Hip-Hop is one of the most influential cultural movements of our time. Its presence has touched everything from ballet to Sesame Street.
Growing up in Queens, NY, a strong-hold of hip-hop, I always loved the music, but while teaching at the Boston Arts Academy, a public arts high-school, I began to fall in love with the dance aspect. Many of my students came to the study of ballet whose only prior dance experience was hip-hop. (I’m using the term “hip-hop” here in a generic way to include various forms of street dancing, ranging from popping and locking to krumping and etc).
These extraordinary dancers taught me a lot. Their movement had an aliveness, a spontaneity, a freshness and built a community that I often felt missing in the concert dance world.
I wanted to touch that aliveness in myself and after much deliberation, worked up the courage to strap on my hot pink Nikes and take a beginner class. My fears proved to be unfounded. There was every sort of person in that hip-hop class, from experienced dancers, to children, to the middle-aged housewife, to the aging hippie, to the Japanese business man. On certain Saturdays, Ms. Jimenez could even be found taking “popping” classes privately with her own hip-hop guru and historian, Jose Eric Cruz.
I did not have any delusions about joining a dance crew in Brooklyn or South Central in order to gain some street cred, but I was having a lot of fun dancing again. It was like a whole new world opened up for me. I found my swag.
As hip-hop movements started to find their way into my contemporary ballet choreography, I began to find startling similarities. Ballet has its own term for swag. It’s called aplomb. Aplomb is the attitude, the carriage, the scent of ballet. Just as an opera singer must always sing with vibrato, a ballet dancer must always move in the universe of aplomb and a hip-hop dancer must always move with the somewhat aggressive self-assurance that is swag in order to be convincing.
Another surprise was that teaching hip-hop to dancers mostly trained in ballet highlighted their weaknesses in ballet. What I mean is this: in a sense, there is only One Dance with many faces. Musicality, dynamics, presence, grace, articulation, expression are qualities found in all its forms. So, for example, if a student was having trouble finding the heavy and obvious down-beat in a hip-hop movement, it usually highlighted a lack of listening in general.
The issue of dynamics, in particular, has suffered in ballet in recent years, due to the emphasis placed on high extensions. Let me explain: nowadays, I find that the dynamics of a movement are often sacrificed to emphasize or accommodate the time it takes to lift the leg very high. I’ve seen conductors stretch a phrase of music to allow more time for an extension to the point where the musical tension was rendered to mush. Some artists tend to prioritize the pose at the end instead of the overall flow of movement. A certain speed and attack are lost. This is a general observation that I see in ballet and of course is not true in every case.
When I was dancing, I was swept up in that trend and often made this same mistake, but now that I’m watching more than dancing, I see it as a kind of sin. When we are dancing, we have to make a lot of choices, but, to me at least, there is a certain hierarchy to those choices and MUSIC TRUMPS EVERYTHING. The dynamics of the music must be respected as holy and mirrored in the body. In that way, I think my own understanding of dance has come full circle. Before I had any training, before I aspired to look like this or that ballerina, I danced, as a child, because of the music. I wanted to be the music.
There was a dancer I loved (now an ancestor) named Mari Kajiwara who danced with the Ailey company for many years before dancing with Ohad Naharin. Mari had an amazingly solid, earthy, supple, fluid movement quality. She also had an extraordinary extension, but her use of extension was always in service to the movement quality, not the other way around. So when she extended, it always felt like the right surprise.
So, I am learning a lot from hip-hop and stealing outright whenever possible. Conversely, I see how ballet has influenced hip-hop, in the fluid, graceful turn-out and port de bras of Lil’ Buck, a true dance pioneer. I know we are all familiar with the platitude that anything’s possible, but when I first saw Lil’ Buck bourre-ing around on the toes of his sneakers, I became a believer. And I cried. One Dance, y’all.
Maybe next we shall fly.