My dance teachers at Ruth Page in Chicago — one of whom was once listed as a favorite of Baryshnikov’s — insisted that the ballet reigned supreme. Without it, they claimed, a dancer has no foundation.
Yet when I arrived at Columbia University in fall 2007, I had no interest in joining a student ballet ensemble. Instead, I made my next move to a hip hop dance group, Raw Elementz after watching them kill it at an on-campus performance. With the exception of a few hip hop classes during two summers at Anaheim Ballet, I had no training. But I followed the audition choreo, gave it my all and spent most of college with the crew.
10 years later, you can find me weekly at Steps on Broadway, where I take both hip hop and ballet class. I find they reinforce one another—and I can’t live without either of them. So before you roll your eyes back into your ballet bubble, hear me out when I say you’re ready to try hip hop too.
1.) Relish Being the Beginner
I tend to hide myself behind in the familiarity of ballet. For the longest time, it was the only dance form I knew, something I was proud of until I realized its limitations.
When you’re a beginner at anything, the sky’s the limit. According to a Zen Buddhist concept called “Beginner’s Mind,” it’s the most advantageous state of learning. “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.”
If you enjoy watching hip hop, or any other dance form for that matter, why not try it yourself? You have nothing to lose, except regrets.
2.) You Already Have a Dancer’s Advantage
If you can learn a barre or center combination, or even a full-length ballet, you know how to follow choreography. Once you’ve taken a few hip hop classes, you’ll pick up on some moves that are as common as a tendu or ronde de jambe.
Your prior knowledge of counting music also counts for a lot. “5,6,7,8…” is the same no matter the type of dance; it’s there to guide you. Plus, you already have spatial awareness of other dancers around you from your experience in center and across the floor in ballet class to get a sense of how people are moving in a different kind of dance class.
3.) Work That Attitude
Hip hop class is not technique class. There is no one inspecting you for turnout and pointed feet. Instead, they’re looking for confidence like this. And if you’re unclear of the moves, speak up and ask the instructor to break it down.
Hip hop class is your chance to let go of everything uptight about ballet and channel your inner rebel. You’ll begin to express yourself in new ways — ways you can even take back into ballet class.
Think of all of the roles that require something similar: the flirtatious Kitri, the seductive Black Swan and perhaps the Sugar Plum Fairy could use some spicing up. My ballet dancing became much more expressive after a year of hip hop and I bet yours will too.
4.) Find Your Own Groove
Any bunhead knows there’s a huge difference between a Balanchine-trained teachers and Russian- or Bournenville-trained ones. Same goes for hip hop.
My advice is to research hip hop local instructors on YouTube and Instagram. From there, you can get a sense of their vibe and determine if it’s the kind of style you want to try.
As the old saying goes, “if at first you don’t succeed, try again” so don’t be afraid to try hip hop and street jazz classes a few times. You never know if the one class you tried was a one-off from an instructor who just wanted to try out a new vibe, too.
5.) Watch and Meet New People
This one is key. As someone who grew up with posters of Paloma Herrera in her locker, finding new dance idols outside of ballet was eye-opening. For example, Luam studied at an Ivy League university and then went on to choreograph for and tour with Rihanna.
During my time on Raw Elementz back in college, I met dancers who I might have never crossed paths with otherwise. They were talented, kind and encouraging in ways I rarely felt in ballet. Some of them are doing extraordinary things now and it’s awesome to cheer them on.