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Pumkin transforms dainty dancers into hip-hop maniacs

Looking across the studio of ballerinas, her eyes scan their delicate posture, their graceful demeanor. Then she shouts: "OK, girls, give me a coffee grinder!"

It's not exactly the French ballet term one would expect, but the young ballerinas, ages 7 through 18, at Gwinnett Ballet Theatre in Snellville know what Lekisha Harris means.

Harris, best known as Pumkin, is turning rooms full of dainty dancers into hip-hop maniacs.

Pumkin is something of a rising star. Performing since the age of 3, this 30-year-old has toured both nationally and internationally as a tour dancer for hip-hop artists such as Ciara and Mary J. Blige.

"My first tour was with Keith Sweat when I was only 19, and that was really fortunate. He was an established artist. We went to Paris, Germany, Brazil," Pumkin said.

This globe-trotting dancer thrives on being part of a tour. Pumkin spent six months with Blige, and the day after that tour ended, she immediately stepped into a tour with Ciara, hitting Japan, Italy and Australia.

"Video dancers just come in and shoot the video. But with a tour, you get to live with the other dancers and the star every day. The star selects you because of your vibe and personality," said Pumkin. "You become part of their family. Ciara was like my little sister."

Teaching hip-hop to ballerinas is a challenge, as she must break down walls and break the dancers in, Pumkin said.

"I tell them 'Bend those knees! Relax! Curve! Bounce!' And they really get it. I see them transition and change," she said. "One thing I like to do is have them dress differently. Not in leotards and tights, but dress the hip-hop part. Nothing structured."

Where ballet is about warming up and being at the barre, hip-hop class is all about the powerful choreography, she said.

"In hip-hop class we just do a quick warm up and then go right into power moves, freeze poses, half-cartwheels, coffee grinders," Pumkin said. "Students are experiencing 35 to 40 minutes out of each hour in pure dance."

Ballerinas can use a little of ballet in their hip-hop, though. Pumkin said she encourages her students to "do their own thing with it. Put some ballet moves in there to make it your own, if you want to."

Additional dance classes with Pumkin will begin Aug. 13 at the Gwinnett Ballet Theatre, located at 2204 Fountain Square, Snellville. Call 770-978-0188 or visit www.gwinnettballet.org.

Holley Calmes is a freelance writer and public relations consultant specializing in the arts. E-mail hcalmes@mindspring.com.