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Decipher The Cypher

Astrid Aristizábal

The Deep Ocean, the Unspeakable Sky and the Nurturing Rocks clash every other era in eccentric fires and feasts where they collide, seduce and subduct one another. These interactions provoke humongous wavings, rollings and rockings, where destruction and birth are two sides of the same coin. In one of those scratches, they ended breaking up and digging deep on themselves, freezing every shallow and exterior possibility. They continued going through the moves, though. And so did the planet Earth, cyphering in the infinite cosmos among planets and Sun, clinging to her best moves: spin and revolution, while the Pangea split on a very intense floorwork. Afterwards, the Andes would emerge as a result of a bestial and celestial powerful movement.


I feel me, you, her, him, us, them

It’s 2019-love at first sight. I found hip hop or hip hop was in me already, impregnated in my zenTropical blood. I went to Peru to a contact improv 3-week retreat in the Incas’ Sacred Valley. It was a deep spiritual journey and meeting face to face with those giant apus and Machu Picchu was soulful. On my way back, in Lima, while trying to sell my zines in Barranco, I definitely knew my spot had to be close to the breakers. And there, without any pretension, one of the b-boys showed me some steps. That was an auspicious day.

Some months later, back home, outside the town hall of Santa Elena (a rural county located 1000m higher in altitude than Medellin) there were some b-boys cyphering. A few days later, I found out that my friend Lunaira [1] was starting to train with the guys and I did not hesitate to follow her. Galaktikz style family is my very first crew, and I cyphered with them in the very informality and easiness of a smooth floor tile as a way of training.


I longed to experience a cypher. I just didn’t know it was that what I wanted. I could only describe what I wanted: collective danced gatherings where all types of beings could meet and of course, dance, as a primary means of interaction (for expression and communication). My motivation for writing this essay comes from the feelings of a silent ruminant girl -an ordinary street dance enthusiast lover- cyphering.


My city, Medellín, settled in the extreme north of the Andes cordillera, is known as the city of eternal spring: there are blossoming trees and gentle weather all the year. Our sun is colourful, so are our skins. Before it appeared on the map, this territory was inhabited by indigenous groups such as Catios, Nutabes, Tahamies, Yamesies and Niquias all along the Aburrá river, from south to north. The indigenous cultures are traditionally rooted in a communitarian interdependent life and mindset. Well, they were the natives of that time, but we are the natives of these times, indeed, figuring out what and how we can work out in this mad era. The air here tastes like Andean wood nymph and we still cohabit with our neighbours the foxes, the olinguitos, and a large diversity of birds (direct descendants of the dinosaurs).


I feel a lot, I dig deep

Our urban infrastructure is updating along the lines of gentrification; the historic places and neighbourhoods charged with the origins of our city are in erasure processes that the foundational rivers could not escape: the Santa Elena was covered and the Aburrá was straightened. The motto of Antioquia (the region that Medellin belongs to) is “freedom and value” with the leading ideas of progress and equity. In 2013, Medellin was recognised as “the most innovative city”, beating Tel Aviv and New York. Moreover, in case you did not know, since 1995 our city is the only one in Colombia with a metro system that includes funiculars, tramway and articulated buses.


Medellin is a slope. Our topography and the unplanned demographic growth due to migration and displacements from the countryside, direct consequence of the Colombian conflict, demanded the trendy transportation means. Anyway, “the map is not the territory” [2] and the official law keeps coexisting with the ghetto’s laws and invisible borders between the alleys.


My parents migrated to the city in their twenties to study, work hard and build a family. By that time, end of the 80s and early 90s, Hip Hop phenomenon started to radiate to these lands, through movies, magazines and cassettes. The first element that came to settle in, was breaking and as far as we knew, this was a dance that is done mainly freestyle. Free is a key word here. Freedom is the inspiration for the contemporary mindset. Nevertheless, if we are to praise freedom, we must know its opposite, call it slavery, call it coercive control.


