First and foremost, this blog post will be from a space of love, which is currently the only energy powerful enough to destroy an oppressive system of ignorance-based normalities in this country. Love will be the only way that we can completely reform a toxic system of artistic hierarchy seeped in a history of racial oppression into a system of equality, integrity, and honoring all authentic American Dance Forms.
Love requires honesty and integrity, two very difficult energies to uphold in an american culture and commercial industry prioritizing commerce and reputation. You see, honesty and integrity are in response to taking care of the community at large, not just the community that supports you because they hope they gain something from knowing you. That is not love, that is actually commerce.
If you have studied Marxism or have been paying attention to the economic structures that exist around us in america, you understand that in order for capitalism to function, there must be a disposable lower class, or people who are working for little or no pay. Their social existence and narratives around their existence must be perpetuated from generation to generation in order for the hierarchical system to sustain itself and thereby function: hence mass incarceration in the united states in place of segregation, and prior to that, slavery. Dance will always reflect what is happening within the surrounding experience (political, economic, social, etc), as dance is the ultimate physical expression of the human experience and everything that this encompasses. What I am proposing here is that we must consider how our current experience of american dance is in direct reflection of our status quo of capitalism as priority above community love. What I am asking of you, dear reader, is that you consider how there exists a similar disposable lower class within the world of dance. This is a class of dancers who provide free or low-cost labor, and whose identity is taken from and mimicked for economic gain, yet never actually honored. This process is similar to, in a lesser degree, the prisoners held captive by the thousands, mainly from the Latino and African American communities, who are forced to work in prisons for free or to lessen the time of their prison sentence so that they can eventually rejoin the rest of society only to be shunned further.
Studio dance, something that I grew up in and respect in many ways, is why I worked as a dancer professionally, and it is why I could make a living as a paid teaching artist anywhere I lived within the country. But, why was I required to take ballet instead of the dance techniques developed within my own country? Ballet was created in Europe (actually also a street dance form made upright and proper by the high courts), greatly developed in Europe, and brought over to the united states. It did not originate here. Why is it set as a main requirement to perform ballet technique as entry into the majority of american collegiate dance programs? I am here choking on this, frustrated by this. Even the studio jazz that I understood as jazz was not actually Jazz. The hip hop that we mimicked from watching MTV and BET was not Hip Hop as it is experienced in those communities who created the movement. Studio dance exists in response to the economic structure upholding our nation: capitalism. How may we make money off of this art form of dance? What is going to attract the most customers and get the most views? Studio dance, which informs commercial dance, some concert dance, and most collegiate dance, is based in an emphasis of money: a piece of paper that people spend their entire life chasing, only to lose it at the time of death.
Street dance, which is not necessarily done on the street, encompasses those movement artists who have developed through resilience and in honor of their heritage and culture a relationship to dance that is aimed at prioritizing unique individual expression, the strength of the community, experiencing bliss together in the midst of human suffering, and unifying (dissolving the ego-the self) through movement. The ultimate form of these aims is a Cypher. A Cypher cannot occur without a certain level of understanding, experience, and love from the surrounding community, generally in a circle formation. Nowadays, sometimes the circle encompasses the camera, and some outside witnesses who are not actually part of the Cypher can actually SEE and FEEL what that Cypher could be like. They have a longing towards this, and they will do anything to reproduce this, without understanding the level of Sorcery actually needed for this. And so are born culture vultures.
Culture vultures are not beings to be shunned, as they have a longing and need for love and connection through their artistic expression. They were not blessed with the same type of nourishment that the street dance community has been nourishing itself with. We must reach out and explain things. We must call them out on their shit, in love, and for the purpose of using their energy towards the growth of our community. I was one, in the commercial industry, faking my way through things to make rent. I was ignorant. People called me out. I hate hurting others in my mistakes, so I took action through curiosity. People will most likely still call me out. I hope they do. Each time, I fall more in love with the culture because I have been given a chance to obtain new wisdom through my mistakes, and therefore I can love others more. You know?
Listen, I worked with Hi-Hat on a commercial gig. I was hired as a blonde popper and a lead dancer. When I got to rehearsal, she asked me if I Popped and I told her that I only did a couple fresnos during the audition, but its not my focus at all. She dropped her head. She understood what had happened, and I respect her in many ways for reframing my role. She knew that someone casting the gig who did not understand the style thought that I was a dancer of that style, something that happens way too often in american commercial dance.
