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What hip-hop does for all dancers

By Debbie Werbrouck

I often hear master teachers preaching to students to be well rounded. Once students are old enough and show enough interest, it’s common practice for studio owners to encourage them to broaden their dance studies. Everyone has heard the familiar mantra that all dancers need to take ballet because it provides a foundation for all dance forms. On the flip side, nowadays many teachers consider studying modern dance essential for ballet dancers.

But who would think that well-rounded students should also include hip-hop in their dance studies? Some 20-something with an attitude, right? Wrong.

It’s me. I’m the one advocating for hip-hop. I’m in my 43rd year of teaching and I don’t teach hip-hop. In fact, when I first saw it, I thought it would be just another fad that would soon pass. But not only has it stayed, it has grown into a whole lifestyle. I have educators at my schools who teach hip-hop, and I enjoy watching the creativity in their classes and in their students’ performances.

While I’m a firm believer that all kinds of dance improve self-confidence in students, hip-hop really speaks to young students in their own language—unlike ballet, for example, which is foreign to their everyday experiences. Hip-hop crosses the line between social and performance dance.

One day I was observing some of my advanced dancers (who take several ballet and jazz classes per week) in a hip-hop class, admiring their precision in fast, percussive movements. That’s when it struck me: taking hip-hop was making them more articulate in their ballet, jazz, and modern dances.

With this idea in mind, I did some research, seeking out the opinions and impressions of some young dancers as well as several educators in both the private sector and higher education.

Here’s what I discovered.

Lauren Bodle, a high school freshman from Osceola, Indiana, who has been dancing at my school for 12 years, feels that hip-hop has built her self-confidence by letting her work though any feelings of awkwardness when attempting new and unfamiliar movements.

Another student at my school, Lizzy Coulston, from Niles, Michigan, has studied for 13 years. She thinks that hip-hop has helped her overcome the inhibitions she felt affected her performance in ballet. She’s convinced that dancing more freely helped her be accepted to Ohio Northern University’s dance program as a scholarship student.

Lyn Cramer, an endowed professor at the University of Oklahoma, notes distinct advantages to studying hip-hop. “It helps their attack in every other style,” she says. “The dancers’ dynamic improves exponentially due to the precision required to perform hip-hop.”

I found this to be true as well. When young dancers learn to perform hip-hop well, I see stronger, cleaner, and quicker petit allegro in ballet and stronger movements in general compared to those who do not study hip-hop.

And Cramer argues that hip-hop “greatly improves a dancer’s ability to assimilate every form faster.” Because the movements of hip-hop can be so intricate and involve multiple body isolations, dancers need to develop acute observation skills, which can then be used in any dance form. That reminds me of being in a class with the late great tap master Tommy Sutton, when he reminded us to stop thinking. He wanted everyone to absorb the movements and let the kinesthetic sense take over the learning process.

Hip-hop develops a dancer’s observation skills. Instead of analyzing or translating a verbal command such as “glissade, jeté,” the students see the movement and translate it into an almost instantaneous replication. It’s like the difference between someone’s first, self-conscious efforts in a foreign language and getting to the point of actually thinking in that language.

“The study of hip-hop movement is very valuable for today’s dancers, giving them an edge on many levels: technical, historical, philosophical, and aesthetic.” —Tom Ralabate

While most people wouldn’t consider hip-hop an academic area of study, Tom Ralabate, professor and chair of the Department of Theatre & Dance at the University at Buffalo, looks at the benefits of hip-hop study from many levels. “Hip-hop, no longer just a dance trend, is today a mind-set and an established part of our world culture,” he says. “It is part of the rich history of American jazz dance. The study of hip-hop movement is very valuable for today’s dancers, giving them an edge on many levels: technical, historical, philosophical, and aesthetic.”

From a technical perspective, Ralabate says, “hip-hop’s improvisational and freestyle nature allows dancers to explore and sense the many isolated body movements used in this dance style and combine [them] with other dance idioms, from traditional to contemporary settings.” He adds that the resulting neuromuscular coordination helps to create skilled, versatile dancers who can “meet the demands of contemporary performances and choreography.”

And from a historical perspective, there are strong connections between hip-hop and “the sophisticated identifiable characteristics of African traditional dance,” Ralabate says. Those include “propulsive rhythm, centrifugal use of the hips, intricate footwork, an improvisational nature, the imitation of animal-type movements, and crouched body positions.”

I didn’t expect to get any ringing endorsements of my theory from the ballet community, but I didn’t find as much resistance as I thought. When I presented my theory to Lisa Wolfsberger, ballet master of the junior ensemble at St. Louis Ballet School, she laughed and said she didn’t think she could picture ballerinas doing hip-hop. But she conceded that the quick, precise movements in hip-hop could indeed help students develop speed and precision in petit allegro.

Judy Rice, a master teacher and an associate professor of dance at the University of Michigan, had a positive take on the idea. “I think that the more well-rounded a ballet dancer can be these days, the better. Yes, hip-hop would add strength to weighted, grounded movement, not to mention precision and attack.”

Not surprisingly, those involved in hip-hop agree that it offers benefits. Gregg Russell, a master tap and hip-hop teacher, says he believes that “all styles help each other. With regard to hip-hop and ballet, I think the main benefit is the thought process. I remember training in both when I was younger, and I learned that I had to think differently in each class.

“In a nutshell, I believe that ballet is a technique from the outside in and hip-hop is from the inside out,” he continues. “With the technique and pictures made in ballet, we rely on our eyes to assure us that we are on the right path: ‘I look good; I feel good.’ With hip-hop, it is more of getting the feeling in your body, then cleaning: ‘This feels good right now. I bet I look hot!’ Hip-hop also creates an individual style, while ballet works more toward accomplishing the goal of executing a difficult step.”

The comments I heard about personal expression and individual style made me consider the mental versus physical benefits of studying hip-hop. We want our students to adopt a persona or attitude for individual dance styles and we encourage them to make their portrayals authentic by incorporating their own personalities. By individualizing their performance in hip-hop, a form that feels familiar to them, they will learn to do so in other styles as well.

As Cramer points out, hip-hop “helps dancers find more personal expression and individual style, what is unique about the way they move. It enhances every other genre.”

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