[step_idea, step_phrase, cause_consequence of enjoyment and in between my breath]


The facts. Part 1. 1374: first choreomania or dancing mania outbreak in mainland Europe, which involved thousands of people dancing erratically. Hypotheses: mainly women; a poison consequence; generally done in a different homeland. Late medieval period. 1492: America appears on the map. Early modern times. Renaissance. Revolutions. 1810: Colombia’s declaration of independence. 1886: First Colombia’s political constitution. 1918: End of WWI. 1920: Colombia’s first labour strike led by women. 1945: End of WWII. 1948: Colombian civil war named “La violencia” begins between the only two political parties of that time. 1954: Suffrage rights were granted for women in Colombia. 1957: Women first voted in Colombia. 1958: End of La violencia. 1964: Colombian conflict begins. This conflict triggers large forced internal displacements. 1973: First hip hop party organized by Cindy and Clive Campbell. 1991: Second and up-to-day Colombian political constitution.


Human life on Earth has been told and written on the basis of coercive control: actions that feature the traditional vanquisher or victimiser (a statesman, a conqueror, a clergyman, a minister, a captain, a major... an institution) and the defeated or the victims. Building on the definition that Emma Ready provides for coercive control, as “a pattern of behaviour that slowly erodes the victim’s sense of self, sense of safety, and makes her world smaller”, I would say that violence does not discriminate. Yes, violence and coercive control are systematic: fiercely disclosed and denounced on women’s side but tactically concealed on men’s side; or should I say the other way around? We have been sold the man-like plot for centuries.



The facts. Part 2. 1999: Beginning of Crew Peligrosos [3] in Medellín with the art of breakin, then integrating the other three traditional elements (djing, mceeing, graffiti). Professional B-girl Luma [4] belongs to this crew. 2000: new century, new millennium, three cyphers. 2007: Opening of the first street dance styles school in Medellin, Urban Flow [5], directed by German Alexa Gall. 2012: Hip hop dance and street styles found local representation with the emergence of Chronic Crew [6] and Jungle [7]. 2014: Birth of Mulahttaz [8], all women dancehall local crew that has performed for big artists of the dh scene. 2016: Albanor [9] strikes up weaving community through freestyle and movement experiences.

We have bought the notion that women have to adapt to the man-like way: in battles, in cyphers, in attitudes. I think of the b-boys and the b-girls and the disparities that are evident and silent, but it applies to all styles. According to Francesca Miles in “Make some noise for the ladies”, “making changes from above, at an organisational level, will likely have a faster and larger impact on the culture overall than waiting for individual women to prove themselves in order to ‘earn their place’ at the top. Policy and structural changes stimulate behavioural and attitudinal shifts.” I would point out Alice Notley’s [10]: “we need a whole new flesh, new beings to look at, literally, a new universe. The key is not in language; the key is in vision (...) to see a new world is a first step towards changing an old one.” There are layers over layers, our female ancestors have settled a foundation and we won’t take less; it’s our commitment to acknowledge and balance from our understanding with perspective. The existing spaces can coexist with new spaces and new purposes. Notley speaks in terms of language because her topic is poetry. I dare to cite her because what is it what we do with our bodies when executing idle movements that seem to lead nowhere, if not poetry?

“Cypher keeps saving lives” says Erre S [11]


The former defined as so by a b-boy to Erre in his first cypher ever, in Pereira, a city south bound from Medellin. The latter is the definition that my hip hop dance teacher Dilla [12] shared in class and Comoniño [13] agreed on a conversation I had with him. At first glance, a cypher is a circle whose centre is occupied by a dancing body that moves rhythmically to the music, and the people around the edges share and feel in their own way. It is also a “space of emotional (self) comprehension”, says Nonxpress [14]. “It keeps saving lives because people, not necessarily dancers, feel referenced or contained when they see that the music they listen to, is danced (...)” and Erre adds: “at the beginning, we believed that the idea of cyphering was to demonstrate who did the best and coolest dance, to demonstrate who danced better. We are still elaborating it”.


