From Street to Studio: Hip Hop Comes Inside
Wisner, Heather, Dance Magazine
Emilio "Buddha Stretch" Austin, Jr., best known for his hip hop crews Elite Force and Mop Top Music and Movement, teaches hip hop classes at Manhattan's Steps on Broadway. But he remembers when dance studios didn't offer any hip hop at all. Houston dancer Chris "Colcutz" Gamez and New York Culture Shock artistic director Ellie Burkey remember, too. Burkey used to freestyle with friends in the garage; Gamez got noticed performing at a street fair. Now Burkey teaches at Peridance and Gamez at his own studio in Houston, Urgeworks, which offers hip hop almost exclusively. Over the years, hip hop has moved inside, into the mainstream, and that transition has had a huge effect on studios, dancers, and the dance itself.
There are obvious benefits to the spotlight that music videos and movies have shone on hip hop: more educational resources, more versatile dancers, and more jobs. Studios that offer hip hop are likely to bring in more students--especially more boys--and more money.
"Learning weaving, popping, and locking is important for working dancers," Burkey says. "At auditions, they want dancers who are diverse, and dancers are getting smart. They're learning everything. They want a more urban line to their dancing. Adding hip hop is cross-training for dancers and revenue for studios. Studios that are smart are listening to who's coming in."
But that doesn't mean it's all good. Even though more and more studios have hip hop, many teachers and dancers don't necessarily get it. "There are a lot of jazz dancers out there doing pseudo hip hop," says Stretch. "A lot of teachers don't know the history, they're just teaching the steps. They're learning from videos, but they don't know the culture. If all you see is Britney Spears, you think that's hip hop, but that's never been hip hop. It's completely watered down. And studios could care less, because hip hop is one of their biggest moneymakers."
Stretch started as a street dancer; he got a big break in 1986 at the now-defunct Union Square Club, where an improvised performance one night landed him six months of gigs opening for musical groups like Salt-N-Pepa, Eric B. and Rakim, and DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince. He later toured with hip hop headliners Run-D.M.C. and did video work for Mariah Carey. In 1989 he began teaching at the original Broadway Dance Center. Until then, hip hop hadn't really entered a formal setting. Why? "Hip hop, breaking, locking, popping, b-boying--they all started out as social dances," he says. "Being at a studio is not a social event."
Like Stretch, Gamez started dancing in clubs as well as garages, inspired by footage of New York's Wrecking Shop that aired on Houston's Channel 8 in the early '90s. "We started watching that, mimicking it, developing our own style," he says. "I liked the freedom of it, the liveliness. I grew up in a ghetto area, and here I was seeing people from the other side of the country who looked like they grew up in ghetto areas. …