So this brings me, finally (right?), to start responding to the actions made by the incredibly talented, yet incredibly misinformed in regards to American Street Dance, Galen Hooks. Galen is hosting a freestyle roulette battle this weekend, taking the format of an actual Freestyle Battle, something that the street dance community utilizes as a method of bringing people together in honor of lineage, skill, culture, and love. I believe her aims are seeped in both love for artistry and love for her commerce. She is a business woman, upholding the very capitalist structure outlined above, not fully realizing the negative impact her actions are making on the street dance community by simply labeling and structuring this event in the way that she has, and then responding to complaints with reasons that do not hold.
Side note: Why am I prioritizing spending my Saturday writing this? Because I believe Galen has the passion, followers, and power to become a strong advocate for change in the commercial industry, and therefor in American Dance at large. This is simply an example of something that has been happening since the beginning of american commercialism, and obviously prior to that.
My comments might seem extreme, but the negative impact that so many simple actions made by industry individuals that unintentionally harm certain communities through their ignorance, is also extreme.
Hiding: When the street dance community started responding to your post about the freestyle battle, Galen, you hid. You deleted the comments. This is similar, yet in lesser form, to incarcerating thousands of voices away from the general population. You did not want your larger following to see these comments so that you could reach your economic goals as a businesswoman in the realm of dance. Do you see how harmful this is? To silence those whose movements feed the commercial industry, making your career possible.
Confiding in your friends: I imagine that in order for you to have written this response defending your position, that you consoled only in your friends and business partners. That is like the blind asking the blind to describe what they see. You must go to the perceived opposing side and inquire, those who can see. I and many others wrote this request to you, and you saw all of our requests to do so, before you wrote your response. This is why we know that you did not consult with those who challenged you. But that’s hard, no doubt, admitting mistakes is hard, yet necessary for positive change to occur in reforming toxic systems into systems that benefit the dance community as a whole.
Freestyle versus improvisation: Honestly, if you would have called this an Improvisation battle, you would have gotten way less slack. If you would have called it an improvisation competition, you would have been pretty much golden, because that’s WHAT IT IS. Freestyle is a word utilized in street dance communities across this nation. Improvisation is used to reference non-choreographed movement in any other space: theater, contemporary, lyrical, modern, even ballet. The term freestyle has leaked recently into the studio and commercial space, so this part of the argument is probably the weakest link. Looking up the etymology of the word will not help you, as the agreed upon understanding of “freestyle” versus “improvisation” is a lived experience of our specific craft, country, and age.
The word “battle” in the context of dance is derived from street dance specifically. Honestly, the battles that are held within the street dance community nowadays could even be considered a competition, not a battle. That is a debate within the street dance community itself. Is the battle something that just happens naturally in the club, at the water fountain at school, or anywhere when one dancer challenges another dancer in a street dance form? The original tap and hoofing dancers of america used to call this spontaneous exchange of skill a “challenge.” Now, in that same lineage, it is called a “battle.” There is history that you must understand and respect with those words: freestyle and battle. Any history buffs here, if I am wrong, let me know.
Now let’s get to your response:
“Hi, there seems to be some misunderstanding of what this event is aimed towards.”
There is only a misunderstanding because of the words that you used, please reference above. When you use those words, it is like saying “for breakfast, I am giving you a fruit platter.” And then you turn around and show us a video of a platter of vegetables. Then you say, “hey, but there’s a tomato, and that’s a fruit.” And we are all like, “but not really, because its not really sweet. It hasn’t been seeped in the same sweet juices that the fruit has, for a while now, because its been with the vegetables for a bit. There is no problem with that, but no one is going to tell you truth at this event, because they have only ever tried vegetables. They cannot physically or mentally or spiritually explain to you, or properly judge, what fruit is what and if it tastes good. AND also they might not want to speak up against you because you have such power in the industry.”
“The judges are judging based on the interpretation of the prompt, regardless of the style. These judges all have an understanding of all of the styles you mentioned in addition to contemporary, tap, heels, and the myriad of other styles that will be seen.”
Again, by using the word freestyle battle, one immediately would expect to see some fruit of various types, some expert fruit connoisseurs, and the choosing of the best fruit based on years of experience of fruit tasting. Alright, I will drop that analogy now.
