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Kicking up enthusiasm for education

Stephen Lunger and Aaron Troisi teach local schoolchildren with breakdancing techniques.

Stephen Lunger is teaching his audience about Newton’s first law. 

Clad in a blue tracksuit, he shouts “Freeze!” and immediately his body ceases to move. His hands are on the ground and his legs are twisted up in the air as he looks out at a crowd over a thousand people deep. When he breaks his pose, he’s confident that he’s taught the audience more than just physics.

Lunger, a 2005 Temple alumnus, took the stage with Aaron Troisi, a Temple graduate student, for TEDxBermuda this past October. Lunger is the cofounder of Hip Hop Fundamentals, a Philadelphia-based dance and education group that strives to entertain and educate youth in the city’s public schools.

The group, which consists of Lunger, Troisi, cofounder Mark “Metal” Wong and about 15 dancers hailing from the Philadelphia area, doesn’t just teach breakdancing and academic topics – rather, it uses the former to promote understanding of the latter.

Hip Hop Fundamentals specializes in performing at elementary, middle and high school assemblies. These performances serve not only to entertain students, but also to help them walk away with a deeper understanding of academic topics and, ultimately, themselves.

“Part of it is just sharing the love of dance,” Lunger said of the group’s mission. “If a kid sees you loving dance, they’re going to be inspired and touched.”

Troisi, Lunger and Wong combine education and the arts to engage Philadelphia students on a low budget. Recent budget cuts have been a major factor in their mission.

In order to expand their reach in the city that started it all, they found themselves in Bermuda.

“2013 was a big year for us,” Troisi said, citing the fact that the group not only got asked to speak at TEDx, but also launched a successful Kickstarter campaign for $10,000 to tour Philadelphia schools in need.

The campaign was a direct reaction to the budget cuts, allowing Hip Hop Fundamentals to provide its services for free to schools that needed it the most and were low on funds after budget cuts.

“The Kickstarter campaign brought a lot of attention to our work,” Troisi said.

The group’s efforts were becoming increasingly recognized, resulting in appearing on the cover of Philadelphia Weekly. Then, one phone call changed everything.

“[Wong] is originally from Bermuda,” Lunger said. “[He] gets this call from somebody who lives in Bermuda, who works with his father, saying, ‘I really like what you guys do, and we want to see you guys do something in Bermuda at a TEDx event.’”

The group agreed that accepting the offer was the only plausible course of action. In October 2013, Lunger, Troisi and Wong flew to Bermuda to show a different country what Hip Hop Fundamentals is all about.

“It was an opportunity to reach an entirely new audience and to be a topic of international conversation,” Troisi said.

The performance, which is available to watch online, teaches physics with the specific methods the group uses to reach students.

“For us, it represented the chance to represent a larger purpose, but also to create a bigger show and to put more depth in it,” Lunger said, in reference to the group’s origination with a purely dance-based purpose. Hip Hop Fundamentals began as a way to teach students more about the art of breakdancing, through an assembly called the “Principles of Hip Hop.”

While the “Principles of Hip Hop” remains a popular and successful way to engage students in the oldest form of hip-hop dance, the group saw an opportunity for change. Although Hip Hop Fundamentals had existed in some form since about 2010, adding Troisi as the education director in 2012 gave it a more academically- and socially-based approach.

“We’d been having more conversations about using it as a method of teaching,” Troisi, who has known Lunger his whole life, said. He said he felt his knowledge of education would help his friend’s company reach an even larger audience.

Troisi said Temple’s education program was a huge reason for the group’s growth in this direction.

“Everything they were telling me in class at Temple was beautifully epitomized and captured in what Hip Hop Fundamentals was doing,” he said.

Now, the group has two more major performance themes: physics and the civil rights movement. The group performs both of these in schools around the tristate area, in addition to open events, the most recent of which was held at the African American Museum in Philadelphia on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

The leaders insisted that despite its stint in Bermuda, Hip Hop Fundamentals is loyal to the city of Philadelphia. Each of its dancers is locally-based and the group said they strive to pay them each at a fair rate.

“[It] starts with us paying our dancers correctly,” Lunger said. “We can’t make a big move ahead if we can’t take care of everyone that’s involved.”

The “move ahead” he is speaking of entails office space, rehearsal space, living quarters for the dancers and, ultimately, a huge impact on the way education is viewed in the city and nation.

“We use these styles that are fractured and leave kids feeling dumb and lonely,” Lunger said of the education system. In his view, Hip Hop Fundamentals gives students an opportunity to feel personally connected and in charge of their own educational experience.

“I look at it like giving someone their drum,” Lunger said. “If we educate through dance correctly, I’ve given somebody their rhythm.”

Grace Holleran can be reached at grace.elizabeth.holleran@temple.edu. 

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