Learning from a legend: ASU dancers work with artist, activist Michele Byrd-McPhee

A group of people rehearsing onstage.

McPhee developing choreography with ASU students for Spring Dance Fest in April. Courtesy photo


Dancers filled the space in the Margaret Gisolo Dance Theatre, greeting each other loudly with hugs and waves across the room. The dress code was equal parts college casual and dancer chic. 

Welcome to Hip Hop Matters, a special session of Dance Matters, a monthly gathering at Arizona State University, where dancers and community members meet to discuss dance and artistry.

In preparation for the School of Music, Dance and Theatre’s annual Sol Power hip-hop festival, guest artists Michele Byrd-McPhee and Reyna Nuñez were holding court as DJ Rita Spirit laid down tracks. Dancers shuffled onto the stage, ready to battle in teams, the feeling in the room more eager than nervous.

Just moments before, LaTasha Barnes, ASU professor and member of the Ladies of Hip-Hop, facilitated a panel discussion with Byrd-McPhee and Nuñez.

Byrd-McPhee is the founder and executive director of the Ladies of Hip-Hop. She works to recontextualize spaces and conversations about hip-hop culture along gender, sex, cultural, socio-historical and racial lines.

In the panel discussion, Byrd-McPhee and Nuñez shared about the struggles of building an arts organization, the reality of being a woman in a male-dominated field and the importance of community. 

“When one of us is doing well, we are all doing well,” Byrd-McPhee said. 

During her weeklong residency at the School of Music, Dance and Theatre, Byrd-McPhee taught classes, spoke on a guest speaker panel and judged the Sol Power 3v3 dance competitions. It’s a grueling schedule, but Byrd-McPhee said that the experience was positive.

“The dance community and the community at large that I engaged with in Arizona have just been so welcoming,” said Byrd-McPhee. “It was a great experience.”

She also set a piece that will be performed by ASU dancers at Spring Dance Fest in April. 

“For Spring Dance Fest, I did a houseHouse is a music genre characterized by a repetitive four-on-the-floor beat and a typical tempo of 120 beats per minute as a reemergence of 1970's disco. Source: Wikipedia piece with a little sprinkle of Vogue in there,” said Byrd-McPhee. “Vogue is a dance that was created in the New York City clubs in the ‘70s by the Black queer community.”

Byrd-McPhee said the piece was inspired by water and how it moves. 

“I wanted to do something very uplifting,” she said. “Everything that I work on is really personal, from song selection to every step.”

Byrd-McPhee sets the choreography on students during the week, and the students continue to develop and rehearse the work under the direction of Barnes.

“Where the students pick up and reinterpret what I have given is where they start to show up and where it belongs to them,” said Byrd-McPhee. “All the dancers are so talented, and it really came together.”

The annual Sol Power festival celebrates the hip-hop community in the Phoenix area with events all week long. Dancers from around the Phoenix area gathered outside the ASU Art Museum as live DJs spun music and the competition narrowed down to the final winners. The event is coordinated by ASU Clinical Assistant Professor Jorge “House” Magana with help from the ASU Hip-Hop Coalition student organization. 

“This year’s Sol Power and energy was through the roof,” Magana said. “There were so many competitors, including a group of ASU students that made it to the top eight out of 36 teams! The addition of the breaking category added a whole new level and exposure to our students and campus.”

This year’s choreography competition was won by AZNA Dance, an ASU-based hip-hop dance team. Bboy Mace Maya won the breaking competition, and the freestyle 3v3 competition winners were RaeRae Rakista, Leah Bancod-Roman and Jazzy Patton. 

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