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.