I travelled to Bogotá looking for diversity in perception. In the event The lessons of the cypher, Joseph Q-Faces [15] confirmed his source for the name of the event: the Supreme Alphabet from the Nation of Gods and Earths / The 5% Nation defines the cypher as “a perfect circle of 360 degrees. One’s ‘Cypher’ is the areas in their life that they have control over (...) While you control your own Cypher (sphere of influence), only God has control over everything. This is a reminder that a Five Percenter cannot control everything in their life, and to remain free of ego.” [16]

ENTER THE RIOT. From my mind, I pick up Sakura flow-ers and weave a crown for my mom acknowledging her as my queen, but I am my State, my law. In my State, there is a riot among serpents and hummingbirds. Meanwhile. I insist on stepping back because businesses are over once you take responsibility. “Learnings”, that’s how we call them. There isn’t just one true way whatsoever. The word’s attorneys general are kicking the clandestine flight of the un-sounds: from the hands without alibis, from these unexpected gestures.


A dance cypher is a manifestation of embodied power, regardless of your dance or musicality level, gender, social class or race. Power that is fuelled by opposite energies (be it female and male, receiving and giving, feet and crown, circumference and vertex, etc) that flow in balance.

It’s a collective construction that is affiliated to Hip Hop which is a movement with a part of the body on its name followed by a verb. This movement invites you to celebrate your essence and feel fierce pride of who you are. However, that is a long-way to go, a process. In order to feel comfortable to go up front, you would like to consider what your standing position in the moment is: standing as a person is different to standing as a dancer and totally different to standing as a human being. 


Dancer the cypher: an underscored choreography


Standing as a dancer might interest you because of exposure, expression, fame, glory, fulfilment, joy, mindfulness, belonging, training... Whatever the reason you have to feature in, bear it in mind because that generates your own experience and (a)version and feelings of what a cypher is to you. It’s curious how the word CYPHER appears in different designs in the imaginations of the different people I’ve talked to about it.


For my rapper friends, a cypher is generally a collage of bars with a single instrumental that becomes a multimedia piece. It’s got the people aligned rather in a straight than curve line. They enter the (lyrics/rap) cypher with something prepared beforehand. On the other hand, for dancers it is something quite different. It is always a circle rather than a line. There is someone that just flows in the middle of that circle, feeling and riding the music, maybe killing the beat. In whatever form may come. Some forms might not be very aesthetic or graceful, yet they’re full of divinity and body kin.


Person the cypher: a danced circular conference


There is a well-known ritual that comes from indigenous cosmovision, “círculo de palabra”, a word circle. This is an experience that is shared today even in urban contexts, among people that decide to weave the self in these forms. In the Círculos, participants often and most likely will tune in their appreciations with the help of sacred medicines (from Colombian Amazonas-south and Sierra Nevada-north indigenous communities) mambe (coca leaves powder mixed with yarumo leaves ashes) and ambil (tobacco paste mixed with vegetal salts) both by mouth and in combination while dialoguing on a specific topic. There is a person who convokes, hosts and starts the dynamic. If we look twice, we could make a parallel between the Círculo de palabra and a cypher. Or, why not, between a roda de capoeira and a dance cypher. It’s just different names for a shared dynamic essence, that appeared in different contexts. Remember that persona comes from latin, meaning ‘mask’. The mask, here, would be the different names we give to the same collective circular sharing experience.

If you stand there as a person, a cypher implies energy as a currency where there needs to be reciprocity for an exchange to happen.  According to Malvina Tessitore, “in a cypher, people at the sides of it are often invited to ‘give their energies to the dancers’ and when entering it, dancers are expected to keep up the energy of the cypher, to keep the energy left by those who danced previously”. Malvina and Scooby [17] both see the cypher as a place for communicating through dance. Scooby says “It’s all about essences’ sharing. A ritual, where we give and receive. Respecting the cypher and its participants, implies not getting out of it while it lasts”. Undoubtedly, for a real cypher to be celebrated, respect is a must.

