Theirs is an unlikely story: a bunch of senior citizens from Waiheke — ranging in age from 65 to 95 — who formed a hip-hop dance crew then went to the world champs in Vegas. They talk to Alan Perrott about moonwalking, twerking and feeling alive again.
Only the fluorescent hi-tops and Converse sneakers give them away. Otherwise, they're a bunch of normal retirees buttering scones and arranging tea cups in a chilly Waiheke Island hall on a Sunday afternoon.
Then a loud beat drops. Everyone moves into formation and my understanding of old school hip-hop is changed forever. They're locking, popping, throwing shapes, and roaring. Even when you know it's coming it's still one of the most bizarre, improbable and joyful sights you will ever see.
Until the music stops and the tirade starts: "No, no, no ... you're not fragile bloody old ladies, you're strong ... now do it again." This is their leader, Billie Jordan, dealing out the tough love. "Quick, quick, quick, I don't care if you're the worst hip-hop crew in the world, you're still dancers, you're supposed to be able to run. Go ... " And they run. Even 95-year-old Maynie Thompson.
It's hard to say what's more shocking: the transformation I've witnessed or the way Jordan treats them. But they're revelling in it and, if the aged limbs don't always follow what the brains demand, the determination to get as close to the mark as possible is obvious.
And Jordan makes them repeat moves over and over again, stretching patience on both sides as they struggle to match movement to beat. At one point she orders three grey-haired women to drop and give her 20 inverted hip thrusts. I'm told one woman's startling flexibility is down to having broken her hip. A few minutes later, she's urging them to assume a slack, loose limbed stance: "Come on, die ... die, die, die, die."
It's all chuckles as they follow along. Next comes moonwalking: "Remember, chicken shit and snails, chicken shit and snails ... you scrape the shit off your shoe and then squash the snail."
Which makes perfect sense when you see it, and if there's anyone better at it in this country than 68-year-old Diane Bartlett then I've yet to see them. She's a natural. As for some others, well, they get a little of Jordan's special encouragement ...
"When we started," she later tells me, "I treated them like porcelain, but you have to understand life for old people - they go home and they're treated like they can't do anything, they can't make a cup of tea, they can't go to the bathroom alone. They're incompetent and nobody has any expectations of them. That's demoralising ... it's different here."
The Hip-Operation Crew. Photo / Peter Meecham
This is The Hip Op-eration Crew. With an average age of 79, Guinness World Records lists them as the world's oldest dance troupe, but they are so much more than that, not least of which is wonderfully alive. Just last year, several members were so unsteady Jordan had to research American cremations before they left to perform at the World Hip-Hop Championships in Las Vegas. In typical fashion, her crew responded by taking along empty icecream containers, you know, just in case.
The tale of this remarkable and - that word again - bizarre adventure was filmed for a documentary to be released on Thursday. In a remarkable year for New Zealand film, Hip Hop-eration, must be the underdog in the pack but that's fine with these retirees - they're happy having something to leave the grandkids. Who would believe their story otherwise?
At an early screening of the film, a fellow viewer had a simple review: "That was just so full of love ... "
It was also full of life, and one of those lives was exposed far more than expected. None of this - the group, the film, the adventure - would have happened without Jordan or without the desperation that almost pushed her to suicide eight years ago.
It's arguable that Hip Hop-eration is more about her regeneration than hip-hop and there's a giveaway moment where she talks about her grandmother, "... she didn't beat me up".
Suffice to say she had a difficult time being, as she describes it, "dragged" up in Hamilton. "My parents are still alive, so I'll keep it to myself until they die, but I ran away a lot. The nicest times I had as a teenager were lying in a gutter on my own."
Her aversion to authority was such that many assumed she was prison-bound, but Jordan surprised everyone by becoming head girl at Hamilton Girls' High, then getting a job as a journalist. In the mid-2000s a post-grad diploma kicked off a four-year stint as a senior policy adviser for eight different government departments.
But she wasn't happy and her personal issues eventually saw her lurking on a bridge, where a passing therapist stopped to ask if she was okay. Jordan credits that woman with not only saving her life but also helping her break away from her family. "Because of everything she did, I've felt this obligation to pay her back. I didn't want her feel like she'd wasted her time on me."
Len Curtis (who wants to dance like Michael Jackson). Photo / Peter Meecham
It was time to find a more "meaningful" job, so she taught herself chemistry before kicking off a veterinary technician course at Massey University. Unfortunately, while her heart was in it, her stomach wasn't and she struggled to stay upright during vivisections.
She knew she was wasting everyone's time so she headed to Christchurch in December 2010, landed a temporary job in the city council's communication office and bought a house in St Albans. Four days after the house went unconditional she was in a central city Subway restaurant when she heard what sounded like a train coming. Then everything leapt into the air.
"I tried to grab on to a table, but it flew up to the ceiling. It was like being inside a washing machine and all I could think was that I'd be called an ex-council worker at my funeral. That wasn't how I wanted to go out ... " At the same moment, two of her colleagues were being crushed and the new house she'd never sleep in was crumbling.
Most of Jordan's injuries in the Christchurch earthquake came from people running over her to get out of the store only to be hit by blocks of Oamaru limestone. She eventually struggled outside to find a different world: "It was like the photos from 9/11, it was dust and people walking around with white, white faces and red mouths, like Voodoo witch-doctors or something. All you could do was shut down, it was too much to take."
She later moved to the Kapiti Coast to escape Christchurch and the aftershocks, then later headed north again - this time eventually ending up on a ferry to Waiheke in December 2011.
