Crash Course: Hip Hop
Hip hop dance is getting more watered down by the day, according to teacher/choreographer Kennis Marquis, and it makes him
mad. "These days, people are mixing hip hop with ballet and jazz," he says. "They're doing this stiff, robotic, drill-team,
cheerleading type of thing, and that's not what hip hop is."
So what is it? Ask five different dancers to describe the technique, and you'll get five different answers. One thing everyone
seems to agree on, though, is that today's dancers don't know the history of hip hop, and it shows in how they move. While hip
hop has yet to be codified and documented as thoroughly as older genres like ballet, there are a few milestones that veteran
dancers typically cite when they talk about the past: Around 1970, a Los Angeles street dancer named Don Campbell invented
the Campbell lock, or locking, as it became known. In 1977, the Electric Boogaloos dance group emerged in Fresno; that same
year, on the other side of the country, the Bronx's Rock Steady Crew formed and went on to appear in films including Wild Style
and Beat Street. Many of the original members of both crews have remained active in the dance world, teaching workshops
internationally and choreographing for music videos, dance companies, and more.
Hip hop, and especially breaking, gained more widespread popularity in the '80s, thanks to films like Flashdance and the advent
of MTV. These days, the Philadelphia-based company Rennie Harris Puremovement is taking hip hop to a new theatrical level
with full-length narrative works like Rome and Jewels, a hip hop treatment of Shakespeare's tale. Harris has also taken some of
hip hop's innovators on the road with The Legends of Hip Hop tour.
Hip hop dancers have long created new styles by building on older ones, and have often taught themselves by watching movies,
music videos, and other dancers, rather than by taking studio classes. Despite their differences, the styles are connected by the
music, plus a low-slung center of gravity that comes from African dance roots, and some shared basic steps. Many steps don't
have specific names; in class, teachers might speak generally of jumps and turns or use imagery to evoke how a step-should
look. Hip hop training relies less on specific exercises than on strength training, flexibility, and learning to isolate and move body
parts independently from the rest of the body.
WHACKING Shane Sparks, who teaches at Millennium Dance Complex in Los Angeles and choreographed for the film You Got
Served and the T.V. show So You Think You Can Dance, describes it as quick arm movements done around the head in a
circular motion, similar to the voguing style showcased in the documentary Paris Is Burning and Madonna's Vogue video. It's
more often found in dance clubs than on stages.
KRUMPING Aggressive, sometimes confrontational movements centered around the torso and hips, with big traveling steps
and sudden jumps or slides to the floor (as in David LaChapelle's film Rize). "It's whatever you feel at the moment," Sparks
says. "The beautiful thing about krumping is that you can never do it wrong if you express yourself honestly. It's taking pain
and anger and releasing it in a crowd." He and Marquis, also a teacher at Millennium, characterize clowning (which is less
aggressive and has more of a comedic edge) as an element of krumping.
POPPING Unlike krumping and clowning, which Sparks describes as more of an expression of personal style, popping and
locking involve technique that can be taught. It has to do with quick isolations centered on particular body parts, Marquis says,
and how to contract and control them. A leg isolation, might involve "a snapping of the leg backward, tensing the muscle as if
you're about to lift something really heavy," says Sparks. "That's the accent, that snap." Along with the legs, the shoulders and
chest are typically popped.
LOCKING A more fluid movement than popping, it's also looser and more comedic. It can also be bouncy and clownlike, with
fingers pointed out or hands smacking together. Popping and locking are sometimes done together--they both involve isolations
and quick, even jerky, movement.
BREAKING "It's making your body do contorted movements that you shouldn't do," Sparks says. "It's doing the craziest thing
you can without getting hurt, and the more creative you get, the doper you are." Basics include floor spins supported on various
body parts, such as the windmill (a back spin), plus freezes (sudden movement stops and holds) and the six-step, a kind of
semi-circle bob and weave where dancers push their chest, hips, and arms forward and back (almost like a chest pop) while
their feet make a grapevine-type pattern.
FREESTYLING Hip hop improv, a skill dancers develop over time rather than learn in class. Marquis calls it a dancer's resume,
because it shows technique, creativity, musicality, and personality. People who don't work on freestyling often look like they're
counting rather than dancing full out. A good way to approach freestyling, Sparks says, is to pick out a single element in the
music--the horns, a snare drum--and use that as a movement guide.
Marquis and Sparks also offer some advice about hip hop technique as a whole:
• The closer you are to the ground, the more control you have over the movement.
• Much of hip hop involves isolations, so you have to know how to move each part individually--that knowledge will help you
move better as a whole later on.
• Focusing on the music helps you know what accents to hit.
• Engage your brain along with your body. Visualize where the steps are coming from: "A chest pop comes from the heart,"
says Sparks. "When I'm doing the wave, I'm picturing slithering through a tunnel. If I stomp the ground, it's not just a move.
I'm stomping like I'm shaking the earth. It's not just how I move my body, it's what I'm thinking."
By Heather Wisner
Dance Magazine, October 2007