Tonight: See KPD Chief, Officers Show Off Their Hip-Hop Dance Chops

In The Daily Dumpster Blog by S. Heather Duncanleave a COMMENT

It’s harder to feel threatened by an old white man in a police uniform when you’re trying to teach him hip-hop dance steps.

Students involved in dance ensembles at Austin-East Magnet High School have seen a totally different side of Knoxville police officers as they prepared them for tonight’s Black History Month celebration “Everybody…. ‘Breathe’” at the school. The program of Negro spirituals, gospel, hip-hop and spoken word will feature the Knoxville College Jubilee Singers, Vine Middle and Austin East dance companies, the high school’s West African Drummers and Dancers, alumni performers – and several hip-hop dances by 18 members of the Knoxville Police Department. The highlight is likely to be a solo dance by Knoxville Police Chief David Rausch.

Students choreographed the dances and taught the moves to the police officers, including some who regularly patrol East Knoxville where the performing arts magnet school is located.

Malaika Guthrie, the dance instructor at Austin-East and one of the dance directors at Vine Middle School, came up with the idea of inviting the police to participate in the annual event after she heard Rausch speaking about the department’s emphasis on community engagement.

“My kids have so enjoyed this process,” she says. “They’re like, ‘Wow, you know, the police are real cool.’ So all of their encounters with police aren’t negative. The myth in our community is the police are monsters who want to kill us. We want to all understand each other better so we don’t have our young people getting shot by police like we’ve seen in some parts of the country. We want to get in front of that.”

As a safety education officer, Sgt. Tammy Mattina is often in schools, but the experience of learning dance from the students has changed her viewpoint.

“This gives us to see inside their world and see how hard they work,” she says. “And this shows them we’re regular people: We’re mothers, we’re fathers, we can’t dance, we need their help…. We both get to see how we are trying to be the best we can be in our fields. When you know someone’s name, it’s a lot harder to be mean or judgmental…. They know us and they know our families, and they know they could call us about anything.”

She adds that she thinks she’ll do her own job differently as a result of the experience. “I want to take time to get to know people more, beyond responding to a call and moving on,” she says. “I want to stay and talk with them about how they are, what they do, maybe tell them a little about my family.”

Mattina says the police officers were supposed to learn their dances in three rehearsals, but the number had to be increased to five. “If they can teach these officers to dance, they can teach anyone,” she laughs. “The kids have been so patient with us. We’ve given them plenty to laugh at, but they haven’t.”

Mattina, who is dancing with other female officers to Beyonce’s “Run the World (Girls).”

“We’ll have on our uniforms and gun belts, which is good because the belt gives you a little more weight around the waist and encourages movement. “You’ll see some modern dance moves kids will know that we attempted to do.” (Emphasis on “attempt.”)

The performance is the second event KPD has been involved with at Austin-East in the last few weeks. Guthrie also arranged “Straight Talk: A Man to Man Conversation” to open dialogue between police officers and black males about policing in Knoxville. It featured simulated traffic stops with real squad cars where the young men and the officers reversed roles.

“We taught them about what they do, and in turn, now they’re teaching us what they do,” Mattina says, noting that the same 17 officers that participated in Straight Talk are part of the dance performance. More Straight Talk events are also in the works, she says.

But first, the officers have to survive their dance performance tonight. Mattina admits to being nervous. “These kids have worked really hard, and we want that to show,” she says. “We’ve formed a family with these kids, which I’m very proud of.”

The Black History Month performance is at 6:30 p.m. at Austin-East High School, 2800 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave.

S. Heather Duncan has won numerous awards for her feature writing and coverage of the environment, government, education, business and local history during her 15-year reporting career. Originally from Western North Carolina, Heather has worked for Radio Free Europe, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in London, and several daily newspapers. Heather spent almost a dozen years at The Telegraph in Macon, Ga., where she spent most of her time covering the environment or writing project-investigations that provoked changes such as new laws related to day care and the protection of environmentally-sensitive lands. You can reach Heather at

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