On a recent Tuesday night, Straightline Dance Fitness studio in northeast Minneapolis could barely contain the pulsating energy of a couple of dozen hip-hop dancers.
Amid laughter and encouraging shouts, the local dancers worked out different styles. Michael Ingram led a joyful voguing routine while Herb Johnson, joined by his 9-year-old niece Vhlincia Love, deconstructed the intense, warrior-like krumping technique. Other dancers spun on their backs or popped into one-arm handstands. A break dancer used the ballet barre for support while balancing on his head.
This kind of “session” is frequent at Straightline (not to mention other hot spots like the Minneapolis College of Art and Design and Central Mission in St. Paul).
“Minnesota is a gold mine when it comes to hip-hop culture,” offered Joshua Dudley (aka Big Snubb), a krump specialist interviewed by phone from Portland, Ore. He visited the Twin Cities recently to judge the Uprising 3 Battle competition.
Yet even as the Twin Cities hip-hop dance scene has flourished and garnered accolades, its proponents are still seeking recognition from the larger dance community. Their specific goal? More performance opportunities in artistic and commercial settings, from the Cowles Center to the Mall of America.
“I can name on one hand the number of venues that produce hip-hop,” asserted Maia Maiden, founder of the annual “Rooted: Hip hop Choreographer’s Evening” at Intermedia Arts. And this puzzles her, given the size and commitment of our local hip-hop community. “We’re here, we’ve been here, we’re not that hard to find,” she added.
Audiences are ready for more hip-hop dance, said Dayna Martinez, artistic director of world music and dance and the International Children’s Festival at the Ordway Center. She says hip-hop as a concert dance form is “not much of a leap” for American audiences anymore. Take, for example, the historically important Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in the Berkshires and the Joyce Theater in New York. “They’ve been presenting hip-hop for a really long time,” she noted.
Why isn’t hip-hop seen more frequently on local stages? Noer ventured that it’s still perceived more as an income generator for dance schools. Hip-hop dance classes are extremely popular, he explained. The House of Dance Twin Cities in Hopkins made hip-hop its core curriculum, while other schools use hip-hop to help fund other endeavors.
Johnson, former co-creative director of the Minneapolis hip-hop dance company Shapeshift, suspects that some presenters don’t fully appreciate the artistic mastery required for hip-hop dancing. So they simply rely on pop-culture stereotypes about the art form. “We’re not fully seen as an important style,” he lamented. “Ballet has a really high standard and everything you learn has to be exact and perfection. People think hip-hop is just ‘Do whatever you feel’ and to an extent that’s correct, but it’s just as disciplined as ballet.”
Another theory? Presenters haven’t grasped the diversity of the genre. Just like other dance forms, hip-hop has a range of techniques and philosophies in addition to being a way of life. “Some think hip-hop is all the same but what they’re really looking for is a breaker or a popper,” explained Maiden.
When can audiences see the next round of high school talent and professional dancers that Maiden hand-picks every year? The next incarnation of “Rooted” is scheduled for June at the Wellstone Center in St. Paul.
On the upside, there are hopeful signs for the hip-hop dance community. Both Johnson and Noer will perform in “Mixtape,” featuring a diverse cast of local hip-hop dancers at the Cowles next spring.
While the Cowles discontinued its outdoor Groundbreaker Battle this year, executive director Lynn Von-Eschen said the organization plans to present more hip-hop dance indoors “to build audience and awareness for the art form.” Ticket sales are strong for hip-hop performances, he added, citing sold-out houses for last winter’s Shapeshift performances. In addition to “Mixtape,” the current Cowles season includes performances by Curio Dance, a Stillwater-based troupe with hip-hop in its repertory.
Meanwhile, the Ordway’s Martinez has the long-term goal of producing a season-wide hip-hop festival, one that connects local dancers and touring companies while encompassing the full spectrum of hip-hop culture (dance, music, visual art). What’s on tap for the immediate future? The Ordway presents Brooklyn-based Decadancetheatre’s “Hip-hop Nutcracker” Nov. 22 and 23.
And of course, the hip-hop scene’s future depends on developing fresh talent. Luckily, young dancers are not shy about seeking opportunities from the local arts community. According to Maiden, dancers are “coming younger and stronger than ever. They are breaking down doors that took me until now when I’m 35. They’re not asking for permission, they’re doing it.”
Caroline Palmer is a Twin Cities dance critic.