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Jacob Lyons didn’t intend to start out a career in dance. As an international b-boy (breakdancer), circus acrobat, and choreographer, it’s surprising to learn that his entire life path happened by accident. After a bit of bad teenage behavior landed him in a new school, a group of classmates he mistook for a gang “hit him up.” Assuming they wanted to fight, Lyons was happy to discover they meant “dance,” and he agreed to give it a try. Lyons, also known as “Krazy Koju,” quickly learned that dance suited him, though it was not without its challenges. Now a world-renowned break dancer, Kujo is 100% deaf in his right ear and almost completely deaf in his left.
Like other hearing-impaired dancers, Lyons has trouble following the rhythm of a song by the sound of its beat. The solution for many is to rely on, quite literally, the feeling of the vibrations through floor. But, Kujo, whose pure strength and agility catapults him through powerful aerial moves, can’t always rely on this technique. Instead, he uses his sight, paying attention to visual cues like nodding heads and clapping hands, all while rapidly moving through time and space, gliding his feet above the ground. When there are no visual cues, Kujo dances to his own rhythm, moving in ways that many dancers never have before, granting him his nickname: Krazy Kujo.
I met Kujo a few weeks ago during rehearsal for his upcoming show with Jacob Jonas The Company . During our chat, Kujo elaborated on the inspiration behind his very unique dancing style, how formal training impacted his practice, and why taking your pain and healing into your own hands is the key to your happiness and longevity. Tickets are now available for the show, premiering on August 19th in Los Angeles.
Alison Hersel (AH): How did you get into dance? When did you start?
Jacob “Kujo” Lyons (Kujo): I started dancing when I was 15. I was in high school. Long story short, I got kicked out of a private school that required us to wear uniforms. The school that I went to next was a public school where I had a chance to wear whatever I wanted. I, being 15, chose to wear what was popular at the time, which was a brand called Cross Colors—a very colorful and baggy brand equivalent to FUBU in the 90s.
It turned out that as I was walking down the hallway one of my first days at school, a group of kids wearing the same kind of clothing noticed me and they all started walking right at me. I thought I was going to get beat up because that's usually what happens. The beat boy and hip hop world have always been closely connected with gang activity because hip hop came from gangsters and it's obviously become its own branch, become a separate branch from that, but it's still hard to extricate itself. If you're in hip hop, it can be difficult to extricate yourself from that environment because it comes out of poverty and urban neighborhoods with other sociocultural, socioeconomic, and sociopolitical issues. So, I expected to get beat up and one day they “hit me up,” which is what we used to call it when someone asks you what gang you're in. But they actually asked me if I danced, which caught me off guard, and I said, "No, but I'd like to learn." They're like, "Oh, come one. We'll teach you." It was almost an accident.
AH: So did you start out with break dancing?
Kujo: Yeah, it started with what we call break dancing today, though technically, it wasn't considered break dancing. At the time, there was another popular style called freestyle in the early 90s that came out of the late 80s popular club dances—party dances like the running man and the Roger Rabbit, MC Hammer time, that kind of thing. Right after that, there was this movement in hip hop dance to be free and to do literally anything. It took on a contemporary feel without having any influence or input from contemporary or modern dance. Having a dance education now and looking back seeing people that still have preserved that style to this day, people my age, it does look like modern dance meets hip hop. It's cool. But, within the freestyle context, there were a lot of ground moves, a lot of flips, spins, and acrobatic things that were close to breaking or were adopted from breaking. I had no dance training, and I wasn't a natural dancer. I had no rhythm and was kind of an awkward little white kid with all these black and Hispanic kids that just came from rhythm—that came from musical families.
THEY ACTUALLY ASKED ME IF I DANCED, WHICH CAUGHT ME OFF GUARD, AND I SAID, ‘NO, BUT I'D LIKE TO LEARN.’
When I started, I was more inclined to do stuff on the ground because I felt more comfortable, and I felt like I already had some power even though I hadn't developed it in any direction. I had a lot of power, a lot of strength innately, and that seemed to translate better to floor movements. I gradually started to do more of that until I was full on break dancing.
AH: At that point, you had your strength and your physical power. Was speed a component? And with this new way of moving your body, did you immediately see that you had a natural affinity at that point?
AH: Were there break dance competitions? When you were in a high school setting, were there a lot of battles?
Kujo: At that early stage there weren't a lot of competitions, and not just locally. Developmentally speaking, culturally speaking, breaking hadn't taken off yet. The resurgence of breaking hadn't taken off yet by '92, '94, that era. '94-95 it started to get bigger and bigger, and at that point, the resurgence spread. We discovered quickly that people in Europe never stopped after the mid-80s when it blew up here and just disappeared, completely vanishing by '86 to '88. But in Europe, they never stopped.
