STRAIGHT OUTTA SUDBURY: Elizabeth Bernstein (at left) and her Hip-Hop Mamas have been popping, locking, and breaking for the past five years.
As a prepubescent thug, I often complained about the audio rotation on my father's car stereo, which primarily consisted of a steady mix of Moody Blues and books on tape. In return, he'd ask how I would feel if he wore Starter jackets and picked me up at school with bass lines blaring out his windows: "Yo, Chris: get in the motherfucking whip, fool." He was right: I didn't want a hip-hop pops. The only thing worse would be a mom who sported door-knocker earrings and loose overalls with airbrushed backsides.
Now that I'm on the cusp of 30, though, I'm beginning to see things differently, as my enthusiasm for rap music is beyond latent; this past week I got a Wu-Tang Clan logo tattooed on my right forearm. All those jokes about us Gen-X dudes someday telling our grandchildren about how we met their nanas while "We Want Some Pussy" played in the background — that's going to be me. If I ever settle down, I'll be a white hip-hop parent — blunts, curse words, Timberlands, and all. In short: I'll be an embarrassment to all who bear my last name, which I'll have embroidered on my oversize Celtics jersey. But at least I won't be alone.
Just outside of Boston — and as far away as Long Island, California, and even China — an integral part of hip-hop culture is being kept alive by an unexpected demographic: mom posses. These ladies aren't rapping, scratching records, or writing graffiti (not yet, at least), but are preserving the art of — no shit, really — breakdancing.
In Sudbury (yes, you read that right, Sudbury), the responsibility of carrying on one of hip-hop's most precious traditions — indeed, one of its four basic elements — has fallen to Elizabeth Bernstein and her Hip-Hop Mamas. For the past half-decade, Bernstein has coached a squad of about 20 women with an average age of 43 at the Dancers Workshop on Boston Post Road, where interest in hip-hop dance has ballooned since she first put out feelers. "When I started teaching this class, I only had three people," says Bernstein. "And at that time, a lot of women were afraid to try something different. These days, I teach two different level classes (with an average of 15 to 18 heads in each) every week, because a lot of the women were getting so good that the new people coming in were getting frustrated."
While some of her devotees prefer to play the sidelines, just using the class for exercise, Bernstein has, out of obscurity, cultivated a group of aspiring hardcore b-women who are actually beginning to perform around Greater Boston. In addition to their Dancers Workshop recital, this past year the Hip-Hop Mamas flashed their skills at the Charles River Dance Festival, their local HOPE Sudbury Telethon, and a score of galas for nonprofits in the MetroWest area.
While for younger men the clichû concern about the riskiness of hip-hop is the violence often associated with the art form, it is a different set of circumstances that worries middle-aged women.
"These women are taking a risk," says Bernstein, "since it's quite a change in the way your body moves at this age, and they're having a great time doing it. Between all of us, [we have] about 50 kids, and even most of [our] teenagers think that what we do is pretty cool. In a way, we're teaching them that you're never too old to have a good time shaking your groove thing."
One "groove thing" shaker is Ellen Gitelman, a Boston-area publicist and mother of one who found rhythmic salvation with the Mamas. Especially, that is, since the environment — in which it's not uncommon for students to bring newborn babies into class, where they crib on the side while mom pops and locks — is conducive to her capabilities. "I've loved dancing since I was seven," says Gitelman, "but since my 20s, I'd only really gotten down at weddings and Bar Mitzvahs. But for some reason, hip-hop dance spoke to me, mostly because it's modern without being ballet. I don't have a ballerina's figure, and I'm not going to get en pointe at this point in my life. But I'm willing to try breaking and popping moves, even though they can be pretty hard once you reach a certain age."
While Bernstein doesn't push her girls to physical extremes, she does get them sweating buckets to the sounds of Snoop Dogg, Bow Wow, and, most recently, Soulja Boy's "Booty Got Swag." Adopting the fusion method — which is all the rage in groove schools across the country these days — she incorporates aspects of African and Latin dance, as well as nimble moves by her personal hero, Savion Glover. "We're definitely not afraid to try new and different things," says Bernstein, "but we have to be careful about how many times we go to the ground. Trust me, we're not spinning on our heads."