Hip Hoppin’ with Fred Vassallo
By Laura Christman
By Laura Christman
Photos by Eric Leslie
It’s a bit after 7:30 am at Sequoia Middle School in Redding and students are crawling like alligators across the auditorium stage. Soon they start moving like inchworms.
“Hands walk out, feet walk in,” instructs Fred Vassallo, their hip-hop dance teacher.
That’s just the warm-up. The 14 students move on to the routine Vassallo is introducing. They snap and turn wrists and make box-shapes with their arms while jumping, bending legs and crossing feet.
“I can’t do it,” someone moans.
“You can do it,” Vassallo says. “You can do anything you put your mind to.”
That’s a key message in Vassallo’s classes. There’s more to hip-hop than mastering a cool move. It’s about getting fit, fitting in and building confidence.
“I want students to be transformed by the experience,” Vassallo says. “I want them to feel empowered — to know they are valuable; they have a beat, a sound, a purpose.”
Since moving to Redding from New Jersey four years ago, Mr. Fred has brought hip-hop to hundreds of Shasta County youths. This year he’s teaching at Sequoia, Bethel Christian School and Redding School District’s community day school. He also offers private classes. He’s taught after-school and in-school programs at schools throughout the county and through Redding Recreation. His students range from 3-year-olds to adults.
Vassallo was choreographer for “Come Alive,” a video music project that, in October, earned the Gospel Music Association’s Dove Award for best children’s album of the year. As part of the team for the Bethel Music Kids production, Vassallo had youths dancing on Diestelhorst Bridge and other Redding locations.
The 38-year-old hip-hop teacher easily connects with kids, says Devyn Lewis, intervention facilitator at Sequoia.
“He has this chill demeanor. He has really helped a lot of kids who wouldn’t have
been participating in any extracurricular activity. He pulls them out of their shells and builds confidence.”
Eighth-grader Kyliegh Towery is in her third year of hip-hop at Sequoia.
“I was really shy in sixth grade. I’m not that shy anymore. This is like a safe place that I can be myself,” she says. She enjoys the style of dance. “I like the movement in it. It’s energetic.”
“It’s fun,” sixth-grader Korbin Pena says.
The urban-style dance is done to a strong percussive beat and is great exercise, Vassallo notes. On top of that comes movement control — from fast moves to slow or completely still sequences. That’s especially valuable with at-risk students.
“They’re developing a sense of self-discipline. I’m teaching how to control physical impulses,” Vassallo says.
Learning a sequence or a dance move builds confidence, he says. And dancing together is a great way to learn to work
in a group.
“It’s not all about you. It is about all of us,” Vassallo says. “When we focus on all of us, then you shine as well.”
Vassallo sees layers of pluses to hip-hop. It helps kids physically, emotionally and socially. Unfortunately, it is often associated with violent and sexual themes. Vassallo says such commercialized hip-hop doesn’t reflect authentic hip-hop, which is rooted in “community and expression and creativity.”
When selecting music, he screens “not just for bad words, but what the song is saying.” And he stays away from suggestive moves. “The grinding and all of that, to me that is the cheap dance vocabulary of hip-hop.”
Vassallo’s love for dance began as child growing up in New Jersey. He mimicked breakdancing on TV. By his teen years he’d taught himself many moves. He attended a six-week workshop in New York City at age 14 that led to joining a professional dance company.
Vassallo was trained by some of the pioneers in hip-hop dance. He got roles in stage productions, commercials and music videos, including a commercial for Nike and a performance on Paula Abdul’s TV reality show “Live to Dance.” He completed a three-month program in movement therapy focused on using dance to help with physical and emotional healing.
He and his wife, Dominique, a singer, songwriter and composer, had a hip-hop theater production company on the East Coast. They visited Redding in the summer of 2011 for a summer music program and moved to Redding a year later. They have three daughters, ages 13, 6 and 4.
“We have a desire to just continue to work together — her music, my dance, doing films and stage productions,” Vassallo says. “We want to do what we can do to impact people’s hearts.”