Hip-hop battles in South Portland celebrate the love of dance

Mar. 18—Inside the South Portland Community Center on Saturday, dancers faced off, doing "battle."

Their battles were a friendly hip-hop competition during "The Exchange," an annual event that was called off for three years because of the pandemic. The last one was held in 2019.

"There's a lot of excitement," Portland Youth Dance's outreach director Elizabeth Lau said. "People are ready." The nonprofit, which offers free lessons to youth in the community, sponsored the event.

For hours, dancers performed energetic street moves that included freestyles of a blend of pantomime, athletic spins on hands and shoulders, and backward body flips. Hips, heads and knees rolled to the rhythm of lively music.

"Break dance is the foundation of hip-hop," Lau said. But hip-hop includes more extensive moves. "You'll see people popping, locking and house — amazing things." House is a music genre featuring a repetitive "four-on-the-floor" beat.

The Exchange attracted about 50 dancers of all ages from Maine and New England. There were two age groups, those under 10 and those 10 and older.

Two competitors in the younger group, a girl and boy, took turns dancing in front of judges as the audience clapped in rhythm to their moves. Both dancers earned compliments, and a winner was announced. The two then shook hands and posed for photos.

Another battle followed.

One was two teams of dancers in the older competition. One dancer was Josh Cronin, 18, of Lisbon, who teaches dance at the Alma-Lea's Dance Studio in Lisbon.

Cronin came solo, figuring he'd find someone to compete with him in the partner dance. But when his turn came up, Cronin was without a partner facing the opposing team. "I didn't have a partner. I looked back and my mom was coming up. I thought, 'Oh gosh, she's going to dance with me!'"

With no rehearsal together, the mother and son danced, each performing separately. With a positive attitude, the mother swung her body, arms and hips, and stepped and hopped to the music. The crowd appreciated the mother-and-son moves, giving them rousing cheers when the judges announced that the Cronins won the round.

Heather Cronin said it was a last-minute decision to compete. "He's battling, not me. My son is registered."

Cronin said she's taken dance lessons at the Lisbon studio since she was 38. "I dabble in hip-hop," she said. "Dancing was always a passion of mine. I was lucky enough to have a son who had the same passion as his mom."

Josh Cronin said this year was the first time he participated in The Exchange. "I wanted to come a few years ago but COVID shut it down." He was pleased his mother volunteered to be his partner. "I've always wanted to do one of these events with my mom. She's a big inspiration to me."

Other students from dance studios were from Portland, Bath, Camden, Arundel, Buxton and Westbrook.

Watching the competition were Aria Pines, 17, Saphire Ensworth, 17, and Savana Swan, 18, who dance and teach outreach classes to children for Portland Youth Dance.

Pines was dancing on Saturday. The event "is super cool," she said. "It celebrates hip-hop." In Maine, the dance scene is not huge, she said. "It's great we're able to create this and bring the community together."

Ensworth, a modern-dance performer and teacher, said she was there to volunteer and support the event. For her, dance "is a big mental health thing. It keeps me happy, active and I meet other people who love dancing."

But she was not dancing on Saturday, pointing to her leg in a walking boot cast; she was struck by a car a few months ago. Ensworth has a few weeks left of wearing the boot, she said.

At the end of the day, the rounds of battles ended with three winners. The team "Eli" won for children 10 and under, "Ready for Everything" won in the boys vs. girls contest, and "Grace and Robo" won in the all-styles category, according to Carolyn Perazio of Portland, volunteer president of the board for Portland Youth Dance.

Saturday's hip-hop celebration introduces dancers to those from other communities, inside and outside of Maine, Perazio said.

"It really gets the dancers and kids to understand hip-hop is a culture of sharing, expression of dance and a wonderful extension of our community."