Houston Healthy Hip-Hop founder pays it forward through afterschool program

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May 6, 2022 by HCDE Communications

Chris Cortez has always struggled with anxiety, but he gained a new sense of confidence when he discovered dance as a student.

“In high school, I was the person that would fail speech class because I was too nervous about speaking in front of my peers, but when the teacher said I could do a speech about dance, I got an A,” he said. “That’s when I realized that I don’t get anxiety talking about things I’m passionate about and that I wanted to continue with hip-hop education.”

Cortez, a Spring Branch Independent School District (Spring Branch ISD) graduate, was introduced to the culture and art of movement known as hip-hop when FLY Dance Company (FLY) performed at his campus, Spring Oaks Middle School, in 1997. The company performed and offered workshops at Houston-area schools as part of found and artistic director Kathy Wood’s mission to give children and teens a creative and productive outlet through dance.

Wood, a founding member and former president of the Texas Dance Educators Association who is widely recognized in her field, presented the first Houston-area school shows featuring street dancers that covered street dance history, drug misuse prevention, anatomy, African-American composers, and classical music. These shows have been performed more than 600 times in the Houston area alone and hundreds more times around the country, impacting an estimated 200,000 school-aged children.

FLY, a pioneer in combining street dance with classical music, has been teaching and performing its “theatrical hip-hop” style for audiences across the county since 1992. FLY’s workshops and programs for youth are where Cortez honed his craft.

“When I got older, I thought, ‘This is what the kids need,’” said Cortez. “They need a program that can build their confidence and let them know they can accomplish their goals if they work hard.”

Hoping to give students the same self-assurance he found in dance, he eventually established Houston Healthy Hip-Hop (HHH), an afterschool and summertime youth performing arts provider, in 2009.

Drawing on inspiration from FLY, where Cortez is also now a director, HHH combines hip-hop, theatre, and classical music in its afterschool and summer programs. Cortez prioritizes clean dance with youthful energy.

“I like teaching them true hip-hop movement,” he said. “I like to show them more athletic moves to show off their strength and abilities.”

As an afterschool youth service provider, HHH has worked closely with HCDE’s Center for Afterschool, Summer and Enrichment for Kids (CASE for Kids) for more than six years. The training and support CASE offers professionals like Cortez has greatly benefitted HHH.

“CASE for Kids is why my company’s grown so fast,” said Cortez. “They gave me a chance to get professional photos and build my brand by connecting me with more schools, which really helped me out.”

Cortez was one of the dozens of community partners recognized for their work at CASE for Kids’ 2022 end-of-year Spirit of Excellence Awards.

The annual event honors the dedication and commitment to professionalism, quality, and excellence within the out-of-school-time field. CASE for Kids presented eight awards to frontline staff members, supervisors, and community partners who made an impact during the 2021-2022 school year.

This year’s carnival-themed event featured ready-made fair snacks, lunch, and games such as ring toss, giant Jenga, spin-the-wheel, and a Play-Doh sculpting contest, in which Cortez took first place. The fun-filled, relaxed environment allowed youth service providers to play and engage organically.

“I liked the way CASE held the event. They said, ‘Go have fun.’ It made it easier to connect with people,” said Cortez. “It was more natural.”

CASE for Kids’ Senior Director Lisa Caruthers, Ph.D. hugs an awardee during the division’s annual Spirit of Excellence Awards program.

CASE for Kids Director Lisa Caruthers, Ph. D., brought the year to a close with the annual State of Afterschool address. She acknowledged the challenges of the past year and how service providers have diversified their offerings to meet students’ needs.

“CASE and afterschool professionals have faced many of the same challenges as schools and the rest of the workforce, but rather than settling into the new norm, we are evolving a new world of opportunity,” she said. “I believe in CASE’s mission, and I believe in the resilience of the out-of-school-time community.”

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