Montreal's locking community works to preserve their art

A community of dancers are trying their best to protect the dance form they hold dear — a street dance called locking, established some 40 years ago.

Unlock the Funk event looks to celebrate the 40-year-old street dance

Mark "Scramblelock" Sakalauskas started learning locking and studying the history of dance, in Hamilton, Ont., at the age of 15. He says it's important to respect the roots of any street culture, however near or far away you are from it. (Denis Cleary/CBC)

One of the biggest challenges for creators of culture is figuring out how to protect their creations from the vultures of culture.

The vultures have always seen culture as a vehicle to promote ideas — most of the time false and dangerous ones; think minstrel shows.

Or to sell products: think every scandal about appropriation of patterns and ideas of lesser or unknown designers by major fashion retailers.

A community of dancers in Montreal are trying their best to protect the dance form they hold dear — a street dance called locking, established some 40 years ago. Friday through Sunday, they're hosting the second edition of Unlock The Funk.

At the three-day festival, local and international lockers compete, attend workshops and conference discussions about the past and future of the dance form. 

Check out the Get Down Session, a meet up of members of Montreal's locking community.

Locking in the park 2:00

The festival is all about educating the younger dancers and the general public about the oldest street dance associated to hip hop culture.

There's a lot of misinformation in popular culture about it — even Jennifer Lopez, on the her popular show World of Dance, referred to locking as "pop n' lock."

This framed poster of the architects of locking, Los Angeles dance crew, The Lockers is a focus piece in Scramblelock's studio. The creator of the dance style, Don 'Campbellock' Campbell is seen bottom left. (Denis Cleary/CBC)

"The big thing is that poppin' and lockin' are two different dance styles, with two separate histories," said Marc 'Scramblelock' Sakalauskas, a Montreal locker and one of the organizers of festival.

"Locking came first, they were two separate dances."

Locking, a history

When I met up with Scramblelock in his home studio/archival library of all things related to locking and to hip hop culture, I wasn't expecting to learn so much about how locking took form in parts of Canada, over 2,500 kilometres away from the inner-city community where it was born.

"When you understand where this dance comes from, South Central L.A., 1970s, post Martin Luther King being killed, that era, there was a lot of energy around at that time," he explained.

"It's a serious dance, but it's also a way for people to escape the hardships of life and really let loose."

Scramblelock, who is originally from Hamilton, Ont., said researching that history was part of how he got hooked on the dance form back in the 1990s.

"There were websites with written descriptions on how to do certain moves," he said. "Then people started putting out little animations."

Scramblelock sought out a community of other dancers who were just as a passionate and not only studying similar kinds of street dances, but helping them evolve.

In the 1990s in Toronto and in Montreal, there were already people who he called elders who were well entrenched in their respective hip hop scenes, and mastering all of the dances.

"You had Bag of Tricks, Boogie Brats, Supernaturals; all of these big breaking crews," Scramblelock said, reminiscing about his early teachers.  

"They were travelling around the world at that time, they were doing all of these big events. And they were coming back to Canada influencing a lot of the dancers around that time."

I smiled to myself watching Scramblelock click through the folders of one of his many hard drives to show me glimpses of dancers on the Canadian television dance shows of the 1970s — Boogie TV in Toronto, and Feels like Dancing in Montreal.  

Scramblelock's space houses books, posters, a framed photo of the most important locking dance crew, The Lockers, as well as VHS tapes from his locking mentor, Gemini.

Gemini, a French-born locker, has also been trying to preserve the history of the dance on his side of the Atlantic.  

The two have a project in the works to create an online archive with the content they have that would include the international locking community of dancers.

I became quite curious about Montreal dancers he mentioned, called the Shakka Brothers — Eugene and Jone Poku — possibly the first lockers in Montreal.

Montreal pioneers

In 1974, in Pointe-Saint-Charles​, thanks to rabbit ears, Poku described seeing The Lockers perform during the broadcast of the Playboy Awards (of all shows).

Poku and his sisters started practicing in the family's basement, and eventually younger brother Jone joined in.  

"Our first show was at the Negro Community Center, then we did talent shows at our high schools. I was at Loyola and my sisters were at Villa [Maria High School]," Poku told me over the phone.

"Everybody was doing whatever James Brown was doing," he explained about the dance culture of Montreal at the time.

By 1977, the Shakka Dancers became the Shakka Brothers. Their talent eventually got them a regular gig as the backup dancers for Quebec's disco king, Boule Noire, after they distracted the crowd with their moves during a Boule Noire show on Ile Ste-Hélène.

It was not uncommon to see them showcase locking on television, unintentionally forming the future students of the dance.

Street dance flourishes

Street dancing has certainly been flourishing for a while now in Montreal — from Shauna Roberts to B-girl Tash, who the current lockers call "Mama Lock" and left the city for Los Vegas to work with Cirque du Soleil in 2000s.

The community has a kind of base camp on Amherst Street called Espace Sans Luxe, where members meet up for workshops, to practise, and create or just to break bread.  

For 10 years, there was the popular Bust-A-Move dance event at La Tohu.  And just this past week, some of the main players of BAM, lead by choreographer, Spicey Landé curated an event at Mode&Design, Montreal's fashion festival.

There are now more studios, and dance nights like Chocolat Jungle at Le Belmont. And many dancers representing Canada (and winning) international competitions.

Unlock the Funk is part of the same tradition. The event features pioneers of the dance, like Tony Gogo, and ambassadors from France and Russia, Scramblelock and others who are hoping to help pave the way toward another 40 years of locking in Montreal.

About the Author

Nantali Indongo is CBC's Arts & Culture contributor and host of The Bridge. Follow her on Twitter @taliindongo.


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