Put emotion behind it! Tabitha and Napoleon D’umo say to a room of Monsters of Hip Hop convention-goers. The D’umos are in the midst of teaching a lyrical hip-hop combination to “Apologize.” by OneRepublic. Eighteen-year-old L.A.-native Aimee Winston, who assists teachers like the D’umos, Kevin Maher and Tony Testa, concentrates on learning the steps. However, the D’umos instruct her to stop thinking and start feeling. The choreography, a mix of robotic isolations, hard stops, dramatic collapses and floppy bounces, is tailored to bring the song’s message (it’s too late for forgiveness) to life.
“When I put myself in the song and dance out how it makes me feel, my musicality and overall performance is better!” says Aimee, who credits lyrical hip hop with helping her become more animated so she’s not just moving for movement’s sake.
For dancers like Aimee who want to do commercial work, lyrical hip hop is a must. And jazz and ballet dancers find it to be a smoother transition to hip hop. Lyrical hip hop’s contemporary roots are closer to their training than street dance. Plus, they’re more familiar with its pretty melodies than rough rap beats.
You may have seen lyrical hip hop on shows like “So You Think You Can Dance” or “America’s Best Dance Crew.” Still not sure what it is? DS has got the exclusive, all-access breakdown of this popular style!
Hip Hop vs. Lyrical Hip Hop
When you’re trying to identify a lyrical hip-hop routine, look for hip-hop choreography sprinkled with contemporary-inspired steps that tell a story to the lyrics of a song (usually a slow one with a strong beat).
“You’re not going to see hitting, locking or buck style in lyrical hip hop,” Napoleon says. Expect isolations (especially of the chest), slow, fluid movements (like gliding and body waves) and contemporary-inspired turns (but not pirouettes). There’s popping, but not the hard-hitting kind. Dancers are meant to look like they’re unwinding, unraveling and floating.
Give Me a Beat!
Both hip-hop and lyrical hip-hop dancers are extremely musical, but they interpret the beat differently. Hip-hop dancers hit the beat (one, two, stop). Lyrical hip-hop dancers ride through the beat while still accenting it (one, two-ooo).
“In hip hop, if you were dancing with a partner, you would punch and stop at his face,” “ABDC” judge Shane Sparks explains. “But in lyrical hip hop, you would punch and go past his face. Lyrical hip hop contains movements across measures.” And the nuances and smooth melodies of slower R&B songs and ballads are the perfect tunes for the style.
Once Upon a Time
There has always been story-telling in hip hop. “People assume that the only emotions in hip hop are anger and aggression,” Jed Forman, NYC popping teacher, says. “But street dance was also about hardship, and this came out through the moves.”
What makes lyrical hip hop unique is that there has to be a story. (In hip hop it’s acceptable to have one or not.) And these stories go beyond the emoting you might see dancers do during a contemporary routine. Lyrical hip-hop dancers take it to another level by actually playing characters. “A guy walking down the street snapping his fingers isn’t dramatic enough to be considered lyrical hip hop,” Tony Testa, commercial guru and convention teacher, explains. “But a guy walking down the street trying to get the girl is!” Learning how to dance out stories to the extreme can help those looking to release their technique and take their showmanship to the next level.
Perhaps the first time you heard “lyrical hip hop” was on Season 4 of “SYTYCD.” Mark Kanemura and Chelsie Hightower had just performed a routine about a workaholic and his neglected girlfriend choreographed by the D’umos to Leona Lewis’ “Bleeding Love.” Guest judge Adam Shankman jumped out of his chair with delight and called the dance lyrical hip hop. However, this wasn’t the birth of the movement.
The D’umos (and many others) taught similar routines throughout the ’90s. In order to get Las Vegas executives to hire them, the D’umos made street dance mainstream by telling relatable stories and using pop music.
Lyrical hip-hop choreography was more fitting to the Las Vegas stage than freestyle dance battle sequences. “Things that come from the street have a completely different aesthetic. Street dance is done in a circle, so there’s no sense of ‘What am I projecting to the audience?’” Forman says. “With lyrical hip hop, the moves are made to be done in front of an audience that’s looking at a stage.”
When “SYTYCD” aired in 2005, the program’s producers were looking for creative styles that would appeal to mass audiences. Lyrical hip hop was a perfect fit. When the camera zooms out, you can see all of the dancers in a single frame, and when it zooms in, the animated faces are exciting to watch. Plus the style challenges dancers’ versatility, and the story-telling aspect of it helps them create chemistry with their partner onstage.
The Great Debate
Those deep within the hip-hop community love the artistry of lyrical hip hop but have some objections to how it’s being labeled. According to Sparks, mashing two words together doesn’t make a new style. “You can’t call something a cat-dog or a dog-cat and make it a real thing,” he explains. “The same idea goes for lyrical hip hop.”
Others say the movement doesn’t reflect true street style. “Lyrical hip-hop moves, like dramatic coasts and grabs, don’t have groove—they’re more linear,” Forman explains. “It’s that groove that makes a step hip hop.”
However, the D’umos and many others do consider it to be hip hop. “When I read blogs claiming that our choreography isn’t hip hop,” Napoleon says, “I think, ‘We’re not doing booty shaking or popping and locking, but that’s not our style of hip hop.’ People say we look too technical, but I’m a freestyler!”
A Final Thought
Labels aside, lyrical hip hop is one of the ways in which urban dance is evolving. “People have so much access to dance via web and TV,” says Sparks.
“So we need to keep giving them new stuff, like lyrical hip hop. Forget the title—accept the creativity of it!” As for what we’ll see next from the great lyrical hip-hop masters, the D’umos?
“Well, I’d love to do a Jason Mraz song,” Napoleon says.
“I don’t think they’re ready for that yet.…” Tabitha says.
And if you’re a savvy dancer like Aimee? Add the style to your to-do list, not only because it’s fun, but because it may be what gets you hired at your next audition!
Tabitha teaching at ABDC. Photo: courtesy the D’Umos