Unstoppable: Meet the Dancehall Queens of Brooklyn

February 22, 2013. Best friends Sarah and Chevelle, who go by Cookie and Velvet, perform a trick together during a party at a Dancehall Club in East Flatbush, Brooklyn. The two are both members of the same Dancehall Team- Zero Nation- and often dance together as a pair. The demonstrations of flexibility in dancehall dancing frequently raise eyebrows, but the girls view it as part of their Caribbean culture, and a source of empowerment. (Natalie Keyssar)
Natalie Keyssar
February 22, 2013. Best friends Sarah and Chevelle, who go by Cookie and Velvet, perform a trick together during a party at a Dancehall Club in East Flatbush, Brooklyn. The two are both members of the same Dancehall Team- Zero Nation- and often dance together as a pair. The demonstrations of flexibility in dancehall dancing frequently raise eyebrows, but the girls view it as part of their Caribbean culture, and a source of empowerment.

At around 1 am on a late-winter night in East Flatbush, Brooklyn, a small line of young men and women forms outside Sugar Mills nightclub. Attendees are searched by a team of bouncers before entering. Inside, dancers watch each other from the edges of the floor. As girls run circles around each other, the quickening beat of the music creates the sensation of a gradually building fever. One dancer, Sarah, moves her head in a serpentine rhythm, a wig framing her striking features. As she dances, she spins and floats in a maelstrom of implausible flexibility. For Sarah, and the other members of a Brooklyn-based Dancehall team called Zero Nation, these weekly parties at Sugar Mills are a keystone of their community.

Dancehall is a style of music and dance born in Jamaica in the 1970s. It fuses reggae-style rhythms with electronic instrumentals and DJs who freestyle over the music — in Dancehall, the term DJ is used instead of the more widely known MC, used in hip hop. While often criticized for its themes of violence, extreme sexuality and homophobia, for many fans the subculture is an expression of the realities of life in its birthplace of Kingston, Jamaica. Brooklyn, with its large Caribbean community, is home to a thriving Dancehall scene.

Sarah Crosse goes by the name “Cookie,” and like other Zero Nation members she often struggles to make ends meet. Many work at low-wage jobs while going to school and trying to build their futures. But while they are dancing, their troubles fade. Sarah has taken ballet, jazz, tap and hip-hop dance classes at a dance school in Canarsie, Brooklyn, since she was 5. Her formal dance background has built up her reputation in the Dancehall scene. She credits dance with helping her to cope with some of the most difficult moments in her life.

August 8, 2013. A photograph of Sarah in her ballet costume around age 5 is tucked into the mirror in her bedroom.

When one of her best friends was shot and killed in September 2010, Sarah fell into a depression and dropped out of school. But with the support of her family and dance teachers, she began to go to her dance classes again, and to use movement as an outlet as she processed the loss. She joined Zero Nation two years ago. The group became a family to her, and a social space that exists outside of the gang culture entrenched in her neighborhood. However, in Brooklyn’s 67th Precinct, where someone was murdered roughly once a month in 2013 and 10 out of 12 of these crimes remains unsolved, the street violence finally caught up with Sarah last fall.

On Oct. 30, 2013, Sarah and a friend, Zero Nation member Cheville — who goes by the name “Velvet” — descended the steps of Sarah’s family’s home in East Flatbush and set off down her block. Sarah only realized she’d been shot when she pulled off her hightop Nike Jordan and saw blood oozing through her sock. A bullet had ricocheted off the sidewalk, as the girls ran for cover from a drive-by, and lodged neatly in the center of the ballerina’s heel. It had to be surgically removed.

In February 2014, Zero Nation congregated in their leader’s bedroom in Brownsville to lay out a new set of rules for the group. They discussed stylistic elements for the group’s choreography, and banned any intoxication during practices and “excessive” intoxication at parties. The group established ground rules for monetizing their dancing. Zero Nation’s name would no longer be used to promote parties unless they were paid.

As the meeting broke up, the dancers ran through their routines. Sarah leaned her walking cane against the wall and joined in. Though she stepped gingerly on her still-recovering foot, her movements were precise and confident. Since the shooting, she has refused to entertain the idea that she would not dance again — although at first the doctors were unsure if she ever would.

“Don’t worry guys,” Sarah posted on her Facebook page a few weeks ago. “I’ll soon pick you back up and start moving you around. I know you miss me and I miss you guys 10,000 percent more. The time will come when I will wear you out until your body starts falling apart. I love you and I promise I will never leave you again.”


Natalie Keyssar is a photographer and a member of Reportage by Getty Images Emerging Talent.


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