Question: have the judges really embodied those styles, or have they simply scratched the surface of knowing what they are? For goodness sakes, an MC just called Detroit Jitting mistakingly Chicago Footwork at a recent battle in LA!! Within the street dance scene, there is so much to be learned about movement even when just LABELING IT, let alone KNOWING IT from the inside out. To tell you the truth, probably the only person who could really judge most american styles is Brian Green, and MAYBE a handful of others, because they have spent their entire lives studying these forms. Understanding is totally different than “I have seen or worked with those kinds of dancers before.” It takes at least 4-5 years of intense training to KNOW and UNDERSTAND a style. You would not have a Ballet competition with Ballet dancers and no master Ballet dancers as judges. Same for Folklorico or Bhangra or Tahitian dance… so why do you think they could judge these distinct street dance styles, which each hold their own long lineage of heritage, culture, pioneers, development, language and movements?
“They’ve given opportunities and platforms to some of the best underground and freestyle dancers in the world, but also know how to appreciate… (that part is just random and does not pertain to this discussion)”
Giving opportunities and and platforms has nothing to do with knowing or understanding or what some describe as “innerstanding” the dance form. No connection whatsoever. However, many thanks to their work in doing so.
“Instead of having an expert in one or two underground styles, or even “freestyle” as a dance form, its more important for this specific event to have judges who understand any dancer they’re seeing, and these judges are perfect for that. An expert in a street style would be limited.”
Deep breath. First, we need to discuss why it is called “underground” styles. Why do you think those styles are considered underground? For the same reason that the Savoy Ballroom was considered an underground nightclub in New York City… the people in that club were going against social norms that the general society could not and would not digest yet. It is not called underground because it is artistically lesser or because those dancers somehow know less than any other dancer, or in the case you described above, that they would have limited understanding of dance compared to other dancers. Do you see how harmful that is to say this comment? They are considered underground dance styles because the general public cannot and will not digest the intensity of the dance form in its entirety, and this is because the general american population cannot and will not digest the level of socio-economic suffering and racial oppression that still exists in this country… meaning, they will not embody it and therefore do something about it. I am actually the most afraid of these kinds of people, who make up the majority in this nation, most likely due to our education system: those who are not interested in caring— moderates instead of moderators.
As I mentioned above, the dance forms reflect the social, economic, and political surroundings of its time, hence for example, the concept of funk. You cannot fake the funk, and it will not come about unless it is necessary to express it. Why do you think funk has resurfaced so naturally as of late with our current political climate? If you cannot relate to funk, you will not understand it nor be able to recognize it when its in front of your face. This is why so many dancers can become culture vultures and fake the movement on television, commercials, tours and even in collegiate dance classes and never be called out at large. Unfortunately, then the people who have the ability to recognize its fake and hold the bravery to speak up (even if it damages their career) are called jealous, sour, and often cast aside. So those outcast dancers dig deeper into what is considered the “underground” styles, because at least there, they feel like they BELONG. They see other dancers with similar experience and a kind of raw resilience, and they have integrity to uphold lineage, culture, and heritage above commerce, profession, and popularity.
An expert in a street style would be limited. Hierarchy at its fullest point in this entire post, Galen. If you were in this scene, and were speaking with pioneers (Buddha Stretch to Kim Holmes to Mr. Wiggles), you would see how this statement is completely false. Do you see how this would directly devalue their experience as street style experts, and additionally dance experts in general, who have worked for YEARS in various industries. Deep breath. These people have given everything for their community and their work, and you basically put them in the trash with this statement. Locked them up. Cast them further underground, in the negative sense.
“This event is not aimed towards the underground, although underground dancers are welcome!”
This event reminds me of american collegiate programs: All dancers are welcome to audition, but you must have training in ballet and modern, because that is what the audition consists of. All of the judges for our program are experts in ballet and modern, so we do not understand your kind of movement when you show us your minute-long solo, and we do not have the space or classes for your kind of movement, but you are indeed welcome to audition. Good luck.
We all know how that ends up… American Dancers performing and auditioning with American-Made Dance Forms in an american dance institution and none are accepted into the dance program. Think about that.
Then go to Japan, China, and Europe and see what they have done with American-Made Dance Forms. Think about that. The Hip Hop and Street Styles pioneers went overseas to teach because their own country at large was not ready or interested in accepting their artistic expression. This reminds me, in a lesser form, of the trend of African-American writers, such as James Baldwin, who moved overseas so that they could actually write about what was happening in the united states without being ridiculed or assaulted.
Additionally, returning to the point above, you immediately and are seemingly inviting street dance artists when you label an event as a Freestyle Roulette Battle. The fruit will be expecting to see fruit, not vegetables.
“Having judges in front of you who work in the industry in no way degrades what you do on the floor, in fact, its a rare opportunity to shine doing what you love to do instead of having to fit in a box for a job.”
True, they just might not understand street styles, which would directly effect their ability to judge street style based dancers.
