Find out how Blacka Di Danca is helping the dance community become economically sustainable.
A report by Caitlin White for Red Bull.
Published on 10/19/2020 · 3:37 PM EDTPlenty of dancers will tell you they’ve been doing it all their life, but Blacka Di Danca explains that for those born into Caribbean households, they’re literally dancing before they can walk.
“My first memory is being in diapers and dancing,” he laughed, when we spoke over the phone recently for an interview. “As Caribbeans, your parents will hold your hands and play soca and dancehall music and allow you to wine and move your waist before you can walk. It’s really that we dance before we walk, because that’s how we get the leg strength to walk.”
Growing up in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, Blacka was surrounded by a diaspora of West Indian culture, and dancing was always a huge part of that. But most of all, he credits DVDs of Passa Passa, a weekly dancehall party that started in Jamaica in the early 2000s, with giving him a window into Jamaican culture, even without setting foot on the island. In a pre-YouTube, pre-internet world, those recordings of the weekly dancehall party felt like a fantasy world to a dance-obsessed teenager growing up in New York.
“The Passa Passa parties were recorded by a cameraman who put the videos out on DVDs and sold them in America,” he explained. “And then us in the ghettos would get those DVDs and idolize the dancers. Dancehall literally is just a movement of the culture, it’s a street party and those local street crews became global stars because of the Passa Passa DVDs. We’re seeing these larger-than-life figures with a different way to move, different language, and different music on an island that we can’t reach, so it created this Narnia-type feeling. It was 2002 when I started watching them, so I was in junior high.”
But it was a random invitation when he was a little older that really set Blacka on his path. Visiting some friends up at Binghamton University, he stumbled into his first Dancehall King competition, decided on a last-minute whim to enter, and ended up winning the whole thing. After that, his whole perspective shifted: Dancing was no longer just a cultural practice, a neighborhood pastime, or something he did for fun, it was something he wanted to pursue far beyond the local level, or dancing along to DVDs at home.
“Winning that competition gave me a little bit of confidence,” Blacka remembered. “Like OK, you can win a competition, maybe you can take this a little more seriously.” Over the next few years he won several more competitions, and decided that dancing was his calling, and spreading dancehall culture to the world was his mission. In the meantime, just when he’d finally gotten a steady, well-paying job as a doorman at Columbia University — complete with cushy union benefits and a hefty paycheck — Blacka was invited to go on a month-long tour with reggae star Collie Buddz.
Unfortunately, his new job didn’t afford any time off for new employees, let alone four weeks. Like so many artists before him, here was a key moment where Blacka had to decide between creative freedom and financial stability. Determined to take his passion for dancehall, choreography and dance performance to a higher level, he left his newly-acquired day job for the short tour, risking stability for a shot at his passion.
“That decision was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made in my life,” he said. “I still have the email I sent the day that I quit. I wrote everything I wanted to do, and everything I said I wanted to do, I’ve now done. I said I want to travel the world, bring dancehall culture around the world, teach people in different countries, and put it in the biggest music videos all around the world. I wrote it before I did any of it. I still read that email back from time to time to keep myself centered.”
That brief tour with Collie Buddz and New Kingston — a Brooklyn reggae trio who also happen to be Blacka’s cousins — turned into an offer to go teach dancehall in Russia, then another tour with Collie Buddz, and finally, he began to tour around the world by himself, teaching dancehall and spreading dancehall culture internationally, just as he predicted. A greater profile as a choreographer led to collaborations with some of the biggest stars in the music industry, who noticed the way dancehall was making its way into mainstream culture and wanted to feature the style in their own videos.
Blacka has worked with artists like Janet Jackson, Major Lazer, Rihanna, ASAP Rocky, Cardi B, and many more, but he says there is no one moment where he felt accomplished enough to allow himself to rest on his laurels. “I never have an ‘I made it,’ because it’s always a work in progress,” he said. “On the outside looking in, from everybody’s perspective it might seem like I made it, because I made it to where they want to be, not where I want to be. So throughout this journey, regardless of the accolades I have, there’s never been an ‘I made it.’ But I’ve had many ‘I’m making it’ moments, and one of my favorite would be performing on New Year’s Eve at Madison Square Garden with Diplo and Skrillex for the ball drop.”
