From old school movements like the Richmond Robot and Oakland Boogaloo, to Hyphy and Turfing to San Francisco’s ‘new style’ hip-hop choreography, the Bay Area is a hub for hip-hop dance. The scene stays fresh with diversity across communities, keeping this form innovative and accessible.
Hip hop has grown up since the 1970s, when the four defining elements were: breaking, MC, DJ, and graffiti. Not only has hip hop entered the mainstream in multiple ways, from Soul Train to America’s Best Dance Crew but it has also sparked creative and political action all over the world from an underground movement in China to a revolutionary movement in Tunisia. The birth of hip hop is Bronx, New York in 1973. Clive Campbell, aka DJ Kool Herc, pioneered break-beat DJing, by extending the breaks, or the drum beats, of funk records to extend the dance party.
The connection to community is a cornerstone of hip hop as a social project. So many people will often say how “hip hop isn’t just music or dance, it’s a culture.” With this frame and in honor of a few hip hop aesthetics–collage, call-and-response, contrast, and community–I take a larger snapshot of the cultural influence hip hop can play on the artistry and development of the dance. I connected with the artists: Raissa Simpson, Paymenah ‘Bibi’ Khalili, Mark Dan Pablico, Micaya and Marc Bamuthi Joseph. I asked them their influences from hip-hop arts and culture, and where they see it in the future of this community.
Mark Dan Pablico is part of the Funkanometry SF community, an award-winning non-profit performance arts organization dedicated to cultivating a diverse community of leaders by providing youth and young adults with high quality dance training and innovative artistic performances. Last season he directed the all-male dance company Project Em and this season he is the Funks SF co-artistic director. “I get influence from the dancers who have passion in dance and are willing to learn different style, not just hip hop,” Pablico says. “I get my inspiration from my personal life, people, arts, experience in everyday life. Dancing is part of my life and I always interpret my personal life into dancing to show the people who I am.” And for Pablico, hip-hop dance does not mean one single dance form. He believes hip hop is a universal word. “It is a combination of different styles from jazz, tap dancing, locking, boogaloo, popping, waltz, etc.,” he notes. “But the most popular is breakdancing. Ever since breakdance, people started to think of dance in a different way–choreography, tricks, performances. I see hip hop evolving from the dancers and choreographers who are always open for a new element of styles.”
Funkanometry SF and De La Femme were my introduction to Bay Area hip hop. De La Femme was the all-female dance company under the umbrella of Funkanometry SF. Bibi Khalili, director of De La Femme, an entrepreneur, designer, producer, dancer, choreographer, stands out in the hip hop dance community as a leader.
Khalili sees hip hop getting incorporated into all aspects of expression. “That’s what I love about hip hop–you can pick up everything and fine tune it.” She stays up to date with fashion with her urban accessory boutique MishMash, featuring apparel and jewelry. She loves connecting personal style to dance. “It’s really important for dance culture. To make a statement with what dancers are wearing. There was that person who always had the best necklace for a performance and a dancer who could pull off a unique outfit…again, it was that ownership, taking a chance, stand out!”
When she’s not teaching at House of Mayhem in San Mateo, City Dance Studios in San Francisco, or at In the Groove Studios in Oakland, Khalili supports artists with her showcase Dance.Art.Music.Style.Fashion. (DAMSF)–which links both talent and fans from diverse backgrounds in a positive environment to encourage growth and individuality. The next DAMSF will be in January. When it comes to selecting people to perform, Khalili says “I ask ‘who are the people around me that love this or who are really hungry…the ones who are still so raw, still so real.'”
Many hip-hop artists believe hip-hop dance will continue to evolve by staying true to the founding principles of hip hop culture while experimenting with more dance genres, music, styles and arts. Khalili suggests “If the hip-hop community learns to work together, they’ll have more strength than any other community. It might take something drastic to take it there but today’s underrated artists will hold us down five years from now, when no one is watching America’s Best Dance Crew or Hip Hop Wives.”
