Interview by Jenkin Au and Alan Ng
Words by Cornelius Suen
Photography by Jenkin Au
Can you tell us about yourself?
My name is Lenny Dela Pena, a.k.a. Lenny Len. I was born in Fort Bonifacio, the Philippines and raised in San Francisco. I represent the Mark of the Four Waves Tribe.
Why did you move from San Francisco to Toronto, where you are currently based?
I wanted a change of scenery. I was raised in San Francisco until I was eighteen. I have been dancing in the Bay Area since I was nine. I came to Toronto to reconnect with my mother because she was absent for most of my life. Growing up as a Blood and banging in San Francisco, you turn eighteen and it’s pretty much twenty-five to life. My homies told me, “Young blood, you have some talent. Don’t be a statistic. Go see your mom and see what you can do over in Toronto.” They pushed me to realize that hip-hop can save you from joining the ranks of San Quentin or Bryant. They looked at me as the little brother they never had. I am here in Toronto and I have been here for over ten years. The city shaped me and helped me grow as an individual. The community out here is ridiculous because there is so much support. While there are always going to be haters, I still love them all.
How did you bridge your respective communities in San Francisco and Toronto together?
You have to find likeminded people; they are everywhere. Dancers connect you to everything. Retirement for us b-boys back in the nineties was at age sixteen or seventeen. People are starting at age twenty-one these days. I hung up my dancing shoes when I moved to Toronto, but the city reignited my dancing flame. I was battling by myself because I had no friends out here. I would battle whole crews, one guy against twenty, and I would smoke them. The crews couldn’t believe that this little guy from San Francisco was fronting, going into venues, and smoking entire crews. I still have the footage from those battles! That’s how I started creating notoriety for myself. Then, I hooked up with my homeboy Arnold, a.k.a Gizmo, Mariano Abarca, and all those OG Bag of Trix heads. I also started rolling with a crew called Intricate. Then, I started training with some of the original heads out there, the Boogie Brats, in ’96, ‘97. Finally, this guy called Luther Brown discovered me. Luther is my mentor. I see him as the Michael Jordon of commercial hip-hop, choreography, and all that stuff. He took my under his wing and fostered me into a choreographer. I still have much to learn, but he helped me train my skills to where they are now.
What initially got you interested in dance and what about dancing still captivates you to this day?
In the Bay Area, if you weren’t dancing , you were a punk. Kids would start dancing in grade three. The Bay Area is the Mecca for a lot of dancers. The West Coast is known for its funk style and its party dancing. Hip-hop may have been born on the East Coast but we made it hot. Moreover, I always credit my older brother as the reason why I am still dancing. Growing up, my brother was a Crip and we were from two different neighbourhoods. He was always that dude I looked up to and we had a sibling rivalry. He was the cool, popular guy with the good looking chicks around him and I was the young blood trying to be like him. I had to find myself. I always wanted respect from my family and my brother. Getting respect from my friends was great and all, but it wasn’t the same. I didn’t get my brother’s attention until he saw me boogie. I was doing some party dancing at the time. We loved MC Hammer growing up because he was from Oakland. I was emulating dudes off of videos, guys like Scoob and Scrap, and it wasn’t until I heard my brother claim me as family, saying, “Yeah, that’s my little brother,” that I was emancipated from the shadow of my brother and felt that this could take me somewhere. I felt that if I could get respect from my brother, I could do anything.
What are some of the biggest moves that you have made in your dance career?
Moving to Toronto was a pretty big move. In terms of accolades, it was when I created the FLAVOR SHOP Movement, the FLAVOR SHOP TRIBE, and being part of DoDat Entertainment with Luther brown. I spent years with him. I look back on those days for inspiration and motivation to remind me of how great life can be. As for career accomplishments, performing at the 2010 Olympics was a huge deal. That was the first time the Olympics employed hip-hop dancers. We finished and closed the show off. We were baring the flag of hip-hop. All of the moments in my career are equally important to me. It’s a puzzle that comes together. Every piece of the puzzle, whether large or small, is just as important as the next. Now, I am working with the Alpine Music Group. Who would have thought that I would go from watching Radiohead on YouTube and the Glastonbury Festival to choreographing a stage show for Glastonbury? For a kid from San Francisco, that’s huge. I never would have imagined this at all, ever. My mantra is, “It’s not a lifestyle. It’s a life with style as an option.” If you have talent and intelligence, put the two together and you can do whatever you want. Believe in yourself, or else others can’t believe in you.
So tell us more about your tattoos.
I am part of a tribe called the Mark of the Four Waves. We revive traditional Filipino island tattooing and we try to educate our fellow brothers about our nation’s colonial history. The tattoos I have here tell the story of four generations of my family. I want to give a shout out to the Four Waves! The tattoos are done by a machine and a needle. I am planning on getting my shorts tapped in, but I have to gather my courage first because that stuff is painful. They make modern, contemporary versions of traditional needles and using the machine, they tap away.
