Rokafella, one of the first women to acclaim the reputation of a b-girl or break dancer, once said, “Don’t rely on your beauty. Try not to lean so much into it. It can be a good weapon, but you’ve also got to have skills!”
In an era where female sexualization is rampant, it’s refreshing to see female hip-hop dancers doing just that. This year, Jackie Agudo aka b-girl JK47 emerged as the top candidate to compete in the most prestigious breaking event, 2018’s Red Bull BC One World Final. And former champion of Juste Debout, Dey Dey became the first female winner of the UK B-boy Champs popping battle. Talk about girl power!
Female hip-hop dancers such as b-girls, poppers and lockers, have always struggled with gaining recognition in a heavily male dominated dance culture. Further heightened by media and pop culture, the dominating images of a female hip-hop dancer being a token of lust and exoticism plays a crucial role in the existing gender disparity between male and female hip-hop dancers.
Moreover, some believe that these skewed images perpetuated by media have seeped into dance studios causing the sexualization of children aka ‘The Lolita Effect’ to be a wide-spreading epidemic among younger female dancers in hip-hop choreography classes.
In her book, ‘The Lolita Effect’, Meenakshi Durham explains that the sexualization of children refers to the imposition of adult models of sexual behavior and sexuality on to children before they reach puberty.
While some say sexualization is expressive, Martha Nichols from USA’s So You Think You Can Dance Season 2, says, “having dancers of any age doing hyper-sexual movement without education does not promote female empowerment” but rather, validation by imitation.
Marnie Newton, a Melbourne based dancer skillful in waacking (a dance style created in the LGBT clubs of Los Angeles during the 1970s disco era), believes that hip-hop choreography classes encourage a one-dimensional view of femininity because, “end of the day, sex sells.” She adds, “the number of female dancers in a hip-hop choreography class or girly style hip-hop is vastly greater than female dancers in a foundational hip-hop class”.
Hip-hop choreography classes train students to emulate a dance instructor’s 1-2 minutes routine to a song. Whereas, freestyle hip-hop classes provide students with foundations in sub-styles of hip-hop such as breaking, popping, locking and social party moves (popular dance moves that emerged during the funk/hip-hop era). The key elements of freestyle hip-hop are ciphers (open dance circle), improvisation and battles where dancers implement the “show and prove” mentality on the dancefloor.
Karla Mathieson, a popper and member of Melbourne’s first all-female dance crew, MammaJammas, believes that the commercial dance scene can instill the fear of ‘doing it wrong if you don’t look like the person next to you’ and it can subconsciously chip away one’s self-worth.
When Mathieson was introduced to popping and the art of freestyle, she recalls thinking, “you mean I can just dance and be me?! Incredible!” as it blew her mind that someone could learn foundational moves and create their own dance style. At first, she found it challenging to learn how to freestyle due to her background in ballet, jazz, tap and urban whereby someone would tell her what to do and how to it the ‘right’ way in a classroom full of dancers.
“I would do the ‘walkout, ‘fresno’ and ‘old man’ over and over again in my garage to grasp the concept of freestyling and connect moves together,” Mathieson recalls. It took a good year before popping felt natural to Mathieson as the technique of hitting one’s muscles to a beat (a core element of popping) was foreign to her.
So how does freestyle hip-hop dance culture promote female empowerment?
“The fact that no one can interpret the music or move the way you do is almost like creating your own language!,” Mathieson says. Freestyling allows individuals to explore their unique sense of style through personalized movements. One does not only form a special bond with one’s self but also with others when they’re freestyling in a cypher. As Mathieson says, “it’s fulfilling to one’s heart, mind, body and soul when others can read your language and exchange with it or simply sit back and embrace it.”
Some of the most successful female freestyle hip hop dancers such as Mufasa from France, Kyoka and Maika Rushball from Japan, Bgirl Kate from Ukraine and Angyil from USA, are proof that no two female hip-hop dancers are alike.
Many who encounter female hip-hop dancers at battles are surprised that these women don’t fit into their mould of what a stereotypical female dancer looks like. “I had people complimenting me that I danced with the attitude of a b-boy at dance battles and that was weird,” Newton recalls. She believes there’s two ends of the spectrums when it comes to female dancers. “You’re either hyper-aggressive like, ‘I am a woman! Hear me now! Roar! I’m going to tear you to shreds!’ or ‘Look at me, I’m sexy and seductive’. You’ve to find a balance between the two,” she says.
But not all compliments are enveloped by an underlying meaning. Anthea, who enjoys different dance styles within hip hop, says, “I am so touched whenever someone comes up to me when I’m dancing to tell me how much they appreciate my energy and thank me for it!” Mathieson shares a similar experience. “When a stranger comes up to me and says, ‘I love your style’ or ‘it’s really cool to see a female doing that style,’ it means the world,” Mathieson says.
Female dancers are often intimidated to dance in ciphers or battles alongside male dancers. “Male hip hop dancers are naturally aggressive,” says Miri Kiri, a house dancer from Germany.
“I used to be insecure when I train with them and then I realized, I can’t do what they can, but they can’t do what I can. Every dancer is special in their own way and freestyle dance culture helps you explore that,” she shares.
To battle the existing gender disparity, events such as What’s Poppin’ Ladies and Ladies of Hip Hop in the USA have taken form to challenge traditional notions of femininity. Similarly, Marnie Newton and Melissa Lum from the Burn City Waack community have created ‘Sister Sessions’ in Melbourne to promote female empowerment in Melbourne’s freestyle dance scene.
“There could be someone stuck in the choreography world and thinking that’s how a female dancer should move,” says Newton. She then adds, “It’s important to educate female dancers by letting them know that you don’t have to dance provocatively to represent yourself or be taken seriously as an artist.”
With these empowered women empowering others in a male-dominated dance culture, it’s safe to say that the future is female.
Words by Depasheni Thirumoothy. Cover image by Marnie Newton.