When presenting hip-hop dance, navigating the often raw and sometimes raunchy side of the genre can be a challenge, especially if catering to kids or to the general public. Appropriate music and movement doesn’t always lend itself to the authentic feel and vibe of street hip hop. So how can a teacher or choreographer “keep it clean” while keeping it real?
Choosing to Change
Philadelphia-based choreographer Clyde Evans Jr., has more than a few strong ideas on how to do just that. After spending ten years as a dancer with Rennie Harris Puremovement, Evans broke off in 2001 to found Chosen Dance Company, a Christian-oriented troupe he envisions as a positive alternative to hip hop’s angrier side.
Evans felt compelled to change hip-hop dance after playing Mercutio in Harris’ Rome & Jules, an interpretation of Romeo and Juliet based on gang life. “One of the performer’s sons cried for the entire show after his dad was beat up in the first scene,” says Evans. “I wanted to present the same type of work but without explicit language or content.”
Now, as artistic director for the seven-member, all-male group Chosen Dance Company, Evans develops youth-friendly performances that consciously exclude profanity, violence and suggestive content. “We won’t even use edited music, because [explicit overtones] are still implied,” he says. “It seems like every rapper is cursing, so we’ll use old-school music or stretch the boundaries by dancing to Mozart or ‘Wipeout.’ We want kids to know you don’t have to buy 50 Cent’s album to be considered hip hop.”
Breakin’, not Booty Shakin’
Steve Blackmon says he has also had to think outside the box to find appropriate music for his teen female dance company Hip Hop Clubhouse. Blackmon’s choice to use music by groups like Evanescence and Fefe Dobson has scored the group critical acclaim. He’s also found a safe choreography haven in returning to the roots of hip-hop movement.
“My dancers do a lot of popping, locking and breakdancing, so we don’t have to worry about the sexually suggestive stuff,” says Blackmon, who has danced for industry heavyweights like Wade Robson and Brian Green. Though Blackmon says his dancers often want to mimic the gyrations and revealing costumes they see in music videos, he’s adamant about keeping his choreography “classy and funky with a clean, B2K-style, as opposed to the Lil Jon, shake-your-booty choreography.”
Blackmon says his adherence to clean hip-hop ideals has been popular with parents: “I give the families and parents a lot of say in what goes on. They’re very invested in what their kids are listening to and what they feel is appropriate.”
Too Sexy for This Stage
Striking a balance between “clean” and “dirty,” hip hop can also come into play on the competition stage. Hollywood Vibe convention judge and instructor Tania Ante says that an entire portion of Vibe’s score sheet is devoted to age-appropriateness. “If there is a group or soloist that we feel is too provocative or whose music uses explicit lyrics, we definitely take that into consideration.”
Ante is well-versed in the many facets of hip hop, having danced professionally with risk-taking artists like Britney Spears and Notorious B.I.G. To find her comfort zone, Ante says she had to be choosy when accepting jobs. “I wouldn’t do a job if I had to wear barely any clothes or if the artist’s work was something I wasn’t comfortable with, like gangsta rap,” says Ante.“I didn’t want to be part of that.”
When choreographing hip hop, Ante’s approach seems to be an effective method for finding your team’s own comfort zone. Work with your dancers to determine what feels comfortable and presentable, and odds are your audience will agree.