When it comes to media, minorities are often made to be representatives of their identities. Here is a token black, gay, lesbian, lower-class etc. character. Very few, and sometimes only one, character is expected to perform as and represent the entire scope of their identity. In media, this is automatically an impossible task. A demographic cannot be reduced to a single identity or expression, as the group is not a homogenous entity. The creation of a flat character that relies on stereotypes and archetypes is unfortunately a very easy and comfortable pitfall for creators to fall into.
This is not restricted to media, either. Often, everyday people are aware of how they present themselves. “Am I confirming a stereotype by dressing/acting this way?” “Is it my responsibility to break these assumptions down?” “Am I acting this way because it’s me or is it in response to this stereotype?” These questions and more pass through our minds. Merely being a minority presents a bind of whether or not they present or act ____ enough. Although one shouldn’t be defined by a stereotype, one’s presentation and performance is ultimately at least tangentially influenced by them. The question of how one’s performance reflects on their identity is a constant presence.
Dance is coded in a similar way. Dance is literally a performance, and has expectations based on one’s race. Everybody moves differently, and their self is expressed in their style of motion, whether it’s innate or trained. Yet, there are manners of dancing that are prescribed to different groups. African-American dances moves are often considered to be things like “ghetto” or “ratchet,” but once they’re popularized they become the dance crazes at parties. (In a sense we can view this as a continued form of cultural appropriation). The old adage that white people can’t dance is its own code, but the prototype for high or classical dance is primarily a white figure. While other schemas regarding race are more prevalent, these views on dance and race are disappointing. One of the most common forms of self-expression, freedom, and individual motion still ends up codified by race. A person should be allowed to be themselves without having to represent their race to begin with, but they should also be able to dance without being put into a box based on their identity.
For Disney’s Christmas retelling of “The Nutcracker,” Misty Copeland has been cast to perform the ballet in the movie. She is also the first African-American female principal dancer in the American Ballet Theater. Her presence as the ballerina offers an opportunity to help diversify the prototypes surrounding ballet dancers. Copeland has stated that she hopes her inclusion will accomplish this. Being made the image of the ballerina in the classic Christmas tale gives Copeland a chance to open up the prototype of the ballerina to be more than the blonde white version that many people have in their minds. Copeland is taking the role in stride, and has always been a vocal person about the lack of diversity in ballet. Being involved with a company as far-reaching as Disney only makes the role a stronger vehicle for diversifying ballet’s image.
I think it’s amazing that Disney chose to cast Copeland for the movie. Exposing young children to a different image of a ballerina than the norm can go a long way in opening up peoples’ minds, and giving young black girls a model to aspire towards. While African-Americans have carved out their out space in the dance scene through hip hop and breaking cultures, the classical and higher arts have often appeared to have a barrier that couldn’t be breached. In the same way that people tend to attribute higher-level teaching to male teachers, many may also attribute higher arts to white people (barring notable exceptions). Introducing an African-American ballerina to a mainstream medium can go a long way in breaking down those mental barriers. Copeland gets to represent and diversify ballet through this one role that much of her dance career has pivoted around.
Emotions have a way of manifesting themselves, in just about any circumstance. When a group is pushed to the margins, they’ll find a way to make their own voice heard. A favorite method of the marginalized communities in America is music. Music and dance in general are associated heavily with celebration and ritual, and their use has been a method of preserving Africana culture and identity during the slave trade. Music is its own little rebellion. Playing, creating, dancing to it, etc. are all ways that someone without a voice can assert themselves. No matter how far something is pushed to the side, sound remains as a way to defy that force. Music is a way of saying “Here I am.”
Across time, music has served the purpose of expression and an embracing of one’s identity in America. Expression from the body has a visceral sense to it. It comes from a passionate overflow of one’s self: Their emotions and their condition. The freestyle form of breaking, or the colloquially-known breakdance, is especially useful for one’s own expression. It’s served in part as an outlet for urban communities for decades. The pent-up energy just comes out when it has the chance, no matter how long it’s been suppressed.
