Junious “House” Brickhouse is an educator, choreographer, and cultural preservationist. The founding executive director of Urban Artistry Inc., he works to inspire the authentic preservation of urban dance culture and conducts independent research on the cultural traditions reflected in urban dance culture. He performs at this year’s Tucson Meet Yourself with Phil Wiggins’ House Party on Friday and Saturday, Oct. 13 and 14.
When/how did you start dancing?
I started dancing in Virginia Beach with my mom. She used to have these record parties where everyone would bring a record and whoever had the best record would win a pot of money. My mom would always spend the week teaching us choreography. When I was four or five, my mom was entering us in local talent shows in recreation centers. I remember dancing to Rufus Thomas’ “The Breakdown.” and “Trans Europe Express” by Kraftwerk and Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust.” We were just connected to movement.
By the early ’80s, my mom started teaching us stuff that she was learning at the club like the Latin Hustle and talking to us about House music. We didn’t have dance schools—those places weren’t available for little black boys like me in the South, we just weren’t welcome. We went to recreation centers and school dances and sometimes just danced on basketball courts, playing music and practicing for the clubs.
Dance was my cultural identity. It wasn’t codified. This was just music that people who looked like me danced to and loved. Everything from funk and James Brown to electronic music to R&B to what they were calling rap. It wasn’t hip-hop yet, it was rap. That’s how I started. We didn’t know we would go anywhere with it.
But you did. Where did it take you?
In 1992, I graduated from high school and was kind of weirded out by the world. The idea of having to raise my own money to pay for college seemed scary to me. Like every other black kid I knew, we said, Let’s go and join the Army. My first duty station was in Oklahoma. Now outside of Virginia Beach and Norfolk, I realized I grew up differently. I also noticed that dance wasn’t just an activity but that these songs and dances were my cultural identity. I wanted to know more about my history and ancestry, and the only connection I had was rhythm and movement. So I made a lot of time for that. I told myself I can be a soldier and an artist. I wasn’t going to stop being me or practicing what I enjoyed or showing it to people who wanted to learn it. So that’s what I started doing.
In ’97 when I got stationed in Germany, I started working with a lot of established groups in Europe and going on tour when I wasn’t working. I worked with groups like The Roots and Camp Blow. I was opening up with the Unique Wizards, a group of dancers. They would take me with them as the awkward American who didn’t speak the language. But it didn’t matter when we started dancing. I worked with the Southside Rockers in Heidelberg and Manheim. I also met Thomas Herodt, one of my mentors, a wonderful guy who was with a group called Out of Control. He was very influential in helping me appreciate my culture through the lens of Europeans. We take a lot of things for granted as Americans, but when you see people in other countries treating your art form the way they do religions—whoa! That validation was helpful.
You are an educator as well as a performer. What’s the focus of your teaching?
When I came home to D.C. I saw all of these young people dancing in the clubs and entering competitions but they did not have a professional path. I couldn’t help but use my privilege and some of my contacts to build a community of people to show urban dance culture. At the organization I founded, Urban Artistry, we teach hip-hop, locking, house dance, popping, b-boying and b-girling, Memphis jookin’, and other art forms, like whacking and vogue-ing.
The goal was to show people that these dances are American folk art forms, not just playing the banjo and the fiddle. I was surrounded by all these talented people, but the institutions around us didn’t see us as part of that American cultural landscape. That made me angry. It was so racist. Ballet is more American than James Brown doing the mashed potato? Get out of here.
What’s the significance of passing along these styles?
A lot of the dances we do in urban dance culture, in hip-hop culture, are about not wanting to be invisible. Think about aerosol artists who wrote things up on trains, tags. They knew that train was gonna go through all the boroughs and people would see their name. That’s what it was about. Or when people went to jam sessions and showed people they could flow and rap or when b-boys and b-girls would busk for money on the corners. Or even when people went on Soul Train and got paid in Kentucky Fried Chicken and soda, because they didn’t pay them. Our goal is to not be invisible, to have legacy.
When you’re talking about people who cannot identify their ancestors, most of us, past our great grandparents, you kind of become obsessed with creating a path for yourself. So our reference in life isn’t, “Oh, you’re descended from slave people with no identity.” Dance and music are ways we can document who we are and our history. We may not be able to change the past but we can start today and create a different kind of future.
You are also a folklorist, documenting dance forms from the vernacular tradition. What does your research focus on?
In my research, a lot of movement in the United States comes from freestyle, improvised movement, especially in communities in color, which then became tradition. When people of color started to move north they left behind a lot of those traditions. People left their banjos and their harmonicas, and black people stopped doing those things connected to the rural South when it came to art. That’s why jazz grew.
At one point I wondered about where tap dancing came from. We all know how expensive tap shoes are. So what did they do before tap? I asked James Brown about it. Seriously! When I was stationed in Augusta, Georgia, I ran into James Brown in the Seven Eleven. He lived in Augusta. I walked over to him and asked him what style of dance he did before he started funk. He was getting a bag of ice. It was awkward. I didn’t want to weird him out. “I was a buck dancer,” he said in his James Brown way. That’s all I asked him. I had no idea what buck dancing was.
That’s what started my research back in 1995, ’96. Nobody could tell me what buck dancing was. I started looking it up online, when that became possible in the late ’90s. Male slaves were referred to as “bucks” and women were referred to as “winches.”
Eventually I heard about the work the (Mike) Seeger family and Glenn Hinson at the University of North Carolina were doing with a lot of these blues artists. The documentary Talking Feet, with video of John D. Holeman and Algia Mae Hinton, was my introduction to black people outside of James Brown who were doing this thing called buck dancing. For the past six years, I’ve been spending time documenting my experiences with them. That’s how Phil Wiggins (the blues harmonica player) and I met. We both felt that blues music was dance music but every time people were playing it others were sitting down. They were just sitting and watching. But when I hear acoustic country blues I want to dance.
I also play the harmonica. It’s something that reminded me of my childhood, music my grandfather listened to. That instrument kept me connected with my past. I never took a class. Phil and I applied for a master-apprentice grant. When I work with him, I do all kinds of things, from flatfooting with improvised tap stuff. I’m using what people would call buck dancing, but we don’t call it that. We just say “dance” or “tap,” making noise with the feet.
When I’m dancing with Phil, I might be locking or I might be doing loose leg. Me dancing with Phil is not just about connecting with my ancestral history, it’s also to show people that right now today you can dance to this music with most styles of dance. You don’t have to be a flatfooter from the Appalachian Mountains to dance to this. You can be a hip-hop dancer. You can be a house dancer. You can be a B-boy. I can do a blues festival with Phil Wiggins and sit on a mountain with a bunch of white and black and Asian and Hispanic people who enjoy each other’s company and who get along and who love to dance to these forms of music that are American art forms.
How is your work relevant to the times?
I can’t think of time in my life that it was more important to be seen than now. I didn’t want to be invisible as a kid so I had art. There’s no other better time. We need art so badly right now because our politics aren’t working out for us.