Marc Bamuthi Joseph, arts activist, Broadway veteran, artistic director, award winning poet, and teacher fluent in hip-hop expression, shared unique insights into hip-hop culture and its flexibility as a tool for learning and action. Joseph is rooted in hip hop: “I was born in 1975 in New York–same time, same place as hip hop. The way I parent, teach, vote is hip hop,” he says. In his artistic practice and performance, Joseph integrates hip-hop elements: some are formal, some conscious, some vocabulary. “I don’t set out to hit on the head ‘hip hop in the theater,'” Joseph adds. “The way I write and construct and collaborate, the urgency…everything else is manifestation.”
Joseph highlights how hip-hop culture is all about expression and serves as a useful tool for creative learning. “My main inspiration is the tenth grade classroom. I taught high school English. In order to get everyone involved, you just had to have mad style. One of the reasons we don’t get each other is we don’t learn the same way. There aren’t enough ways to accommodate all these learning styles.” In the same way Joseph has created a conversation with everyone’s participation in the classroom, he wants to spark a conversation with his art. “I want to make art that is inclusive and pulls people in…that has style which people can integrate and adapt in to their own way,” he says. “As I’ve matured as an artist, I’ve become more collaborative. I choose people I’m inspired by and are skilled, similar ethnic, and fun to get along with. I invite them in a proactive way…the conversation benefits by diversity. I call it a ‘creative ecosystem,’ where it is most served by diverse organisms cohabitating. Everything is interdependent.” Joseph notes, “Making large scale art is a value. Diversity of opinions is a value. Harmony is a value.”
He is spearheading the Life is Living Festival, a national campaign of Youth Speaks Inc. that generates partnerships between diverse and underserved communities, green action agencies, local community groups, urban environmental activists, and the contemporary arts world. Life is Living encompasses a series of six-hour interdisciplinary, intergenerational, eco-equity festivals in neglected parks in underserved neighborhoods around the country. Previous cities include Oakland, CA; Harlem, NY; and Chicago, IL; and Houston, TX. Joseph adds, “We like to think of environment through the lens of hip-hop culture.”
Fusing hip-hop influence in a different community, modern choreographer, Raissa Simpson, director of Push Dance Company, articulates hip hop’s cultural exchange: “I think modern dance needs to acknowledge it goes both ways: we’ll take from hip hop and hip hop will take from us.”
This is exactly one way hip-hop dance has grown up: it has an uncanny ability to shape shift into something mainstream, something alternative, something social, something artistic. Hip-hop dance often enters the recipe for mixing up movement forms. Simpson adds “I don’t think it’s possible to be a purist when it comes to hip hop. Today I think that the definition of hip hop continues to evolve.” Her dance company often exceeds a simple definition, as she develops multimedia works with an intergenerational, mixed group of dancers. She chooses dancers who have a hip-hop dance background because it’s a way she likes to move. “I think I have insight into this because I’m working in Bayview Hunters Point in a neighborhood that’s historically a minority and it’s almost insulated from the rest of the city. In areas like that, that’s where hip hop is being created and cultivated, because young people are looking for positive outlets.”
While hip-hop dance now occupies theater stages and studios, Simpson recalls hip hop’s roots: “It was born in…I don’t like to use the word ‘urban’…minority areas that aren’t exposed to different forms of dance. That’s where it comes from. These kids don’t have the resources to take a dance class. It’s funny because it sprouts from the clubs and the neighborhoods. I think people would love the acknowledgement.”
Last May, Push Dance Company and youths 12-21 from 3rd St. Youth Clinic presented Mixed Messages at the Museum of the African Diaspora in downtown SF. It was Simpson’s introduction to weaving an inter-community project. A two-year collaboration, and commissioned by San Francisco Arts Commission, Mixed Messages was inspired by the term “mixed” which is just short of slang for someone who comes from one or more racial or ethnic backgrounds. It was an all-inclusive event that highlighted the vibrant diversity of the multiracial community. Simpson continues to work with youth, teaching them critical thinking skills and choreography skills so they can create their own type of movement in what Simpson names “the hip hop diaspora.”
