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Artists in the GTA: for Jade Jager Clark, hip hop is her passion and business

The low-slung industrial parks around 410 and Steeles in Brampton might initially seem the world's least hip-hop-esque environment. With shops like Safety Superstore and Metro Fence operating amidst chirping sparrows and whining weed wackers, it's hardly the stuff of Jay Z's Manhattan-centric hits or Will Smith's South-Beach odes.

But look closely at the one of the area's pinecone-smattered cul-de-sacs and you might recheck your head. Bram Court is home to Jade's Hip Hop Academy (JHHA), a youth dance school that's winning prizes with owner Jade Jager Clark's self-defined commitment to "authentic hip hop."

Recently, Clark sat on the floor of the academy's multipurpose room, showing 8- to 11-year-olds highlights from Rize, a documentary about the gritty South Central LA origins of Krump. The film's patois of "ghetto ballet" and drug-trade trauma contrasted starkly with the room's decor, which featured reams of shiny trophies, a tray of construction-paper crafts, a large bin of Duplo blocks, and a Rock N Roll Elmo doll.

"It's very important for even young students to see parts of these films," Clark tells me later, "because to do anything you need your foundations. You need to know where it comes from to truly appreciate what you're doing." Self-possessed in demeanour (particularly for someone just 22 years of age) and clad in baggy basketball shorts, a loose JHHA T-shirt, angular brown glasses, large crystal-look studs, and white sneakers emblazoned with the word "Family," Clark has a def-jam-meets-disciplined-educator approach that's growing in popularity. Her surging roster of 200-plus students draws from Guelph, Hamilton, Oakville, Scarborough, Toronto, Barrie, Orangeville, Milton, Malton, Georgetown, Ajax and Pickering, and in March, she received the Harry Jerome Young Entrepreneur Award from the Black Business and Professional Association -- the latest in a line of professional honours.

"We're proud to offer authentic hip hop with the elements of popping, locking, breaking and krump," says Clark, noting that most youth dance studios teach a more commercialized hybrid she calls "jazz hip hop" or "street jazz" -- booty shaking and posing, say, interspersed with the odd pirouette. Clark is also proud of her relatively low fees (starting at $490 for the school year) and scholarships. "Dance can cost parents thousands of dollars a year," says Clark. "Talent, for me, is important and I believe money shouldn't stand in the way of that."

Her own training was actually free -- Clark was self-taught. "I sort of started my career backwards," she laughs. "Any other dancer will take their dance training, go and dance professionally, tour, and then open a studio."

Instead, Clark started a no-auditions dance team at her arts-focused Peterborough high school at 14, informally learning how to choreograph and teach as a matter of necessity. In 2005, she moved to Brampton to study Fashion Arts at Humber, teaching dance at the YMCA for her first college year and opening JHHA in a two-nights-a-week-sublet during her second. (2006 was extra-busy, as she also represented Canada at the World Hip Hop Championships in Germany.) In September 2007, JHHA launched its own space in a small unit at 12 Bram Court and in September 2010, moved next door into its current facility, renovated into two long, mirrored dance studios that'll host 30 classes a week in 2011/2012 and employ two other teachers.

"There's always been two sides of me," says Clark. "Artistic and business."

While her success is largely due to independent drive (this is a woman who, at 16, organized 26 stores into a Peterborough-wide fashion fest) it also owes something to her Humber training. "The program allowed not only the artistic side of things. You learned product development, how you trade, how you set up a major show." Clark also acknowledges support from her mother, who lent startup funds and acts as business manager.

Clark's biggest challenge so far was getting JHHA's hip hop style recognized by the competitive dance studio industry. To overcome this, she wrote articles in trade publications, spoke extensively with competition directors and choreographed routines on "What is Hip Hop?" Another obstacle was her youth. "When you go to a competition, everyone gets a director's bag that has all the information the studio director needs," explains Clark. "Often they would look at me and go, 'OK, where's your teacher?'"

If competition staff didn't know Clark before, they almost certainly know her now. In addition to having students win slews of 1st and 2nd places in the Canadian National Dance Championships, Clark's coordinated major dance-outreach events at Yonge-Dundas Square and Pearson Airport and is now board secretary of Dance Ontario, a province-wide service organization."

Jade's made intelligent moves and she has a big heart," says David Wilson, the Dance Ontario board member (and 40-year dance veteran) who nominated Jade as secretary. "She's not just wanting to make money. She wants to help kids. Also, she's really helped educate an audience that hip hop isn't just one thing." And she's got a lot coming up next. In August, just as Clark turns 23, a JHHA team heads to the World Street Dance Championships in England. In March, Clark plans to launch the first-ever Canadian Street Dance Championships for youth. Throughout, she hopes to continue online Athabasca University courses. "My other niche is governance and politics," she explains, "so it's public administration, policy development, those sorts of things." And further down the line, Clark may look to Scarborough for a second academy location. Yet no matter where Clark goes in future, she's happy to be based in Brampton -- both at JHHA and her home, a short 15-minute drive away near Bramalea City Centre.

"Brampton is one of the fastest-growing cities in the GTA," Clark says. "It's a multicultural place" -- Clark herself has a lilt to her voice that reflects her mixed Dutch-American heritage -- "and there's so many kids that want and deserve the chance to get into hip hop dance."

That sense of community is underlined by a world map in the school's entranceway. Dotted with pushpins highlighting India, the Philippines, Vietnam, Haiti and dozens of other places JHHA's families come from, it reminds that hip-hop, despite its big-US-city roots, is a global youth phenomenon -- and that Bram Court, rather than being the middle of nowhere, might just hold the world in one place.

Leah Sandals is a freelance writer and editor who lives in the Leslieville neighbourhood of Toronto.
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