How has working with established artists like Rihanna, T-Pain, and Ne-Yo shown you the difference between choreographing for high-profile artists and choreographing for lesser known artists?
There is a difference. These people are established. Their reputations speak for themselves. So do their record sales and their status in the music game. It pushes you more to work at that higher level. You want to par with them and maybe even educate them. I am not just a choreographer, I am a teacher too. My product is education. I don’t sell certainty. I sell education. Education is constant. Everyone can use it. It leaves room for your drive to grow and fosters a healthy lifestyle. You don’t get ahead of yourself. You learn to pause before reacting and learn to observe everything around you. For me, discovery is the joy of life. If you turn that light of discovery inwards into your own head space, red is no longer just red, it’s cherry red. Ordinary things become extraordinary. This mentality was the genesis for FLAVOR SHOP. When I teach classes, those moments of awe when you see a dancer light up and go, “I get it now,” are priceless and are what motivates me to teach. I want to help others grow and discover something about themselves. We spread our message around the world. We like to put forward unpopular ideas and we are ready to take two steps back to make one huge leap forward.
Tell us about the FLAVOR SHOP.
It’s worldwide now. It’s a community of likeminded artists. We don’t try to be stars because stars will fall. We are human and we like to appreciate that fact, that yeah, “We are just human. But, if anything, we are not scared of how powerful the energies are around us and we should fear how powerful we are and how powerful we can be.” At FLAVOR SHOP, we try to educate and take in information as much as possible. We bounce off of each other’s energies, share experiences, and make life full of flavour and live to the fullest.
What is a recurring thing that you teach?
I teach my students how to stay human. When it comes to dance, we educate them on the human spirit and how it’s connected to music. We teach them how to perform and interpret music through body language, the oldest form of language in our species. We use the 3D approach to teach dancing and performing. We teach beginners and everyone I meet is a beginner. We don’t teach people how to dance. Rather, we teach people how to learn. Our philosophy is our signature. Nobody else teaches it like this and I have been around the world. It is genuine education. We took twenty years to develop this whole approach and it is constantly evolving. Through the 3D philosophy, we teach our students to interpret music sonically, to groove, and to define the music through its substance by asking, “What is it saying?” One dance step can mean a million different things. We can apply emotions to each step and turn a step into a happy or sad step. We teach our students to take their memories and apply the emotions from those memories into a move. An analogy I like to use to explain our philosophy is this: instead of teaching how to draw by just drawing a stick figure on the page, we teach by drawing the stick figure and having it pop off the page at you, stirring your imagination and showing you the endless possibilities.
You have been in the game for over twenty years and you have definitely inspired a lot of dancers and made a reputation for yourself in the scene. What’s next?
I just jumped into the directing game. It was a natural progression and a very humbling one at that. I now realize the intricacies and difficulties of learning a whole new game. In choreography, we direct bodies and we create pictures with humans. Now, by capturing it through a lens, we are bottling those magical moments. Directing has taken over my life. I want to be able to capture the lifestyle of my fellow dancers and my family around the world and express that through the eyes of our people: dancers, choreographers, and artists. I look at Quentin Tarantino as my inspiration. He didn’t go to film school. He just watched a lot of movies. Likewise, I have been on stage all my life, in ciphers all my life, on set, and in front of a classroom. I see what directors capture and I have noticed that they fumble the final product. It’s sad because as talent, we are giving the director our spirit, energy, and bodies, but yet, the final product does not do all that effort justice and the subjects do not have the ability to influence the final product. I saw a way for me to change that. Musically, no one would score a film the way that those of use who understand music and dance would. I shoot my own stuff and learnt it all hands- on. I learnt how to shoot it, edit it, score it, and produce it.
I am beginning to get a little bit of love from the film world. I recently spoke with a bunch of major film companies in Canada who want to put me on their roster. I have been doing this for a year, so it’s really humbling how fast everything has progressed. I still have a lot to learn and it’s school for me, everyday. I am learning every program and making an effort to rub elbows with people who are experienced and who share our vision. When you have those people mentoring you, just like in my dance career and life, you will have something very special. It may not be for everybody but for those who get it, it will be refreshing and they can hold it close and say, “Finally, a film that relates to me.” Little by little, the industry will change. It is evolving and we have to evolve with it. We need to show that we are not programmed and that we are deprogrammed. Before, we weren’t living. We were just dying, slowly. Let’s give ourselves an opportunity to live how we want to live. People will mobilize for revolution in this game. It may be far-fetched and people may say it’s unrealistic, but I am strong enough to hold that idea no matter how unpopular it may be because it’s my life and it will define me.
What do you think dance is supposed to represent? We know that every type of dance in every culture represents something, but do you believe that dance represents one universal thing?
Dance represents life. It stems from the one universal thing that every culture has: music. Every culture interprets music physically through body language. Aliens probably dance as well, popping and douging in zero-g. Anything is possible. For me, dance is a part of a “life with style as an option.” I remind myself of this and it makes everything brighter.
What is HYPE?
HYPE is LeBron James.