Hip-hop dance: Breaks with tradition

Hip-hop dance has moved up from the streets and into the mainstream. So Matilda Egere-Cooper thinks it's about time we knew a body-pop from a pirouette

Tuesday 07 February 2006 01:00 GMT

Elements of hip-hop have invaded every facet of popular culture, and hip-hop dance has now entered the sophisticated dance world, its vibrancy and adaptability changing choreography in the process. Street dance thrived in the US alongside the birth of hip-hop in the late Seventies, and has evolved from breakdancing in the Bronx (also known as breaking or B-boying) to krumping or clowning, the hip-hop dance from Los Angeles depicted in Madonna's "Hung up" video and David LaChapelle's documentary Rize.

In London, street-dance classes are ten a penny. Rumble, a body-popping headspin on the tragic Romeo and Juliet story by the German company Renegade Theatre, was a smash hit at the Edinburgh Festival in 2004 and began a national tour last week. The same week, Impact Dance and ZooNation also teamed up for a double bill of urban tales using street dance at the Peacock Theatre.

Breakin' Convention, the annual festival of hip-hop dance and theatre, intends to score a hat-trick this April at Sadler's Wells, and Robert Hylton's Urban Classicism company is doing another run of Verse & Verses at the South Bank in May.

"We're living in a hip-hop generation," says the choreographer Jonzi D, the curator of Breakin' Convention. His latest graffiti-themed show, TAG... Me vs the City, comes to London in March, having also begun its tour last week. "Hip-hop culture and hip-hop forms are massive now, all around the world. So it should be in the theatre, just like any culture can exist in the theatre. It's just movement in a black box. It's lighting in a black box. It's sound in a black box. And once we have those components, then you do what you do."

Jonzi D is arguably Britain's leading advocate of hip-hop dance. Beginning his career as a rapper and breakdancer in the Eighties, he graduated from the London Contemporary Dance School, studying European ballet as part of his training. It was his objective to combine his love for hip-hop dance with the prestige of classical theatre, and ever since his critically acclaimed show Aeroplane Man in 1999, he has seen hip-hop dance become more accepted. "Theatre was getting a bit dry, particularly dance," he says. "And the vocabulary of this new type of work is technically very interesting. Hip-hop dance offers options to choreographers. So I think the feeling within the theatre world is that this dance form and discipline is pushing the realms of contemporary dance."

And it's not just appealing to those in the world of hip-hop. "Because hip-hop culture and the graffiti scene are everywhere, people who are not in the scene don't know how to approach it," explains Markus Michalowski, the director of Rumble. "But when it's brought to them in the form of a story, they have access to the characters and the world they live in. What we're amazed about is how far the audience goes. There's an interest throughout society; a desire to understand it, and to learn to appreciate it."

Hip-hop choreographers stay faithful to the original culture, and employ techniques such as the moonwalk, uprocking (which uses salsa moves, foot shuffles, turns and jerky body movements) and body-popping or locking (the sudden contraction of muscles to the beat). Then there's the marvellously intricate breakdancing, the original folk dance of hip-hop. Its spontaneity and energised aggression are what make it so attractive.

"Contemporary dance has been stunted," says Robert Hylton, the director of Urban Classicism. "With B-boying, people have created a new vocabulary from being on their backs and in awkward positions. What B-boying does is add quality, strength and massive power. I think contemporary dance is enjoying it, but there's pressure there for them."

"We've seen the repercussions already," adds Michalowski. "Quite a few modern dancers have come to the performances and say they have had to go back and rethink a few things, and are inspired by it - or frustated."

As well as making their mainstream counterparts a little nervous, hip-hop dance directors are breaking out of the confines of teaching classes to develop professional organisations. Impact Dance, created by Hakeem Onibudo, started as a street-dance class and has since taken on projects for the BBC, Nickelodeon and the Barbican. Onibudo wants street dance to be used as a vehicle to relay social and political commentary. In his latest production, Underworld (inspired by the horror film), themes of integration and cultural opposition are central. "The emotion is best portrayed through hip-hop/street dance," he says. "But the story and the choreography go hand in hand. It's not just about the dance. We've got to take it to another stage and use all the elements."

Likewise, ZooNation's recent Into the Hoods is inspired by the Sondheim musical Into the Woods, and features Cinderella as a DJ named Spinderella, a hoodie-wearing Lil' Red, and Prince Charming as a quintessential "playa", or ladies' man. The director, Kate Prince, was aiming for a witty tale that would also showcase the versatility of hip-hop dance, despite the music's negative connotations based on misogyny, materialism and violence. "Hip-hop as music has had a bad press from people that don't know about it," she says. "But, as in everything, there's a positive side to it. Hip-hop shouldn't be about the violence and the fighting. It should concentrate on the positive things, like dance."

The only potential setback to the continued growth of street dance is financial support. A large number of classes exist around the country, but when companies attempt to put on performances, many have to settle for the outskirts of the West End. And making ends meet can be a major issue for some companies. "I would like to think that there's a huge future for hip-hop dance," says Prince. "I would like to think there's the space to have hip-hop shows doing tours and growing, but it needs funding. I know as a company we don't have funding, and there's so many things we'd like to do that we can't afford."

Hylton suggests that street dance can have longevity in the mainstream, providing it plays an active role in the lives of young people. In Prince's production, 21 kids are cast alongside professional dancers, and this, Hylton argues, is beneficial to its future. "Hip-hop dance gets kids off the streets and it gives them a healthy life," says Hylton.

Otherwise, it is a matter of investors taking more chances, says Onibudo. "Change is something that people don't want to accept. It takes someone brave and confident in what they've seen to set the ball rolling," he says. "People who have the power to put us in the theatre should realise that hip-hop dance has an audience. We sold out nine days before - 1,700 tickets. Anyone in their right mind cannot deny that there's now a market."

To the long-term supporters of hip-hop dance, three productions opening in the same week is only the beginning. "I can't see any real reason this form should stop," says Jonzi D. "As long as there's hip-hop-heads around that love this stuff, we'll keep it going. And a large community of people with a strong desire to keep it going will open doors for other people."

'TAG... Me vs. The City' is on tour to 18 March (020-7863 8231; www.jonzi-d.co.uk). 'Rumble' is on tour to 26 March ( www.rumbletour.co.uk). 'Breakin' Convention', Sadler's Wells, London EC1 (0870 733 3900; www.sadlerswells.com) 29 & 30 April. 'Verse & Verses', Purcell Room, London SE1 (0870 380 4300; www.rfh.org.uk) 9 to 13 May

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