KC dancer Leo Gayden aims to encourage new dancers through music.

Photo courtesy of Leo Gayden.

A median the size of 0.17 acres runs along Broadway Boulevard in Old Westport. Its official name: Pioneer Park. The park’s tip, near Westport Road, is expansive and flat—physical features suitable for dancing. A reproduction of a mid-nineteenth century map illustrating the three trails of westward expansion sits in the little park and delineates the origin of the Santa Fe trail, thus the park’s name. The locale was also where teenagers and twenty-somethings once tried to break into the Kansas City street dance scene. “Let’s meet at ‘The Map,’” they’d say. “It was a place you could pull up, bring a boom box or radio and just dance in the afternoon and dance all night, where nobody bothered you,” street dancer and East Kansas City resident Leo Gayden recalls. “There was a hazing that happened when first entering the dance scene in Kansas City. You are not welcomed in. You have to earn your way in.”

Street dance, a social phenomenon that mixes dancing with socializing in open public spaces, dates back to the 1970s and encompasses varying styles of improvisational dance, including breakdance (hip hop), popping (funk) and waacking (disco).

Gayden, a forty-four-year-old Chicago native, relocated from the windy city to Kansas City at the age of twelve. He grew up near Wrigley Field and spent most weekends on the Southside, where his father’s family lived.  

“I did not want to move, and I remember the day we left and crying almost half the way there,” Gayden says. “My neighborhood in Chicago was so multicultural, and Kansas City was Black and white. I spoke too proper for the Black kids and too Black for the white kids, so I hung out with the outcasts, nerds and geeks.”

Over the past ten to fifteen years, Gayden has watched Kansas City become increasingly diverse, especially in the arts. In the early 2000s, Gayden, then in his early twenties, rediscovered street dance after traveling across the “border” into Lawrence.

“I remember going to a place called The Granada, and that’s where I first saw breakdancing for the first time in probably twenty years, since I left Chicago,” Gayden says. “It was this whole underground thing, and it gave me an identity and something to pursue.”

In 2013, Gayden and dancer Juliet Remmers collaborated with choreographer Jane Gotch to create a stage production of abstract breakdance stylings set to an operatic song titled “Let It Fall.” The performance premiered in New York City and concluded in 2015 with two weeks of sold-out shows in Kansas City. 

“It was an extremely rewarding and agonizing experience,” Gayden says. “I put so much of myself into those routines. It was such a process. I was going through a lot of depression. I just got out of a relationship, so I put it all into the performances.”

In 2017, Gayden received a Rocket Grants award from the Charlotte Street Foundation with funding from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts. With the award, he produced “This Is Our Scene,” a two-part multimedia project that explores the symbiotic relationship between public space and street dance in Kansas City. 

“I love the physicality of [street dance],” Gayden says. “There’s something about putting motion and movement to sound.”

In his dancing career’s early years, Gayden moonlighted as a DJ under the moniker Leonightus. These days, he’s DJing more than ever, trying to cultivate younger dancers through the music. He regularly spins music at local venues like The Ship, Nighthawk and Yard Bar. 

“As I got older, my body just betrayed me,” Gayden says with a laugh. “You can’t do what you used to do all of the time. Now, I am more so a DJ than a dancer, but not because I don’t like it. I was just dancing the other day, but what I try to do as a DJ is create new avenues for other dancers to come through and dance.”

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