Whenever I’m feeling down, anxious, angry, or things that aren’t so negative-sounding like happy, dance is there for me as an outlet. My body is my own tool, and the music that I move to is another. There is a stark difference in my movement when it comes from a passion for the form or from when it comes from my personal feelings. The body wants to move in response to one’s difficulties. Everyone has their own style and expression, and the welled up emotions one has are wonderfully shown in their motion.
In the same way, hip hop music and the freestyle nature of it suit other people. Art and graffiti are born from one’s internalized demand for action. Even when pushed to the margins, one’s emotions find a way to be expressed.
China White is teaching students at her private studio in Columbus, Ohio. Having been a dancer with the Dance Theatre of Harlem, White has been imparting the same lessons of the co-founder Arthur Mitchell. Arthur Mitchell broke the color barrier by performing classical ballet, and remains influential to the Africana classical dance community. His theatre gave young children an opportunity to learn about dance and the arts. He was able to visit White’s private studio and interact with some of her students. Mitchell unfortunately passed away this past September, but White’s own tutelage provides an opportunity to continue his lessons and influence. White continues the legacy of providing a space for Africana dancers, and a community of role models for them.
The Dance Theatre of Harlem’s founding was a groundbreaking undertaking that was founded by Arthur Mitchell and Karel Shook in 1969. It’s providing of a community for those with a passion for dance, and a focus on racial diversity, helps to break the prototype of the white classical ballet artist. By inserting this image of a successful, expressive, and high-quality institution of multi-cultural dancers, the Dance Theatre of Harlem is changing the schemas of what a ballet dancer looks like, and gives young Africana children people who they can see themselves in. I think it’s awesome that such a thing exists, and is able to provide an opportunity for these children.
I read an article today that spoke about “La Bamba” and its history in America. This came up due to its involvement one year ago in a counter-protest in Shelbyville, Tennessee. At this counter-protest, people showed up against the white supremacist demonstrators and played music and did chants in order to drown out their speeches. In one particular moment, a white supremacist was shut down by the blaring of “La Bamba,” a bop of a song that’s very easy and natural to dance to. This turned the protest into more of a concert, with the counter-protestors all jamming along to the music. The song has evolved with time and with new artist covers, who each add their own spin to it.
The song itself first appeared in the 1950s in a version by seventeen-year-old Ritchie Valens, adapted from an old Mexican folk song. The name La Bamba may have roots in “umbamba,” a beat from Africa that fused with the Spanish traditions of the surrounding people. The instruments of son jarocho were played in an Afro-Caribbean style and rhythm for traditional versions of “La Bamba.” As the song was popularized in the US, hip hop elements and culture found their way into new versions and covers. Like hip hop’s freestyle nature, the son jarocho style is always changing its lyrics, and so can change with the climate of the time a new version is written. The song is now so ingrained in the US culture that it’s thematic to play such a song against a white supremacist speaker.
A song that has the enduring traditions of Africana people has found its way into Mexican culture, and then into American culture, and then was used to protest white supremacy in America. The song has survived slavery and colonialism. That a song whose tradition is so built upon the merging of cultures and immigration could be used in such a way is amazing. It’s Mexican culture, Africana culture, and has been adopted by American culture, too. It’s a great example of the blended form of the American culture that we have.
The worldwide competition Redbull BC One recently finished, and Lil Zoo took home first place this year. Despite being a corporate creation, the competition generally adheres to the culture of breaking. The judges this year were from the 90s, but previous years have featured more OG judges. The breaking style has expanded to incorporate other elements like house rock, gymnastic power moves, and even ballet over the years, and breakers also push the limits of variations within moves, yet the sport as a whole keeps within the spirit of breaking. As a competition, cleanliness of form and artistic expression have become major factors of the sport.
The use of commandos is popular in contemporary breaking, which is a practiced routine that a crew will often use to open up for one of their individual members. Routines show unity and creativity as a group, but are also great spectacle. To a degree, this combines the freestyle element of breaking with other practiced performance dance forms. The bboy crew Morning of Owl is often cited as one of the best and most creative routine makers, although at the same time many traditionalist bboys consider them to be a hybrid crew rather than a purely breaking crew.
