— A group of Iraqi urban dancers is visiting major U.S. cities this month as part of a first-ever Iraqi hip hop diplomacy tour of the United States.
The U.S. government-sponsored tour is the culmination of years of training inside Iraq, where the Kurdish and Arab dancers face tougher conditions to develop their skills than their American counterparts.
Husain Simko is one of the six Iraqi breakdancers bringing their interpretation of the American-originated art of hip hop to U.S. audiences. The tour already has taken them to the cities of Dearborn, Detroit, New York, Philadelphia and Washington, and ends in Boston on October 23-24.
Twenty-year-old Husain, who is from the Iraqi Kurdish city of Irbil, showed off some impressive moves when the group performed at Washington D.C.'s Dance Place theater on Saturday.
Hip hop beginnings
Husain said he first discovered breakdance from U.S. soldiers stationed in Irbil in 2004.
"One of the soldiers, he was standing on the car - between all of the kids, he calls me, and says, 'come here, and do the wave move,'" he said. "And I was like, how did this [arm] bone go up? It was something I didn't know about. So I just went home and practiced and practiced until 2005," said Husain.
Husain joined fellow Kurdish hip hop enthusiast Shalaw in signing up for an Iraqi dance academy launched by U.S. non-profit group American Voices
Led by executive director John Ferguson, it is the only group coaching Iraq's aspiring hip hop artists.
"We put them through a long series of auditions and chose six of the best and most dedicated and most talented dancers to participate in this tour to the United States," said Ferguson. "It's the very first time any of them have been to America, and the very first time they've participated in a full-length hip hop dance show."
Halwest, who also is from Irbil, is another breakdancer who benefited from the program, jointly funded by the U.S. and Iraqi Kurdistan governments.
"I got into the American Voices academy in 2010, and I got to know [U.S. trainer] Michael (Parks Masterson), my teacher, and John [Ferguson], all of them - they really helped me so much," he said.
Urban dance obstacles
The First Step Iraq crew
, which includes three Iraqi Arabs, also had to overcome challenges such as a lack of training facilities at home.
"In general, the Kurdish guys have an easier time, there's more social - I wouldn't say acceptance, but tolerance for hip hop, and parents allow their children to explore their passions and develop themselves," said Ferguson.
"[Elsewhere] in Iraq, there's a huge social disapproval of dance in general, whether it's hip hop or ballet or salsa. Any kind of moving of the body in public, especially if men or women are dancing together - it's completely forbidden. The guys from the south have to be very careful and dance only in certain situations where they know they're secure. They really do risk their lives doing hip hop," added Ferguson.
The U.S. State Department says encouraging the development of Iraqi artists is a key part of a U.S. and Iraqi agreement to promote cultural cooperation.
Cultural exchange opportunity
One goal of the U.S. tour is to give the Iraqis a chance to learn from American dancers, like those of Washington-based non-profit group Urban Artistry
, dedicated to serving as ambassadors for urban art forms.
Dancers from the group also performed at the Dance Place event and embraced the Iraqis, who said they were "amazed" by what they saw.
Husain said Urban Artistry's diversity shows that people from around the world can come together on one stage.
"In America, I've learned really a lot," he said. "The tour made me know people, know more dancing, know more about house music, b-boying and popping and locking and hip hop. We learned a lot, and we have so much to bring back home," said Husain.
When he returns to Irbil, Husain plans to share his experience by opening a gym, to help other young people follow in his footsteps.