How to Bring Hip-Hop to the Competitive Stage
It often seems that dance competitions have been taken over by lyrical and contemporary routines. Sure, depending on the city, there might be an abundance of musical theater, jazz, and tap, but what about hip hop? This style, rooted in social dance forms and born out of movements of the African Diaspora, is a huge part of our culture and is beginning to spring up more and more on the competition stage. As judges, we love the variety and inclusion of this genre, but what is it that we’re looking for when a hip hop routine takes the stage? Many dancers often associate “technique” with styles like ballet, jazz, and tap, but hip hop has its own technique marked by isolations, level changes, dynamics, and, of course, swag. This week, we asked the IDA judges to share their insights on this technique, as well as what makes a great--or not so great--hip hop routine for the competition stage.
Judges agree that when adjudicating hip hop routines, they’re looking for a lot of the same elements as in any other style: technique, clarity, and focus. IDA judge and studio owner Kimberly Soel explains, “First and foremost, I look for strong foundational technique in hip hop routines. I want to see that the dancers have an understanding of being grounded in their movement, have strong isolations, and they understand the difference between staccato movement and the fluidity of grooves.” She also reminds dancers of the vastness of the genre, adding, “Hip hop has so many branches to it such as house, breakdancing, popping, locking, etc. It's so important for dancers to study as many of those branches as possible.” IDA judge Tracey Boon echoes these sentiments and notes the importance of understanding hip hop as a culture - “You first have to have an understanding of the culture, intent, and history of hip hop movement. I’d even add social dancing into that--not Fortnite social dancing! But the social dancing my parents did when they were young. There’s a particular groove/feel/vibe that lends itself to the hip hop culture from this type of dancing.” Since hip hop evolved out of social dances, even dances that are made for the stage need to encompass an understanding of the culture.
To learn about the culture and its history, IDA judge Jillian Tremonti suggests that teachers “think of creative ways to incorporate true hip hop culture into class: warm up with a groove circle to connect with each other in the room and find a vibe together; talk about important figures in the history of hip hop and people who are doing ground breaking work now, and spend time moving like them; have fun with the music you play in class and pull from multiple sub-genres, like funk and house; give students space to explore, especially to improv and start crafting their own style. Go watch hip hop performances or big-name concerts together, and then talk about what they saw and experienced, just like going to a ballet or modern performance.” This last piece is key: it’s critical to discuss hip hop with the same level of articulation as we discuss concert dance forms--and this goes for your judges, too! Judges should be expected and able to provide high quality critiques that discuss technique and performance across all genres that take the stage.
Most judges are thrilled to see hip hop on stage! IDA judge Troy Haywood, who is currently dancing and choreographing professionally in the commercial realm in L.A. shares, “Although it is a hidden art in the competitive arena, I strongly believe that a well thought-up, clean, high energy hip hop piece can bring the house down at competition.” So what factors ‘bring the house down?’ For Troy, it’s all about “musicality, dynamics, cleanliness, relevance, creativity, and overall entertainment factor,” and judges agree. Judge Chellie Fig, who has danced for Pharrell Williams, Vanilla Ice, and Nico & Vinz to name a few, shares her desires to see footwork, break dancing, level changes, popping, locking, strong movements, clear isolations, musicality, formation changes, and creative story lines. Beyond these elements, Jillian likes to see the breadth of hip hop. “I'm looking for classic hip hop elements executed with confidence: breaking, locking, and popping are super important for me to see laced in the choreography. That shows respect and investment in the genre.” Beyond execution, the choreography needs to encompass these elements to stay true to the form.
Many judges, teachers, choreographers, studio owners, and dancers agree that hip hop gets a bad rap at competitions, and each judge identifies different reasons. For Kimberly, it’s all about the judges. She explains, “When your judging panel does not understand what foundational hip hop is, it is impossible for them to properly score and critique the routine,” which she likens to judges who have inadequate knowledge of tap. For Troy, it comes down to a lack of prioritization of the genre. He shares, “I think the biggest downfall in hip hop choreography at competitions and conventions is its lack of focus in the rehearsal environment, therefore not performing as well at the competitions. It’s almost as if this style is more of a elective rather than a requirement. I notice a lot of time, effort, and artistic attention being spent on contemporary, lyrical and jazz of resulting in the neglect of the ‘less tricky’ pieces.” Chellie shares yet another issue, which is a lack of age appropriateness. She feels that “the majority of hip hop dances at dance competitions are less choreography and more gyrating, twerking, and booty-popping. I think that there has been an over-sexualization of hip hop dance.”
Similarly, IDA judge and teacher Christina Fuschetto emphasizes the importance of age appropriate movements and music, noting, “Selecting hip hop songs, especially in today’s music era, can be difficult because even if there aren’t any inappropriate words, there is usually an inappropriate meaning behind the words. What is most important when it comes to music selection is making sure the music is appropriate to the age of dancers.” Appropriateness starts in the studio, so it’s imperative that teachers and choreographers are careful in their song and movement choices, and that judges comment on the topic of age appropriateness so that choreographers can continue to make educated choices. Many judges also commented on the importance of judges not awarding inappropriate numbers or being swayed by tricks that are not actually the basis of hip hop as a technique.
On the topic of appropriate song selection, it’s also important for choreographers to choose music that suits their dancers. Further, one of today’s biggest trends is to create mega mixes of songs. While this approach might be popular, it might not always be the best choice. Troy mentions, “I love a good mix of songs, but I am also an advocate of keeping it simple. I find that it is more beneficial for dancers to connect and hone in to one specific theme rather than to throw out all the stops.” It’s important for choreographers to devote time to finding the best music for a specific piece, especially given the amazing resources available like Spotify, Apple Music, and even Facebook groups like Dance Teacher Network. Judges also warn against using the same songs as everyone else. Kimberly shares, “One of my biggest resources is using music from the 80's and 90's rather than more current music. Not only are the beats more true to the art form and creative, but they are almost always WAY more stage appropriate than 90% of the popular current music.” There is so much space for creativity when it comes to hip hop choreography, as long as choreographers do their research!
Similarly, Jillian offers great advice that can carry through to all genres, which is to avoid trends in general. She continues, “The judges have seen and heard it already, and want something new and different, whether it's a fresh perspective on a classic or something totally brand new.” She hits the nail on the head, finishing, “The beauty of hip hop is that it is based in a culture of individual expression. You have to find your own voice within the historical context of the genre.”