Meet the world’s oldest hip-hop crew. They’re called Hip Op-eration, the average age is 79, and they’re New Zealand’s most unlikely celebrities. Now they just have to convince their families that they won’t be growing old gracefully.
A knitting group was here an hour ago – but there’s been a dramatic change of pace at Waiheke’s retirement home.
BILLIE JORDAN TEACHING: 1, 2, 3 argh! And I want to see anger.
JACK, HIP OP-ERATION DANCER: Argh.
BILLIE JORDAN: Is that as angry as you can get?
JACK: I’m not a growly person.
These aren’t the people I expect to be practising hip-hop – a street dance pioneered in the 70s by young African Americans in the Bronx.
LEILA GILCHRIST (LEILA G), HOP OP-ERATION DANCER: Well...I thought it was for kids...young kids. You know spinning round on their head. They're doing flips. Pack of old geriatrics. We couldn't do that. And here I am in the front row. Isn't it funny.
They’re called Hip Op-eration. Their average age? 79.
LEN, HIP OP-ERATION DANCER: I've got an artificial hip
BRENDA, HIP OP-ERATION DANCER: I've had a triple bypass.
LEILA: I've had a stroke. I've had open heart surgery
BILLIE JORDAN: We get quite a few requests that they wanna do a booking about six months in advance and we can’t do that because all of the whole crew could be dead!
ROSEMARY, HIP OP-ERATION DANCER: I'm legally blind.
KARA NELSON (KARA BANG BANG), HIP OP-ERATION DANCER: I've got one new knee and I'm deaf as a post.
REPORTER: Have you ever been worried that anyone’s going to drop dead on the dance floor?
BILLIE: If you fall over and die you die, don't you? So we have a pact in the group that if anyone dies dancing you step over them and carry on dancing. I'll drag the carcass off the stage if it's in the way and we'll deal with it later.
It would be understandable if you lowered your expectations of someone over 90-years-old, but in Kara Nelson’s case, it would also be a mistake.
At the age of 96 she’s got chronic arthritis. But it hasn’t stopped her doing what she loves.
REPORTER: How long have you had that piano?
KARA NELSON: Well my father bought it when I was 12, so I’ve had it… 83 years. Well when I joined hip-hop I was only 92 and I could walk around and manage without a stick and I was quite confident in moving. But now, I’m 96 this month, I find that my balance is not as good.
LEILA: Where’s my wee bubbas? Where’s my bubbas? Oh you villains….
Sometimes the most challenging obstacles they face aren’t age related. Leila had to overcome a crushing lack of self-confidence - not helped by years of marriage to a man who belittled her.
LEILA: Roger used to say that you shouldn't be breathing good air that somebody else can breathe, because of that self-effacing…sort of unconfident person that I was. It's sad isn’t it?
After her husband died, Leila’s daughter convinced her to move to Waiheke. And that’s how she came to be part of this… A flashmob for the elderly that surprised and delighted onlookers in downtown Auckland.
LEILA: Brenda was the one who sashayed out first… she looked great… and then we all came in from different directions. It got so exuberant I, remember Oh...just like this...Oh I was just so happy. Such a joyful experience. I've never felt so happy for a long, long time.
The flashmob had been organized by Billie Jordan, who moved to Waiheke four years ago. Without a job or friends, the former PR consultant identified with the loneliness of the island’s older population…
BILLIE JORDAN: A lot of them were isolated. And I didn't know anybody here. And I don’t have any family. So I, in a way set up the flash mob to do something about them but I also was doing it for myself.
After the flash mob, Billie decided to take things to the next level, as she recently explained at a prestigious TEDx talk.
BILLIE JORDAN, SPEAKING AT TEDX: After about 4 months of flash mob performances around the show, I realised that everyone else in their lives had little or no expectations of them… So I decided I'm going to be the first person in their life since retirement that's going to have really high expectations of them. Set an almost impossible goal for them to aim for. And that goal? Create the world’s oldest hip-hop crew.
BILLIE JORDAN: I chose hip-hop as the style of dance for them because nobody expects an old person to dance hip-hop.