Morning of Owl has also been featured on NBC’s World of Dance. Where competitions like Redbull BC One retain their urban identity and can keep to the breaking spirit, the World of Dance isn’t restricted to a particular style, and leaves room for hybridization. World of Dance, and other act-competition shows like America’s Got Talent, provide a space that forces its competitors to be constantly improving and evolving throughout. World of Dance also features a “battles” section in their season run, where two groups will be pitted against each other to avoid elimination. Compared to breaking battles, the World of Dance battles is simply two performances that are ranked against each other, rather than the multiple rounds and back-and-forth communication that breaking—and most urban/hip-hip battles–constitutes.
The format that World of Dance uses doesn’t mesh well with the more freestyle jive that urban dance and hip hop prefers. Rounds are rehearsed, choreographed, and set to music, and restricts bboys and b-girls in a way that the form normally doesn’t. Restricted in performance by the creation of a piece, by the choice of a specific song, by the choreographers or directors. Breakers featured in music videos are often in a similar situation, where the urban dance is taken and put into a particular set and form for a marketable audience. For an art and sport like breaking, these sorts of things really alter the spirit of it. It’s no longer about expression in freestyle and letting yourself become one with the music, but choosing to impose yourself against a beat instead.
Where the media has a tendency to conflate hip hop dancing and breaking, the 2002 documentary on bboying, “The Freshest Kids,” stands out for being an accurate representation of bboying history and hip hop culture. Previously, I wrote on how the media has altered bboying culture through its popularization and later falling out of public favor. Here, the documentary brings up the same points, but speaks more on the evolution of breaking into a sport and how it retains its counter-culture status.
By relying mainly on real bboys’ accounts of the scene, “The Freshest Kids” maintains its accurate representation of bboying. DJ Kool Herc is acknowledged as the first DJ to utilize the break in a song for music at parties, and how bboying evolved alongside the music from there. The mechanic of breaking’s reduction of violence is explained, in giving some kids an outlet that would also tire them out beyond being able to fight, and in giving gangs a nonviolent way of deciding things. The documentary also brings up the popular fight-dance capoiera as a parallel to breeaking, which had also been used as a fight-dance, except in America.
Breaking’s resurgence as a sport has certainly changed the culture around it, as media popularity spread the idea and style throughout the world. Each area developed its own way of breaking, often focusing more on steps, flow, rotations, or other things. As time goes on, the documentary brings up the competitive form that it took on. Bboying entered a state of competition, sport, and expression that had lost its “gangster” edge. Some bboys remark on the difference between those who call breaking “bboying” versus “breakdance,” and the general stratification between an OG or someone who caught on to it as a fad. They point out how even its continuous use by the media has put the term “breakdance” in their head, and how they find themselves calling it that from its saturation.
The documentary was a breath of fresh air, as it also incorporated information on the hip hop scene in general, from particular crews to the hip hop style of the west coast. Bboys also got to voice their thoughts on the commoditization of bboying and how they’re often placed in the background of popular hip hop videos without receiving true focus. The points brought up on how popularization and public perception can alter a sport still hold true today. One of the most popular gatherings for bboys is the Redbull BC One competition, a tournament organized and held by the Redbull energy drink company.
In reading about stereotypes and images presented for Africana people, my mind came to thinking about where I’ve seen these “roles” played out in contemporary settings. One of the first things that came to mind was the role of the sidekick. In the popular movie universe by Marvel, both main heroes are white men. Tony Stark and Steve Rogers both also have a sidekick who often fights alongside them. For Tony Stark, this is Colonel James Rhodes. For Steve Rogers, this is Sam Wilson. In this case, the sidekick is a somewhat snarky yet loyal companion to the main hero. Seeing this format played out twice in one franchise makes me wonder if this is a sort of role that’s been placed on the protagonist black man in media. The black man is present, and even if he’s good, he’s still nothing more than the side character to a white man. The production and release of ‘Black Panther’ was a revolutionary movie that pushed against this idea, and may open up avenues for popular media to be more equal.
