Junious Brickhouse

Dancer, choreographer, executive director of Urban Artistry and of Next Level
Headshot of a man.

Photo by Michael G. Stewart

Music Credit: “NY” composed and performed by Kosta T, from the album Soul Sand. Used courtesy of the Free Music Archive.

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Junious Brickhouse: “Hey, look. This is a part of our story, and it’s a great story,” <laughs> you know. It’s a great story, what’s happening and what has happened with hip hop and with house dance and with newest things like flexing and litefeet. All of these styles that we’re gonna see today, they have value. And for me to start talking about it in that way and setting up programming to highlight that, it was crazy.

Josephine Reed: That’s dancer, choreographer, cultural preservationist and the founder and executive director of Urban Artistry, Junious Brickhouse and this is Art Works, the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed.

Urban Dance was born and nurtured in the streets—it’s a creative, passionate, energetic art form, and one that’s deeply rooted in community. Last week, I was lucky enough to go to the Red Bull Dance Your Style, one-on-one, street dance competition at the Howard Theatre. It was a free-style event—that had the best dancers from the mid-atlantic region competing…with the audience as judges. It was fabulous. Those dancers came out and they owned that floor. There’s no doubt that Urban Dance is being taken seriously as a dynamic art form that excites the whole world and this is, in part, to the work done by Junious Brickhouse—who happened to be one of the MCs at the competition and who graciously agreed to an interview backstage before it began.

Junious has danced around the world and is on a mission to teach and preserve urban dance traditions and trace their histories. To that end, he founded Urban Artistry—a dance school, performance space, and center devoted to the preservation of Urban Dance culture. Recognizing the global appeal of Urban Dance, Junious also began working with and is now executive director of Next Level—a cultural diplomacy program funded by the State Department that sends hip hop artists around the world to foster cross-cultural creative exchange. As if that isn’t enough, Junious Brickhouse also jumps styles and generations. He is a core member of the Phil Wiggins House Party—dancing to the Piedmont Blues of harmonica player and National Heritage Fellow Phil Wiggins. For Junious, whether it’s dancing to the blues, mentoring urban dancers, bringing hip-hop to Nepal or emceeing an Urban Dance Competition—it’s all about legacy, community, story-telling, and no small amount of fun.

Junious Brickhouse: You know, what’s fun about emceeing competitions in urban dance, it’s a way to connect with community in a different way. We spend time together. We train and sometimes we party together or maybe perform together. But in this environment where we’re looking at some of the best dancers on the east coast getting together and actually competing with each other, it’s has a-- I don't know. It has a different up to it, you know, and it really helps us to build our relationships in different ways. Because often, you know, when we do get together, it’s about what’s local, but this is global. So I’m excited about connecting with these young people this way and being able to mediate, <laughs> you know, all the goodness—

Josephine Reed: <laughs>

Junious Brickhouse: --and tell their stories, in a way.

Josephine Reed: Yeah, all the energy, which is phenomenal. And it’s so interesting the way energy feeds on each other. It’s something that’s palpable when you’re in the room.

Junious Brickhouse: Absolutely, and that’s the whole point, you know, that exchange. Like one person does something, the next person responds, and then the first person goes again. They’re building up. And then having the audience be able to decide who’s the winner, wow, I mean that’s really cool. I appreciate that.

Josephine Reed: I do, too, and I think that’s just the way it should be. How did you start dancing?

Junious Brickhouse: So I started dancing really young, probably about three years old. My mom was my first teacher, and she just started teaching me the breakdown and the funky robot. I remember what inspired me was that connection between me and her, and her smiling watching me dance. I remember that, and I think that kept me dancing. Me and my mom danced together probably until I was about eight or nine years old. My sister stepped in. When I was five we started competing together in talent shows and stuff.

Josephine Reed: Who’s older?

Junious Brickhouse: My sister is. She’s about 14 months older than me. And that was the beginning. And I’ve always been in communities that practice in urban dance styles, not just as an activity. It was my cultural identity.

Josephine Reed: Yes, I had read where you said that dance was your cultural identity, and I would like you to talk more about that and how you derive your cultural identity from that and why it’s so significant.

