Hippity hop: In which I get jiggy

Last Monday I did my first hip hop class. I went to a studio we’ve been using for our solo jazz practice and late night dances, and I went because I was curious, but mostly because I like going to the studio. The studio is run by a young man and his friends, and it’s in the guts of the city, in the Chinatown bit. They run lots of classes and workshops (almost all in street dances like hip hop or house or locking), see lots and lots and lots of students through the door, and are generally treated as a sort of drop-in social space as well as a class venue. Most of the students are ‘Asian’, and many are international university students. ‘Asian’ is one of those difficultly broad terms, and I don’t think it’s that useful in this context: these kids are from all over China, Hong Kong, South-East Asia, Japan, Korea and beyond. A lot of younger kids use the studio space – younger as in high school – and it really feels like a well-used space.

I always enjoy going there. There’re always people bustling about, and the reception desk is planted right in the middle of the room, directly opposite the lift doors, so you’re greeted immediately as you enter the room. People are always friendly. I’m getting to know people there, and it’s really nice to get a friendly “Hi Sam!” as I arrive. It feels like an energetic, creative space. But not in one of those desperately hip ‘art’ spaces. This is functional creativity. Functional in that this music and these dancers are part of these kids’ everyday lives, and dancing isn’t just a ‘hobby’ that they do one night a week.

There are regular classes, but the studio (which has three separate practice spaces as well as the main foyer space) is used for casual ‘jams’, which you pay for with a gold coin donation (presented as a ‘donation’ for upkeep of the studio), and there’s always music running in that jam space. The ‘jam’ is really a practice, a bit like a tango practica, where you go to test out what you know and are learning, not in a workshop or class environment, but in a more social space. This isn’t ‘social dancing’, though, the dancers are focussed and really experimenting with movement.

Dancers use the studio as an inbetween or meeting place before going off to the ‘battles’ down in a public piazza somewhere on Friday nights (this is real street dance) or out for a night clubbing. Uni students drop in between lectures, and high school girls turn up in their uniforms after school and before dance class to practice. Dance crews also use the space to meet up and touch base or to practice. The idea of ‘crews’ as a real thing is new to me. I’ve seen them in films: a group of dancers who work together in competitions or battles. But I’d thought they were exaggerated or made up for films. But they’re not. The nearest equivalent in lindy hop is a dance troupe, with all the attendant friendship and peer support functions. But crews feel less contrived and more organic, based on creative similarity, friendships and shared values rather than a formal dance school promotional function.

I first met the owner and venue when we used the space for a late night dance. I was working with a guy who was running the late night event and was also involved in the hip hop scene. He knew the studio through hip hop classes and the local scene. It was really wonderful to walk into a studio that felt like a living, breathing social space. Most dance studios feel a bit lame or a bit empty, socially. The dances people practice are formalised by their position as ‘commodity’ and they’re definitely a ‘hobby’ or ‘career’ rather than lifestyle. But at the hip hop studio, the dancing is tied in with all the other parts of people’s lives – music, fashion, media (particularly digital media), eating, drinking, socialising. LeeEllen Friedland talks about this continuum of cultural practice. But, really, this studio and dancing are just points in everyday life.

That first event we ran at the studio went off wonderfully. The dancers who turned up really liked the feel of the venue. We were very happy with the studio manager and with the layout and feel of the venue. This isn’t a cold, professional studio or a dirty, dingey bar like most late night venues. It made the dancing wonderful.

Isn’t it strange to think like that? I can’t explain, really, why it made such a difference. But I found DJing really exciting, and as a punter I had a BRILLIANT time. But a space made place really makes for excellent social dancing.

Anyway, we needed a place for our solo practice, and while we’ve tried a few other places, I pushed for us to use this studio as an experiment at least. It’s not the cheapest venue (I pay $30 for 2 hours at a church hall near me that has no mirrors or sound system, I’ve paid $20 per hour at a clean, well-lit place with mirrors, a good floor and sound system), but it has good mirrors, good floors, decent sound proofing, and feels great.

