Centerwork: Not Such a Man's World

October 31, 2012

A global festival celebrates women in hip-hop.



Contestants in the Ladies of Hip-Hop Festival’s First Annual Ladies Battle, including Ariella Bradley (center left)
. Photos by NayMarie Photography, Courtesy Byrd-McPhee.


It’s somewhere between midnight and 1 a.m. on a Friday in July, but Michele Byrd-McPhee radiates the fresh, focused energy of a person whose day is just getting started. Clipboard in hand and fanny pack slung stylishly around her hips, the 42-year-old director of the Ladies of Hip-Hop Festival strides across the stage of the Highline Ballroom, conferring with the female judges, DJ, and emcee who are her cohorts in tonight’s event. Every so often, she pauses to size up the eager crowd: More than 200 dancers and their supporters have gathered here in New York City for the First Annual Ladies Battle, which opens a weekend of workshops and performances organized by women, for women.


“I honestly was surprised at the turnout,” says Byrd-McPhee, who founded the festival in 2004 to empower and educate women in a world where most of the key players are men—from the dancers and choreographers, to the DJs and emcees, to the event organizers and club owners. “I’ve gone to lots of battles, and it’s always the same 10 or 15 women, as opposed to like 50 guys. A lot of these women I didn’t even know; some of them came from other countries. It was amazing to see the reach that the festival has started to have.”


Byrd-McPhee has never doubted the strong presence of women in street dance, in terms of sheer numbers. What she’s been trying to create is a greater sense of community and leadership among them. In 1998, she started an all-female troupe, Montazh Performing Arts Company (now the Ladies of Hip-Hop Festival Crew), precisely because, as a regular in the Philadelphia club scene, she saw so many women on the dance floor but far fewer in professional roles.


“I was part of the club scene very young, very early on, as hip-hop was coming up,” she says. “I knew a lot of amazing female dancers, but none of them were teaching or  performing.” At the time, she recalls, Rennie Harris’ Philadelphia-based, then all-male company, Puremovement, “was becoming big. It gave the impression that there were no women in hip-hop, when there were tons of us. I knew a lot of guys that taught overseas and stuff like that, and I was like, How come we don’t get those gigs?” Byrd-McPhee thought she might land such a gig when she was invited to rehearse with Puremovement. But one day, when she was struggling to pick up some choreography, Harris nonchalantly informed her otherwise: “He said, ‘Oh, don’t worry about it. I don’t have women in my pieces anyway,’” she recounts. While Harris became a vital mentor to her and remains a good friend, she looks back on that experience as “kind of a blow”—though one that only fueled her future endeavors.


After establishing Montazh, Byrd-McPhee felt that her company members, many of whom had trained in studios, needed exposure to a more authentic kind of street dance, so she recruited a few leading female hip-hop teachers from New York City. Word spread quickly. “Women in Philadelphia started calling, saying ‘Can I come to the training? Can I come to the training?’ So in 2004, I decided to organize an open workshop,” Byrd-McPhee says. “I had Honey Rockwell, TweetBoogie, and Crystal Frazier, my cofounder of the company, and that was the first Ladies of Hip-Hop.”


While female hip-hop dancers have continued gaining visibility and respect since then, Byrd-McPhee notes that, as in other spheres of the dance field, the gender imbalance persists. “It’s true in ballet, in contemporary dance: The bulk of the students are women and the bulk of the directors, department heads, creators, are men.” But the problem runs deeper in hip-hop, she believes. She attributes this to “the misogynistic overtones” of the culture’s driving and most popular force—the music—and the ubiquitous images of women as “anonymous bodies” adorning the luxurious worlds of men in music videos.


House dancer Linda “LaNaija” Madueme, who taught at this year’s festival and adjudicated the house contest in the Ladies Battle, agrees that in terms of closing the gender gap in hip-hop, “where the shift needs to happen—and is happening currently—is in the leadership.” She sees Ladies of Hip-Hop as integral to that shift, providing younger dancers with strong female role models and a shared sense of purpose.


“Part of what makes it such a great event is that it’s not just for female dancers, but it’s run by women—the emcees, judges, production assistants, DJs,” says Madueme, 31, who leads an all-female urban dance crew in New York called MAWU (Music Alive Within Us). “It’s not enough to have women fighting to be seen in battles, onstage, or in auditions, because at the end of the day, it becomes about competition and just trying to serve yourself. To have women working together to do something for each other—we don’t do that enough.”


While Madueme, like most of the festival participants, travels in relatively underground circles, her sentiment is echoed in the commercial industry. “Women don’t unite enough, honestly,” says Rhapsody James, who has choreographed for Beyoncé and Britney Spears. She sees rivalry as the default mode among her female peers—herself included. “For example, when I see another girl who’s coming up, the initial reaction is not to help her be a better choreographer or pull her in as an assistant. No, what we do is we just stay away from her. Maybe if we did reach out to each other more, there would be more female choreographers.”


Michele Byrd-McPhee


Yet, as the Ladies Battle gets underway and dozens of dancers break out the best of their popping, waacking, house and freestyle hip-hop moves, the spirit in the room is an encouraging, not cutthroat, kind of competitive. “It was empowering to be around so many talented women,” says 26-year-old Ariella Bradley, who traveled from Philadelphia to take workshops, compete, and perform in the festival. “Everyone seemed truly inspired, wanting to push a little bit further, push themselves to get better.” And, she adds, “It was great to have so many men in the audience cheering us on.”


Indeed, Byrd-McPhee doesn’t intend to exclude anyone. (The workshops, though attended mostly by women, are open to all.) “I don’t preach that we should be separate, or that women shouldn’t be a part of or learn from men,” she says, “just that this is one time in the scope of a year for us to celebrate.”

As Bradley puts it, “It’s just about women gettin’ down.”

Siobhan Burke is a Dance Magazine associate editor.