Junious Brickhouse: Yeah, so when I unpack that question, my cultural identity, as I learn it, as society tells you who you are, for me, was a painful experience. I loved where I lived, where I grew up, but it was hard. So for me, reimagining myself or what I deserve, what’s in my heart, and what I could do positive in the world was my goal. Even as a little kid, I was like, you know, I love my family. I love the people I’m coming up with, but I can be what I want to be. I don't have to stay here. I don’t have to suffer. I don't have to be overwhelmed by my condition. I can dream and I can actualize if I want to. Dance helped me do that. It helped me understand discipline. It helped me understand working with people to want not just common goals but to sometimes settle things. Taught me conflict transformation, how we will disagree with each other a lot, and it’s not about resolving that conflict. It’s about the process and improving our condition. But most importantly, I think dance taught me how to care about myself, take care of my body, respect other people’s vessel, their instrument, and not see people as less than they wish to be.

Josephine Reed: You were in the service, and you were in Europe. And I had read where when you were in Germany, in a way that was-- I don't know if transformative is too big a word, but it had a real impact on the way you thought about dance.

Junious Brickhouse: Yes. Being in Germany, I was assigned to a NATO unit in 1997, so I left Georgia for Heidelberg, Germany. And before I went there, I heard a lot of things about Germany: they didn’t have a dance scene and that it was like this and like that, so I wasn’t very excited about it. I was actually kind of sad. I was already working professionally as a dancer on my off time, and I was kind of nervous about what Germany would bring to me. But it was transformative in a way that literally on my first day there, I went to a volksfest, like a carnival, and I met some heavy hitters from some major groups out there, and they completely took me in where, actually, in Heidelberg there was a not so good relationship between soldiers and local people, you know. But hip hop brought us together, and without them, I wouldn’t have developed a professional career there. I probably would’ve just did soldier stuff, you know. I just would’ve been <laughs> in the Army. But they were my window to their community, and I got to see my culture being practiced by people who didn’t look like me, like, respectfully, and some of them were more informed than I was about my culture, and they were--

Josephine Reed: You mean about the roots of it, the history of it?

Junious Brickhouse: Yeah, about the history of hip hop culture and the pioneers that we didn’t have access to in the projects as a kid when I grew up. Europeans had access to them because they could afford to bring them. So I met a lot of Americans, <laughs> actually in Europe. So it was an eye opener for me. It helped me to respect where I come from and the people who are gatekeepers in their communities a little bit more. So it was definitely transformative. I wouldn’t have come back to D.C. and started Urban Artistry, Inc. I started it with the scope of work that I learned to do while I was in Europe.

Josephine Reed: Well, that leads exactly to my next question, which is about Urban Artistry and what your thoughts were when you started it and particularly when you started it in this community, in D.C.

Junious Brickhouse: Hmm. As a young child about 16, I used to come up here, and a doorman that I knew <laughs> from Norfolk, Virginia, used to sneak me in, because they knew I was a dancer. They knew the door staff and the people. They were like, “Yeah, he’s with us. He’s fine.” So that’s how I got introduced to the club scene here and the dance scene, which was one and the same. So being in Europe and meeting all of these people, getting all these opportunities, and coming back and having some money put away, I was comfortable, and it just hit me after being here just for a week or so that there were a lot of people who knew me, had a lot of nice things to say to me, had a lot of questions and a lot of admiration that I felt like I never really earned because I didn’t really know them. And for me, I just wanted to be in service—like people in Europe were to me, so I just wanted to continue that work. So I grabbed a few people who were asking questions who seemed to be attentive. They weren’t professional dancers, so they hadn’t self-actualized yet. They were still just watching videos, watching stuff on the internet and saying, “Oh, yeah, this person’s cool,” so I knew I had a lot of work to do. I not only had to train people at dance, I had to train people to do business, and I had to train people to be leaders. Yeah, it’s the best thing I ever did, invest in people. But it’s been a rough road.


Junious Brickhouse: Anybody who--

Josephine Reed: Nobody ever said community work was easy.


Junious Brickhouse: Yeah, that’s true.

Josephine Reed: If they did, they’re a liar. <laughs>

Junious Brickhouse: Absolutely. And I knew what I was getting into, and I’m happy for those choices that I made. So starting that was about reciprocity. It was about doing for people what other people did for me in giving me opportunities that, um, I otherwise wouldn’t have had.

Josephine Reed: From the beginning of Urban Artistry, the roots of urban dance and uncovering them and just respecting them and passing along that legacy was really, really important for you.

Junious Brickhouse: Absolutely.

Josephine Reed: And, of course, that makes sense, but it’s not like a lot of people were doing that, so you really are a trailblazer in that.