Ringing in 2015 with Jack U ended up being a good omen for Blacka, just a year later he was tapped by Red Bull and Large Up, a site devoted to celebrating Caribbean music, arts and culture, for their first official partnership with a dancehall choreographer. “That was huge for me,” he said. “That was a ‘we made it’ moment, not an ‘I made it.’ Because now it’s possible for another Carribean dancer to be signed by Red Bull. There are so many talented dancers and creatives in the Caribbean, but they don’t have the same platform or resources just because of simple things like the internet, or a cell phone, or high-quality video. I’m lucky enough to have Caribbean roots, and to be connected to those Caribbean roots strong enough, but also to be American, and still have the passion to open up doors for others who may not have the resources that I have.”
But even the most well-known choreographers, dancers, and performers faced an enormous loss of resources and opportunity this year when COVID-19 became a global concern, hitting America in March of this year and effectively shutting down the live entertainment industry, dance classes, and music video shoots for the foreseeable future. When the real impact of the pandemic on artists – who mostly work on contract or freelance basis — began to set in, Blacka took action. Instead of working separately, struggling to survive by putting forth digital dance offerings on each of their online platforms, he suggested a group of choreographers and performers band together and create a hub that supported all of them at once.
I realized that everybody had a separate solution for a community problem, and that was going to make things worse,” he said. “I rented an AirBnB for all of us and made the rent an agency expense. Then we used my YouTube and Instagram, took all of our classes for studios, and put them online. Altogether, we have well over a million followers. Doing it together, we could do what we did, but better. We have about a dozen instructors all working through Danca Agency online so they can monetize themselves from their own resources, but we’re all teaching on one platform. Because people know my name so I wanted to use the familiarity of my name to help support other dancers.”
Although the Danca Agency was already running as a talent agency and a production company pre-COVID, Blacka is currently using the agency resources to support his fellow dancers who might’ve lost contracts and gigs they were relying on to make it through 2020. And though putting IRL dancing and international touring on hold has been frustrating at times, he’s able to see the way the pandemic has helped people change their perspective on how necessary adaptation really is. “COVID changed everybody’s life, because everybody was stuck on one perspective,” he said. “It happened, but it was more of a wake up call that life is always changing, and you always have to be adapting and always be changing, or you’ll never survive.”
And just because he’s stuck indoors at home doesn’t mean Danca has slowed down at all. Taking his own advice, he’s continued to pivot. Most recently, he’s been expanding into the music world, releasing a new single of his own called “Buss Down” which sparked the extremely viral #BUSSDOWNCHALLENGE, in which women balance a glass of water on their head, not spilling a drop while dancing along to the dancehall song. The movement has been attracting so much attention on Instagram and Tik Tok as the latest viral dance challenge that it was even played during the NBA Finals. Apparently, Blacka’s talent isn’t confined to the world of dance at all, so keep an eye out for more new music from him as well.
But the most important lesson he’s taken away from the way the world has shifted during the pandemic is that creators need to be empowered to monetize their talent and their art on their own terms. The way that dance, music, and art is undervalued around the world is a global issue, and one he’s hoping to solve by using digital resources to support his community.
“As far as the future, I hope to continue creating a sustainable network for creators to monetize themselves anywhere,” he said. “That’s the underlying premise of putting the agency online. It’s really creating this network where we can travel, and do what we want because we love it, and not have to be stressed figuring out how much we’re getting paid, so that none of us end up disliking what we love. I want this to be global, because this is a global issue. Dance and art and value is a global community issue, now it’s time to figure out how we can globally solve this issue together.”
Learn more about Blacka Di Danca and the Danca Agency here.