For b-girl Anser, the cypher implies learning from others and Iain Bleakley points out some aspects that build on her appreciation: “There are schools of movement and schools of thought that live within a breaker’s body and that information can be read during a good cypher if you pay attention. Presentation, creativity, ambition, expression, precision; how you use these tools and prioritise them is telling.” In her words, “It generates fear, but that’s the barrier that has to be defeated little by little”.

Medellin’s breaking scene is also predominantly composed by b-boys who proudly show off their stamina as proud warriors of working-class backgrounds relentlessly taking the leading role of such a decision like devoting productive life to dance. I see many of them working at the traffic lights, doing extraordinary quick dance pieces while the green light lasts, with airy and sublime power moves on the pavement. In battles we still see the violent codes and gestures. Is that all what we’ve got, for real? I feel that B is for breaking everything: breaking the past, breaking insane patterns, breaking suffering, breaking rusty mindsets, breaking unconsciousness. The skills are already yours, theatre hip hop is still to manifest in this grand natural colosseum that is Medellin, and each body from all sexes and genders is necessary to build a thriving dramaturgy, for all types of audiences.


It’s a beautiful yet painful process to actually stop fearing to be in the centre of the cypher. Beautiful if the only thing that you are missing is practice and discipline, and in that case, the process will give you more than skills and mastery. It will bring self-knowledge, self-love, self-esteem. Painful, maybe, if you dare to dig deeper and address the challenge of self-transformation as a whole. Not just the body, but your mindset and your soul. Remember that we develop something larger and bigger in meaning when we take active part of a cypher.


Human the cypher: a mandala


If you stand there as a human being, you seek a cosmic experience. According to Kuesta [18], the cypher is “the place where actually what we do makes sense”. He underlines the importance of just being present -to support- in whatever the event, venue, gathering or battle that takes place in the city. The mere act of presence is the base for a mindful living and the triggering cell of something we can call community. The sense of community is transversal to all hip hop life experiences but also to every cosmic experience. Let’s put it beyond the matter and imagine you are wearing a pair of glasses that shows you the temperature and colour of energy of all surrounding bodies and spirits. You would see how the type of activity and the number of people involved produce different types of spatial maps or figures, from the simplest to the most complex. I imagine a cypher as a mandala.


Following that visualisation, imagine that behind every single person cyphering, there is a long line of ancestors and energies that made possible the embodiment now and here. Believe it or not, our lineage, our family memory, the experiences of the people who came before us, are in our genes and influence (not necessarily condition) to a certain degree what our own personal quest is. It is also true regarding our past, our childhood, our raising contexts... Acknowledging and accepting is the starting point of a mindset transformation. In Brian Toh’s words, “to be able to question ourselves, our individual truths and to doubt, change and grow (that) seems to me like the realest “real” there is”. For me, transformation is what every human is called out to represent. In the end, either a person, a dancer or a human being, it is just one and only body and your body is your place of power.


Tooth and nail, shine on you crazy old skull bones!


In the middle of the mist appears a rowboat in the night’s wild ether where, earthlings, the primitive human beings, conquered the dance. Fires of 2 meters, vocalic chants, essential vibration in the whole bodies. From sun to sun, from moon to moon, from fireflies to stars we dance. In the very beginning of the Homo sapiens, when everything was brand new and unknown, we celebrated...


Emotions and feelings are triggered by necessary oblivion of our parental shapes and shades. Yet, the same prehistoric being slides swift and stealthy on the floor: the shadow keeps reflecting our substantial constitution. Our minds now know rocking, waving, rolling, sliding, spinning and so on. The first moving attempts are all about acknowledging and remembering that intrinsic and inherent information that comes from the transformation of the basic elements into our human formation. Our bodies keep building on the codes of freedom and order (and their opposites), and what they are when we freestyle in group.