Junious Brickhouse: Thank you.

Josephine Reed: Can you remember just what inflamed you to recognize the importance of this?

Junious Brickhouse: <sighs> So I look back beyond what people know as urban dance. Well, as a child, the male figure that I looked up to as a dancer was Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. Watching him in movies, on the UHF channels, <laughs> you know, when I was a kid. <laughs>

Josephine Reed: A moment of silence.


Junious Brickhouse: I remember being so inspired by watching this well-dressed man dance. And even the movies where he was with Shirley Temple, “Wow, that’s great.” And I’m from Virginia Beach and he’s from Richmond, so this was like somebody I really--

Josephine Reed: Like a neighbor.

Junious Brickhouse: --admired, yeah. So when I found out that he died penniless and that most people in my generation didn’t even know who he was and his significance, it made me think about myself as a dancer. What’s my contribution? What will people remember me for, and did I earn that or did I cheat my way through the process? And when you think about just that situation alone, what’s missing from that is representation, entrepreneurship, and archival efforts. Like, being able to document a thing and put it away so that people can remember it from your perspective was the icing on the cake. So, unfortunately, seeing how hard Bill Robinson had it—that put the fire in me. It’s something I carry with me, because I feel like I can be one bad decision away from the wrong side of history. And that’s really stressful. <laughs> That’s really stressful, but I think it helps me, you know. It fuels me to want to do better. And Bill Robinson, in his career he had made millions, and the decisions that he made put him in different positions. And owning your intellectual property, being in control of your image, and also being able to surround yourself by people who want to invest in you as much as you invest in them, I feel like that’s a step in the right direction. Those things fuel me, yeah.

Josephine Reed: You were also very early in just owning urban dance as an American folk tradition--

Junious Brickhouse: Yes, ma'am.

Josephine Reed: --and really insisting on that. And, again, well, yeah, it makes sense, but you were really one of the first. And embedding yourself in folk tradition and looking at the roots of things also I think opened other doors for you in other folk traditions, and I’m thinking about Phil Wiggins.

Junious Brickhouse: Oh, yeah, absolutely. I think seeing myself as a tradition bearer was the difference, right? I don't think that we have to forget where we come from to create new things—and to innovate. So looking at what people like Phil was doing with acoustic country blues music and playing the harmonica helped me to see all these other smaller pockets of communities who identified as this culture and as this culture. And all of these different styles that fall into the, quote, unquote, urban dance lexicon, they all have communities that they represent, that they come out of, and there’s a fashion. There’s a food. There’s a music. You know, <laughs> there’s a movement. There’s a way of being. There’s pedagogy behind all of them. So it always dumbfounded me that if something from here in the United States, and we’re talking about folk culture, why aren’t we giving that time and energy to those efforts, to say, “Hey, look. This is a part of our story, and it’s a great story,” <laughs> you know. It’s a great story, what’s happening and what has happened with hip hop and with house dance and with newest things like flexing and litefeet. All of these styles that we’re gonna see today, they have value. And for me to start talking about it in that way and setting up programming to highlight that, it was crazy.


Junious Brickhouse: It was tough at first because a lot of people were like, “What are you doing? That doesn’t make sense.”

Josephine Reed: “Isn’t this just supposed to be fun?”

Junious Brickhouse: Yeah, yeah, exactly. And it is fun, but somebody has to pay for fun, and fun is work sometimes. It has to be engineered. It has to be structured and sometimes even choreographed, right? So I think that <laughs>-- a friend of mine had a joke for me. Growing up and being a logistician in the military, he would say to me, “Junious, you’re spontaneous when you plan it.”


Junious Brickhouse: And I was like, “Yeah, that’s kind of true.” But I kind of think that that structure towards the things we dream about, there’s nothing wrong with that. And I just feel the same way about urban dance culture, like, and working towards showing that we are tradition bearers in our own right. And 50 years from now, we have the potential to do better than our ancestors and the people who came before us, if we take care of ourselves, if we remember the things that they could’ve done a little bit better. But if we’re not even looking to them to see what went right, but also what went wrong, we will repeat those same mistakes over and over and over again. And if you look at history in the United States, you see also a very complex layer of history of people making bad decisions over and over and over again and waiting for something to change when the process is layered in, frankly, being stuck on stupid.

Josephine Reed: Yeah, it is.

Junious Brickhouse: You know.

Josephine Reed: Or insane, one or the other.

Junious Brickhouse: Yeah.

Josephine Reed: The work that you did with Phil, which Phil is a National Heritage Fellow and a Piedmont blues harp player and phenomenal. How has it helped or made you rethink in some way, or not, or affirmed the work that you’re doing with Urban Artistry? Because they’re different, but they have to be connected.

Junious Brickhouse: It is very connected. So Phil was-- it’s really interesting. I was having a conversation with Cliff Murphy.

Josephine Reed: And Cliff Murphy is the director of Folk and Traditional Arts, at the Arts Endowment.

Junious Brickhouse: Yes, and Cliff Murphy was talking about blues music and how people aren’t dancing at concerts anymore—or at jam sessions. And people are just sitting down, playing instruments, and singing. If it’s performative, a group, they’re onstage. People are watching, and that’s it. And I was talking--

Josephine Reed: Tap a foot here. <laughs>

Junious Brickhouse: Yeah. I was talking in the same conversation about at a lot of concerts, hip hop shows I was going to, everyone was standing around watching the deejay, and I was like, whoa, whoa, whoa. And he said to me, he said, “Hey, you know, do you know Phil Wiggins,” and I was like, “No, I don’t.” And he was like, “You know, he’s saying the same thing about blues, you know, him and I agree. You guys should meet.” And then Phil and I did meet, and we hit it off. And I play harmonica as well, and he decided that he would mentor me and we would be a part of the Maryland State Arts Council’s master/apprentice program, and that was the beginning. And almost eight years later, him and I are still great friends and we’re touring together in our band, The Blues House Party. What that does for me, to answer your question directly, how that informs the work that I’m doing now is that it’s helped me fill in the gaps of my past. It’s helped me to see and understand and play and meet the elders of the art forms that come before urban dance culture and understand the root of it all, which is the music, and understand a little bit better how do we connect to it and how do we work to preserve it. So for me, in our community now, you see people doing all types of dance to music, but that’s something that we’re in turn helping to inform the blues community. So we get to do research on not just musicians like Phil but also buck dancers and flatfooters and people from all over the African-American south who have made huge contributions to that culture. So, again, I see myself in them, and I’m learning from them. I’m working with them. I’m documenting their stories, and I’m dancing with them when I can, <laughs> when they can, and it’s just been really great. So that relationship started with Phil. Phil is the Bojangles I never had, he’s that important to me. I just came from spending a week with him in <laughs> Elkins, West Virginia, at the Blues & Swing Festival there that the Augusta Heritage Center holds, and it was just really great. And I came with 10 dancers, and all week we just danced on porches. We taught classes during the day on different styles. We had panel discussions, and a couple people did talks, plenaries about research they were doing in dance and blues music. It was just really great.

Josephine Reed: Because vernacular dance, it’s both individual and so embedded in community and like the blues itself. There’s the Piedmont blues, but then there’s the blues that comes out of Mississippi, which obviously--you see the relationship, but it’s very distinct. And so it’s a wonderful but mighty task you’ve set for yourself.

Junious Brickhouse: Absolutely, and I think that’s what’s exciting about it, because you look at examples like the one you just gave. You know, you talk about Piedmont blues, the picking style of the guitar, and the most famous person for that style is Mississippi John Hurt. And it says that <laughs> Mississippi is not the Piedmont at all, but it shows how tradition moves, you know, and it helps us look deeper at the people who bear those traditions. And I think it also speaks to our whole experience as Americans. You know, sometimes we think tribally, and I know sometimes it’s easier to learn that way, but sometimes we’ve got to come out of our tribes and we have to see our collective humanity and what it can inspire us to do, particularly when we work together.

Josephine Reed: Well, speaking of work that you’re doing, you’re the executive director of Next Level, and, really, that’s a program of the state department.

Junious Brickhouse: Yeah, it’s a state department-funded cultural diplomacy program. So Next Level is a partnership between the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill and Meridian International Center here in Washington, D.C., where we send out applications all throughout the United States for artist educators that are doing hip hop culture in the disciplines of deejaying, producing, emceeing, dancing, beatboxing, and aerosol art. And we take four of those combinations and we go to different countries, and we spend about two weeks and some change there doing workshops, not just in the art forms but in conflict transformation and entrepreneurship. It’s an amazing, amazing program. We’ve been to 31 countries so far, and currently, right now we have a team that is in Jordan right now. And they just started, so I’m really excited for them. It’s really great work. I started with Next level as an artist educator its first year, and I was just so inspired by the work, and it helped me connect with international communities, so I just kept volunteering and kept showing up and giving my input and doing what I could to help, and became a site manager. Then I became associate director, and now I’m director of the program.

Josephine Reed: The ability of art to so deeply represent a people and move across cultures always floors me.

Junious Brickhouse: You know, I’m really from that old school understanding that the same work that I’m doing in my neighborhood, where I live, where I hang my hat, I want to be able to do globally, too. So for me, that first itch is to be like, “Hey, yeah, I love traveling and I want to see the world.” But working so hard here in D.C., sometimes it’s difficult to do both. But I found two amazing programs in Urban Artistry and Next Level that allow me to do things not just locally but internationally, so I’m really happy and truly humbled by the opportunity to do this work. I know that education and cultural affairs at the U.S. State Department has a history of catapulting and sharing American stories abroad initially with the Jazz Ambassadors Program, which was one of those programs, and for me, I’m just humbled to be a part of something that’s legacy to that type of greatness, and I hope we do them justice.

Josephine Reed: As we’re ending this, what strikes me is—just the importance of the blues in American culture straight into hip hop and urban dance. I mean there’s still those traces of the blues that is still there.

Junious Brickhouse: You know, when you think about all the songs from-- when I think about songs, I think about music that exemplify the experience of the people that I grew up around from field hollers to gospel music to R&B, you know, I just can't help but see that blues contains all of those. And it’s rooted music, but it’s rooted in our communities about things that make us laugh, the things that make us cry, and I feel like hip hop music is the same way. Hip hop allows us to tell our stories from our communities in a way that we get it. Other people are listening to it. They might think <laughs> when someone says, “Hey, look, you know, I’m so bad, everybody in the world wants to be like me.” That’s not really true, but the fact that I can say that and I can strut and I can hold my head up is, again, a part of that American experience, like, that American Dream. Like there’s an opportunity for me, at least to just with music reinvent myself, and be able to tell my story. It’s something unique about hip hop. It’s so braggadocious, right? You say the things that you can't really do sometimes. Like you might speak in an angry way about somebody that you don’t like, but most of the time when you see those people, it’s like, “Hello.” It’s cordial, because I said it. I put it out there. I got my anger out. I said what I needed to say. In this context of movement, a lot of people will be competing today. These people don’t hate each other, and they know that when this day is over, we have to go back to our communities and we have to find a way to exist and be. Man, that’s legacy, you know. It’s the same thing with the blues, <laughs> and I’m proud to be a person in service to these communities, old and new.

Josephine Reed: And I think that’s a great place to leave it. Thank you so much for giving me your time, especially after having just flown in and about to hit the stage--

Junious Brickhouse: <laughs>

Josephine Reed: --so thank you. I really appreciate it.

Junious Brickhouse: You’re very welcome.

Josephine Reed: It was such a pleasure.

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Junious Brickhouse: Thank you for having me.

Josephine Reed: That is the executive director of Urban Artistry and Next Level, dancer and cultural preservationist, Junious Brickhouse. And in case you’re interested, after 16 rounds of competition—Philly’s own Lil ‘O emerged as the winner of Red Bull Dance Your Style regional competition and will go on to compete for the national championship. So congratulations Lil’ O and all the great dancers out there. You've been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. You can subscribe to Art Works wherever you get your podcasts, so please do. And leave us a rating on Apple because it helps people to find us. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

Junious Brickhouse is a dancer, choreographer, and executive director of two cultural organizations—Urban Artistry and Next Level. He’s a powerhouse who is on a mission to teach and preserve urban dance traditions. There’s no question that urban dance is a vibrant and creative art form, and it’s one that’s deeply rooted in community. It is extremely democratic allowing people to tell their own stories through dance. Brickhouse sees hip-hop as modern folk art, and he is clear about its connection to the blues. As he says, like the blues, hip hop ”is rooted in our communities about things that makes us laugh and things that make us cry.” His realization of that connection brought Brickhouse to NEA Heritage Fellow and Piedmont Blues harmonica player Phil Wiggins. And he is now also dancing to the blues as part of Wiggins’ House Party. I spoke with Brickhouse backstage at an urban dance competition that he was hosting. It was a perfect setting for a dynamic conversation about urban dance both in community and around the world, his own experiences as a dancer, and his dedication to documenting hip hop’s deep value to American culture.