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Hip to the Movement

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From street to studio: What the rise of hip-hop means to North American dance schools

By Michael Wade Simpson

Ever wonder why the kids of America are rushing to the nearest dance school to sign up for classes? The answer is hip-hop, and it’s a genre that poses a particular set of challenges for school owners and teachers. It can make older teachers feel out of touch and uncomfortable. Sometimes the students are undisciplined. Sometimes the lyrics are dirty—profanities aside, the words can be a minefield of innuendo. Much of the content is sexual, and some of it is demeaning to women. The lyrics can be hard to decipher, and it doesn’t help that the slang and the catchphrases change at a dizzying rate. It can make you doubt yourself: Am I being prudish here?

(Photo by Theresa Smerud)

But handled properly, hip-hop classes can be a smart addition to your curriculum. As well as boosting your enrollment, the sheer fun of the movement might lure your ballet, tap, and lyrical students to try a new class, and the cross-training will broaden them as dancers.

How can you approach hip-hop without fear? Go to YouTube.com and type in “Kids Hip-Hop Team” and check out the entry posted by “justbry.” More than a million viewers have already watched this minute-long video of four preteens getting their groove on to Missy Elliot’s “Lose Control.” This is not MTV—this is a shaky, homemade rehearsal video shot at someone’s dance studio. And typical among the thousand-plus posted comments include many voices using the special language of the young: text talk. “i think that they wer gd!!” “hey justbry, can u teach me?” “u did a gd job, well dun.” In their baggy sweats and mismatched leotards, the four girls show exactly why hip-hop has taken over the dance world. They’re not doing pole-dance–inspired, late-night street moves to some slang-laden rap anthem; they’re moving with precision, lightness, and energy. The music is pop, catchy and rhythmic, and the dance offers striking amounts of variety. What they’re doing isn’t terribly technical—these are talented 11-year-olds having fun. Dancing hip-hop.

From the streets
With its origins in New York’s predominantly African American–populated Bronx district in the 1970s, hip-hop brought us rapping, graffiti, b-boying, DJing, and beatboxing, not to mention a new way of dressing, carriage, and even talking (“dis,” “homie,” “what the dilly, yo”). The movement is now a nearly middle-aged phenomenon. And it’s homegrown. Orlando Patterson, a sociology professor at Harvard University wrote, “Like jazz, and all music created by African Americans, hip-hop is one of the few musical genres seen as thoroughly, entirely American” (see “Global Culture and the American Cosmos,” World Policy Journal, Vol. 11, 1994).

What began as folk culture, however, has been transformed by the entertainment industry. Mass communication has created a global cultural hip-hop scene, and today there are professional hip-hop artists in every country, from Senegal to Poland to China to New Zealand. Among the events slated for 2008 are the World Hip-Hop Championship, Battle of the Year, and B-Boy Championships. Will hip-hop become an Olympic event? Nothing seems to be able to stop the global excitement about this merging of dance, music, lifestyle, and image.

To the studio
“Hip-hop is always evolving,” says Tracé Francis, owner of the 7-year-old Spirit of Soul Dance Studio in Wyandanch, a working-class, African American neighborhood on Long Island, NY. “It’s not just dancing; it’s a culture. My background is in ballet and modern, but so many students were asking for hip-hop, I had to go out and find a teacher.” She reports that since starting her program four years ago, all of her classes have increased in size by 300 percent.

“If I didn’t have hip-hop [in my school] it would hurt me,” says Rocky Duvall, who runs Dance Arts Conservatory with his wife, Dorie, near West Palm Beach, FL. “It’s super-popular, a big moneymaker.” At the beginning of a summer session in June he reported, “We’re having hip-hop camp. We had 16 kids last week and 15 this week. If it had been a jazz-ballet class, we would have gotten zero.”

“Hip-hop classes are growing by leaps and bounds,” says another young studio owner, Mia Spicuzza, a professional dancer who has performed with Jessica Simpson, Taylor Hicks, and LeeAnn Rimes and has now settled in Semmes, AL, a community between Mobile and Pensacola. She opened Southern Edge Dance Center a year ago. “In four months we tripled the attendance at the studio.” She was lucky enough to find a great teacher who had recently moved into the area from New York, and even introduced an all-male hip-hop class. “Hip-hop is so high-energy, ” she says. “You can feel the movement in a freer way.”

Trying to manage all this enthusiasm has its downside, however, says Diane Horvath, who owns Strongsville Dance Company, in a suburb of Cleveland. While the hip-hop classes bring in lots of new dancers—enough for her to be able to offer sections for grades 3 to 6, 7 to 8, and 9 to 12—there were challenges at recital time. “The new students had some problems with the studio policies. They didn’t want to wear the capri pants and tights everyone was wearing, and a few of them wouldn’t stay backstage for the entire performance.

 “It’s a great boon for the studio,” she continues, “but I feel like some of the girls are not as dedicated. They have poor attendance. When you’re working on a routine, it’s hard to count on everyone being there. Last year we had 17 girls in the hip-hop class and some quit the day of dress rehearsal.” Horvath attributes the girls’ lack of dedication to the fact that they didn’t grow up at the studio. “They’re there because it’s cool, because their friends are there. They watch it on TV and then sign up for class, but then they don’t want to spend the least amount of effort. They find out it’s a lot harder than they thought.”