There might have been fewer people doing it globally, but Europe kept going and my friends and I got ahold of some of those European videos. We thought, "Wow, they've taken it so much further than we ever thought possible. Let's emulate this. Let's look at what they're doing, let's model dance after them to a point, without losing our own identity. Then let’s take some of their ideas and expand on them—take them in directions that they haven't taken them yet." Back then, VHS tapes were the only way to know about anybody. We had VHS tapes of European battles that we didn't know existed. We only had little local battles in LA. We didn't have national battles yet.
AFTER THAT VIDEO WAS RELEASED BECAUSE EVERYONE WANTED TO KNOW ‘WHO WAS THAT WHITE KID WITH THE AFRO AND THESE CRAZY MOVES?’
We realized that the only way to get them was to be on these tapes or to have a tape shot that spread somehow. We started to enter the little battles, the local battles city-wide, maybe state-wide battles. Those videos got out. I got lucky, and somebody contacted me to be part of a music video, which was for a remix of a Run-DMC song called "It's Like That." A Germany production company shot the video in 1997. They flew out here to shoot it and then went back to release it, so that was my way of getting into Europe. When they saw that, and they saw what I was doing, again, I took the ideas that I learned from German beat boys and expanded on them with the message, with the intention of showing Germany, "Look. I took what you did, and I one-upped it." That got out very quickly. That video spread like wildfire. I don't know if you were watching MTV in 1997, but if you were, you saw this video because it was played every hour on the hour on MTV and every other music channel worldwide, starting in '98.
The first battle I got flown out to was directly was because of that video and immediately after that video was released because everyone wanted to know "Who was that white kid with the afro and these crazy moves?" I got to go to Germany three times that year, and that was the beginning of getting flown out and beginning to realize, "Oh, I can get paid for this. This is kind of cool. I don't just have to pay to do it or do it for fun." That was the beginning of my career.
AH: Outside of your self-training and independent learning from different inspirational videos, do you have any formal training?
Kujo: In 2000, I was flown out to Toronto and Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, by a friend, and this guy had another member in his group who had just been hired by Cirque du Soleil. They were older than me, and before this, in the heyday of the 80s, they were gymnastics coaches. So these guys, gymnasts and beat boys, had a group called Canadian Floor Masters in Ottawa. One of them, Matthew, went on to become a gymnastics coach and then an elite gymnastics coach national level, and then was hired by Cirque du Soleil to be the head coach of one of their shows, which was called Quidam.
In 2001, I went to Germany again and was there for quite a while, for three or four months, and Quidam, with Matthew in tow, came right through the city where I was staying. I got to walk over to the tent every day, hang out with Matthew, meet all the artists, see the show many times from different points in the audience or backstage. I met all the artists, got to train with them, got to show them some of my stuff, they showed me some of their stuff, and I got a real taste for performance.
ONCE I GET OUT AND START DANCING, I HAVE A LOT OF TROUBLE HEARING. MY EQUILIBRIUM CHANGES AND MY KINESTHETIC AWARENESS CHANGES AND THE LAST THING I CAN PAY ATTENTION TO IS SOUND. THAT WAS A PROBLEM RIGHT AWAY.
That’s when I knew that this is something I would love to do somehow. Even before that, I'd just seen videos of Cirque and thought it would be cool to eventually take breaking into a circus in some way, whether it's Cirque du Soleil or circus period. But I think I knew already in some way what I hadn't been able to articulate yet, which is that breaking—breaking for battle—doesn't fit on stage as it. You just can't cut and paste it on a stage and expect people to come and pay money to watch. It doesn't make for an hour and a half evening show. If I ever wanted to have a crack at Cirque du Soleil or something like that, I had to take some formal dance training. I needed to learn how to point my toe, to follow some choreography. I had to learn how to look a little bit better instead of looking however I wanted to when I move.
My first modern dance class was in community college in 2000, and I did that for a couple of years. Then in 2003, I took my first ballet class and continued this up until I graduated in 2009. I had close to a decade of formal dance training, and that was how that started. There was some gymnastics training as well, but that was mostly just to polish up some of the things I had taught myself: handstands, planchets, flairs, back flips. I also played on rings. Again, I was very strong. I never got good at rings, but I got stronger training on rings, and then that lead, much later, to an aerial career.
AH: As you transitioned into more of a theatrical space in dance, how did your hearing impairment impact that transition?
Kujo: The hearing impairment impacted my ability to dance from the very beginning because I couldn't hear the music. As soon as I stepped out into the circle and started moving, my perception of music, of sound changed, and it still does to this day. If I'm sitting still and just listening, I can hear the music just fine depending on what it is, of course, and the volume and the context of the environment. Once I get out and start dancing, I have a lot of trouble hearing. My equilibrium changes and my kinesthetic awareness changes and the last thing I can pay attention to is sound. That was a problem right away. I couldn't dance on beat, so there were a lot of implications here.
