Exactly what is "contemporary dance" these days? At a time when street-dance seems to be infiltrating every medium, it may be time to reassess the definition. On prime-time TV, street and its subgenre hip-hop have cleaned up on every dance contest that isn't confined to spangly clothes and rictus grins, while in the theatre, street-dance and hip-hop are staging nothing short of a takeover. Last year, Into the Hoods, a mash-up of Stephen Sondheim, locking and popping, became the longest-running dance show ever to grace the West End; Pied Piper, a hip-hop narrative based on the ballad of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, had two hugely successful runs at the Barbican; more recently Blaze, a street-dance and video combo directed by Anthony van Laast (choreographer of Sister Act and Mamma Mia!), packed the Peacock Theatre for weeks. And in May, a street-dance account of Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest returns to the Peacock for a third run.
Now the film industry has also woken up to this huge potential audience. Next month sees the release of the first British 3D feature film, StreetDance, a love story set in the context of a hip-hop crew renting studios in a ballet school. Even the Royal Ballet is not immune. Last year's Goldberg, which won an Olivier Award, cast hip-hopper Tommy Franzen (a finalist on the BBC's So You Think You Can Dance) alongside ballet stars including Tamara Rojo. So what's going on?
"Street-dance styles are simply a better fit with the dynamic of our predominantly urban lives than any other kind of dance," suggests Jonzi D, curator of Breakin' Convention, a three-day hip-hop fest which will take place over the May Bank Holiday at Sadler's Wells. "Flicking between channels, surfing the net, the speed at which we take on information – street-dance taps into the same kind of energy. And it surely has to be more truly 'contemporary' than any dance based on something from the middle of the 20th century could be. What's more, it's properly democratic. Anyone who has a bedroom to practise in can have a go."
It is also, he points out, a dance that was created to make maximum impact on a limited area of floor – so in that sense, too, it suits the scale of city life. As Jonzi D puts it: "We're living in this small space, and we ain't got much time." Breakdancing, or B-boying, as purists prefer to call it, began in early 1970s uptown New York, he explains, when clubs were playing funk music by the likes of James Brown. "And when it got to the break, just before the bridge in the song, where it would funky, funky, funk... before it went back into the song, DJs would sample that bit and, with two decks on the turntables, would play that single break over and over again. That's when the B-boys would 'break' the regular ' dancing, create a tight circle and take turns to dance within it, improvising really big virtuoso movements that usually had a 'battle' element to them, but limiting those movements to one spot on the floor" – hence all those vertical spins, pivoting on different parts of the body: head, elbows, spine, coccyx. Maybe there was a famously good dancer in the house and someone wanted to show them they were just as good or better. Maybe they just wanted to show off a new move they'd been perfecting at home. Whatever, it was "all about the underdog having a chance to make a mark," says Jonzi D. The graffiti art, the MC-ing, the rap, the moves – they were all about making something from nothing, by people who otherwise had nothing."
Which is why Jonzi D, passionate advocate that he is, can't quite bring himself to be pleased about hip-hop's recent entry into mainstream popular culture. He worries that, "with more and more at stake on a commercial level, fewer and fewer people of colour will be a part of it. I also worry that, with all the fuss over Diversity and Flawless [the two amateur street-dance groups that made it to the finals of ITV's Britain's Got Talent last year: the younger group, Diversity, won], it's all getting a bit cheesy and unchallenging. But at the same time that also makes me see that Breakin' Convention is more important than ever, because now it really has to be a beacon of excellence, and a beacon of, well, convention-breaking. Originally, the convention we broke was giving hip-hop a profile at all. Now it has a high profile, but it's just corny as hell, so we're gonna break that convention as well, to give it back its edge."
Alongside the international acts he has lined up for this, the seventh annual convention, is an impressive variety of British acts (some of whom talk about their work over these pages): all-women's groups, children's groups, a crew of Christian "krumpers" (krump being a recent, hyper- energetic subgenre that exponents experience as kinetic prayer), a comedy crew styled on the Rat Pack, and a natty item themed on Alice in Wonderland – one of no fewer than five submissions to Breakin' Convention on that theme.
Some dance critics have been quite negative about the idea of hip-hop coming into the theatre, says Jonzi D. "In the past they've thought the work naïve, a bit one- dimensional ... and do you know? I agree with them; everything starts naïve. But with exposure, the depth and sophistication gradually develop. It's happened with other street-dance forms. Look what Fosse did with jazz."
