There’s something about Detroit B-girl Mary Mar, who is anything but ordinary
Mary Mar isn’t your typical B-girl. A Khmer Muslimah, whose family was forced from Cambodia in the 1970s, she found light from a dark place through dancing. See video from a recent practice.
Junfu Han, Wochit
One night and one question changed Mary Mar’s path.
Inspired by a dance style she had witnessed at the former Tonic nightclub in Pontiac nearly two decades ago, Mar wanted more. The dancers she watched that evening in 2001 were friendly and told her that she should check out the scene at St. Andrew’s Hall in Detroit. Days later, she did.
“Is this your break dancing gang?” Mar remembers naively asking two women she watched as they were stretching on the floor of the famous downtown nightspot.
They looked at her with total disgust, rolled their eyes, then responded: “First off, it’s not called break dancing; it’s called breaking, B-boying or B-girling. And secondly, it’s called a crew and not a gang.”
It was her formal introduction to breaking.
Mar watched the dance cypher that followed that night with “stars in my eyes.” She wandered up to the top floor and found more breakers. After she tried to follow along for a few, a breaker named Greg Wagner — aka GMC, aka Coach — took pity on her. He asked if she wanted to learn and showed her some moves.
“I’ll never forget my first lesson,” Mar said.
It not only struck a cord, it flipped a switch in her soul, turning on a light that seems to keep burning brighter and brighter for the ambitious Detroiter.
Twenty years have passed since that March night, the one that inspired Mar to battle her way from the novice wannabe she was then, to the breaking community fixture and award-winning B-Girl dancer — who is preparing for her next breaking battle competition in Boston on Saturday — that she is today.
Oh yeah, she’s also a vocalist, whose latest single is expected to drop on Aug. 20. And she happens to be Khmer Muslimah. A Muslim B-Girl? Not so typical.
But, then again, there is nothing typical about Mar, who goes by BGIRL MAMA as an artist, or her journey.
Mar’s family came to the United States after fleeing the brutal Khmer Rouge regime and its ruthless dictator Pol Pot in their native Cambodia in 1978. The youngest of seven, Mar’s parents already had five children when their journey to stay alive began. For months, the family walked by day and slept in the jungle at night, finally finding sanctuary in neighboring Thailand, where they were forced to live in a refugee camp for a year.
The family came to America in 1979 by way of a “raggedy plane that was shaking hard,” Mar said her parents told her. They initially settled in St. Clair Shores. Mar was born in 1982, about four years before her family moved to what is now Eastpointe, where her parents still reside in the same white bungalow today.
Mar, 39, remembers mostly happy times in her bustling home growing up, a home filled with song and dance. They often attended cultural celebrations, like Cambodian New Year, which takes place in April. Her parents and siblings — four boys and three girls — all have artistic talents. She credits brother Monn and sister Phall for being instrumental in inspiring her creativity. Mar enjoyed drawing and painting, too. Art provided an outlet.
At age 3, Mar got hit by a car while chasing a ball into the street. Her family told her it looked like an angel caught her because it seemed like she “floated” back to the ground. She had no bruises, scratches or broken bones. Just a gray baby tooth that eventually fell out. Mar remembers waking up in the hospital and telling her parents she was Super Girl. She said that incident, and another childhood trauma that she doesn’t wish to expound on, instilled in her a lifelong longing to make others happy and bring joy to the world. Art became her vehicle, and school life helped hone her skills and appreciation for it.
She performed in show choir in fourth and fifth grades at Woodland Elementary, expanding on that in middle school and high school. By the time she graduated from East Detroit High School in 2000, Mar had done everything from acting in, and choreographing for, school plays, to participating in ski club and yearbook. Mar learned then that she loved to perform and that she preferred performing arts over the fine arts.
Artistic freedom really came for Mar when she moved on campus at Oakland University her freshman year to study journalism. That’s when she began exploring the dance scenes in Pontiac and Detroit.
It was during her dancing travels that she eventually met Haleem “Stringz” Rasul in August 2001. Around that time, Rasul was founding the dance collective known as Hardcore Detroit. Mar had been earning her place on the scene and liked Rasul’s style. They started dating a year later. On Aug. 30, they will celebrate 13 years of marriage.