IT'S ALL ABOUT DANCING TO THE BEAT. THAT'S THE MOST IMPORTANT THING TO MOST OF US, BUT I COULDN'T DO THAT, SO I CAUSED A LOT OF CONTROVERSIES, BUT I ALSO INSPIRED A LOT OF PEOPLE.
They always say that if you're deaf, you can feel the vibrations through the floor, but because I was mostly off the floor and trying to fly through the air as much as I could, that didn't work out too well. So, I adopted visual cues. I would watch people clapping their hands to the beat or bobbing their head to the beat. Sometimes dancers, particularly musical dancers, move in such a way that you can see the music translated through their movement. Some are better than others of course, but that allowed me to see where the music was. Another option was to catch on to a snippet of a song. If I couldn't hear anything, I might hear just a single line or a single horn of a song that I recognized, and I thought, "Okay, I know that song. I recognize that. I know the rest of the music. I have it memorized; I have it internalized already, so I can continue dancing to it. I can predict where the beat's going to land; I can predict what's coming next because I know the song so well and I know what line that was, so I know what's next." That was another way.
Then finally, and most importantly, I just gave up trying to hear and did whatever I wanted when I wanted on my own rhythm at my own pace. Whether that coincided with the actual rhythm everyone else heard or not didn't matter to me, because it gave me the creative space to do whatever I wanted. I did moves that could not have been done any other way because they weren't inspired by music. They were inspired by my own desire to do something, and usually, they were explosive. They were powerful; they were challenging. They would not have happened if I was confined to the structure of music. It gave me a new kind of freedom. It gave me quite a reputation, good and bad. Good because I did some crazy shit that people didn't do, no one else did, so that was uniquely my own language. But bad, because people didn't know that I couldn't hear. We've just been talking normally together for this interview, and if you hadn't known I couldn't hear, you might not have known the wiser.
Many people thought I was just a guy who can't dance. “He can't dance on beat. He's not a real beat boy because, in addition to the spins and the acrobatic stuff, breaking is all about dancing to the music. It's all about dancing to the beat." That's the most important thing to most of us, but I couldn't do that, so I caused a lot of controversies, but I also inspired a lot of people. Transitioning to the stage, it got worse because there was nobody bobbing their head or clapping their hands. The music wasn't hip hop anymore with a real, hard, obvious bass or drum line that I could hear or predict. We would use music that is abstract, ambient noise with no rhythm whatsoever. When I worked for Bethune Theatre Dance before she, [Zina Bethune], passed away, she used classical music, and I couldn't hear the music at all. I would have to stand in the wings and have another dancer count me in and have to do that every show.
I DID MOVES THAT COULD NOT HAVE BEEN DONE ANY OTHER WAY BECAUSE THEY WEREN'T INSPIRED BY MUSIC. THEY WERE INSPIRED BY MY OWN DESIRE TO DO SOMETHING, AND USUALLY, THEY WERE EXPLOSIVE.
It got challenging, but I got good at peripheral vision. I have been anyway because other senses pick up when you lose one usually, so my peripheral vision is great, and when I have to follow choreography, I see out of the sides of my eyes really well. I can pick up details that other people might not need to pick up, so that helped a lot transitioning.
AH: Let's hear a little bit about your injury and how you heal from the physical trauma of what you do.
Kujo: Well, this is a very large topic. I originally studied kinesiology in college, and this was because I enjoyed the study of the body. I started studying anatomy when I was in 8th grade. I just picked up a book and started memorizing all the muscles and their functions, and I would have people quiz me and say, "Pick an action, and I'll tell you what muscles are involved," and I could do it as a 13-year-old. It made sense to go into kinesiology when I got into college. I did bounce around quite a bit, and I wasn't sure what I wanted to do in community college, but when I transferred to a university, it was kinesiology. I thought I was going to do exercise science and be a coach or a trainer because I enjoy that too, but all kinesiology students have to take a dance class. Well, the dance teacher noticed me right away and said, "You're not a football player or a future PE teacher. You're a dancer. You should take this and this and this class, because it would broaden your horizons." I, very reluctantly, began studying choreography, like how to choreograph, the theory behind it, and I was hooked, so I changed my focus from kinesiology to dance.
I JUST GAVE UP TRYING TO HEAR AND DID WHATEVER I WANTED WHEN I WANTED ON MY OWN RHYTHM AT MY OWN PACE… IT GAVE ME THE CREATIVE SPACE TO DO WHATEVER I WANTED.