To dance I surrender, to dance I soul-render


Essentially, we all have been aliens at some point. Black and latino pioneers of Hip Hop in the USA, our parents coming from the countryside looking for a fertile ground to rise, we moving to another neighbourhood or region. Landing as a stranger in a land different to your own home pushes you to start from zero. Zero is the cipher, you follow me? In a new territory, you own nothing, except your body (luckily we can tell that story today, after overcoming major slavery). As a migrant, one is a set of skills in growing period, smelling the path and nesting the checkpoints, ploughing the only land one owns: the body. Did you notice how growing resembles grooving? To migrate is to transition with the help of gestures, words and scents, and let be guided by inner wisdom. 

A cypher is made up of people who happen at the same time through their vital decisions. From an external point of view, it is a preferred “leisure” activity over whatever other way of spending the spare time. But from our internal point of view, we as being the movement hold onto it as if our life depended on it. Dancing gives the chance to become or be whatever we want to be through the magic of movement and active imagination and “music leads you to feel, to other places”, in Baambata’s [19] words.


It could happen to feel constrained when trying to freestyle or just move in a random situation where certain thoughts hold you up from being spontaneous just because of what “people could think or say”. Along these lines, we might also be aware of the socio-political constraints that institutions (count family in) put in our bodies. Through eras, the “normal” body behaviour has changed and evolved. That is a fact and we take for granted a lot of rights or privileges that we recognise today but were not even stated before. 


In “Body anthropology and modernity” David Le Breton recalls how common notions for us today such as the signature -a tag-, the artist, the face, the body anatomy, the individual and the privilege of look, were just invented in the Renaissance period. Even more, these gadgets were initially and for centuries just relevant in the Beaux Arts scenario, an area of life that still today seems reserved for the wealthy or lucky who could access formal and institutional education. And it was so for a long time, but after migration and uprooting, constraints and exclusion, came Hip Hop party to twist the plot for the dissenting. 


From daily hustle to party, from discos to street shows, to dance studios and theatres, Hip hop created new rules, new perspectives, new ways of doing things. No other way of dancing gives as many possibilities as street dances do. How many styles of ballet can you identify? How many styles of dancing hip hop can you identify? Dozens. People own it and collaborate with it, keep building on it. 


The big HIP HOP egregora is diverse in its understanding. It is a porous and mutant phenomenon (re)creating itself every instant. The hip hop that samples everything, the movement that was born from a sample. The culture that inhabits the streets. The movement that recalls unity, creativity and participation is a real force. Creative and sexual energy both reside in our hips. And honestly, hip hop is so seductive that it keeps attracting people. But let’s do the work, let’s refine our way of relating to our own self and the others.


And then, I slided onto the sturdy streets, and decided to cypher... the mc opened the fire and all bodies knew exactly how to flow.


Astrid Aristizábal


Ruminant volcano born in the tropics whose eyes have absorbed the green of the Andes ever since amidst the slope of an eternal spring valley on a transformation, enjoyment and sharing quest. On an expansive wave with limitless imagination, she was born in Medellin, Colombia, as an Instinctive inquirer of signs before breakfast, lunch and dinner. Diarist. Self-love and one love-oriented decider.

She has a BAchelor in foreign languages teaching (english, french) from the University of Antioquia with experience on (consecutive) interpretation in the arts, poetry and medical areas. Hip hop lover and student since 2019. Creator, mover, writer, dancer, activist, researcher and teacher interested in sounding body, philosophy, literature, deep ecology, visuals, diy, diwo.

Co-creator and director of Dadanza since 2017. Creator of ueia editions since 2016.


Key words: movement research, metaphor, flaneur, live arts, freestyle, cypher, essence, beat, resonate.


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Astrid Aristizábal

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