressing himself. The self-taught dancer quit his LA-style street-dancing such as Clowning and Krumping.

Despite becoming engrossed in this culture, Gray knew he needed to escape. Joining the Marine Corps in 2004 straight out of high school offered him a chance to see the world.

But the rigidity and structure required to excel in the military clashed with Gray's free spirit. He'd be reprimanded for dancing when standing still was required.

Gray fell ill as the result of a sandstorm while he was serving overseas, and eventually the affliction pushed him out of the Corps. But he said he knew being a Marine wasn't for him.

Dancing moved back into his life.

Gray eventually began to achieve fame for his moves. He competed in dance battles, making his way into circles with celebrities like Chris Brown, another dancer and singer. Despite never taking a class, Gray performed in music videos and was a backup dancer for T-Pain, A$AP Rocky and various hip hop artists.

But Gray said he wanted more.

He found his way back home and started teaching at local dance academies. That's when Gray "finally fell in love with it completely." His calling was to teach dancing.

But a hole existed within the local dance scene — there was no southeast Bakersfield dance academy.

And so he started his own in 2014. At first, it started with four kids. Which grew to eight. And then 12. Before he knew it, his fledgling company was called to perform at Bakersfield's annual Christmas parade.

"I want to take kids from the southeast," Gray said, "and make them superstars."

'Changes generations'

Thumping bass, children twirling while airborne and then landing into splits, while others performed cartwheels were on display during a recent DAT Krew Academy dance practice.

"It's like all my stress and anger goes away when I just get up and move or just get up and dance," Za'Leyah Christor, 14, said during a break in the action. The team was practicing for a dance battle Sunday and an upcoming performance at the Kern County Fair.

Many of Gray's students only live with their mother, while their father isn't in the picture. Some see their parents drunk, high on drugs and constantly working to make ends meet. That doesn't leave them time to pay close attention to their children, Gray said.

So, Gray fills that hole. He tells them not to be traditional — don't think getting government assistance to have a house and car is normal. Don't have children out of wedlock. Don't think this lifestyle is normal, he says.

"'What do you have going on in your life?'" Gray will ask students. "'How's your grades? How do you feel? How's your life going? What else are you doing with your life? Are you thinking about college?'"

Gray reminds dancers they are the first southeast Bakersfield dance academy. They travel to Los Angeles, Orange County and Las Vegas to compete while getting coverage from the news.

"Nobody else in town is doing that," he tells them.

He also encourages their dreams and asks them about their goals. He offers them guidance on any business plans they may have.

NaTesha "T" Johnson, founder and executive director of Upside Academy, learned about Gray through his involvement in local parades. As the owner of an organization that also supports local youth, she reached out to help.

"They are a reflection of what the community should look like or should be," Johnson said. "Just a giving heart making a positive impact, especially when it comes to our youth."

DAT Krew Academy cultivates creativity unlike any other organization Johnson has seen, she said. It provides children with an outlet to be themselves, she added.

"It's letting them communicate, their struggles, their happiness, their joy," Johnson said.

Arleana Waller, founder and president of ShePOWER Leadership Academy, saw Gray when he was first starting out and gave him $500 to get a space to practice. They were practicing in a park, and it wasn't safe where they were, she said.

The younger, impressionable dancers get confidence while learning how to dance, as well as leadership skills, while they compete in dance competitions. Gray helps directly to change the landscape of the southeast corner, she added.

"Any time you can reach a youth and change the course of their life, it absolutely changes generations," Waller said.

You can reach Ishani Desai at 661-395-7417. You can also follow her at @_ishanidesai on Twitter.