Lue Thao, 27, felt the odds were stacked against him when he first sought to open a new location for Cypher Side, his St. Paul dance school.
As the COVID-19 crisis mounted last fall, he lost his day job as a prep cook. With venues closed for health and safety, Thao had to cancel several shows.
Despite these hangups, he was determined to see his breakdancing school find its own location. In his youth, Thao spent time bouncing between recreation centers and basements to practice breakdancing. Now, as an adult, he wants to provide a place for young people to explore their passion for dance.
Since starting Cypher Side in 2017, Thao has taught breakdancing lessons to hundreds of children and adults in Minnesota. He’s also taught globally: In 2016, he gave dance lessons at an orphanage in Thailand, the country where he was born.
Thao is a high-profile member of the Hmong hip-hop community and he’s used breakdancing as a way of highlighting his heritage. He’s won several dance competitions in Minnesota and farther afield.
Last year, Thao and his four co-instructors at Cypher Side began to brainstorm different ways to fundraise for the new space. They ultimately decided to crowdsource their efforts online. They hopped on Facebook and made the ask to their community of supporters. The collaborators set a goal of $10,000 in a timespan of three weeks in January.
To their surprise, they reached their goal within four days. Nearly half that amount poured in over just a single day.
It was tough for Thao to seek support. “I’m a person who doesn’t ask for a lot,” he said. “But if I were to start something and take a leap to sign a lease that’s going to help everyone, I want to make sure I have that investment from the community.”
Cypher Side ultimately received donations from over 200 individuals, including local business owners and parents. Thao also received donations in the form of chairs, TVs, speakers, and Pokemon cards. The funding has paid for flooring, lighting, signage, and supplies for the space.
‘Some families can’t afford to pay for classes’
Nearly six months later, Cypher Side has fully moved into its new home, northeast of St. Paul, near the junction of Highway 61 and County Road E., and Lue and the other instructors have welcomed students into the space.
Wooden floorboards cover the studio floor while large mirrors flank two walls of the dance studio. A garage door separates two sections of the building, creating space for one big area or two smaller studios.
Thao has scheduled a showcase for the evening of June 5 to welcome participants, new and old.
Though much of the interior has been finished, Thao is looking to make some improvements to the outside of the building. He and the owner of the Black Sea Restaurant, next door, plan to paint the building black and gray.
Lue has deployed some of the donated funds to help offset the cost of tuition for families who otherwise would miss out. “Some families can’t afford to pay for classes, especially during this pandemic,” Thao said. “As much as the community invests in us, we’re just as invested in the community.”
Thao continues to search for ways to make his courses affordable for all families. One option that he’s currently exploring is to register Cypher Side with the Minnesota Afterschool Advance program, a nonprofit that supports kids to pursue high-quality programming in arts and academics. The partnership could help supply funding for families that meet certain income criteria.
Giving students opportunities Thao didn’t always have
Lue knows about those types of financial challenges from his own childhood. Things didn’t come easy for Thao and his six siblings. “The transition to wanting my own space—I think it was about giving what we didn’t have,” he said. “We were from families that were less fortunate.
His family immigrated to the United States from Thailand and settled in the Rondo neighborhood of Saint Paul. After a few years, Thao’s family moved to the East Side, where he currently resides.
Thao’s passion for teaching dance is only exceeded by his love of performing. Before the pandemic struck, he was constantly putting on showcases and performing at events like Governor Tim Walz’s inauguration, the 2018 Super Bowl halftime performance, and breaks during Timberwolves games. He’s also participated in dance competitions around the country, winning more than 20 competitions with his breakdance group, named Optimistic Crew.
The crew recently performed last month at George Floyd Square as a show of support during the Black and Yellow: Asian Solidarity Rally. “A lot of people forget that art is for the community,” he said. “Performing is what we love to do.”
As COVID-19 policies are lifted, Thao is scheduling more events for the near future, including music video shoots, the Northern Spark festival, and an event with St. Paul Public Libraries.
Parents post notice: ‘No breakdancing in here’
At 27, Thao has been breakdancing for roughly half his life. After seeing his middle school dance teacher exhibit a few moves, he got hooked.
Soon afterward, Thao gathered some neighborhood friends together and began a dance crew called ABC Crew or Alphabet Crew. A majority of them were Hmong, save for one friend who was Cambodian. They spent their time outside of school practicing head spins, windmills, and other hip-hop moves.
It’s popular in breakdance culture for a performer to take on a stage name. Thao would eventually be dubbed “Finisher” by his crewmates because of his ability to close out the competition.
In a 2009 video, the crew compiled footage of their crew and each individual member’s moves. It offers behind-the-scenes video of the crew perfecting their routines during practice—spliced with video from their performances on stages, tennis courts, and high school atria. It shows a dedicated crew of break dancers who have a love of performing, but never shy away from the work that it takes to put on a show.
Thao says if it weren’t for breakdancing with his crew, he’d be lost.
