Hip hop has truly exploded onto the dance scene during the last decade. Once considered a dance style meant only for the streets, hip hop and its many variations now have worked their way into dance teams, studios, mainstream productions and a number of television shows such as “So You Think You Can Dance” and “America’s Next Best Dance Crew.” Many dancers who specialize in ballet, jazz, tap , modern and other styles are growing enthusiastic about learning hip hop. In fact, for many dancers, not having any hip hop experience can make it more difficult to land a job or earn a spot on a college or professional dance team.
Hip hop’s newfound popularity has its problems though. As studios and dance teams attempt to incorporate the style into their repertoire, they often end up adding jazz and cheer moves and focusing on synchronization of the team, to the point that the dancing looks either stiff and robotic, or like a peppy cheer squad. This watering down of hip hop in many dance schools means that many dancers believe they’re talented in hip hop, only to learn that what they have learned and what is expected of real hip hop dancers are completely different. Also contributing to these misconceptions surrounding hip hop dance is its initiation into pop culture-as with most other styles, as hip hop grows more and more mainstream it loses its edgy feel.
It’s great that hip hop has grown so popular, but those interested in learning hip hop need to have the ability to distinguish true hip hop styles from watered down imitations. This is especially true for jazz and contemporary dancers, who tend to make the mistake of incorporating several styles into a hip hop dance. Its and easy mistake to make: In the subgroup styles jazz and contemporary dance (such as jazz funk and Fosse style jazz) the stylistic elements vary but the basic technique remains the same, making it easy for a dancer training in one style of jazz to transition to other similar styles. This is not true with hip hop. Popping, krumping and breaking are all distinct styles that are separate from each other. The tendency has been for more mainstream hip hop to mix styles, such as adding popping to a krumping dance. A small amount of “style mixing” is not always problematic, and can be thought of as individual style if the hip hop dancer has studied the history and distinct movement and style of the hip hop they’re infusing in their dance. But taking an element of one style and mixing it with pieces of four other styles, and then throwing in a dash of jazz and cheerleading is not only ignorant, it can be insulting to the hip hop dancers who created and continue to perform in that style.
Another huge difference between hip hop and other dance forms that people fail to recognize is the freestyle nature of hip hop. Many other dance styles depend on learning a synchronized set of steps and then adding personal style to transform the set of steps into a meaningful artistic creation. In true hip hop, this process works in the opposite direction-a dancer begins with distinct personality and style, and then as they play around with this style, certain moves and steps will develop on their own. Many hip hop styles pride themselves on the fact that there are no incorrect steps-as long as you stay true to the distinct flavor of the dance, you can and should do whatever your body tells you. This is a difficult concept to grasp for dancers who have learned that mastering the steps comes first. When they use this steps-first approach in hip hop, the result is exactly what you see in the “hip-hop” category dances of mainstream dance competitions or in music videos and on T.V. There is nothing wrong with these styles. In fact, I enjoy them as much as anyone else, for their flashy acrobatic moves and visual appeal. But these dancers should not claim to be authentic hip hop when their style is actually a hybrid of hip hop and jazz and other styles.
It’s great that dancers want to learn about hip hop, and I believe that they should continue to expand their horizons and obtain as much training and exposure as possible. But if they should not claim to be hip hop dancers until they have a solid knowledge of various styles and the similarities and differences of these styles. And they should understand that in true hip hop, inspiration and style come first and the steps will follow. The emphasis should never be on learning a pattern of steps or on synchronizing a hip hop dance, but instead should show each individual’s unique artistic talent.