Women get the breaks

Hip-hop is seen as a male preserve. But Charlotte Cripps finds a determined group of women making their own moves
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The Independent Culture

The Bronx-born Tweetie, formerly a hip-hop dancer in pop videos with Jay Z and Destiny's Child, is known for her "ghetto glam". While some of her contemporaries would not be seen dead in anything other than a nice baggy Puma or Adidas outfit, Tweetie often wears high heels when not dancing. "Most people actually think I am a model," drawls Tweetie. "I don't look like a typical B-girl at all. When I get on stage, people are stunned."

Tweetie is to coming to London with the American choreographer, Rennie Harris - a main man on the hip-hop scene - and his entourage of American DJs, B-boys, B-girls, poppers, lockers, a human beatbox, Sam Solomon of the Electric Boogaloos, and members of the Rock Steady Crew, the break-dancing collective. In a celebration of street-dancing from the inner-city Bronx ghettos of New York to the rest of the world, both the legends and the innovators of hip-hop will bust some mean moves at London's Queen Elizabeth Hall.

The cast of 18 includes four women. Tweetie and Ms Vie are from the Mop Top Crew. Is it harder for a B-girl to get ahead in a mainly B-boy dominated world? Tweetie - real name Lenaya Straker - thinks so. "Guys don't take B-girls so seriously," says Tweetie - who considers herself a B-girl, but officially is not one because she does not break, except for a bit of top-rocking (rocking standing up to the music of the breaks, rather than low on the floor). "I do everything else though," she says, "popping [a jerky effect with the body like a robot, but free-flowing], locking [a series of split-second poses like pointing and looking], free-style [anything goes] and house [similar to tap-dancing but with upbeat body movement],". In this show she will perform an eight-minute locking duet with Ms Vie.

It was not until recently that the term B-girling was introduced, although there is some debate about whether the term boying (of "B-boying") comes from the African word "boioing" which means to hop or jump, rather than it having much to do with being male. A B-girl is also a break-girl (from break-dancing). "It is probably synonymous," explains Rennie Harris. "It represents a specific culture and consciousness. It can mean she dances to break-beat music, or that she originally came from the Bronx. It was also short for boogie, which is short for boogaloo [rolling with the legs so the body is like a wave]," he says. "Before the cultural movement became known as hip-hop, terminology such as B-girl or B-boy really began to define a certain style, a certain dance, and a certain way of talking. To call it break-dancing means you are limiting it to acrobatics only."

But the B-girl Sunsun - real name Sunanda Biswas, 26, from Lewisham, South London - says some breaking is best left to the boys. "I have never seen a B-girl successfully do consecutive air flares - [holding the bodyweight on the hands and swinging the legs around the body]," says Sunsun. She started breaking in 1999 and learnt the tricks of the trade from the "old-skool" British B-boys Dolby D and Renegade. In the last two years Sunsun's breaking has been very much influenced by a Philadelphia-based crew called Illadelph Flave. She even runs a breaking class at the Urdang Academy in Covent Garden. "I don't do air flares. It is mainly the guys."

Although some B-girls prefer to stick to top-rocking, footwork and freezes, Sunsun does power-moves [acrobatic variations] such as head-spins. "There are two main types of head-spins," says Sunsun. "Pumps - [spinning on the head, not necessarily using the hands, with legs usually open in mid-air] and a drill - [spinning really fast and after few spins fall out of it in a certain way]."

She also does back-spins and windmills [continuous back-spins with the legs apart]. "You can do combinations - windmills into head-spins into back-spins. You can join all these things together," she says. "But it is mainly the B-boys who excel in the power-moves." Why? "I don't know? We can be as good as a lot of B-boys, but it is harder. I don't think our power-moves could be as good as the best power-mover B-boy in the world. It is our conditioning."

Sunsun wears a lot of sportswear. "Always baggy tracksuit bottoms and bandanna and hat - "but some B-girls prefer to wear tight jeans," she says. "When I go out it is usually to a hip-hop club, so most of the time I end up wearing tracksuits all the time." Sunsun was invited to a Rennie Harris masterclass, and is hoping to be asked onto the Festival Hall stage to do some freestyling.

Tweetie was 15 years old when she joined the eight-member all-girl crew KGB and started winning competitions in New York City. "I knew that I wanted to be a hip-hop dancer then," she says. Since then Tweetie has performed for troops during the Gulf War, in a show called The Boogaloo Revue. "Along with Rock Steady Crew's B-girl Mega, we were flown to military, airforce and navy bases, over a month, including places in Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan," she says. "Here we are in the middle of some war - everyone has got rifles - and we are sleeping in tents and we are doing hip-hop," she recalls. "It is an experience I will never, ever forget. "

What is the image of women in hip-hop? "Women seem like sexual accessories to artists in films, videos and on television. I find that really disgusting," Tweetie says. "And if you are showing some skin, B-boys think you are there to entertain them. It is not just about shaking your ass. I have a skill and they need to respect me," she shouts. "I do wear sexy clothes, don't get me wrong, but I get respected because what I do is an art form." Any tips? "To be successful, you must take yourself seriously because then the B-boys will follow suit."

Another rising star in the British B-girl camp is Firefly - real name Andrea Parker. She's 26. She lives in Leeds. Now a full-time professional B-girl, she packed in her nine-to-five office job as an accounts director in a solicitors' firm six years ago. "My family were surprised when I left my job, but supportive," says Firefly.

Firefly has since been breaking all over the world, including at such illustrious events as the International Breakdancing Event in Rotterdam and the B-boy Summit in Los Angeles - one of the biggest and most famous B-boy events in the world. She is about to start a B-girl crew with some other B-girls in London. What puts off potential B-girls? "It is the physical aspect of the dance," she says. "They get psyched out by seeing all the B-boys who do power-moves. But with breaking you can specialise in footwork." Firefly is now happily seeing more girls turning to B-girling than ever before. "It's getting more popular. There are a lot more girls involved. The problem is that promoters are not putting on enough female-only battles."

Rennie Harris' Legends of Hip-Hop, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London SE1 (0870 401 8181; www.rfh.org.uk) 25 to 30 March