PEORIA — Discouraged by the lack of a hip hop dance community in central Illinois, 17-year-old Ashton Gresham has decided to create one.
Ashton, who lives in Delavan, has been teaching hip hop dance classes at both locations of the Boys & Girls Club of Peoria since early January.
The room was full at the Grinnell location on a recent Monday afternoon. Children from small to large eagerly imitated Ashton, who kept an eye on their movements in three large, mirror-like panels made from Mylar by Ashton’s father, Jerry Gresham.
“He’s making three more for the other location,” said Ashton. “It’s kind of hard to teach when you can’t see your students.”
The idea for teaching the classes came late last year during a brainstorming session between Ashton and his parents.
“Ashton has been going up to Chicago for classes, and he gets frustrated when he comes home,” said Ashton’s mother, Danisha Gresham. “I said, ‘Instead of complaining about what we don’t have here, let's do something about it.’ I called Boys & Girls Club, and they loved the idea.”
Classes are free and open to any child who participates in the Boys & Girls Club's after school program. At first the children were shy and participation was low, but it didn't take long for the kids to warm up to Ashton. With each class, more and more children have joined in.
“When we walked into his very first class I heard a couple girls say, ‘He’s our hip hop teacher? He’s really white.’ I didn’t say anything. I just smiled to myself,” said Danisha. “And then at the end of class, one girl said, ‘He’s really dope.’”
Ashton is a natural-born dancer. His mother remembers dancing with him to the radio when he was just a toddler.
“As he got older — I think it was when he was in first grade — we were at a party and he wanted to dance,” said Danisha. “He went out on the dance floor — I had my back to him — and I see my husband smiling, and I’m like ‘what’s up?’ And Ashton is out there just dancing by himself. He didn’t have a care in the world. People said he was really good.”
Soon Danisha was calling around to find classes for her son.
“It was really hard to find places that take boys,” she said. “Finally I found a studio in Morton.”
Ashton wasn’t deterred by the fact that there weren’t many boys in the school. He loved to dance, and after a few years he started competing — and winning. After a few years Ashton needed a new challenge, so his mother contacted a dance group at Illinois State University called Urban Movement.
“I reached out to them and asked if he had to be a college student, and they said no,” said Danisha. “We went to one of their workshops, and Ashton loved it. Most of the kids on the team came from the Chicago area.”
Ashton has been doing his own choreography since he was about 14 years old, and he’s also been coaching and teaching for several years. He teaches at area dance schools and in the garage studio his father built for him.
While Ashton loves performing, dance is also a powerful form of self-expression that has helped him deal with life’s difficulties.
“Many times, when I’m going through hardship, I can talk to 10 people and still feel really bad about my situation. But I can put some earbuds in and find a room all by myself and I just dance to whatever, and I just feel so much better about myself. I don’t have to say anything,” he said.
Ashton is hoping to pass on the power of dance to area kids who might need it. He’s really happy about the fact that boys have been joining his classes at Boys & Girls Club. Being a male dancer has not always been easy for a boy growing up in a small rural community.
“Personally I’ve dealt with a lot of bullying. And still, to this day, I'm viewed differently because I'm a guy who dances,” he said.
He hopes to change that bias by creating a culture where everyone dances. He’s starting with the youngest children with the hope that, by the time they’re in high school, male dancers will be widely accepted.
“I know if they start doing this at a young age, if there are so many people involved with it, it will be like a normal thing,” he said. “And if a bunch of boys are doing it, then bullying them would be like being bullied about playing basketball. Dancing would be a normal thing.”
Leslie Renken can be reached at 686-3250 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter.com/LeslieRenken, and subscribe to her on Facebook.com/leslie.renken.