TEDxAuckland: Billie Jordan - Life's for the living

By Jamie Joseph

The Hip Op-eration Crew. Photo / Supplied
The Hip Op-eration Crew. Photo / Supplied

When Billie Jordan sits down to Skype she is joined by Maynie, 96 years young, and communicating through Skype for the very first time. Billie is the founder, manager and choreographer of the oldest dance group in the world. A hip hop dance group called The Hip Op-eration Crew, the 22 members, which includes Maynie, are aged 68 to 96 years old. The average age is 80.

When the Christchurch earthquake hit, Billie was in the City waiting in line to buy a sandwich. During those 20 seconds of terrifying tremors she decided right then and there that if she was to survive this disaster she would move to Waiheke Island, leave her corporate job behind, and start working towards a more meaningful life.

Billie had just bought a house three days earlier, and it wasn't damaged enough to claim, but instead considered repairable, the worst scenario where you can't live in the house but insurance won't repair it either. She had to sell and in doing so lost her life's savings.

"I didn't dwell on this, because I was just so happy to be alive," adds Billie. "It took five months of living in halfway houses before I made it to Waiheke. I noticed that the senior citizens were in the same position as me, isolated and alone. I decided to do something about it, and so I drove around the island in my van and asked random people if they wanted to join the world's eldest flash mob. The criteria was that you had to be 65 years and over, and have a pulse."

No one knew what a flash mob was, and some were worried it involved nudity. The first youtube video has so far clocked in more than 700 000 views. After the success of the flash mob Billie decided it was time to raise the bar and reach for the sky.

"They weren't being treated as an equal," says Billie. "And no one expected these senior citizens to have any goals or aspirations. At the start of 2013 I told them all that they're officially a hip hop dance group, and the new goal is that in eight months time they would perform at the World Hip Hop Championships in Las Vegas."

Billie had no experience with dancing or teaching dance, but it wasn't long before these silver warriors were busting moves and moonwalking their way into unknown territory. The ugly truth is that this daring mission to live life to the fullest was met with a lot of push back, even from their neighbours and a local newspaper who felt Waiheke should be known for environmental issues, not hip hop. Getting into the Guinness World Records as the world's oldest dance group made little difference.

"We were very hurt," adds Maynie, the group's oldest member of The Hip Op-eration Crew. "But it brought us closer together and we became more determined. For a very long time I felt invisible, and now I am part of a big family with brothers and sisters."

Billie tried to get sponsors to help fund the tour to Las Vegas, but she kept getting turned down because they thought it wouldn't be a good look if one of the members died. The challenge of raising the funds meant that everyone went without firewood over winter, they did odd jobs, and they sold their possessions.

Over in the United States they were heralded as a victory for breaking down preconceived notions of what it really means to grow old, including a cover story in the Wall Street Journal.

The NZ Film commission however did fund a film crew to follow them around for eight months, staying with various members in their Waiheke homes, and following in their footsteps all the way to the bright lights of Vegas. The award winning documentary, Hip Hop-eration, has been heralded as a must see; heart warming and heart breaking, laugh until you cry.

"There are many stories where senior citizens have been inspired to go out and do something after watching our documentary," adds Billie. "But I had one particular profound experience when I met an elderly lady who told me that she had been thinking about killing herself. She said our story completely changed that."

Three years into their journey, The Hip Op-eration Crew continue to chase their dreams. Since Las Vegas they have also performed in Taiwan, and the new goal is to travel to the Bronx in New York where Hip Hop originated.

And yes, everyone is still alive. In fact group members are feeling the healthiest they have ever felt, and their doctors agree that dancing for joy is the best medicine money can't buy.

Billie Jordan is featured on the 2015 TEDxAuckland line up taking place on Saturday 2 May. To check out all the details and read the full line up, visit tedxauckland.com Tickets will sell out.

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