Darrius Strong: Turning Passion for Dance into a Profession
Dance has long been a cultural tool for carrying on traditions and telling stories. Alumnus Darrius Strong (BFA '15, dance) discovered at a young age that dance expressed thoughts, stories, and messages far better than his words ever could. This discovery shaped him from a young boy who learned hip hop moves from music videos in the family room, to an accomplished adult who founded his own dance company, STRONGmovement.
Born in a rough neighborhood of Chicago, Darrius and his two brothers often found themselves stuck in their home while their father worked long hours. As a source of entertainment, the boys turned to music. "I was born in 1990, so Michael Jackson was the big thing," said Darrius. "We would spend hours just mimicking his dance moves, but it wasn't until we moved to Minnesota that I learned dance was an actual thing." It was here that the trio of brothers began doing local talent shows throughout middle school and high school, showing off their hip hop moves to the community. By his junior year, Darrius landed a dance instructor position at Rhythm and Shoes Dance Studio, where he taught hip hop to young boys and girls.
After exploring the freestyle dance scene at community college, Darrius took a chance and auditioned for the bachelor of fine arts (BFA) program at the University of Minnesota. He found himself simply going with the flow in the ballet, modern, and jazz portions; however, his hip hop solo nailed the audition, and Darrius realized dance could become more than just a hobby.
As Darrius began his journey at the University, he discovered an education outside of the classroom. "The reality of my field is who you know and not so much the degree. Here, I built connections with mentors. I received advice on what to do and not to do. I found allies to collaborate with now and in the future. It was a family of consistent encouragement," he says. The diversity of opportunities in the program allowed him to open his mind beyond the world of hip hop music videos and into a world of technical dance.
In 2014, the Walker Arts Center selected his work "Piece by Piece" for the Minnesota Choreographers' Evening production, a curated performance showcasing the best of the best in the Twin Cities. His piece showcased the at times harsh effect of societal norms on the individual and their relationships with the performance featuring five characters: three black men, one black woman, and a white male mover. "The University of Minnesota doesn't only create strong dancers, but they create thinking dancers. They often told us to pay attention to the bodies in the space and how they fit into our work," said Darrius. Clearly this lesson was taken close to heart and conveyed as a review of the Choreographers’ Evening labelled Darrius's segment as the "shining star" of the evening. "Alongside four other dancers … Strong charges through space summoning a collective spirit as he shows a community in breakdown. Religiously implicit motifs suggest a ceremony of induction as the groups shifts between altruistic care for its members and almost cannibalistic violence upon itself, showcasing the best and the worst of what happens when we all come together," wrote Rae Charles, a talented choreographer/dancer, in a review about the event.
With this boost of confidence and fresh energy, it was time for Darrius to put his thoughts into action. "At the time, everyone was taking their last name and putting movement after it, but STRONGmovement actually made sense," said Darrius. "The term 'movement' is used in dance as a way to express power while uniting people. It's about demonstrating what you stand for and expressing that to the world, and it's something I believe everyone is capable of." The dance company "founded itself" with talented dancers Darrius worked with over the years, many of whom are his former classmates from the BFA program.
As STRONGmovement grows over the next few years, Darrius's goal is for the company to become a nonprofit and expand to work with communities beyond those with which he is already familiar. He hopes to make dance more accessible to broader audiences, whether the challenges are affordability or simply breaking down stereotypes. Darrius himself plans to travel across the US and internationally to educate himself and others about cultures and the identities within them through dance.
Just as a young Darrius discovered, dance has an amazing capability to express ideas, emotions, and stories that words cannot, and his experience at the University provided a firm foundation of both skills and opportunities beyond the world of the hip hop music videos he learned from.