Local dance teams perform with Lion Heart Experience

Competitive hip hop dance teams from Park Rapids and Frazee joined forces with a rap group from Detroit, Mich. for a recent series of performances in the area.

The Lion Heart Experience travels to schools to rap and sing to teens with an inspirational message about identity and self worth. According to Kiala Velde, director of competition teams with Northern Lights Dance Academy (NLDS), “it’s a life changing show that helps teens feel understood.”

Velde described a presentation in which Lion Heart creator Joe Vercellino speaks to kids about how they form their identity while painting what looks like “a disaster of a picture. It’s just paint all over, and he’s like, ‘As you grow, moments in your life are going to shape your identity. And it’s going to seem like a mess sometimes.’

“But he’ll turn the picture, and it turns into a lion. It’s fun to watch kids in the audience, because I know it’s coming. I’ve seen it. But they don’t know. It’s funny. They’re all like, ‘A lion! Wow!’ … Everywhere he’s gone, I’ve heard nothing but, ‘I really needed this.’”

And between painting and talking, Vercellino has his fellow artists – kids from troubled backgrounds whom he discovered when he was teaching music in Detroit – sing and rap with him, doing all-original songs.


“For me, as a hip hop teacher, I think the hardest thing is to find clean music,” said Velde, calling Lion Heart Experience’s songs “really appropriate music for all ages, and it has great beats and a great message.”


Joe Vercellino with the Lion Heart Experience and the Northern Lights Dance Academy hip hop teams of Frazee and Park Rapids create a music video together Dec. 19 at Frazee High School.

Contributed / Kiala Velde

When Lion Heart Experience reached out to NLDS and offered to write and produce a song just for them, Velde said, 30 out of 33 dancers between the two hip hop teams signed up for what ended up being six shows at three venues.

“I thought I was maybe going to get 12 (dancers),” she said, “so I was a little like, ‘Wow, I have a big undertaking to make this dance work!’ We only got three practices to get it together, six hours total.”

Whirlwind tour

Once Vercellino and company flew in, they had 45 minutes to prepare together before giving three performances on Monday, Dec. 18 at Perham High School, two on Tuesday morning, Dec. 19 at Detroit Lakes High School and an evening show on Dec. 19 at Frazee High School.

Velde said she had previously taken her dance team to see Vercellino’s group perform at the Frazee school and event center, and he talked with her dancers. This past summer, he contacted her online and asked if she would be interested in collaborating between the two groups, offering to write an original song for the dancers.


Joe Vercellino and Tae Sosa with the Lion Heart Experience, joined forces Dec. 18-19 with the Park Rapids and Frazee hip hop teams of the Northern Lights Dance Academy.

Contributed / Kiala Velde

Written in Michigan, produced in Tennessee, rehearsed and performed in Minnesota, the three-state production was titled “Cold Streets.”

“He talks about, you have those kids who are, like, star athletes,” said Velde. “You’re going to see them in the newspaper every week. And then you have those kids that are maybe getting in a little more trouble, or maybe need more help in school, and they have people helping them.


“And then you have those middle kids. They’re in maybe one sport. They’re not the star athlete. They’re not straight-A students. They’re doing good in school. They’re just quiet. And those kids are the ‘angels in cold streets’ that we sometimes forget about.

“That is the majority of students, and sometimes we need to remember to give them positive accolades, and maybe spend a little more time with them … kids we sometimes forget about because we’re thinking they’re fine, and really they might not be fine. They might need somebody to reach out to them.”


Kenzie Strasburg of Park Rapids performs for the music video to “Cold Streets,” specially written for the Northern Lights Dance Academy’s hip hop teams by Joe Vercellino, creator of the Lion Heart Experience.

Contributed / Kiala Velde

‘Professional gig’

In addition to being part of Vercellino’s show, the dance teams also filmed a music video with a videographer from Los Angeles on the night of their Frazee performance.

“I kept saying, ‘This is our first professional gig,’” said Velde. “They got to learn what it was like to make a music video. That’s going to come out soon, so they’re super excited about that.”


Members of the Northern Lights Dance Academy hip hop teams celebrate their performance with rappers Tae Sosa and Joe Vercellino after recording a music video Tuesday, Dec. 19 at Frazee High School.

Contributed / Kiala Velde

The performance features dancers from Perham, Frazee, Lake Park and Park Rapids high schools, and Velde said it was neat to see them coming together and setting aside school rivalries.

“They got to connect with each other and bond and share in an experience that, I think, even my own dancers needed to hear that message,” she said.

Velde added that it felt different to be backup dancers to a live performance, rather than dancing to a recorded track.


Asked about the prospect of the group performing in Park Rapids, she said they offered but were told that due to school construction, it wasn’t possible to find space to bring all the kids in.

“We’re hoping to get them back,” said Velde. “We do want to get them in the Park Rapids area, because I think the message is so important for everyone, and adults, too. I think, sometimes, we maybe are a little hard on kids.”

Velde spoke highly of her dancers’ hard-work ethic, calling them “amazing kids … something to be proud of.”


Joe Vercellino with the Lion Heart Experience paints his lion while Tae Sosa raps during one of their programs Dec. 18-19 at Perham, Detroit Lakes and Frazee high schools.

Contributed / Kiala Velde

Unforgettable time

Several Park Rapids students in the NLDS hip hop program spoke on their own behalf.

“Working with the Lion Heart Experience is something I would never have imagined being a part of,” said Savannah Walker. “The message that they give is incredible. I will never forget it. I’m very grateful to have had the opportunity to work with such an amazing group.”


Tae Sosa with the Lion Heart Experience raps while dancer Natalie Tusow of Perham flips Hailey Selly of Frazee during one of their shows Dec. 18 at Perham High School.

Contributed / Kiala Velde

“The Lion Heart Experience had a great message and was so good,” said Maddie Shepherd. “I loved dancing for them and I hope to do it again in the future.”

“The Lion Heart Experience was truly amazing and entertaining,” said June Anderson. “I have never heard of anything like them before. They have great music and a wonderful message. I am so grateful I was able to be a part of this.”


“Oh, my gosh! The Park Rapids and Frazee kids just had the best time,” said Velde. “They said they’ll never forget that moment. Even though we just won nationals this year, they said this was one of the most unforgettable moments of their lives.


Joe Vercellino, creator of the Lion Heart Experience, raps to students during one of six programs in the area with the hip hop teams from the Northern Lights Dance Academy.

Contributed / Kiala Velde

“It was just a good thing for them to do for the community, to see these kids. Even the people that (Vercellino) brings with him … (kids who) all come from rougher households, and you see that that doesn’t have to be that story. You can change where you end up.”

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