Detention Officer Doubles As Hip-Hop Dance Teacher
By KATHLEEN MEGAN | Courant Staff Writer
September 03, 2008
In his blue Community Partners in Action shirt, Anthony Thomas looks every inch the strait-laced juvenile detention officer. And he is that.
But catch him on a Friday night in his khaki shorts and top with his sparkling star earrings as he leads a bunch of kids at the Ron-A-Roll Skating Rink in Vernon — where he's known by his dance name "Popkorn" — through poppin', lockin', and otherwise hip-hoppin' moves.
Then imagine him combining those worlds and that's exactly what Thomas has managed to do, with the help of the Connecticut Ballet — but more on the ballet later.
Thomas, a Hartford resident who got his nickname from years back when he would earn a few dollars by dancing hip-hop on city corners, is a juvenile detention officer at Community Partners in Action's residential detention center for girls. The girls are there for all sorts of reasons, from stealing cars to underage drinking or trespassing.
Living at the locked residence on Washington Street, sometimes arguments come up, and that's when Thomas decided one day a few years ago to reveal his alter ego. He distracted the girls with some dance steps — a funky electric slide, a little popping, a little locking.
"Dancing releases stress, it takes you to another place," said Thomas, who turns 30 today. "They could take out their frustrations, it relaxes them. They forgot what they were fighting over."
Soon hip-hop lessons with Thomas became a welcome break at the residence, with Thomas even organizing talent shows.
But when Connecticut Ballet got involved, Thomas's efforts — and the presence of dance in youth detention residences all over the state — moved to another level.
Brett Raphael, artistic director of the ballet, said he was expanding the ballet's recreational dance and drumming programs for girls and boys in the residential detention centers in Hartford when he heard about Thomas. (Currently, the ballet has a state contract to bring dance and drumming into residential detention centers all over the state.)
Raphael said he saw Thomas' rapport and skill instantly. "You see these boys, bound up with their arms crossed, not even making eye contact," said Raphael. "An hour later they are smiling and jumping up and down."
'They Pay Attention'
Thomas, who grew up in Bellevue Square, started dancing when he was 10 or 11, watching dancers on television for guidance. At Weaver High School, he would give hip-hop performances during lunchtime in the cafeteria.
As he got older, he started dance groups, appearing in amateur night at the Apollo Theater in New York City. He's now part of the "Poetry in Motion" dance group.
But he particularly likes working with kids, whether at Ron-a-Roll, where he helps kids learn to dance on Fridays, or in the detention programs.
"The kids see all the dancing on TV, but they have nowhere to go to learn it," Thomas said. "That's why I'm doing what I do. ... I communicate with these kids, they look up to me.'
"I have boys who steal cars, smoke weed, fight each other. When I teach the class, they listen. They pay attention. When they are locked up, I educate them, talk to them, about what's going on, tell them situations. They pay attention."
Bringing dance into the detention centers is part of the court's efforts "to shift our focus in working with these kids toward positive experiences," said Judge Christine E. Keller, chief administrative judge for juvenile matters in Connecticut. "Things that they can learn that will improve their self-confidence, boost their interest in something other than their problems, encourage them to explore different and positive things."
Kelly Stutzman, deputy superintendent of juvenile detention, said of Thomas: "His dancing is part of the way that the judicial is looking at taking care of kids, keeping them busy, keeping them involved. ... He is just particularly stellar with them."
Kristy Ramsey, program manager at the Washington Street residence, said the "girls really look forward to it. ... All the girls beg to participate."
For confidentiality reasons, The Courant was not able to observe the dance lessons at the detention centers or interview the girls involved. But we were able to see Thomas interact with other teens on a recent Friday night at Ron-A-Roll in Vernon. At the Ron-A-Roll on a recent Friday night, kids hung out around the rink waiting for "Popkorn" to start. Finally, he appeared, though unfortunately his foot was in a therapeutic boot; an infection had been troubling him.
Still he took the floor, leading the kids, mostly girls, in a personalized version of the Electric Slide. Chantel Ashby, 17, of Hartford, followed him closely. "If somebody can't get something right, he never judges them," she said. "He's very patient about that and people get it. That's a good quality to have."
Another enthusiastic dancer, Summer Forbes, 15, from Hartford, said, "He gets you to do things you wouldn't expect to do," by teaching them "one step at a time."
Soon, the songs are flying by: "Wipe Me Down" and "Soulja Boy."
Flash Of Technique
Raphael said Thomas is so successful partly because "he is so conversant in the youth culture vocabulary.
"When I say he connects with kids, I'm talking about culturally. ... He knows the signals, the wording of the song, what's hot and what's not, who went to court. He knows all this stuff that the kids stay up on."
He's also very versatile, Raphael said, mixing up dance styles to keep the kids and audiences interested. "It's that flash of technique. Flying around doing loosey-goose things, popping and krumping. ... It would be like me going from jazz to a ballet step to a modern dance floor roll, to getting back up and doing an acrobatic feat all in one sentence."
Thomas' work with Connecticut Ballet was expanded recently when the company received a grant through the Tow Foundation to hire mentors who will continue to work with motivated kids once they leave the detention center.
"The idea is to have the dance follow the kids," said Raphael. Thomas is ideal for the program, Raphael said, because he offers "role modeling with the dance scruples. Otherwise you are just talking at them."
Raphael said that Thomas is very good at negotiating the dual identity as both a juvenile detention officer and a hip-hop artist and teacher. "He's been very clear with the delineation in his role-playing and his presence," said Raphael. "He's Mr. Thomas or he's 'Popkorn.' It's like a special language."
Anthony Thomas, "Popkorn," is helping to organize a competition of dance crews, drill teams and crunk dancers, to be held Sept. 12 at Ron-A-Roll Skating Rink. Call 860-462-4972 to sign up. Bus transportation is available. The dance group Status Quo, from Boston, which appeared on the television show, "Amercia's Best Dance Crew," is expected to perform.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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