Hip Hop's Elite Status

Dance teams emerged within the world of competitive cheerleading in the early ’90s, but at first were largely marginalized and had dancers with little technical training. As the genre grew in popularity among dancers toward the end of the decade, its choreography and execution became more complex. Studio-trained dancers infiltrated the ranks, and solid jazz technique soon became the standard for competitive dance teams. Titles were earned by demonstrating difficult technical movements, such as turns in second, switch tilts and quads. Over the past couple of years, however, dance teams have evolved again. Increasingly, some of the most successful and technically superior teams are putting an emphasis on hip hop, and are winning top honors for their efforts.

Industry Buzz
Hip hop’s spike in popularity is especially prevalent at the all-star level, where hip-hop divisions have blossomed across the competition circuit. For example, JAMfest, one of the leading competition companies for all-star dance teams, added a hip-hop category in 2003, and 11 teams registered to compete. By 2005, that number had grown to 34. “I think gym or studio owners have gotten smart and said, ‘I’m seeing [hip hop] on TV, I’m seeing it in commercials and movies—I have to adapt to it’,” says Dan Kessler, president of JAMfest. He also feels that the all-star division, comprising a hodgepodge of participants (from cheer gyms that have added a dance component to studios that have stepped into the spirit industry), lends itself particularly to hip-hop dancers. “You could almost say hip hop is another level of dance that allows kids who are not as technically trained to come into a studio or gym and be a part of a team,” he says.

Although hip hop is growing because it’s more accessible to dancers who haven’t studied ballet since age 5, it’s also being embraced as a viable training method for serious, technical dancers. Top competitive all-star gyms such as Memphis Elite, Planet Dance (whose director coaches the Louisville Ladybirds), and studios such as 360 Dance, also in Louisville, have all developed hip-hop teams over the past few years, and some, like Memphis Elite, have staked their reputation as solid hip-hop competitors.


Commercial and dance team choreographers Tabitha and Napoleon D’umo, whose recent credits include a MasterCard commercial, directing the Monsters of Hip Hop show and choreographing for Brigham Young University’s Cougarettes, have also noticed an increased focus on hip-hop training for all types of dancers. “What I found really interesting when I moved to L.A. six or seven years ago was a break between the jazz dancers and the hip-hop dancers,” says Tabitha. “Now, everybody’s got to be proficient at everything, and they consider hip hop just as important of a discipline to master [as jazz].”

One Team Supreme
At the top of the all-star dance team crop is Eastern Washington Elite, from Kennewick, WA. Coach Teri Rowe developed the Elite program in 1997 with one senior team of 14 regional dancers. Dancers from across eastern Washington state gathered once a week as a means to supplement their high school dance team or studio training, and to enter what Rowe calls “a different level of competition.” In the next few years, she attracted dancers from as far away as northeastern Oregon, some traveling up to two hours to attend practice, leading to the creation of a junior team in 2003. In 2005, she added coed hip-hop and youth teams.


Since the onset of her program, Rowe’s teams have taken top spots at Universal Dance Association Nationals and the Seattle Sonics “Best of the Northwest” Dance Competition. For the past two years at UDA, the junior team won top honors in the hip-hop category, and last year the seniors overtook powerhouse Memphis Elite for first place in hip hop.

Training Ground
Elite is well known for its dancers’ excellent technical foundation. In addition to a four-hour practice each week at the Elite Cheer & Dance Center, junior and senior team members are required to take two classes per week in ballet and advanced technique (leaps, tricks and turns), either at their hometown studios or at Rowe’s facility. Rowe also brings in master teachers and top jazz choreographers such as Karl Mundt to round out the year’s training. She takes the team to L.A. each summer to spend 20 hours studying jazz and hip hop at Millennium Dance Complex and EDGE Performing Arts Center.

Despite their intensive training, the team’s superb jazz technique doesn’t always resonate during its halftime shows at Gonzaga University in Spokane and at the local high schools where Elite performs. Rowe says audiences sometimes sit and stare after the dancers complete their jazz piece. “People don’t connect as much with our jazz performances, because sometimes they’re really intense and emotional, or it’s an angry piece,” she says. “But we bring the house down when we do hip hop. We get standing ovations.”

Hip Hop—The Discipline
At first, Rowe’s dancers had a hard time transitioning to hip hop. She had to drill team members, who had spent most of their training working on a pulled up and perfectly placed center, to widen their stance, get lower to the ground and let loose. “Most of them were absolutelyterrified of it,” says Rowe. “They had toreally think and focus.” To assist in developing a stronger hip-hop style, Rowe brought her dancers to the Monsters of Hip Hop convention, where she met and eventually hired Tabatha and Napoleon to choreograph Nationals routines.


Rowe’s coed team is required to take hip-hop and break dancing classes each week. Rowe also now offers a hip-hop camp in the summer for all ages. In L.A., the team studies with Dee Caspary, Dante,Rhapsody and street hip-hop teachers like Super Dave and Shane Sparks. “The best is just being around people [who] have such amazing style,” says senior team member Kelsey Hamada. “It helps you get the feel of it.” Studying in L.A. also gives dancers more confidence. “You can pick up their style,” adds junior Courtney Hutchins. “But you can’t be timid in situations like that. You just have to go for it.”


This summer, Rowe hopes to catch Wade Robson’s master classes in L.A. and intends to bring the team to the U.S.A. & World Hip-Hop Crew Championships to watch the best of the best duel it out. She’s also making plans for an “Open Hip-Hop Night” at her center each Friday for drop-in students and master classes.

Well-Rounded Dancers
The hip-hop emphasis hasn’t compromised the Elite dancers’ solid technical base. In fact, Rowe believes hip hop has helped to strengthen the teams across the board. “It forces them to be more well-rounded,” she says. “I’ve noticed our kids are more able to do diverse dance styles strongly, because they’re more comfortable with hip hop now.” The dancers agree. “Each style that I’ve learned has helped me with another,” says Hamada.


The increased training has also influenced the dancers’ goals for the future. Hutchins hopes to continue studying hip hop in college, and Hamada is already considering a place on the dance team at University of Cincinnati, a three-time UDA hip-hop national champion.

What It Means
Has hip hop’s status reached its zenith in pop culture? Hip hop dominates the music industry, commercials, fashion and film. Dance teamers are attracted to it because they either don’t need a technical background to participate, or it increases their versatility (and thus marketability) as a pro. Plus, their peers and audiences love it. But, according to Kessler and Rowe, the artform isn’t likely to lose its appeal anytime soon. “I don’t think it’s a fad. I think it’s a natural shift in the way dance is heading,” says Rowe.


As more and more dance teams make hip hop a serious part of training, the industry’s level of competitive excellence continues to rise. “[The hip-hop category is] way harder now,” says Hamada. “Memphis was good, but they definitely stepped it up and we all had to step up to their level.”


Hutchins reflects on her competitors’ progress: “I think everybody’s improved together. It’s like a battle,” she says. Whether meaning to or not, she evokes classic urban vocabulary to capture the essence of the all-star hip-hop momentum. Right now, all eyes are on the hip-hop prize.

(From left) Darriel Johnakin, Diego Pasillas, and Emma Sutherland (all photos by Erin Baiano)

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