Another role that is common is one half of the buddy cop movie dynamic. In just about any instance of this dynamic, an Africana character is the deviant of the situation. Either they’re rough, violent, rule-breakers, or lackadaisical in their actions. Although they’re often in search of justice or upholding the law, their methods are a mix comedy and violence that seem to be less common when applied to white buddy cop characters. While one instance is a character, this common form generates a trend and strengthens the notion that black men are more violent or angry. These two roles stuck out to me in particular due to Marvel’s popularity, as well as how often I’ve seen cop movies in the past.
This week, while searching for new ideas for breaking and for moves to teach to our club, I came across a student thesis that detailed the history of breaking as a movement and the media’s effects on it. It details the spontaneous origin of the dance style as it evolved along with the beats and music that it was used with. What I found interesting was how its popularity backfired against itself. As bboying grew popular, as a form of expression, method of giving young people a safe outlet, and as a way for rival gangs to nonviolently go against each other, the media caught wind of it.
In referring to bboying, or breaking, as “breakdancing,” the media had already taken from the culture. This name, unfortunately, is the popularized form, and is even part of our own club’s sub-title. Its sudden presence in the media made it something to be commodified and used as a fad as well. Its presence in the media became controlled in the same way media is controlled. Bboys are featured, and used for attention, yet the public slowly pushed against the movement that it brought to light by bringing up articles about bboying injuries or by preventing them from practicing on the sidewalks. Their appearances in TV shows further solidified their media perception, as media controlled the music played or the contexts around them. Breakdance as a term has also been expanded to include most urban types of dance, whereas breaking or bboying still retain their original contexts by virtue of not being used by mass media. The internet, unfortunately, has not fared better. The mass media’s use of breakdance has slipped into the internet’s vernacular as a blanket term, and its sheer amount of use has cemented it as the common term. The use of videos on the internet for new breakers to learn the form has also created a space where the popular videos all become a common branching point for these isolated and non-communal bboys.
I found it interesting how the media has come to shape something whose current form I love so much. While I knew some things like how the journalist use of “breakdancing” hurt the form already, the commodification of bboying and its controlled use in creative media was new to me. I found it interesting how perception came to affect the form, and how bringing it into the realm of existing “traditional” dance and sport altered it further.
“Internet Killed the B-boy Star: A Study of B-boying Through the Len of Contemporary Media” -Dehui Kong
For a class project, I was prompted to look up statistics involving African-Americans and numerous categories. In order to better gauge perception vs reality, I ended up looking at various statistics about domestic abuse, violence, welfare, and education. This was mainly in response to the many comments that I found under talk shows. There, usually in response to talk show videos regarding dating, I came across plenty of comments from both black and non-black people, and the perceptions from both sides seemed surprisingly similar in their biases.
The chief among these comments was the idea that black men were abusive and generally bad because of some secret self-hatred that society produced. On a personal level, I found it interesting how this comment acknowledged how society created a bad image that reflected in black men’s self-perception, and yet was willing to contribute to it at the same time. Statistically, the rate of abuse from black men was indeed higher than other races, but it was not a majority. Many organizations who advocate for black visibility and creating a more holistic view of black people pointed out how society’s pressures and expectations from biases can often come from media representation, and create a self-fulfilling prophecy where black men will develop an image of themselves from media, and may come to embody that image in one way or another. On welfare, many studies about America’s numerous welfare services reported that an equal amount of black and white people received welfare assistance, at about thirty-nine percent each. While this means that the welfare services are giving out equal amounts, the differences in America’s total population means that a higher proportion of black men are on welfare.
I just found these statistics interesting in how media-fueled perceptions of black men tend to be extremely generalized in ways that don’t affect others races to such a degree. While many perceptions turned out to have some validity to them, the extremes (“all black men,” “nobody wants a black woman,” etc.) to which they are held are wildly out of proportion. Many studies cited media representation as a major contributor to these perceptions.