“If a participant feels like they’re not being judged properly because they don’t have a “freestyle” expert in front of them, they’re confused about the concept of the event.”
Do you really think this many people across the globe would have a problem with it if it was JUST that we do not understand the concept of the event? Changing the labels and format will assuredly help in understanding the concept of the event.
“Anyone else who is concerned about the judges and the event, please come and see what it is if you live in LA you can get the full picture before commenting, and if you don’t come, just trust this is not damaging the freestyle scene but is instead a place where all dancers can be pushed creatively and rewarded for it.”
You are, in fact, utilizing the name, the concepts, and advertising the styles from street dance culture without fully considering what that might bring about. You are an inspiration to THOUSANDS of dancers, and so your voice is SO important.
What you basically just said to the street dance community is: your points are not valid, what you are talking about does not truly exist, and you are welcome to join but you are not represented. I am trying to run an event that is partially inspired by what has leaked into the industry through cultural appropriation and I am not taking responsibility in learning anything deeper about my mistakes around labeling and reforming.
I don’t think you meant to say this, but you did. I know this, because I have done the same exact thing in my career.
Regarding attending the event: Why would people attend the event when there is actually no place for them and they would just be investing more money into an industry that rarely supports them and often steals from them?
Added section (Nov 4th) regarding the “Thrills Category” because I actually just saw this description:
“THE THRILLS: Uptempo, exciting, hype, fun songs. Dance in sneakers. Examples of dance styles: urban dance, street styles (breaking, wacking, vogue, house, popping, locking), hip hop, krump, waving, jazz funk, commercial dance, ANYTHING that is thrilling!”
This is completely fetishizing Street Dancers. “Thrilling” in the literal sense means “causing excitement and pleasure; exhilarating.” These dances seem thrilling ONLY if you are looking in from the outside and expecting a “show” or “something exotic” or “the unfamiliar,” and I only have to point you back about 150 years to show you the extreme version of this reflected in the minstrel shows of the early 19th Century.
This description of “thrilling” reminds me of when Nigel Lythgoe asked Kida the Great to smile more during his routines on So You Think You Can Dance. Seriously? You are going to look at this dancer who is embodying his dance lineage esthetic, and who completely owns his own specific esthetic, and say: “Smile for me so that we can be thrilled and entertained.” There are layers to this, obviously, but this is part of what is being communicated in american commercial dance.
If you are from within the culture, you do not see these dancers or styles as “thrilling,” instead you see these dancers and honor their:
Connection to the music
Unique abilities and funk, not tricks
Their study in one or more dance lineages
How they celebrate with the community
Moments of flow, or loss of self into the energy of the space
Commitment to their craft, because you constantly witness their growth
How they embody their main teachers in their movement
Their rawness, and ability to be vulnerable
Sometimes even their praise to ancestors or community members who have passed
Can you see and feel the difference between the above and your disrespectful description of “thrilling?” Please never use that word to describe those styles ever again.
Additionally, if you are going to include those styles, please include appropriate judges and make sure to list them correctly:
Examples of street dance styles: breaking, whacking, vogue, house, popping, locking, hip hop, krump, waving, etc.
Now, that was a lot. But you have a lot of followers. Why do you think so many people wrote to you about their concerns? You could definitely be a positive change in the industry. You could admit your mistakes and misunderstandings, explaining that your intentions were not to harm anyone, and then create an event that unites the industry community and street dance community with integrity. Many people are already doing this, and its beautiful.
The more connections, the less ignorance. The more love, the more integrity and honor. The more artistic skill, the more we inspire our youth to create meaningful expression instead of just wowing us with tricks. The more funk, the more understanding of communities’ suffering. The more knowledge, the more our collegiate dance programs and studios will reflect actual American Dance. The more this happens, the more diversity we will witness in all job markets of dance. Commercial Dance could exist in integrity, holding itself accountable to the communities that it is reflecting. How beautiful would that all be?
You have the ability to really help this process.
All love, Kelli
Final note: All of the above were compiled opinions/voices/ideas that I heard from my time spent in various street dance communities, speaking or interviewing with many innovators of American street dance, in commercial/ collegiate/studio worlds, and in two year’s worth of various Black Studies courses at multiple universities. Without three out of the four above, you might not understand my points above or the reasons I decide to engage in this way.
Galen’s event promotions below. Again, this is one event of many. I am seriously just choosing this one case of an ongoing trend.
A reply from Galen Hooks to a dancer in the UK who is speaking up about Galen's misrepresented event: