March 15, 2023
Volume 4 Issue 2
By: Ashley Suta
Anthony “Fyrefli” Gasaway Jr. and Joy “Kuma” Rowe, an artistic power couple with a shared dream, search for reform, education and healing in their work as street dancers. Together, they seek to emphasize a pulse behind hip-hop dance education that is important to them — its birthplace of intentionality and culture.
Gasaway, originally from Houston, grew up in the arts with parents who introduced him to music and a variety of street and party dance from a very young age. Gasaway says he looked to street dance, through the example of his father who was a breaker and popper, as his escape and form of expression.
“Even though I dance to get away from a lot of things I felt when I was a child, of being bullied, feeling like I was less than or treated like I was less than, there are a lot of conversations that as an adult I now have the words for,” says Gasaway.
By age 11, he knew he wanted to pursue dance. In 2016, Gasaway moved to Atlanta, where his dancer mindset expanded to activism within his newfound community. His mission centered around developing programming to help other artists and creators establish themselves and have sustainable careers. Until the onset of the pandemic, he led Battle-to-Business classes, sharing with fellow street dancers some of the tools of success that worked for him personally.
Gasaway says the pandemic of 2020 wiped out scheduled summer classes, workshops and a TV opportunity in Bangladesh, but it also afforded him time to reflect and grow the online portion of his community service. Through his proactive outreach, he began offering individualized technique tips and class opportunities via online networking, which is how he met his future wife, Rowe. Most importantly, Gasaway began emphasizing important aspects of hip-hop that he felt were not present in choreography and routines throughout the genre.
“I didn’t start this to start any problems,” says Gasaway, emphasizing that hip-hop instructors should be foundationally based and share contextual awareness of their genre just like instructors of any other dance form. He began pointing out painful stereotypes within the industry that called for a radical restructuring.
In a studio setting, Rowe says that hip-hop is often misunderstood as having no rules, where students can do or wear whatever and not need to break a sweat. She says there can be an expectation for the instructor to be late or not show up at all, which Rowe explains is how some studios wrongly justify paying these instructors less or make excuses about why they do not hire legitimate hip-hop instructors.
“It helps me remember that I’m making an impact and doing something that’s worthwhile,” says Rowe. “Even though these kids aren’t used to my style of hip-hop, they’re learning the culture. They’re actually enjoying the culture, and that’s the biggest thing for me.”
Generations Dance under the direction of Jessica Agey, embraced the approach offered by Gasaway and Rowe. The studio opened its doors to classes and workshops to bring awareness to what the couple considers a lost culture and pull away from the stereotypes they describe.
“The reason [hip-hop’s] stood the test of time is because it wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t a fleeting thought,” says Gasaway. Through his immersive teaching style, Gasaway frames his classwork in a way that takes his students back to where it all started — the 1970s in the Bronx.
“This was something people did as a cry for help so that they could stop feeling like the only way out for them was crime. . . .” says Gasaway. “They dedicated their passion into this because they wanted to leave something for their next generation and the generation after that, that wasn’t poverty and crime and poorness.”
The arts gave these poverty-stricken groups an identity and a way to pave a life better than the ill-fated one they had been handed. By openly placing his students in this frame of mind, they are able to fully embody what it means to practice hip-hop within a historical context.
“You know that you have this burning desire to get out,” says Gasaway. “So, you either have crime or creativity, and since we’re all in this room, we all chose creativity. So this is where it starts, and this is where that culture starts.”
All of Gasaway and Rowe’s fruitful labors fall under the umbrella of the WeOnFyre Cypher that they co-founded. Prior to meeting Gasaway, Rowe found herself struggling to find community. She says she felt excluded from hip-hop circles of Atlanta, which she described as tightly-knit and biased toward certain skill sets or styles. The cypher, Rowe’s deep-seated brainchild and passion project, originated as a reaction to her early experiences in Atlanta.
“Most people come out of [the cypher] feeling refreshed,” says Rowe. “They feel better. They feel more at peace. I never see anyone sitting around not smiling or talking to someone. That was one of my biggest goals. . . . I like to think of the WeOnFyre Cypher as a safe haven or an oasis in the desert.”
The cypher is a mutually beneficial hub where any and all can gather. It provides a clean, kid-friendly event with a positive atmosphere, where families can immerse their children in the arts without worrying about exposure to lude situations, attire or music. This free, traveling cypher emphasizes the need for the highest level of accessibility. It gives graffiti artists, dancers, sponsors, art lovers, etc. a chance to unite, celebrate and heal divisions within themselves and their community.
“The marble dropped, and the waves kept going,” says Gasaway. “The WeOnFyre Cypher was something that we purposefully wanted to be that — that pillar that builds up, where we’re all on this tower, not on this pyramid.” With the WeOnFyre Cypher #16: The Uganda Expo, the crew went international and expanded the project into Africa in September 2022. After a year’s worth of planning, the team says it successfully reached more than 200 people from different African villages through their cypher, bringing world news, mental and physical health resources, business classes and much more.
Within the local cypher, the two also created the highly innovative CypherNation Kids Battle Series for students and BattleNation League for adults. These battles originated as Gasaway and Rowe yearned for more inclusivity in the battle scene.
“I saw a lot of bias,” says Rowe. “I saw a lot of passive aggressiveness. There were favorites like in the Hunger Games with the Capitol’s favorites. I saw a lot of things that you don’t want to see at a battle. They’re supposed to be structured in a professional way . . . so [we] saw there needed to be adjustments.”
Gasaway and Rowe say that they invite qualified judges to critique each style represented at their battles and base the scores on objective, quantifiable criteria. CypherNation gives students all around the community an opportunity to be met with support and respect, gain experience and reap the fruits of their labors.
As the unstoppable force behind WeOnFyre ignites change and a call to action, Gasaway and Rowe carve out a more inclusive and holistic approach to street dance. Through increased cultural awareness, they hope to bring Atlanta to a hip-hop renaissance in the amplifying spirit of WeOnFyre.
To learn more about both Rowe and Gasway as artists, follow their journeys via Instagram. For more information or to check out any upcoming events, follow the WeOnFyre Network on Instagram or Facebook.
Ashley Gibson Suta holds a Bachelor of Arts in Dance from Kennesaw State University. She is a current faculty member at both Studio Go and the Atlanta Ballet Centre for Dance Education. Ashley also serves as a freelance writer and copy editor in the Atlanta community and contributes regularly to Into the Proscenium. When she’s not dancing or teaching, she enjoys hiking and spending time outdoors.
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