"I'd lost all trust in the ground. Mother Nature isn't nurturing, she's a violent, raging bull who is going to kill innocent people and there's absolutely nowhere you can run from her. I just wanted to get off that Christchurch patch of dirt and decided on Waiheke because it was detached from both the North and South Island patches of dirt. It felt like I could finally breathe again and even if I didn't know a soul, I felt safe."
Needing an income, she returned to PR and midway through 2012 hit on the idea of using flash mobs to promote Lifemark Homes. Yes, flash mobs are so last decade, but hers would be different and she started prowling the streets, craft clubs and the local RSA to recruit dancers. Her only rule was that they must be over 65 and have a pulse: "I'll never kick out anyone because they can't dance."
About 90 turned up to her first meeting - several dozen walked out when she explained flash mobs didn't involve actual flashing. Then, over 10 rehearsals, the remainder were whittled down to the 46 who finally strutted their stuff in downtown Auckland - the resulting video is one of YouTube's most viewed New Zealand clips.
It had been a revelation for all concerned - the oldies had loved every second and Jordan had gained a new family. It couldn't end there, so she hit on the idea of forming a hip-hop crew and taking them to the world champs. She figured the idea was so unlikely they'd be catnip to social and mainstream media, movie makers and, most importantly, sponsors.
Which is where the Hip Hop-eration documentary starts - with big dreams and enormous expectations.
What no one expected was next-to-no financial help and even hate mail. Scumbags are unavoidable when you put yourself online, but Jordan is still shocked when people casually walk up to her and her crew and call them an embarrassment to Waiheke Island. Their gripe is hard to understand, but it seems to be about an incompatibility between island values and what they consider to be the promotion of American pop culture, and a youth culture at that. Or something. Anyway, it got to the point where Jordan issued notebooks to record the names and addresses of anyone who gave her team grief so they could be sent postcards once they got to Las Vegas in August 2013. In the end, they decided it wasn't worth the effort, especially once they'd felt the love from the international hip-hop community.
Their every move at the competition was followed by a Mexican wave of noise as everyone stood to cheer. Their final performance drew four standing ovations, with the judges up on their tables and not a dry eye in the house. It's all in the movie. Among their fans is legend Don "Campbellock" Campbell (the inventor of the locking style of dance - think Michael Jackson), who is now something of a patron and a regular correspondent.
"It was all so very humbling," says dancer Rosemary McKenzie.
The Hip Op-eration Crew isn't a joke. The dancers want to engage, they want to learn and they do it honestly. They don't pretend to be hip-hop fans but they do love the dancing. They now have a broad knowledge of the star performers, watch hours' worth of DVDs, and call each other whenever anything hip-hop related is on the television. Their motto is RHY, Respect and Honour Youth, and they still exchange visits with the Dziah Dance Academy in Otara. Crew members even gave themselves stage names. Whenever she's dancing Maynie Thompson becomes Quick Silver.
We had a conversation about twerking (remember, she's 95). "Twerking? Do I twerk, Billie?" "Oh yes, you do," Jordan replied, "It's when you dance like a bumble bee." "Oh, that's right."
Kara Nelson, 94, left, and Terri Woolmore-Goodman, 94, share a cuppa. Photo / Peter Meecham
Lovely stuff, and like all of them, she couldn't care less what you or I think about it; it's the most glorious and unexpected new lease on life. Jordan and Thompson are the best of friends, so even if the strain of holding the crew together has pushed Jordan to breaking point (she was so ill her doctor thought she had cancer) and come close to killing her career, she is adamant it's been worth it. If only because most of her ladies have, before now, lived in the shadow of their husbands.
Not only are several living their own lives for the first time, "they're now the most interesting people at the dinner table. You'll never see them pull out photos and reminisce about the old days, it's all about what's next? Then what?" says Jordan.
So far they've not only performed on New Zealand's Got Talent, at the New Zealand and World Hip-Hop Championships, and have a movie coming out, they will soon be off to Taiwan as the first Western act to perform at the huge Seniors On Broadway festival. With no sponsor they've each been saving $15 a week since getting the news. From there they hope, with Don Campbell's help, to strut their stuff in New York City's Bronx, the birthplace of hip-hop.
If they're moving quickly it's because they're racing an unavoidable clock.
"It's all very hard to believe actually," says Diane "DD Bugz" Bartlett, "so out there. We've opened ourselves up to a whole new world and it's given me so much confidence. But I can't say enough about Billie, she has taken on so much and it's been hard on her, she's been beside herself at times."
For his part, 73-year-old Len "Big Deal" Curtis was pulled into the group by his wife and has missed only one performance since - he was getting some cancer spots removed. "I'm rock 'n' roll basically, but this has been fantastic, it's a big part of my life now ... and going to Vegas and then seeing it again in the movie, I have to admit I had tears in my eyes. It's so alive, exactly what it was like being there." Otherwise, he's fitter than he's been in years and has a new appreciation of Michael Jackson.
"I'd have to say I'm more of a fan of him [Jackson] than hip-hop, and I'd love to be able to dance like him, but I have to finish building the [house] first."
In the meantime, Jordan is keen for a breather, has banned calls from her dancers after 11pm and is looking forward to a Christmas holiday. From there, it'll be a matter of what comes of the movie and, as she bluntly puts it, "how long I can keep my friends alive".
As long as they go out with their dancing shoes on, they'll be fine.
Hip Hop-eration is at cinemas on Thursday.