When we finish practicing, it’s hard to just leave. There are people who’re interested in what we’re doing. Interested just as part of being polite and sociable, but also interested in a creative sense. I’ve already had a few exciting conversations with hip hop people where we’ve compared moves that we have in common. Mine are a hundred years old. Theirs are brand new. But they’re the same. It’s thrilling.
This studio feels like Herrang. At Herrang, which runs for about 4 weeks (give or take), there’s always someone dancing or practicing or talking about dancing or music. You can join in with strangers, and the whole place feels alive with music and dance and rhythm. It seeps into your pores. The studio feels like that. And this is exactly what swing dancing – lindy hop, balboa, blues, charleston, all of it – really needs. A vibrant cultural, social space where dancers hang out and experiment and socialise. But not in a forced way. In a natural way that results from shared interests and a welcoming space. It’s tricky with jazz dances, though, as these are dead dances. They’re not connected to popular music and culture anymore, so it’s harder to find them, to make them part of your everyday.

At any rate, it’s not a surprise that I ended up doing a hip hop class. I had a spare afternoon/evening, and just felt so comfortable at the studio, I figured I’d just turn up and see what happened. There were two classes on, and I really didn’t plan which one I’d do. I guess I’m lucky it was hip hop and not breaking. There was ‘girl hip hop’ and ‘hip hop’ on. The girl hip hop studio was full of teenage girls in school uniforms practicing to girly rnb. That class was taught by the teacher I know, a bloke. I paid for my class, and settled on the couch as I was a bit early. When I went to join the class as it started, I was directed, “No, no Sam, you do the Hip Hop class” by the teacher. I was ‘Sure, whatevs’ and changed studio. I asked another teacher/dancer as I passed the registration desk “What’s the difference?” and she replied “It’s pretty girly. You’d like hip hop more, I reckon.” I’m sure that’s because I am built like a brick shithouse, not at all girly, and not sixteen. I don’t exactly scream sexed up nightclub dancing.
I’m glad I did do the ‘hip hop’ class. There were just two of us in there with the teacher. I was the only girl, and they were both Chinese, the teacher in his twenties, the other student in his late teens or possibly early twenties. I was the tallest, the whitest, the femalest, the oldest. Which was pretty much as I’d expected.
The class was FUN but also challenging, and a real culture difference.

Firstly, the music was on all the time, and it was quite loud. I’m used to lots of talking in classes, but that’s not how we worked. Spoken instructions were few and shouted over the music. I was kind of relieved to have so much music in the room. I don’t know any modern music, and hip hop is so far from my usual musical listening, I really needed a crash course in its rhythms and structure. Thankfully, it’s like simplified jazz, structurally, but has a different feel.

At first I stood a little behind the teacher (who had his back to us, with the other student to his right hand side, in a row). Because I’m used to standing behind the teacher to shadow what I see them doing. But almost immediately I was told to “Look up! Look at yourself in the mirror!” This was a revelation. This is the difference between partner dancing and solo dance. I was there to present myself, so I had to see what I was doing to assess my own skills. Many of the movements we did involved very clear hand and finger gestures. Our arms had to end at the end of our fingers (in clenched fists, in flowing sweeps, in sharp chops), and I needed to see myself in the mirror to be sure I was doing this all properly. I moved up beside the teacher.

He began the class by explaining how movements worked, but as he realised I could pick up the movements from what he was doing, and as the other student was much more advanced than me, he stopped explaining, except when I needed something clarified. If you’ve done a lot of dance classes, you can follow along with the choreography and movements really without thinking about it. You move with the other people in the room, turning when they turn, sinking when they sink and so on. In those moments thinking is actually a real problem. You don’t want to have to think your way through each movement before you do it. You want to just do it. I’m not a talented dancer, and I’m quite a slow learner, but all this lindy hop and solo stuff has taught me how to know how to move my body at least a little bit.

So learning the choreography wasn’t too complicated. I could get the rhythms quickly (they were much, much, much simpler than lindy hop or jazz stuff), I could turn when I should, I could face the right direction. But watching myself, I thought “This is what ballet dancers look like when they start lindy hop.” I looked like I was floating, like a really upright, ungrounded ballet dancer. And I’m usually pretty grounded in my lindy hop. But hip hop required a lot more in the ground. You get this look by bending your knees, but hip hop – this type of hip hop – requires a lot of shoulder action and a very different type of bounce.