Continuing the theme of cultivating a voice for youth in the hip-hop community, Micaya’s classes are loved by many students of all ages and backgrounds. As the founder and producer of SF Hip Hop Dance Fest, Micaya has shown many styles of hip hop over the years. In 1993, she began producing high energy, underground, sold-out hip-hop dance shows in the heart of San Francisco’s Mission District. Those shows led to the creation of the First Annual San Francisco Hip Hop DanceFest in 1999 at Theatre Artaud. This November marks the 13th annual SF Hip Hop Dance Fest. In this unique platform, hip-hop dance is presented on a proscenium stage as a showcase of the art form and welcomes companies from all over the globe.
Micaya is also the founder, director and choreographer of SoulForce Dance Company and produces Mission in the Mix every June, a performance that features SoulForce along with up and coming local talent and students.
“As a choreographer, teacher and a presenter, I appreciate the evolution with keeping a recognition of its history,” she states. “I am inspired by the pioneers of the dance forms, the ones that are bringing it into the future and music from the past and present.” Micaya also takes inspiration from music, ideas, thoughts, dancers, props and clothes, adding “The label for what hip hop is, is challenged on a daily basis and I find it fascinating and intimidating.”
Reflecting on the evolution and future of hip-hop culture, Khalili says it well: “There has to be some kind of a change. The mainstream ‘what hip hop is right now’ is gonna get old, it’s going to dissolve. It makes it look like everything is about bling and money, titty and ass–but that’s not what it was founded on…it’s the subculture of hip hop that truly understands the expression of culture. Every fad gets old, goes out. But it’s those artists who are still gonna be there. They’ll keep the movement going in a positive direction.”
WANT HIP HOP DANCE CLASSES?
Push Dance Company: Push is available to come to your school, youth center, community and offer hip hop and/or modern, contemporary dance classes. pushdance.org
Funkanometry SF: Funkanometry SF Class at City Dance Studios on Thursdays & Sundays 7-9pm. funkanometrysf.tumblr.com
Mark Dan Pablico teaches at In the Groove Studios and City Dance Studios. inthegroovestudios.com; citydances.org
Micaya teaches ongoing hip hop dance classes: micaya.com
WANT HIP HOP LIVE DANCE PERFORMANCE?
SF Hip Hop DanceFest: The 13th annual celebration of contemporary urban dance styles, featuring innovative artists in two programs. Nov 18-20, Palace of Fine Arts Theater, 3301 Lyon St., SF. 415-392-4400.
Program A: Fri, Nov 18, 8pm; Sat, Nov 19, 9:30pm
Funkanometry SF (San Francisco); Meech Onomo Company (Paris, France); Neopolitan (Oakland);
SoulForce Dance Company (San Francisco); Academy Of Villains (San Mateo); Outer Circle Crew (Los Angeles); Compagnie Arts de Scene (Valenciennes, France); Strictly Business–youth company (Bay Area).
Program B: Sat, Nov 19, 6pm; Sun, Nov 20, 6pm
Mind Over Matter (San Francisco); Plague (London, England); FBC (San Francisco); Loose Change(San Francisco); Soul Sector (San Francisco); Robot Boys (Denmark); FootworKINGz (Chicago); Chapkis Dance (Vallejo); decadancetheatre (NYC) sfhiphopdancefest.com
Prelude NorCal hosted by Main Stacks: Nov 19, at Chabot College Center for the Performing Arts, 25555 Hesperian Blvd. Hayward. mainstacksdance.wordpress.com
CityDance Studios Performance Workshops: Advanced Hip Hop Performance Workshop directed and choreographed by ROcko Luciano and Funkanometry Performance Workshop taught by Emerson Aquino and members of Funkanometry SF. Dec 3, at Cowell Theater, Fort Mason, SF.
DAMSF: January 2012. Details online at damsf.info
Rennie Harris Puremovement: Mar 9, 2012 at Wells Fargo Center, Sonoma.
Marc Bamuthi Joseph: Living Word Project works-in-progress presentation, In Spite of Everything. Nov 30-Dec 2 San Francisco and Berkeley. youthspeaks.org
WANT RESOURCES FOR HIP HOP STYLE AND TALENT?
First Class Arts: firstclassarts.com