The group would spend a large chunk of its time searching for spaces to practice. They might find a space in a rec center, then lose it the next day to another group of dancers, or a sports team who would bring traffic to the space. The dancers usually opted for one of the crew member’s basements—but that irked some of the parents. One parent even posted a sign in their home that read, “no breakdancing in here.”
Thao says his parents weren’t too supportive of his passion, either. “Back then, I got kicked out of the house because I was dancing,” he said. They told him he wouldn’t get anywhere with it.
For Thao, there was no other career option. “If you’re doing something positive, who should be the one to tell you that you’re doing something wrong?” he asked.
Three of his six siblings work as bankers while another holds a job in the medical field. Thao sees himself setting a different standard in the family as the self proclaimed rebel.
Where do you locate a dance school? In a building with powerful air conditioning.
Thao began his career as a breakdancing instructor during his senior year at Harding High School. He would stop by Battle Creek Elementary, his old middle school, and give breakdancing lessons to students.
Mary Anne Quiroz, the afterschool coordinator at the time, quickly took notice. “Right away, I knew he had really great skills with the youth and had a passion for breakdancing,” she said.
Quiroz approached Thao with a job offer to help him continue his work—with some pay, too. Thao began to teach breakdancing in the district and in a couple years found himself rotating between five schools.
The two kept in touch over the years. Quiroz and her husband, Serigo Cenoch, went on to found Indigenous Roots, a cultural arts center located in east Saint Paul.
Thao, she recalled, “was always looking for a space to dance in.” Quiroz and Cenoch approached Thao and nearly 30 other artists to open the center as an incubator for creative businesses. “We asked him if he was interested in opening a studio or dance school, and it just snowballed from there,” she said.
Thao joined the cultural center in 2017 and launched Cypher Side. As Quiroz mentored Thao on the administrative end of running a business, Cenoch helped him create a physical space for the dance school. The three had a great partnership for the nearly four years that Cypher Side operated in the space.
“Though it was accommodating, there were some schedule restrictions with the other classes,” Thao said. “Seventh street is super busy; parking was an issue.”
When it came time to find Cypher Side’s new home, Thao found another colleague who was there to help.
Ozzy Dris is a commercial real estate agent and also a breakdancer himself. Over the years, he performed with—and against—Thao in competitions. His background gave him the ability to visualize the ideal space that would meet Thao’s needs for the school.
What was most important for Dris was to find a location with a fairly new HVAC system. “Running a dance studio, you’re going to be using that like no other, especially in the summertime,” he said.
Dris was partly surprised to see the support for the new space pour in during the pandemic. “The other part of me that wasn’t surprised was because the community had his back. That just shows what kind of leader he is,” Dris said.
Dancing on Zoom
Before the pandemic Thao was accustomed to checking in with the parents who packed the lobby of the arts center. But just like many businesses in 2020, Cyper Side wasn’t immune to the effects of the pandemic.
“Transitioning was a bit of a struggle because no one really knew what they were doing,” he said.
Although he had heard of Zoom, Thao hadn’t used the platform before. In his first Zoom session, he fiddled with the audio to get the music right. And he realized he had to account for how his dance instructions would appear, reversed on screen.
While some students took to the online format, Thao noticed that most students preferred the in-person experience.
Cypher Side resumed in-person classes in the fall of 2020 and continued to offer Zoom courses as an option. In their hybrid format, the school picked up a few students from out of state. One student in Wisconsin discovered the school by searching breakdancing schools online. Two students zoom in to Thao’s beginner breakdancing class from Washington state.
Cypher Side has also retained long-term families like Amber Skogsberg and her 11-year-old son, Jonathan.
“We joined almost right at the beginning of Cypher Side opening,” said Skogsberg, a mother of three from Saint Paul. After trying a series of different sports, Skogsberg looked into breakdancing schools at her son’s behest and found Cypher Side through a Facebook group.
After joining, Skogsberg saw a change in her son. “The fact that my son was determined enough to keep trying says a lot for the kind of dance school this is.”
A recent visit to the new Cypher Side studios found Thao doing the less glamorous dance of paperwork, sitting on a high chair behind a desk to the right of the entrance.
To the left lies a doorway to the dance studio where instructor Karen Yang leads an early evening class. An adult class is in session with five students participating. Yang shouts directions over the loudspeakers as they blare a playlist of late ‘90s hip hop and more recent hits.
Thao walks to the outside of the school and shows where he’d like to make changes on the building. He walks back into the school through a side door and briefly stretches before showcasing a few moves in the half studio. Years of muscle memory kick as Thao does a handstand and a spin—despite the constrictions of a pair of jeans.
Call it a modest victory dance: Thao, who was once kicked out of spaces for breakdancing, now runs a dance studio and performs all over the world.
Cypher Side will stage a spring showcase 5:30 p.m. Saturday, June 5, in Maplewood; the public can register here for limited admission.