Dickson Mbi is a hip-hop dancer and choreographer who has worked with artists including Russell Maliphant and Akram Khan. One of the organisers behind international hip-hop competition Popcity UK, he speaks to Ruth Comerford about struggling at dance school and why politicians are scared of art…
How did you get into dancing?
I used to watch MTV and see Michael Jackson and Usher’s music videos and think it was all really cool but I never knew anything about it or had any interest in doing it. I used to play football for West Ham United under-16s but I wasn’t that good, then I became an IT technician for about three or four years. I went from something quite physical to sitting all day and I started putting on weight – I wasn’t happy. I started dancing because of girls to be honest. I met this girl I really liked and she was a dancer. She took me to Pineapple Dance Studios, but I couldn’t pick up any of the choreography. I got into a style of dance called ‘popping’. It’s about connecting with people – you get supported by the people watching, so nobody looks down on you. It’s about literally tensing and flexing, popping your muscles like popcorn. Popping has changed my life.
What were the most difficult challenges you faced early on?
Financial ones, definitely. My mum said if you want to do this I will support you, and she really did. Going to dance college was the hardest two years of my life. Travelling from Dagenham all the way to Lewisham is a slog. Class would finish at 11pm and I’d be home at 1am to then start college at 8.45am. Sometimes I had no money so I had to walk – have you ever walked from Lewisham to central London to catch the 25 bus? I used to try to get on for free, because I could get on the back and chance it. It was hard, especially when you see some of your friends who have the money to do things. I couldn’t give up though, I wanted to prove to my parents I could do it.
Tell me about the competition.
Popcity UK is in its fifth year and is still going strong. There are preselections all over the world, especially in Asia. The UK qualifiers represent the whole of Europe. This year the winner from the UK selection will go to Singapore to represent the country, and they get £200 and workshops with me and the crew I represent. When I started out there were some of these opportunities but you’d have to be minted to go and applicants would be charged £50. There’s been so much support, from Shoreditch Town Hall, Team London Bridge and the Arts Council.
Is enough being done to support emerging dancers?
I would like to see more positive infrastructure in schools. Why has Boris Johnson taken out dance and replaced it with Latin and maths? Those things are great but you can’t underestimate the power of movement and art. Politically, people are scared of those things because they change the world.
Training: Lewisham College (2008-10), London Contemporary Dance School (2010-11)
First professional role: Music video dancer in Lovelight for Robbie Williams
Fiya House: Popcity 2020 is at Shoreditch Town Hall in London on January 25. Details: shoreditchtownhall.com