Breakin' Convention, three days of performances, workshops, DJ demos, films and freestyle sessions, is at Sadler's Wells, London EC1 (tel: 0844 412 4300, sadlerswells.com) from 1-3 May. The film 'Streetdance 3D' is released on 21 May
The six members of Radikal are all students at south-east London's Woolwich Polytechnic and range in age from 14 to 18. They were introduced to dance by a specialist teacher, Dwayne Taylor, who was brought into the school on a Greenwich Dance Agency project to set up a street-dance club, but quickly realised it was a Christian-focused style called krump that interested the boys more. The group now performs at school Christian Union meetings, at the boys' local church, and neighbouring primary schools.
"Krump is an acronym for Kingdom Radically Uplifted Mighty Praise," says Taylor. "It was conceived as an expression of spiritual warfare, a means of expressing negative energy. Its foundation is in African tribal forms, but it found its way on to the street, and nowadays it's practised mostly in freestyle sessions in clubs, or just among groups of friends."
"It's a good way of getting out negative vibes," says Radikal member Akin Akintomowo-Ijoyemi (below, second from left). "People say I look like a caged animal when I krump, but that's how I feel sometimes. Everyone has their own krump style, but the basic elements are arm swings, chest pops and stomps, a lot of energy and music with a particular beat. A long session takes a lot of stamina, but it can make you feel closer to God."
Goodfoot is a trio of friends from north London who met while studying for A levels five years ago and have been developing their comedy street-dance act ever since. They were finalists in the Global Online Dance Contest inaugurated by Sadler's Wells.
"In terms of breakdance, we're coming from an unusual angle," says Shakeel "Shak" Meetooa (above right). "We see ourselves as entertainers, the boy-band of street-dance with added comedy. We talk, sing, mime, do crazy stuff, and dance at the same time, using techniques such as waving, hitting, boogaloo, tutting, animation, strobing. Our music ranges from 1960s hits to Shania Twain to hip-hop and popping beats – we like to keep things unpredictable. And we try to tell a story. We don't perform moves just to show off.
"We've all got degrees in things like social policy and graphic design, so we had other options, but we chose dance as a career – and it's hard work. We go to the gym at 10pm every night, because no one else is there, and we rehearse till 3am. We compete, we teach at youth groups and schools, but we also run our own events, to help the scene grow. The dream is to have our own hour-long variety show that people pay to see, like the Rat Pack. We want to connect with people from eight to 80, and send them home remembering laughter."
Status are the current UK Street Dance Champions, were semi-finalists in Sky One's Got To Dance contest, and in July will represent the UK in the World Hip Hop Championships in Las Vegas. They also appear in the 3D film StreetDance, released next month. The group is based in south London, and the average age of members is 19.
"We've all known each other since we were three or four," says dancer Mark Wyman (below, second from right). "We all had mums who thought dance would be good for us, so we attended local classes and worked through the grades in tap, ballet, modern, and so on. We focused on street-dance when we were 12 or 13. We don't have a choreographer – each of us has an input, with three of us editing the others' ideas."
"We came up with an Alice in Wonderland theme when we were preparing for Got To Dance, and it was great because the production company made brilliant costumes for us, which we couldn't have afforded to buy. As a result of being on TV, Claire's Accessories hired us to advertise its Alice range, and we ended up doing eight performances along Oxford Street and in Carnaby Street. Anything we earn now goes towards paying for our flights to Las Vegas in July. To compete against the best in the world is a big deal for us."
Adiaspora is led by Vicki Igbokwe and Alesandra Seutin, both of whom teach dance at degree-level as well as being choreographers. Their two all-female companies have joined forces for Breakin' Convention.
"Our name stands for African diaspora, as that is the factor linking the dancers and styles we do," explains Igbokwe. "The forms we draw on are hip-hop, house, contemporary and traditional African dance. We also use vogueing, jazz fusion, punking and whacking – a funk style that started in the 1970s in LA – as well as spoken word. The common factor is the use of the back, the articulation of the spine, which is very distinctive."
"We're a women-only group," says Seutin, "not because we think men would hog the scene, but because our work is very personal. The first time we presented the piece, men came up to us afterwards and said: "Now I understand why I upset my girlfriend!" In our work, you're seeing very strong, articulate women letting you know: I am not happy right now. We found that women watching really identified with it. There's no storyline; it's more a sense of what goes on behind the smiling façade in the everyday life of wives and mothers and working women. It's tense and dark as each dancer has contributed her experience. There were tears, I can tell you, in the making of it."
Locking: Freezing from a fast movement and locking the body in position, this requires fast, distinct arm and hand movements combined with relaxed hips and legs
Popping: Quickly contracting and relaxing muscles to cause a jerk in the body
Breaking: Acrobatics and contortions, including freezes where the dancer suspends him or herself off the group using upper-body strength
Waving: A series of movements, often allied with popping, give the appearance of a wave travelling through the dancer's body
Tutting: Creating geometric positions with the body, stop-starting in relation to the rhythm of the music