Why Some Dancers Are Giving “Hiplet” Serious Side Eye
Hiplet is sweeping the nation. Between TedX, Refinery29, Desigual campaigns, Anna Wintour's #madeforher fundraiser and the plethora of morning show spots, the hybrid dance craze—known for its sassy runway-style walks on pointe and crab-like bent-knee jazzy chassés—has gone viral.
Hiplet is the brain child of Homer Hans Bryant, a former Dance Theatre of Harlem principal who, in 1981, founded Chicago Multi-Cultural Dance Center (then called Bryant Ballet), aka the studio where young Sasha and Malia Obama studied before moving to the White House. Bryant started putting hip hop movement on pointe in 1994 with a piece he choreographed for his students, called The Rap Ballet. That evolved into what became hiplet (a portmanteau of hip hop and ballet), which is now a regular class at his school.
But his curious blend of hip hop sur la pointe has proven to be quite provocative. Some see the blending of the urban and European dance vernaculars as a positive by-product of the black ballerina movement. For me and many others, it sets our teeth on edge.
Why such strong reactions? As a former ballet dancer, and current ballet educator, I've attempted to break down why it evokes such icky feelings.
1. The Lack of Ballet Technique
Unlike hiplet, Robert Garland's Return blends ballet with social dance in a way that shows off the dancers' virtuosic technique
Most troublesome for me is the fact that the hiplet ladies have so little ballet technique. To be fair, the three older dancers who are typically featured in the group numbers have beautiful feet and show flashes of solid ballet training. But many of the rest are unable to fully get on their box. It's cringe-worthy and dangerous.
Perhaps if the hiplet dancers exhibited the duality of striking beautiful first arabesque lines in addition to being able to "break it down," there might be less vitriol. For example, Robert Garland's Return set to music by Aretha Franklin and James Brown melds ballet and social dance quite well by highlighting the adroit ballet technique and versatility of Dance Theatre of Harlem's dancers.
But most of the hiplet dancers can't hit those ballet lines, and as a result, the technique is more akin to a toe tapping in a vaudevillian sideshow.
Which is weird, because Bryant is a fantastic ballet teacher, known for his bootcamp-like approach to ballet training. He's famous for employing tactics like non-stop "aerobic" barres, from pliés to battements with no breaks; as you turn from the left side to the right he'll bark out the next combination. I know because I was his student at a DTH summer intensive at age 13. He was inspiring and effective, well-versed in technique, and was a stickler for strength, stamina and precision.
So for people who have danced and trained (in the traditional capacity) with Bryant, hiplet leaves many of us asking the question, "What happened?" Bryant is finally getting some of the recognition that he is due. It's unfortunate is it not for what he is truly gifted at: training technically proficient ballet dancers.
2. It’s Neither Hip(Hop) nor (Bal)Let
Is Memphis Jookin more balletic than hiplet? Lil Buck uses elements of pointe work in his movement
Hiplet purports to be a blend of hip hop and ballet, but the lack of authentic representation of either genre is another reason some of us are giving it a hard side-eye. The only aspects of ballet would be the use of pointe shoes and some questionably-executed basic ballet vocabulary. And the technique doesn't draw from real hip hop roots, either. The foundational techniques of hip hop are popping, locking and breaking, although Jookin, a Memphis-born derivative (also known as the "Gangsta walk"), sometimes resembles ballet with its elements of gliding and toe work. But hiplet is more of a mash-up of many styles of West African, Horton, jazz, dance hall and social dance.
3. It Undercuts Legit Advances for Black Dancers
Just when black ballerinas like Michaela DePrince are climbing the ranks in major companies, hiplet presents a caricature of "blacks doing ballet." Photo by Angela Sterling, courtesy Dutch National Ballet
For ballet dancers of color, hiplet is something of an embarrassment. Just when artistic directors are finally taking the need for diversity seriously, and a few black ballerinas are climbing the ranks in major companies, there is hiplet. Just when we can proudly and enthusiastically hashtag #blackballerinas, #blackelegance #browngirlsdoballet and mean it, when we feel like we are the Jeffersons, movin' on up, hiplet is the ghettoization of blacks doing "ballet." Not because it blends African American urban social dance and a European court social dance, but because it does it crudely, without sophistication and hence becomes a mockery of our honest efforts to excel at the latter while not honoring the brilliance of the former.
It is not coincidental that just as we have numerous examples of black ballet excellence, a caricaturized image of "blacks doing ballet" becomes the rage. There has always been a cultural counterbalance that happens when African Americans start to make progress. When movies or televisions shows featuring positive black characters and stories are finally produced, there is always what feels like a backlash, where we are presented with versions of ourselves that are laughable or belittling. It feels like tiny weights have been tethered to our wings just as we think we are about to soar.
4. It Feels Immature and Opportunistic
If a 20-something dance student snapping footage of friends fooling around in a studio complete with the "YASSSSSES" and "WERKS" in the background was responsible for hiplet, people could better understand it, because it feels immature, impromptu, faddish. When you learn that it is the product of a 67-year-old man, it seems...odd. It feels opportunistic, a phenomenon that is riding the wave of conversations about blacks in ballet straight to the bank. There is nothing inherently wrong with that, but you have to ask, "At what cost?" More than ever, images create our reality. Does hiplet help or hurt?
Who knows how long hiplet will be on our radar. I am sure that these young ladies are having wonderful experiences and seeing aspects of the world that they never thought possible. That in and of itself is a positive.
