It started back in the spring. That’s when Hiplet, the hybrid of hip hop and ballet popularized by Chicago’s Homer Bryant, leapt onto the national scene thanks to an appearance by Bryant’s students on ABC’s morning show, “Good Morning America.”
Since then, Bryant and Hiplet (pronounced like ballet but with hip in the beginning) have been featured seemingly everywhere, from local Chicago media to national media. Most recently, none other than the New York Times wrote about Hiplet calling it, “one of the more curious hybrids to make its way out of the dance world into popular culture.
To its credit, the New York Times story goes into remarkable detail about the aesthetics and technique behind Hiplet.
But the irony of the significant space given in the New York Times, “Good Morning America,” and other prestigious national outlets is, I’m sure, not lost on the numbers of black dancers and choreographers – professional and pre-professional – who have, in some cases, devoted a lifetime towards creating more traditional forms of dance of every genre and have never received that sort of attention.
So, to borrow from the classic song, hip hop hooray for Hiplet, right?
When I first saw Hiplet, it was in one of many videos Bryant posted on social media to show off the talents of his students at his Chicago Multi-Cultural Dance Center. Most of the videos showed the rigorous classical ballet training offered at Bryant’s school. The Hiplet videos reflected the fun, but relatively minimal place Hiplet had in Bryant’s repertoire. It seemed relatively harmless. Who hasn’t goofed around on pointe shoes or watched their child or students do something similar?
But to see Hiplet being discussed in a more serious vein brings up a whole host of other questions – about how we present ourselves and how we, as black dancers, are presented.
This is not a question of jealousy, appropriateness, racist attitudes or being siddity.
Hiplet is fun. It’s fun to watch and, based on the energy of the dancers I’ve seen, it seems fun to do. And Bryant, a stalwart in the dance community who I first met as a student at the Dance Theatre of Harlem, is a master teacher who has weathered more than his share of setbacks and challenges. It’s hard to assess the strength of his students based on videos, but Bryant insists that they are technically sound and strong. Based on videos of his students doing standard classical work, that would seem to be the case. Bryant students in “Paquita”
But Hiplet plays right into the muddy waters of stereotypes that always threaten to engulf blacks in classical ballet. Those waters include the low numbers and dozens of reasons behind those low numbers of black dancers in classical ballet period, and the even smaller numbers of those dancers who rise past the rank of corps de ballet.
And then there is the even thornier thicket of issues behind the presentation of black women in classical ballet. For decades, black women have fought against a perception that they were incapable or less capable of achieving the right aesthetic, the strength of technique mixed with the grace to really do classical ballet. That was the magic of the Dance Theatre of Harlem’s presence, especially during its heyday.More often than not, they are celebrated, not for their femininity or grace, but their power,
But today, the perception remains. More often than not, black women in classical ballet are celebrated, not for their femininity or grace, but their power and athleticism.
Even today, when many classical ballet companies have one or two black women, more often than not, these women are cast in roles that celebrate, not their femininity or softness, but their power and speed.
That is the true triumph of Misty Copeland’s rise to and presence as the first black woman to be a principal dancer at American Ballet Theatre. She’s not just being featured in the athletic stuff; her casting has been in the same works in the classical ballet canon as her peers including “Swan Lake,” “Romeo and Juliet”and “La Fille Mal Gardee.”
Hiplet lands squarely in the middle of all of this. On the one hand, its success plays right into the stereotypes of black dancers as spirited booty shakers and blacks in ballet as being less capable.
But on the other hand, there is a sort of defiance at work here, a sort of attitude of giving ballet and its conventions the finger by embracing Hiplet. It’s ours. It’s cool. It’s fun.
Bryant is right that Hiplet and his school are succeeding in reaching out to black kids and encouraging them to embrace ballet. And these dancers look breathtakingly normal. You could see them taking the floor and entertaining a crowd who doesn’t know a plie from a pas de bourree.
So there’s the dilemma.
Hopefully, as Bryant continues to develop and build on this phenomenon, he will find ways to address all of this, perhaps by ensuring that his dancers are presented in ways that show all of their talents and all of his as a teacher.
In the meantime, Hiplet seems to be here to stay. So hip hop hooray.
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