I still have the kinesiology background, the scientific background. I still have a great interest in training and coaching and the functioning of the body, the preparation of the body for sport or dance for peak performance, optimizing rehabilitating, preventing injuries, and all of these things. I have had countless injuries from breaking, from the circus, from theatre work, some of them fairly catastrophic. In the beginning, I did plenty of physical therapy, tried some chiropractic work, and tried some other unorthodox things that didn't work. As I got older and a bit wiser, a bit more knowledgeable about the body and how it works and how it can heal, I began to take matters into my own hands. My last catastrophic injury was a broken leg right at the tibial plateau, which is the top of the shin bone right where it connects to the thigh bone. I landed from a dismount on Chinese pole, which is one of the things that I perform from pretty high up. I landed on my feet but had jumped from a higher place than I was supposed to. My femur punched my tibia and punched a chunk off the top of my tibia, and it fractured.
It was the first time I'd ever broken a leg or broken a big bone. It wasn't a toe or a finger, and I had a lot of down time. It was forced rest, which was good for me because I don't rest at all, and I took advantage of that time and studied and studied and studied how to fix a fracture, how to fix a knee since it was at the knee. What sort of rehabilitative things could I do? What sort of strengthening things could I do? It got to the point that by the time I saw the doctor to assess the healing process and what was going to come next, he said, "I'm not even going to prescribe physical therapy for you. Just keep doing what you're doing. It's working." I just started walking with a very nasty limp for a while and doing all kinds of little things: balancing on the bad leg, doing partial squats, partial single leg squats, leg extensions, leg curls, adding lifts, little bits of resistance here and there. I did this all the while knowing that this was backed up by experience and evidence from mostly trainers, and experienced and very intelligent trainers, not just the random guy at LA Fitness or something like that.
YOU'RE RESPONSIBLE FOR YOUR HEALTH. IF YOU JUST LEAVE IT IN SOMEBODY ELSE'S HANDS, THEN YOU'RE WASTING A LOT OF TIME. YOU'RE POTENTIALLY LOSING YEARS OF YOUR LIFE. YOU'RE LOSING YEARS OF HAPPINESS, I THINK.
But it was frowned upon by physical therapists and doctors who had no knowledge of training, who were sort of locked into their paradigm of how they understand illness and injury and how to heal it, which for them is rest and to stop activity, which is what I've been told by every physical therapist I've ever seen. But that's not the way, and physical therapy is changing slowly as physical therapists treat more athletic types. Exercise is encouraged for injuries generally speaking, and that is how I'm treating every injury I have. I have a little elbow issue now, and rather than just putting it in a sling and waiting for it to feel better, I'm active. I can't stop rehearsing. I can avoid the worst sorts of pain, the most painful movements, but I am going to the gym every day, and I'm picking specific exercises that not only don't aggravate it, but that specifically push it in the direction of rehabilitating. I pick a movement that hurts and do it very slowly, picking the same movement and maybe doing it with a very little bit of resistance. Maybe accommodating resistance like a band and that sort of thing, and just trying every trick in the book that I know how to do, and just continuously accumulating more and more tricks so to speak. These exercises flush the area with blood, which carries nutrients with it that help to heal.
AH: Do you feel like your extensive knowledge of the physical body and your self-care practices, both for preparation and rehabilitation, are what is going to give you endurance with your career? What is the lifespan with some of the intense moves?
Kujo: Well, that's what we're trying to figure out because I don't think any of us know what the lifespan is supposed to be for a performer like me. There aren't that many people like me that perform at this level and this frequency and for this duration. I've been doing this for 25 years, and not dainty little steps that are modern dance or balletic—which still have their level of impact and lots of injuries—but really high impact stuff that is akin to gymnastics which are some of the most injured and most incredible performers. What I do is on that level, but I'm doing it for a lot longer than any gymnasts would ever do it or have done already, and I plan or hope to continue doing it for quite a lot longer.
AH: Something that I take away from your example, not being a dancer, really a very physical person at all, is the intimate relationship you have your own body and the personal responsibility that you take in caring for that body.
Kujo: Yeah. You are responsible. You're responsible for your health. If you just leave it in somebody else's hands, then you're wasting a lot of time. You're potentially losing years of your life. You're losing years of happiness, I think. I look at my father, who is 79 and diabetic and has issues that go along with that, a certain lethargy that goes along with that. He doesn't like to train, but he was the one that got me into weight training when I was a kid. He had all these books and a little home gym and everything before I started dancing. To remember him then and to look at him now, it's just so drastic. I have that as my cautionary example. I don't want to need a cane; I don't want to have to shuffle, I don't want to have a kyphotic posture, a hunched over posture and just be stuck in that in later life. I think that can be prevented with just exploration and discipline.