Ephrat Asherie is a hybrid. She carries an Israeli passport, but speaks Italian, not Hebrew. She’s a b-girl in the highly competitive, male-dominated world of hip hop dance, but her ballet and modern dance training give her a lightness that belies the weighty, earthbound power of the dance. Her hip hop name is Bounce, given to her by her mentor, hip hop dancer Richard “Break Easy” Santiago.
Asherie, 37, will bring her dance sneakers and street cred to the Music Center at Strathmore on March 2, when she appears as a trickster-like spitfire of a character in Michelle Dorrance’s “ETM: Double Down.”
Dorrance, who has been called a genius tap dancer and choreographer, intermingles American vernacular dance styles. For “ETM: Double Down,” there’s a twist: electronically enhanced tap dance boards. So when the dancers shuffle, hop and jump, they create music not only with their feet, but with the musical sensors attached to the bottom of the boards.
“I’m definitely not Irish,” Asherie jokes when asked about her background. She was born in Israel, and her parents moved to Italy when she was an infant, so she grew up speaking Italian in school and English at home, since three of her four older brothers were born in New York and attended school there. The family settled in Larchmont, N.Y., when Ephrat was 8.
“When I came to the United States, American culture was so foreign to me,” she said. “I was a total tomboy. My mom didn’t know what to do with me. I played soccer with my brothers. I think my mother put me in ballet classes intentionally,” she added, suggesting her mom hoped her daughter could enjoy more traditionally feminine activities.
“I grew up in the ‘90s, so I was dancing hip hop recreationally from the jump,” Asherie said,“because that was the type of music I liked to listen to. My friends and I would listen, dance to it, watch music videos and make mix tapes. It was the thing that I did for the school talent show and what we did when we hung out after school: dance. My mom suggested I try this ballet thing, but the irony is I found my way back to breaking, which is pretty athletic and traditionally male dominated.”
During a summer dance program in her late teens, Asherie saw a modernized version of “Romeo and Juliet” danced by groundbreaking hip hop company Rennie Harris Puremovement.
“I was blown away,” she said. “Here’s the thing I have loved my entire life — the music, the dancing, the theatrical setting, which I loved from my [ballet] shows growing up. But it changed everything for me.”
While Asherie may have stood out early on in the break dance scene — as a white female with her unapologetically Israeli name — she persisted. In New York, she found a free practice session in Bushwick, Brooklyn.
“There weren’t that many women … and the guys looked at me suspiciously like I was just there to be a fan or get a boyfriend. Eventually they realized that I was serious and Break Easy became my mentor.”
Building street cred in the break dance world is all about showing up, doing the work and competing in dance-offs in the cipher — the circle where dancers show off their skills. Asherie had the skills, the desire and the fearlessness to explore this world.
These days, in addition to touring with Dorrance and adding street moves, floor work and upright top rocking to the more traditional tap dance vocabulary Dorrance creates, Asherie also has her own company.
She is choreographing a full evening called “Odeon” for a summer world premiere and then national touring. Collaborating with her brother Ehud, a pianist, the work utilizes the music of Brazilian composer Ernesto Nazareth, whom she calls a musical hybrid for his melding of African and Brazilian rhythms like maxixe and choro with classical music.
“That inspired me to take a super hybrid approach to movement and choreography,” she said, adding that the piece blends many hip hop forms from breaking and vogue to house and popping.
Hybridity suits her. And it still surprises Asherie that she has built her career in this outsider culture.
“I was so lucky to fall into this community that stems from black culture in America,” she said, “and I’m fortunate that I get to immerse myself in these Afro-diasporic forms that started in an era of oppression. So, while it is something that is very important to me and that I enjoy, it’s also about understanding the sacrifices so many made in the hip hop scene. That’s what connects us to each other.”
Ephrat Asherie with Dorrance Dance Company in “ETM: Double Down,” March 2 at 8 p.m., Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, Bethesda. Tickets: $35-$80. Call 301-581-5100 or visit strathmore.org/events-and-tickets/dorrance-dance.
“Breaking is the original form of hip hop dance,” Ephrat Asherie said, “and an essential part of the larger hip hop culture — including the dance element, called break dance; the music element, DJ-ing and the spoken word; the visual element, graffiti — and the final element, which people refer to as knowledge of self.”
In the 1970s, when music had a break in it where all the instruments would stop and just the drums would play, DJs noticed that that’s when the dancing started, she said. Break dancing was born and the terms b-boy and b-girl or break boy and break girl followed.
Asherie found her community in 1990s hip hop music and dance, which she called its golden age. “I loved that it was a collective experience and a really good environment to learn in. Super different than standard studio classes — there was no teacher. Instead you just went and tried stuff. I completely gravitated to the music, especially songs with a ‘70s groove and I just loved how dynamic and aggressive it was.”