“She introduced herself to me first,” Rasul says with a smile. Rasul’s dancing resume commands worldwide respect. He has received multiple grants for his trailblazing work in the dance community and was a 2010 Kresge Art Fellow. He teaches dance at Wayne State University and has taught at multiple other universities, helping to bring styles like the Detroit Jit to international audiences.
Talking in the mural-filled community center inside the Cass Corridor Neighborhood Development Corporation where they train, Rasul reflected on Mar’s path, smiling every time he mentioned her name. Music punctuates the air as Mar and another woman train in the background. Rasul says Mar’s dance skills are what caught his eye first.
“She’s awesome,” Rasul said. “Some people think I have something to do with her skill — and I may have helped her with some breaking stuff — but she could already move and groove. She was already there when I met her.”
Rasul said Mar shines as a person, too.
“She wears her heart on her sleeve,” Rasul said. “For the most part, she’s very bubbly, funny, unapologetic. I feel like she’s very honest and sincere, she’s very good with kids.”
And that comes in handy, too.
Although Mar stays active in at least three breaking crews, her main gig is teaching dance and managing at the Next Step Broadway dance studio, which now has locations in Birmingham and Southfield. She started there 10 years ago under a previous owner, as a means to supplement her income working in retail as a loss-prevention detective. The first owner she worked for, Rhona Fidler, asked Mar to add managerial work to her teaching duties. Then, when former Radio City Rockette Amy Emmett bought the studio in 2017, Mar stayed on. By then, she was teaching multiple classes and managing. There, everyone knows her as “Miss Mary.”
“Miss Mary is a gem,” Emmett said. “I feel very lucky to have inherited her. Miss Mary is in her 10th year, although some of them aren’t with me.
“It’s hard to find a manager that cares as much as the owner does. She cares about the kids, the parents, everybody. She deeply cares about dance as well, so that’s a great combination. And she’s got a big ole heart.”
On a cloudy Friday in July, Miss Mary waits outside for young dancers to arrive at the camp she’s teaching that day. One of their activities would be a hip-hop dance class.
Dressed in a T-shirt, athletic pants, face mask and hijab, Mar checks in the kids on her clipboard. Two are running behind, so she waits. She doesn’t want anyone to miss out.
When class begins, Mar stands at the front and leads the little dancers, ages 3-5, expertly working in friendly directions as she shouts out dance steps.
“OK, let’s keep our hands to ourselves, please,” she says at one point. “OK, now we’re gonna do a pose. … Yes, you can go to the bathroom. …”
Mar said she aims to instill self-love and confidence in her young dancers, often uttering the phrase, “Hug yourself, if you love yourself” to help teach a standard hip-hop pose where the dancers wrap their arms around themselves.
Ava Kowalewski, 15, has been dancing for about 11 years, most of those years with Miss Mary. She does regular classes and competitive dancing at the studio. She said her dance team winning a Judge’s Award for “America’s Best Dance Crew” in April really boosted their confidence. Mar co-coaches the team, and Kowalewski credits Miss Mary for helping them win.
“She’s just so positive, and you know, great and energetic,” Kowalewski said. “And whenever she comes into the room, everyone starts smiling and is just ready to dance.”
Kowalewski’s mom, Chris Collins, said Mar is very protective, never letting students get into cars without confirming it’s family. She said she feels safe knowing Miss Mary is there.
“From a mom’s perspective, she’s just great,” Collins said. “I can’t say enough good things about her.”
Mar said that she doesn’t like to make just one student feel special, because they’re all special to her. She likes to keep it fair. Dancer Lareina Jadan confirms that everyone gets treated kindly by Miss Mary. She gets emotional when talking about her teacher of about five years. Jadan, almost 14 now, does contemporary, jazz, lyrical, African and her ultimate favorite, hip-hop, dance.
“I love to do it all,” Jadan said. “But there’s this one special thing that I have with dance — a bond with a special teacher. And that’s Miss Mary.”
Jadan recalled a time when she didn’t know all of a routine shortly before hitting the stage. Miss Mary took her aside and taught it to her quickly before she went on.
“She set everything aside for me,” Jadan said, choking up.
