Ashton Lites, better known as Stackz across the movement spectrum in Boston and beyond, is a lot of things—dancer, videographer, professor, and even battle champ. Bringing more than a dozen years of experience in krumping, hip-hop, tap, house, and other styles, he has also earned a degree in dance from Dean College in Franklin and worked teaching ballet, tap, jazz, and modern.
Stackz currently runs Stiggity, an organization that uses urban arts to teach life-building skills, and throws events around the region that tie in with the mission. With his third annual Stackin’ Stylez freestyle dance culture event set to take place this weekend at multiple venues, we asked the president of Stiggity Stackz Worldwide about his journey and the urban dance community in Greater Boston.
Tell us a little bit about how you first started dancing.
I started about 2005. Dance was always in my community, in my neighborhood, and a lot of people in my family were musicians. I was around art all the time—dance was a kind of a recreational thing that I wasn’t really good at.
And then I saw the movie Rise, a documentary about krump. I was at my aunt’s crib when she got the bootleg and I wasn’t planning on watching it, but then as the movie was progressing I kept turning around more and more frequently. It just drew me in, I feel like krump called me and I thought, This is something I want to do.
So I went into my own hyperbolic time chamber and learned how to krump on my own. I tried to teach people around me and they would do it for a little bit, but then they would fall off. It was something I really wanted to do and eventually things started picking up—that’s when I started learning more about the Boston community. I was at Forest Hills one day and I was krumping and this guy was like, “Hey, you know the Beantown Krump Kings?” And I was like, “What? There are krumpers in Boston? I thought I was the only one.” And when I went back home and looked it up I saw there were events. Not too long after that, I started finding my own community and had my first battle.
What were some of the movements that drew you to krump when you first started?
It just felt relatable. Krump was rugged, it was a dance for street kids. Poppin’ and breakin’ and all the other dances, I thought [they] were cool, but they didn’t feel connected to me. Krump felt like a call to young black ghetto kids. I never saw people move like they were moving—their bodies were jerking and their movements were fast.
A lot of people didn’t have the same reaction as I did—I’ve heard people say the worst things about krump. Like it looks like you’re having a spasm attack, or like you’re having a seizure. They just didn’t see what I see. I see art, I see black masculine art that really embraces the struggle of our time. It felt so relatable to my struggle, to what young people were going through. Krump raised me.
As you’ve expanded your repertoire past krump, how have you kept the feeling of creating authentically black, masculine art?
It’s embedded in my DNA. Once it’s there, it’s there, it’s a spirit and it doesn’t go away. Especially if it’s something that you’ve created. Krump was my first intense experience, that manifestation of myself. I used to make music, I used to do art, I used to do a whole bunch of stuff. But krump was my first moment of dedicated passion. It was the first time I committed to building something from the ground up.
I had everything I needed inside of me, and Krump was that push that I needed to access all the other parts of me and all the paths my life could take.
My whole business is dedicated to the template I learned from creating my own krump style. It helped me go into different worlds, like business and spirituality. I apply that energy to my relationships, to how I function in my family and how I run events.
How can being part of a group of dancers, or a crew, help people focus their energy?
That’s co-creation. The krump family structure is how I set the foundation for my relationships. In every crew you have family structures. There is a big homie who is a mentor, and they have their name which suits their character they create through dance. Mine is Stackz, so if there are people who want to learn from me, they take on my name. So they’ll be Kid Stackz, or Little Stackz. That last name is tribal. It represents the people I’ve trained and I take a piece of them with me that helps me to visualize and build my own dance.
When you have a team of people rooting for you, you can thrive off that very energy. Having a crew also creates accountability. You have people who are giving you the energy to step out and do amazing things.
You talked earlier about how krump, for you, felt like it embodied a lot of the struggle of your time. How did having an environment where you can feed off of people’s energy help you get through that struggle?
My life story life is a testament to just that. My big homie in krump, Russell, he really shaped my journey. There was a point in time when I was just beginning to get invested and I was involved in some things that I probably shouldn’t have been involved with, and I was trying to maintain both. I got myself into a pickle and Russell gave me an ultimatum: He said I could keep doing what I was doing, but I would have to leave the family. He told me that if I wanted to stay I had to stop. And that was enough for me to make a commitment to myself. Once I moved on from that old life I could focus on building myself and creating my own style.
How can dance help young people express themselves in ways they didn’t know were there?
It’s focused energy. Dance is not the simplest thing physically, and you’re also in a vulnerable space. You have to work to change your body, you have to tune in to every limb, and it’s such a deeply vulnerable experience and you have to really focus. I teach a lot of life lessons through my classes.
What pushed you from being a dancer to teaching and setting up your own studio?
It’s freedom—the freedom that I got from dancing made me want to share that with more people, because I felt that everyone deserves to feel like this. When I first started teaching I was with kids who had studio experience and a lot of them only knew how to dance a routine. I wanted to take them out of that routine and start to explore themselves. Instead of saying, I’m going to teach a poppin’ routine or a hip-hop routine, I broke down all the elements that are embedded in dance, like footwork, and asked them to explore that. There’s no standard, no pressure. It’s you and your movement, your exploration.
How did the Stackin’ Stylez jam grow out of these experiences and classes?
When I was teaching I would bring people from the dance world to my classes, and a lot of them found that what I was doing was actually helpful to them. So then I started teaching adults and I became one of the dancers who was really representing Boston. But the jams were slowing down—the momentum and the energy behind jams was fading because they were being run in the same kind of way for a very long time. And that wasn’t cutting it in this era.
As I traveled around and became more well-known as a permanent dancer in a town where a lot of people leave once they’ve finished college, people started asking me to throw a jam. I wanted to wait until I really felt like I could pull out the best experience for my soul. I didn’t want to create just another jam. And around that time someone asked me, What does Boston really need? Answering that question is what I started building my jam around.
So what does the Boston dance scene need?
I felt like we needed a bridge to connect people to the elders, to cultures and styles and different places and really link to the broader dance community around the country and the world.
The battle format is based in education. People are constantly learning, they’re constantly exploring, because you might be someone who does all lines and stuff with your hands and get an element like footwork. So now you’ve got to push yourself to use your skills to interpret that element within your own style, and that can level the playing field.
How does urban dance fit into the bigger picture of activism in the Boston community?
I think activism thrives off of one mind. It’s how we can get everybody to look past everything that separates us and create one mind, one harmony, one rhythm.
I think that hip-hop is [rooted in] the civil rights movement … just passed down and changed forms … new flavor. You can go anywhere in the world and people connect over dance. We need to relate, we need to find a way to listen to each other. I feel like that dance creates a space for that. Urban dance culture breaks down barriers.
Get more info and tickets for Stackin’ Stylez at facebook.com/StiggityStackzWorldWide.