Dot dance crew takes MTV to 'the gutter'

The members of Boston dance crew Status Quo Joshua Green, Darius Rutledge, Jamal Weaver, Dwayne Hines and Ernest Phillips compete tonight in MTV's series "Randy Jackson Presents: America's Best Dance Crew." Courtesy of MTV/Chris Polk.

Six members of Boston's 15-person all male dance crew, Status Quo, are competing on MTV's new show, America's Best Dance Crew, and showing the world what true street dancing looks like.

"We don't perform, we entertain," said Status Quo member Darius Rutledge, one of three Dorchester natives competing on the show. "We get 'em on our side and we keep it coming."

The "boys from Boston," as they're referred to on the show, stand out among the other teams hailing from dance companies, with formal training and famous choreographers.

"We're different because we're untrained," said Darius. "We bring excitement."

Status Quo's high-energy theatrical style blends acrobatic stunts with hip hop, break dancing, ballet, tap, and the relatively new street dance style known as krumping, which uses exaggerated, violent movement as a way to release anger and frustration with life's struggles.

After seeing Status Quo perform for the first time, Shane Sparks, one of the show's three judges, said, "I've been waiting for years and years for this to come on TV, dancing like this. It's always been sugar coated. This is the gutter and I thank y'all for bringing the gutter."

The members of Status Quo haven't taken dance lessons. Some of them have never even stepped foot inside a dance studio. They don't have sponsors or uniforms, no fancy jackets or sneakers like the other crews. Oftentimes they don't have bus fare to get to competitions, they said, so they walk. What Status Quo does have is heart. They have talent, a passion for dancing, and a hunger to make it out of the 'hood.

"Dorchester…that's a crazy area," said Ernest "E-Knock" Phillips, the group's leader and choreographer, who grew up near Franklin Field. Dancing became a way of life and a way out of the violence on the streets where he lived. As a kid, he took cues from artists like MC Hammer and Michael Jackson and from everyone else dancing in the streets near Franklin Park.

"After a while I started picking up other boys, making a stronger group," Ernest said. "I liked how flipping looked, I liked how popping looked. It helped me get the ladies, that's why I kept to it."

Though he doesn't miss the weather back home in Dorchester, Ernest said Los Angeles has been stressful. He was visibly upset on last Thursday's show after a less-than-perfect performance. Ernest said he hurt his ankle practicing his signature flips; the doctor recommended he stay off it for three weeks.

"Of course being E-Knock, Mr. Hardheaded from Boston, I want to go out there and give America what they want," Ernest said. "I wanna go out there and entertain. So I'm really debating whether I'm gonna sit this one out and watch my boys go out there and kill it or if I'm gonna go up there and kill it with them."

Status Quo made it through to the next round, though they were ranked in the bottom four after "America" voted. They'll have another chance this Thursday to stage a comeback and said they planned to spend a lot more time practicing this week.

"Coming from the streets of Dorchester makes me work harder. I want to practice even more," said Darius, who is enjoying his time in Los Angeles, away from "the danger zone" of his own Fuller Street neighborhood.

"For me, Status Quo is my life now," Ernest said. For all the crew members, it's been a brotherhood, an alternative, and maybe even a way out.

"We used to just look at each other and think, man, one day we're gonna all make it out of the hood together," said Tyrell Lowe, 19, of Roxbury. His energy pulled him out of his chair as he spoke. "I'm just a regular kid who found a passion in the hood and one day all of this dancing will pay off."

Tyrell was originally supposed to compete with the other six on MTV, but he decided instead to stay home and get his diploma. He is one of nine Status Quo dancers that didn't get to make the trip because they were either too young or needed to stay in school. It may not be easy for them to watch the rest of their crew performing on MTV, but they support their "brothers," especially Ernest, whose leadership and talent has inspired them all.

Last year, Ernest auditioned for the Fox network's "So You Think You Can Dance," along with Jamal Weaver from the group. Ernest was panicked while warming up when he couldn't get the steps right and he called Cindy Reed, the "Status Quo mom," in tears. The rest of Status Quo was energized, in the midst of practice but after hearing from Ernest, the mood changed. "All of a sudden, Marquise got quiet and put his head down," Cindy said. "Then one by one, without a word the room went silent and they were all sitting with their heads bowed. They didn't have to say anything. I knew they were praying for Ernest."

Ernest and Jamal didn't advance very far on "So You Think You Can Dance," but they became stars for their humorous antics and stunts, which the judges loved. As Boston's top dance crew, Status Quo members have become local celebrities. As young men who proclaim themselves above the influence of violence and drugs, they are targets for criticism and abuse.

"People test us and try to start fights at our shows," said Christopher Perry, 18, of Dorchester. "They say we're soft or we're gay. But we say, 'Y'all just paid $15 to watch us dance and you do it every show.'"

Status Quo has won 11 titles, including first place in 2006 and 2007 at the Beantown Big Bounce competition, the largest and most competitive contest in the area. The night before one of these shows, the 15 boys slept on the floor of the Dorchester Boys and Girls Club after practicing outside in the parking lot late into the night. Ernest stayed up all night perfecting the mix and they went to the show in their street clothes, without any props. "By that point, we had worked too hard to give up," Christopher said, so they pulled their steps together, went on stage and took first place.

Status Quo has also garnered five wins over the years at Dorchester Idol and performed in the Dorchester Day Parade on Dorchester Avenue.

Kevin Barry, organizer of the Dorchester Idol competition, got to know Status Quo over the years.

"I kept putting on talent shows, and Ernest just kept showing up with his group," said Barry, who remembers the summer of 2005, when Status Quo got into a fight after leaving a competition at Roxbury Community College. The group was en route to Carson Beach, where they could practice their stunts, walking since some of the boys didn't have bus fare. At the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Columbia Road, a carful of guys pulled up and started a fight, leaving Ernest and his brother badly beaten.

At Barry's next competition a few weeks later in Codman Square, Status Quo showed up to compete without the brothers, who came straight from the hospital to catch the end of the show. Ernest, in a body cast, received a standing ovation from all the teams in attendance.

"I'll never forget that month of activities," Barry said. "Senseless violence that was never reported in the newspapers. Caring and sharing…unbridled raw talent."

On a Friday night, the nine Status Quo members that didn't get to make the trip to Los Angeles, gathered in a makeshift gymnasium turned dance studio at the Roxbury YMCA. Someone started the mix as the dancers rose from their seats in unison and moved as one to the open floor. Fourteen-year-old Shaquan Reed, the youngest and smallest member of Status Quo, weaved through the formation, counting the boys into the beat before falling into the steps himself at the front of the pack. Using a wall of plate-glass windows as mirrors, the boys tapped, krumped, and popped and locked along to a mix Ernest had made before leaving for Los Angeles.

"They'll be at this all night, if you let them," warned Status Quo mom, Cindy.

"Just wait until America sees all of Status Quo out there together," Tyrell chimed in. "Not to brag, but we're one of the illest dance groups around."

America's Best Dance Crew airs Thursday nights at 10 p.m. on MTV.