Contemporary dance is in a state of constant evolution, fueled by an experimental creative process that strives to push for “what else?”. The beginning stage of this dance style was an active rebellion against the strict boundaries and teachings of balletic movement structure. The mission statement that has been attached to contemporary dance is reflective of its early development. Originally, contemporary embodied a collective focus on breaking the classical foundation, challenging norms, and digging deeper into the potential for emotional resonance. The shift of effort from technical prowess to passion-fueled performance set the stage for the development of contemporary dance in both concert settings and commercial pursuits. As a result, contemporary dance itself has become an umbrella term for the entire experimental movement. Within our creative process, we now need to recognize the social traditions, as well as the historical moments, that forged a space for contemporary practices to be built.
A closer look reveals that contemporary dance has been shifting its focus to pull both inspiration and movement concepts from “hip-hop” (another umbrella term) with similar consequences. By labeling styles so broadly, we fail to acknowledge the distinct history that makes up the style’s culture. When we lump styles that are not products of hip-hop culture (house, waacking and voguing, for example), into the “urban” mix, our definitions fail again. Much of true hip-hop’s varied forms of artistic expression were born during stressful sociopolitical events, and in social gatherings such as block parties and club nights. These forms are not limited to physical movement. They are symbiotically influenced by and influencing ever-evolving elements like music, graffiti culture, emcee/rap culture, fashion.
Every style has historical resonance and includes distinct reasoning behind its approach. Within each of these street styles, there are pioneers who built a practice and pushed for evolution. Hip-hop culture has been an effort to connect people through many forms of expression since its inception. An effort to break the system of injustice, racial prejudice, and classist separation by transcending the principles of “Peace, Unity, Love, and Having Fun, a song by Afrika Bambaataa that is now widely accepted throughout hip-hop communities worldwide as a mission statement.
Perhaps contemporary dance has begun to look to street styles for inspiration because of the unbridled raw passion exhibited by many street/hip-hop dancers. Perhaps it is simply a result of easier access to ”street” communities through the internet, which does not require immersion in the culture.
I do believe that any attempt to borrow concepts from another style is made out of admiration. However, we need to be aware of the accepted traditions and foundations that are embedded into every culture. It is imperative that contemporary dance artists recognize the distinguishing characteristics of the cultures we borrow from. Contemporary dancers and choreographers draw movement stimulus from many sources, and it is highly likely that at some point we will all adopt music, or movement concepts from cultures outside of our own.
Photo by Studio JMC
There is a danger to rebranding movement without properly citing its origins. When we fail to credit the influence and importance of a culture, we perpetuate a cycle of systemic oppression. The systemic hierarchy of ballet and contemporary dance can be seen clearly in many dance university curricula. When will we acknowledge the mental and physical training behind street and hip-hop styles with the same respect as ballet and contemporary dance?
Amidst the current civil rights movement in 2020, there is a heightened initiative to generate change in the academic dance structure. Questioning the hierarchy of dance styles being taught in school ultimately reflects a microcosm of supremacy and classism that is embedded in Western society. When you are taught about the “pioneers” of contemporary dance, you will learn about the likes of Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham and Isadora Duncan. The historical significance of these pioneers is easily found in books, as well as online. They are widely recognized and held with high esteem throughout today’s contemporary dance community.
Will we see a shift in the university syllabus to reflect the current socio-political trends? A new dance curriculum should include regular course offerings in hip-hop and other street styles, as well as the history of these styles. These styles should not be simply extracurricular activities for dancers in training. Truly valuing the impact of these cultures also means offering administrative space to hip-hop scholars and pioneers of the craft, who need to be involved in implementing syllabus structure.
A lot of contemporary dancers from varying backgrounds pride themselves on versatility. Though I was thrown into every class imaginable, my exposure to ‘real’ hip hop culture was limited. I learned my body well enough to mimic what I saw. The true understanding of a street style was watered down. Although I loved “urban” choreography classes, I knew I would not be accepted as a “Hip Hop” dancer. In comparison, when I switched focus to concert dance I was asked “If I had ever taken a real ballet class before.” As a concert dancer, I now work for a “contemporary fusion” company in Montreal, that is largely inspired by Breakin’/BBoy movement. It is now my responsibility to research the history of the culture, and immerse myself in the local community to better understand the movement I am asked to perform.
Photo by Elonthewanderingspirit
How, as contemporary dance artists, can we respectfully borrow movement ideas from other cultures?
Respect your versatility training with as much regard as your ballet training. Approach a fascination with movement qualities as an opportunity to learn about the culture behind the dance. Involve yourself in the community by meeting dancers, leaders, organizers, and people of the culture. Ask questions. Much of street history has been passed from word of mouth. Learn the fundamentals of the style you are interested in from the people who are directly involved in the culture, research videos online on how this style has adapted internationally. Often times there is a mindset or social setting that has impacted how the movement has evolved. Recognize that a choreography class called “Hip Hop” is mislabelling. Privately talk to the teacher, event organizer, or studio owner to ask them about their system of labeling classes. Suggest alternatives that would better allude to the content of the class. If you are a teacher and lead a class with movement inspired by a culture that is not your own, consider a disclaimer for the origins of said influence, and encourage your students to do further research.
Ultimately, in order to change the trend of appropriation, and unhealthy borrowing practices from dance styles, we need to give back to the communities who are living and breathing that culture. Give back to communities with your energy by attending events, joining a cypher at a jam, and paying the attendance fees to watch, if applicable. Otherwise we are profiting off of others’ cultures without offering anything back in return.