Horvath admits she feels somewhat behind the times with the hip-hop phenomenon. Early last summer she sighed in relief when she began to describe the Princess Camp she was running that week, in which the little ones get to be a different princess each day. “Tomorrow is our Cinderella day,” she said.

Keeping up with the times takes a diligence that requires new resources, especially when it comes to the sexual content that is often related to hip-hop music. Horvath laughs when she tells the story of a popular song she had heard, “Crank That (Soulja Boy)” by rapper Soulja Boy, which she was envisioning as a number in the spring routine. “Some of the little kids knew the dance from TV,” she says. “I was going to do a boys’ number.”

But the youngsters warned her that the innuendo in the lyrics might not go over well with their parents. “I use lyrics.com, where you type in the name of the song and print out all the lyrics. I study every song, or make sure that my teachers do,” says Horvath. In this case, however, it was all about the hidden meaning. “So I found another website, an urban dictionary,” she says. That’s where she discovered, to her great embarrassment, how inappropriate the song really was.

“You have to keep it appropriate,” says Duvall, “but in the case of almost any hip-hop or R&B music, there is going to be a sexual connotation. Britney Spears is on the news every day. The kids see it; they see the videos; they listen to the music. But as a parent and an educator, I have to keep things appropriate.”

Duvall took a group of dancers to a recent event, The Pulse, a mini-convention where judges from So You Think You Can Dance critiqued student performances in the same manner as on the TV show. “There was one group of little girls who came out bumping and grinding, and the judges called them on it, slapped their hands. ‘How could you allow 10- to 14-year-old girls to move like that?’ they said. I was so happy. It doesn’t have to be that way.”

“I’ve seen hip-hop numbers to the theme from Star Wars and [Michael Jackson’s] ‘Ease on Down the Road,’ ” says Francis, who shares Horvath’s and Duvall’s concern about the age-appropriateness of both music and movement. She offers several solutions to the problem of inappropriate music. “I try to filter all the music at the studio. There are hip-hop and contemporary R&B artists who have songs with non-suggestive lyrics, such as Ne-Yo, Chris Brown, Beyoncé, Common, and many of the ‘old skool’ artists like Will Smith, Heavy D and the Boyz, Hammer, and De La Soul.” In addition, she points out that gospel artists like Kirk Franklin, Tonéx, and Tye Tribbett have songs that are considered “gospel hip-hop” and have more of an inspirational message. Plus, she says, “with technology advancing the way it has, it is easy to change the tempo of many of the older songs, which often tend to have a slower beat than today’s music. Hip-hop dance is not all about booty shaking, which unfortunately we see a lot of at some dance competitions and in the media.”

Francis sets limits on classes as well as music. “We don’t offer hip-hop until age 11,” she says. “In my opinion, children younger than that are not mature enough to handle all that comes with it.” For the younger students she offers alternatives like jazz and a stepping class she calls “Stomp the Yard.”

Gearing the dancing to the age group is key, according to Francis. “Our hip-hop choreographers always have a story behind every dance. It may be along the lines of ‘I don’t have a lot of money, but I’ll accept you the way you are,’ or ‘Things that happen in life are only going to make you stronger when you get older,’ or ‘When you get older, you are going to take over the world.’ ” You have to be ready to tell that story in your hip-hop, she says. “It’s different when you’re 8 versus 11 or 12, or a teen. You’ve been through more in life.”

What’s ahead?
With all the kids walking in off the streets in their baggy clothes, will anyone want to wear tights and leotards anymore? Will they only want to stomp in their sneakers and street shoes and refuse to put on a pair of tap shoes or ballet slippers or dance in bare feet? Will there still be room for technique? According to Duvall, yes, no, and yes. “Look at So You Think You Can Dance,” he says. “You have to be able to do ballroom. I can’t see a hip-hop dancer winning, but the other night they told a ballet dancer he was too stiff, had to loosen up a little and get down into the floor.” That’s how hip-hop helps, he says.

“Hip-hop definitely helps with [the kids’] overall stage performance,” agrees Horvath. “You have to hit everything hard and sharp. That’s not easy for a ballet dancer.”

“I tell the girls who want to get better that everything comes from ballet,” says Spicuzza.

Duvall, who performed for years in regional theater and met his wife during his “gypsy” period of dancing on cruise liners, says, “These days you have to be a triple threat plus—you have to be able to act, sing, and dance—and within dances, you have to know a lot of styles.”

Francis, who just sent a dancer off to join the cast of The Lion King, says the goal, ultimately, is not becoming a professional for most of her students, technique aside. “They want to be teachers or doctors, but they are good at dance as well. Dancing contributes to their well-roundedness.” At her studio, she has shown how hip-hop can be inspirational. On occasion, she will offer hip-hop class with gospel music. “There are ways to provide a class,” she says, “without sacrificing what you believe in or losing your integrity.”

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