Dec. 12 2012 11:20 AM

San Diego hip-hop troupe celebrates 20 years of dancing

All photos shot by Marilen Tran during Culture Shock’s recent 20th-anniversary celebration.

For two nights in October, San Diego Civic Theatre was the scene of high-top kicks and in-your-face performances by hip-hop dance collectives from across North America that united to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the dance troupe Culture Shock. The routines were thrilling, especially the final act—an emotional reunion performance by Culture Shock alumni. But the biggest whoops and hollers from the audience were saved for Angie Bunch.

Culture Shock's founder, Bunch has seen two decades of dancers come and go—many have gone on to success on a larger stage— and as recently as this fall, she nearly lost a large part of her beloved creation to financial ruin.

 Bunch gave an impassioned speech at the show, revealing that Culture Shock's dance center—a 7,000-square-foot facility on Hancock Street—faced closure because she couldn't make rent and the landlord refused to negotiate. Bunch was greeted with an outpouring of support; the next day, dancers, choreographers and community members gathered at the center, and, unbeknownst to Bunch, Kim Sims-Battiste of Culture Shock Oakland circulated a donation box that, within a few hours, was stuffed with thousands of dollars. After that influx of cash, enrollment increased sharply.

"It was just like a flick of a switch, because I really thought that would be it," Bunch says.

"It was very humbling," Bunch's partner, Joe Savant, says. "I knew people liked the place, but I didn't really realize how much they loved it."

Bunch's idea to start a dance company dates back to the late 1980s, when she was bit by the hip-hop bug while working for Nike, traveling around the country to educate fitness instructors.

"My whole career path changed dramatically," she recalls. "I just got completely obsessed.... I wanted to learn hip-hop, and because I had this phenomenal Nike relationship, one day I decided I was going to have a hip-hop dance company in San Diego."

 The first auditions for the dance troupe were held in 1993 at The Limit exercise studio in Pacific Beach.

"It was pretty wild, because not everyone knew what hip-hop was, so I had strippers, gymnasts and ballet dancers... all the kinds of dancers, plus some street dancers," Bunch says.

Nike got her started with millions of dollars worth of shoes and apparel—so much stuff that she didn't know what to do with it all. Five years later, she accepted a cash donation from the company to start a Culture Shock training academy.

At around the three-year mark, Culture Shock started expanding into a nationwide movement. Sister branches opened up in Los Angeles, then San Francisco, Las Vegas and New York. At its peak, the organization had branches in 15 cities as far away as Zurich, Switzerland. Today, there are seven outposts in the U.S. and two in Canada. It was Bunch's passion project, financed mostly out of her own pocket for the first eight years.

But growth didn't come without pushback from the first crew of San Diego dancers, who opposed the initial expansion to L.A. because they feared it would steal focus from them. When Bunch traveled to New York to explore expanding there, some street dancers reacted with bitterness.

"They looked at what we were doing as fucked up, saying, ‘You went and Hollywoodized [hip-hop],'" she says. "It gave me a reality check. What I was doing was turning hip-hop on its head. What I was doing was something different, and that felt threatening to them."

Of Culture Shock San Diego and L.A.'s first collaborative performance, Bunch says, "It was just so in the early stages of this kind of phenomena that it really was magic. It was pretty amazing, like you couldn't mess up. As far as I'm concerned, I look at that stuff now—because I videoed everything— and when I look back at the tapes, I think, This is such shit, but it didn't matter because it was our shit, and it was new shit."

In 2000, there was a "huge artistic split," Bunch says, when a handful of dancers started their own company, Urban FX, in Mira Mesa. It was a difficult period for Bunch's remaining dancers, but she'd expected fragmentation at some point. Culture Shock launched the careers of many dancers, with some appearing on dance-competition TV shows and performing with Britney Spears, Usher and Gwen Stefani.

"They're all over," Bunch says. 

The growing pains took on an international flavor when Bunch suffered an "epic upset" in Switzerland: A legal battle over the registration of the Culture Shock name cost the company $40,000. Bunch says the emotional pain of the fight outweighed the financial loss.

For Bunch, a major turning point came in 1999, when Christopher Braswell, a 22-yearold dancer, was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer.

"He was kind of like the glue that kept the troupe together," Bunch says. "Chris just had this beautiful, gentle, quiet power, and everyone loved him."

Though tragic, Braswell's death did have a positive impact on Culture Shock.

"To watch someone who is 22 die over a period of months in front of your face really unified this group of people…. We're still really connected," Bunch says.

The loss shifted Bunch's personal priorities: She reached out to her longtime friend—Joe Savant—and asked him to father her child. The two dancers had met while performing at Disneyland as teenagers, with Bunch in Cinderella's court and Savant playing Prince Charming. They remained close after that, and at the time of Bunch's bold proposition, Savant was living in New York and performing on Broadway.

"He knew this day was probably coming, because we'd joked about it over the years," she says.

Savant accepted and moved back to his hometown of San Diego. At 41 years old, Bunch gave birth to their daughter, Dominica, in 2000.

Bunch and Savant had another baby soon after: In 2003, the Culture Shock dance center was born. The graffiti-covered space is a teaching center, where dancers can learn everything from break to burlesque, and it's also home base for Culture Shock.

Bunch and Savant have made sure that Culture Shock is accessible for all dancers, even though it's been economically difficult. They offer financial aid, scholarships and work-study programs where dancers earn free classes by working at the studio. Last season, 70 percent of the dancers were on financial aid, which is partly why they ran out of money.

"But it doesn't matter," Bunch says. "We do what we do. We continue on. We take payments and work with these kids in whatever capacity we can."

With funding secure for the moment, Culture Shock's now working on producing an urban, modernized version of The Nutcracker for the 2013 holiday season and has added several new classes to their schedule, including Urban Electro, Salsa for beginners and tap and ballet for kids.

Bunch is the matriarch of Culture Shock and its dance center—a place many dancers consider a second home, filled with extended family. Even the happiest of families cope with occasional dysfunction.

"There have been huge blow-outs—huge, huge, blow-outs," Bunch says. "We've gone through trials and tribulations, but [Culture Shock] is definitely something that, once it gets in your blood, you just can't leave it. It's really, really hard."

Write to


See all events on Wednesday, Dec 7