Lareina Jadan’s mom, Monica Jadan, 44, echoed her daughter’s praise of Miss Mary.
Monica Jadan said she appreciates the learning experience the kids get from Miss Mary, particularly because she always keeps the music age-appropriate. She celebrates Mar’s diversity and willingness to be open and honest with students, especially when fielding questions like, “Why is your head wrapped?”
Mar’s family is mostly Buddhist, though they began observing some Christian traditions when they came to America. Although Rasul already was Muslim when they met, Mar converted of her own accord in 2006.
“I don’t like anyone to sway me,” Mar said. “I like to do my own research.
“So once I started researching about it, I was loving it. You know, I was reading the Quran and just learning all about it. How Islam, the word itself, is derived from the word peace.”
Mar says over and over, during multiple interviews at her home/studio in southwest Detroit, at the practice center on Cass and at the dance studio, that she just wants everyone to be happy and nice.
“I strongly dislike mean people,” she says, reiterating her commitment to being a good person who spreads joy and peace; being a positive light for others to see.
She feels proud to dance as a Muslim woman, to show girls that they don’t have to be over-sexualized to display their talents. She doesn’t judge any woman who owns their sexuality in their way, but she’s happy to present herself as a fully clothed, wholesome dancer, because it’s her choice. Mar says even when asked by her students about the hijab, she explains it is a choice. Her choice.
“I do have kids that do ask, and the little ones are so cute,” she says, changing her voice to match a kid’s. “ ‘Miss May-wee, why do you wear that on your head every time?’ ”
“Because I choose to wear it,” she always responds. Sometimes, if she’s comfortable, she’ll show students her hair if they ask. She stresses the importance of every woman having a choice in life and art, whether they’re Muslim or not.
She’s preparing now to add more of her art into the world via song. Last November, Mar dropped her first single, “Breathe,” along with a music video. The second single coming later this month is titled “Get it, Got it, Good!” Mar said she will continue releasing singles until her full album, “Becoming” comes out next year. She considers this her introduction as a singer/songwriter/producer. It’s about how Mary Mar became BGIRL MAMA. She’s handling all aspects of the album, from production to writing lyrics. In an ode to her own story, Mar’s second single mixes a lighthearted melody about a B-Girl and her B-Boy, with some rhyming mixed in. The rhyme is a reminder for people to respect hip-hop culture.
“If you are not Black, you are a guest in the culture,” Mar says. The song itself, with the rhyming juxtaposed in with the airy lyrics, represents hip-hop to her; how sometimes it goes hard, but there’s also the element of people having fun. Just like when it started all those years ago with DJ Kool Herc “breaking” records at 1520 Sedgewick Ave. in the Bronx.
Mar also considers the new single a statement about how she’s proud of who she is as an artist and a Muslim woman. She will keep her music clean and positive, with the goal of inspiring others to be good, too. She wants people to dig her tunes and to consider her a positive role model.
“I want people to know they can be good,” Mar said, punctuating her words with a signature giggle as she often does. “There are good people in this world.”
The only time she’s maybe not so nice? During competition. Since finding her groove at St. Andrew’s, Mar has battled across the United States and Canada, winning more than 20 awards. She’s a part of Hardcore Detroit, the mostly touring duo Mama^2, a femme battle group called Venus Fly and more.
When she first started to come on in the scene, she battle-danced with the group D’Strukt. Two of those members? Those same young ladies Mar first approached stretching on the floor of St. Andrew’s. Mar admits that age and life can slow a dancer down. Although she recovered from a major knee injury she suffered years ago — an injury she got helping to apprehend a suspected shoplifter — she said she can’t do as many “big” moves like when she first started. She may tone down her moves, but she’ll always stay grooving.
“I am still active and I will never retire, lol,” Mar said by text.
Red Bull invited her to compete in the Red Bull BC One Boston competition on Friday. Mar accepted. She trains with confidence, even if she can’t do as many flips and tricks. Moves like that don’t make the dance, Mar explains. A dancer must know the appropriate foundational moves to break properly. That’s one of her strengths, Mar says. Her husband agrees, adding that his normally bubbly wife gets fierce in competition.
“She turns into a monster,” Rasul said, smiling. “And I’m like, ‘Where’d that come from?!’ ”
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