She took her exciting new idea to Kara…
BILLIE JORDAN: Would you be interested in joining it? “Oh no you've taken it far too far now Billy! No enough is enough.” Anyway… Three and a half years later she's the most dedicated member.
I knew that they were being underestimated. So I wanted them to get self-esteem. I wanted them to know what their potential is.
Their potential took them on a journey so extraordinary; it was turned into a movie. This collection of Waiheke senior citizens made it all the way to 2013 World Hip-Hop Championship in Las Vegas.
ANNOUNCER: Please welcome, Hip Hop Operation…
In the process, they became New Zealand’s most unlikely celebrities.
BILLIE JORDAN: This is Leila G. This is BB Rizzle. This is Big Deal.
Billie’s put in hundreds of unpaid hours, but has no training as a dance teacher. She’s adapted many of the crew’s moves from YouTube.
REPORTER: What made you think you could teach people to dance? Choreograph dance?
BILLIE JORDAN: It was just desperation, because I couldn’t get anybody for free…
She gives her moves names that aren’t exactly gangster - but they do help her dancers picture exactly what they’ve got to do…
BILLIE JORDAN: A starfish that needs to go wee wees so they go “Oh I'm busting...” so it's starfish...wee wees. And they put their hood on. That's the ending. So the ending’s a Starfish...wee wees.
REPORTER: Why do you go in there?
BILLIE JORDAN: Because I've gotta get the dogs from out of under my feet and I've also got two mirrors. So it's the perfect studio.
REPORTER: You do realise how crazy this looks?
BILLIE JORDAN: I don't know… this is how I've been doing all the routines for maybe 4 years. So are you ready?
HIP OP-ERATION DANCE GROUP: Yes we’re ready.
Now Billie is teaching them a new routine that’s a lot faster and more challenging than anything they’ve done before. If they master it, Billie hopes to audition for some international talent shows – but progress is always slow.
BILLIE JORDAN: Even getting them to wear a t-shirt for their very first public performance was a step in a different direction for them. Most of them have never worn a t-shirt. Learning to hunch their shoulders cos a lot of hip-hop revolves hunching your shoulders forward but they've been told to sit up straight and have their shoulders back.
BILLIE JORDAN: Don’t bend your wrist!
JACK: Keep it straight
BILLIE JORDAN: Don’t want you walking round like…you ever see a gangster like that
JACK: Yeah I know it’s floppy there.
I was impressed with Billie’s patience and generosity towards her dancers – but she admits, sometimes she’s too generous.
BILLIE JORDAN: It became quite apparent that there were members in the group that really wanted to take it to the next level but were being held back because for most of them being in the group was just a place to have a cup of tea and get a free exercise lesson a week.
Recently she had to thin down the original crew of 22 dancers, not all of who appreciated the opportunities she was giving them, to just seven. The crew will rehearse this new routine up to four times a week - pretty much anywhere will do… as long as it’s flat.
REPORTER: So what do you guys reckon?
BOY (1): That’s real good. Just living life to the fullest I reckon.
BOY (2): I watched that programme about it.
REPORTER: You’ve seen the documentary about it. What did you reckon?
BOY (2) Quite good.
REPORTER: The woman at the back there…Kara Bang Bang… she’s turning 96 in a couple of weeks.
BOY (1): Seriously? That is full commitment right there. Full commitment.
BOY (2): My granddad’s like 93 sitting in a chair. All day, every day.
BILLIE JORDAN: Yay, give yourselves a hand. Well done (clapping)
The training paid off - Billie made this video of their new routine two weeks after I left… Now they’re hoping television talent scouts will take notice. Because for all the fun they have, Billie bristles at the suggestion that Hip Op-eration isn’t serious about hip-hop.
BILLIE JORDAN: There's one statement that people will make when they see my group that really gets my back up. 'Oh it's really good that they're getting some exercise. Why not when you're 96 decide that I wanna be a world class hip-hop dancer and perform at world champs when I'm 96. Why not have that goal?
Alex de Jong
9th August 2016