But it is hard to imagine these students growing up become hiplet teachers, or mothers being willing to spend upwards of $80 a pop for pointe shoes for daughters to learn to Dougie on in the long-term. But stranger things have happened.
For now, in old-school fashion, I'll give a nod to Naughty by Nature and say, "Hip hop hiplet, hey, no."
Last night, American Ballet Theatre held its annual Fall Gala at the David H. Koch Theater in New York City. To celebrate ABT's artistic director Kevin McKenzie's 25 years of leadership, dancers from ABT's company, apprentices, studio company members and students from the Jaqueline Kennedy Onassis School took to the stage in Jessica Lang's The Gift, Alexei Ratmansky's Songs of Bukovina and Christopher Wheeldon's Thirteen Diversions.
But we also love a good behind-the-scenes glimpse—especially when designer gowns are involved. And the dancers gave us plenty of glam looks to obsess over once the curtains closed. Ahead, see our favorite moments from gala straight from the dancers.
Devon Teuscher in the floral print suit of our dreams (by designer Patricia Bonaldi) practices her dance moves with Christine Shevchenko. Both girls accessorized with sparkling jewels from gala sponsor de Grisogono.
The dancers file into an audition room. They are given a number and asked to wait for registration to finish before the audition starts. At the end of the room, behind a table and a computer (and probably a number of mobile devices), there I sit, doing audio tests and updating the audition schedule as the room fills up with candidates. The dancers, more nervous than they need to be, see me, typing, perhaps teasing my colleagues, almost certainly with a coffee cup at my side.
Last week Ballet West breezed into New York City's Joyce Theater from Salt Lake City. The dancers are excellent—especially the women (what else is new). The company brought five pieces including works by Gerald Arpino, Val Caniparoli and resident choreographer Nicolo Fonte.
Arpino's last work, made in 2004, is a duet called RUTH, Ricordi per Due ("remembrance for two"). It's about a man haunted by the memory of the woman he loved. Christopher Ruud is strong and sensitive as the man, and Arolyn Williams is riveting as the ghost of his beloved.
Val Caniparoli energizes his dancers with juicy movement, and always sticks to his theme. (He doesn't ramble, and let's face it, long rambling choreography is a problem these days.) In his premiere for Ballet West, Dances for Lou, he takes on the music of Lou Harrison, a composer known for his Eastern sounds and rhythms.
Photo by Filip VanRoe, courtesy Marquee
Your Saturday nights are about to go from "Netflix and chill" to "Marquee and chill." (Okay, maybe we'll need to coin a new phrase).
But seriously, the new streaming app Marquee Arts TV lets you curl up with Bolshoi Ballet's Swan Lake, Sylvie Guillem dancing Mats Ek's solo Bye, a dance film by Cullberg Ballet called 40 M Under, or a documentary about Alonzo King and LINES Ballet. Marquee unlocks a world of digital arts: dance, theater, opera, music, documentaries and film shorts that you can stream directly to your TV or mobile device.
When Simone Forti moved from California to New York City in 1960, she brought with her the improvisational approach of Anna Halprin. As one of the first five students in Robert Dunn's John Cage–inspired composition course (that led to Judson Dance Theater), she was a magnet for two others in that class: Yvonne Rainer and Steve Paxton. This month the three reunite for Tea for Three, an evening of moving and talking at Danspace Project, Oct. 26–28. It's a chance to see how dance mavericks grow and change and mellow. Forti will also give "Body Mind World" workshops Oct. 19–20. danspaceproject.org.
When you're dancing for what feels like eight days a week, it takes more than just stretching to put your body back in order. You need a good rub down. Unfortunately, most of us don't exactly have the money to afford an on-call personal masseuse.
The solution: Self-massage, with foam rollers, lacrosse balls, elbows and anything else that can help loosen up your muscles. We dug into Dance Magazine's archives to find the best pieces of advice we've published on the topic. Follow these rules to get what you, ahem, knead out of self-massage.
This week American Ballet Theatre launches its fall season at Lincoln Center with an exciting lineup of performances. One last-minute addition to the program is a new work from Benjamin Millepied, which will be performed by ABT Studio Company and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School dancers in the theater's promenade during select intermissions. Although the specifics of the performance are hush hush, we stepped into the studio with Millepied for an inside look.
What has it been like to choreograph on younger dancers and how, if at all, did you change your approach?
To be honest, they're really good. Rhythmically, it's not easy at all and they've done incredibly well. The piece could be longer. It's really one movement but, for the first time, to use that space it felt right. Nothing says I couldn't add two more movements next season to make it longer.
What are your thoughts on bringing classical ballet outside the proscenium setting?
For me, it's great to think of spaces theatrically. We build sets with lighting and props, but there are also all these environments that are beautiful and theatrical, and with a little bit of work you can create something within them and that becomes site-specific. That's really fun because you create something really specific for the environment.
What would you like to see more of from young ballet dancers?
What I would want to see more of in ballet is just more interesting collaborations. These ballet dancers are great and they're ready and what they need is more interesting work. I feel people are playing it safe a lot. If anything, I think it's the choreographers and the directors who need to make an effort for these dancers who have made this art form their passion, and to really be as daring or at least as relevant as some of our peers were when they were commissioning pieces a long time ago.
For many victims of recent natural disasters like Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Maria, the new "normal" involves power outages, food shortages and massive property damage. The dance community has stepped up to help by doing what they do best: This Sunday, October 22, members from major American companies will perform in two separate concerts in New York City, benefitting those affected by the hurricanes in Texas and Puerto Rico.