I know, in my brains, they’re the same principles of biomechanics, but it was really difficult to figure out what the teacher was doing to get that look while also learning choreography. I realised that I had to control my hips and core, and hold them very stable and still. Instead, I had to use my shoulders, arms and upper body in much more definite, bigger ways. I had to sink down into the floor by bending my knees, but without sticking my arse out. I had to hold my chest and shoulders in a way that held my bust still and stopped it bouncing.

It was a matter of at once learning a different dance aesthetic, and also dancing ‘like a man’ rather than ‘like a woman’. I’ve had similar issues learning to lead, if I’ve been interested in leading ‘like a man’. It’s very interesting to see how gender is played out through which parts of your body you emphasise. It’s not at all genetic; this is a learned thing.

I also found that some of the movements involved hyperflexing of the joints, especially at the shoulders and elbows. This is something professional dancers learn. It’s something we try to avoid in lindy hop, because it’s about hyper-straight arms, and lindy likes right angles. But hyperflexing is something a lot of Asian kids do, in part because of genetics, but also because of cultural factors. I am very tight in my arms and shoulders, because I sit on my arse all day and type. It’s also a very anglo thing to do – to carry tension in the upper body like that. So I had to at once learn to release and relax my upper body to allow liquid, extended range of movement in my arms, but also to engage my core and upper body so that I could also do sharper, more abrupt, more ‘masculine’ movements.

After an hour I was queen of sweat.

I found I could do most of the things we learnt, except a couple of moves that were almost exactly the same as ones we do in lindy hop/jazz. We learnt a step very like a camel walk, except beginning with the toes pointed up and weight on the heel, rather than toe down, with the weight on the heel. This really melted my brain, especially as we were doing a flowing, released arm movement at the same time. I just couldn’t get it right.

But this really taught me some things: I do those ‘standard’ jazz movements without thinking about what I’m doing. I’m not conscious of my body and muscles in an active way. So I’m really not dancing very well. I’m actually doing habitual motions. Being aware of what you’re doing, and moving muscles independently and in groups in a conscious way is central to being able to dance well, to respond quickly, and to adjust to suit the music and partner. So having to learn a very similar movement really made me aware of the weaknesses in my dancing.

It was really interesting to see how those combined steps (flowing arms, sharp, syncopated footwork) reflected the music: flowing melody, grace and balance coupled with abrupt, sharp lower body movements. I had to rethink my habitual dance movements, but also the gendered movements and muscle use which I was utterly unconscious of. Our movements are marked by gender and culture, ethnicity, age, class, experience. It’s in our interests, as social animals, that these movements become unconscious, so that we ‘fit in’, and give the ‘right signals’ to the people around us.

If you think for example, of how someone who sits too close to us on the bus makes us feel, then you kind of get the idea. That’s just a tiny example, but the way someone holds their body while sitting in a public, shared space, tells you about how they think and act about shared space (especially crowded shared space), and how they use muscle tension to delineate shared space. I mean, to be even clearer, if I want to crowd out someone on a shared bus seat, I ‘land and expand’. I sit down with control, but gradually relax my muscles so I gradually take up more space. This makes my seat mate feel ‘crowded’, so they move over. This even works on male suits in peak hour.

I think that my being aware of these issues is a disadvantage most of the time. It’s better to stop thinking and to let your body figure out what to do. If you have to think your way through every single movement, you’re going to be slow and your movement will look ‘unnatural’ and make people feel uncomfortable.

Finally, then, I have to say that this class was wonderful. I felt very welcome, and I liked the way the class was quite quickly paced and felt ‘all business’. We didn’t fuck around with fake jokes, we got on and danced, all the time. I liked the way the other student modelled respect for the teacher, so I knew how I was supposed to act. I also liked the way we could relax these relationships when we got outside the classroom. Out there it was all rowdiness and comparing movements and excited, adrenaline-charged, dance-high loud talk. And not just from me.

I’m definitely going back for more. Though I suspect this will be a long, challenging road for me. Perhaps I should buy some music?

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