Derogatory Dancing: Heteronormative Inscriptions on Female Hip-Hop Dancers in Breaking and Commercial Spheres
Message requests through Instagram raise the hairs on the back of my neck. As professional commercial dancers, we are told to keep our social media accounts public based on their use as a virtual resume and for the potential to receive dance jobs through the platform. These are not dance world myths. Many friends have received massive contracts from major companies like Sports Chek and Nike who found their Instagram accounts and offered them high-paying work through the casual messaging system. Yet also lurking in our inboxes are different kinds of messages, "sugar daddy" and sex work requests alongside hateful messages calling us 'no different than a stripper,' along with other words I do not wish to repeat.
These public and private comments on social media demonise women for their music and movement choices within the 'hip-hop in heels' commercial dance industry. Public posts call the dance form 'derogatory', an 'attention-seeking behaviour' and it is often presumed as being for a male gaze - similar to the depictions and characterisations of so-called objectified hip-hop 'video hoes' and 'video vixens.' This article will analyse these dancing bodies that are labelled as passive commodities and props of the patriarchy and offer a counter reading.
These perspectives usurps female hip-hop dancers of their physical labour and agency and suppresses further conversations about the body, pleasures and sexualities. I read the pleasures of women’s performances past hegemonic gender stereotypes and one-sided inscriptions, and want to open up further, the somewhat murky conversations of possible alternative motives, identities and experiences of women in overtly sexual feminine drag.
I want to question the widespread inscription of heteronormative relationships on these performers - where a large LGBTQ+ community thrives - and open up a dialogue on gender and gender-coded analysis of what constitutes feminist expression within hip-hop. I want to question the reading of breaking - a masculine and male-dominated hip-hop dance form - and examine the feminine and female-dominated commercial hip-hop in heels style, to look at their different pressures, biases and understandings of femininity through a queer lens.
It’s necessary to note that I am not ignoring or excusing overt sexual representations and lyrical descriptions of women within hip-hop music and the women who find these images degrading or upsetting. This is not all of hip-hop and not everyone's experience, but I want to pose an alternative view on the diversity of experiences of femininity in hip-hop that has been misrepresented and heteronormative inscriptions on performers are part of this problem.
There’s no way for a woman to do sexuality right or wrong in hip-hop. By focusing on degradation, we miss many alternative female experiences that are present in hip-hop and new trajectories the culture may be experiencing.
I have been dancing within the hip-hop and commercial dance industry in Toronto, Canada, for over ten years. I am a member of the Toronto B-Girl Movement crew, where I have trained and taught breaking. More recently, I have become a dancer, assistant teacher and administrator for the company Badass Babes Toronto, which performs hip-hop and commercial styles across the city. I identify as queer. My identity as a queer woman and the many other female dancers within both communities who identify as being on the LGBTQ+ spectrum is never considered and often ignored. There is a one-sided view of the motives of these women, myself included, as being either in the breaking community to find men or to be on display for males.
Backgrounds of Breaking and the Commercial Dance Industry
The two hip-hop dance communities in focus have drastically different histories and practices from each other. Breaking is considered the first hip-hop dance form. It is a freestyle dance genre that began in the 1970s and is still practiced today. Through the commercialisation of hip-hop music and dance, newer hip-hop dance genres have emerged and the commercial hip-hop dance industry is choreography-based.
I want to provide some context into the breaking and commercial dance industries using the scholarship of Mary Fogarty (2019) and Pirkko Markula (2020) as well as highlighting the scholarship of Imani Kai Johnson (2014) and Meredith Heller (2015) who discuss femininity in breaking culture and queering the vixen within the commercial industry.
To understand hip-hop’s trajectory from its original dance form of breaking, to the commercialisation of hip-hop and the newer dance genres that have emerged I want to highlight the work of Mary Fogarty and Pirkko Markula. Fogarty's research in On Popular Dance Aesthetics: Why Backup Dancers Matter to Hip Hop Dance Histories (2019) traces the devaluing of backup dancers from its transformation from breaking, to upright choreographed dances. Fogarty argues that once the first wave of breaking fandom died out, newer upright party grooves began to take form. Dancers were first utilised as ‘hip-hop artists’ while dancing with musicians or rappers and were seen as artists in their own right (pg116). This changed due to the downplaying of dancer's value - as pushed forward by producers - so that they could pay them less for their work and reduce them to ‘background status’ (pg116).
Pirkko Markula's introduction to Dance, Movement and Leisure Cultures (2020), a special volume in Leisure Studies, follows the commercialization of hip-hop to a commodified, highly popularised version, stripped from its original expression of alienated African American and Latino male street cultures. Markula focuses on the form's gendered transition in studio and competition settings (pg467) and explains how hip-hop was codified and transferred to instructor-led classes, further distancing it from its grass roots and aligning it with the dance competition industry (pg468). Markula states that despite its roots in a rather aggressive and male-dominated culture, the popularisation and commercialisation of hip-hop dance genres have enabled women to visibly challenge the hard, male-dominated, often misogynistic hip-hop identity, as many commercial dance studios specialising in ballet, jazz, and hip-hop are dominated by girls and women (pg471). She reiterates that hip-hop dance as a recreational activity continues to flourish based on traditional gender stereotypes and that the dancers themselves negotiate these gender relations in various ways to either make new meanings or accept them as necessary aspects of their dance forms (Markula pg471).
The commercial dance industry of today is no longer just that of backup dancers for hip-hop music videos or live performances, it includes a large sector of online class videos and performances in which dance is at the forefront. Choreographers and commercial dancers can have fully funded dance careers due to monetising online content, social media sponsorships and merchandise sales. This is due to the newly created roles of micro-celebrities or influencers, which are now possible through social media (Kearney pg33). The commercial dance industry is underwritten in hip-hop scholarship. Even though their viral videos gain mass appeal with views in the multi-millions I suspect because it is not fully respected as a form of traditional hip-hop. Much scholarship has surrounded the misogynistic lyrics of hip-hop music and female rap artists who try to reclaim alternate derogatory terms. However, the experience of performing to hip-hop music as a professional female dancer has yet to be explored. This financial shift brings forward new and interesting questions about female representation in hip-hop culture.
Having danced in both the breaking and hip-hop in heels communities, I know that they have very different understandings of femininity in hip-hop culture. In both scenes, I was asked why I was dancing in certain ways or to certain songs and I experienced different levels of respect based on the gendered aesthetics of dancing within each form. I also received multiple personal messages and public comments on social media in which people from both communities did not understand why I was dancing with them and would assume that I was in that community with ulterior motives to meet men. What I found most interesting was the heteronormative lens in which I was placed within both dance forms.
My Experience in the Toronto Breaking Scene
To be a female in breaking is still to be within the minority. When presenting myself as a b-girl, it seemed to be a highly acceptable female hip-hop identity within public settings. I was never scared to use the b-girl title when meeting new people outside of the breaking community or to state it on social media. I never received any public backlash or negative private Instagram messages. It felt like the identity was seen as a 'badass' hip-hop representation for women. However, this was not the case within the community. The title of a b-girl is generally earned through skill in the community, by joining a crew or receiving a personalised b-girl name (which was my experience in breaking, but with all-female mentors and crews). I quickly learned that there is no difference in the performance of a b-boy and b-girl. This is more to say that women who come into the culture should learn to dance like the men who dominate the scene. B-girls are taught by other b-girls to cover their sexuality and gender in clothing and movement.
The breaking crew I joined was put together for women to learn the art form in a safe environment. This is because the breaking community in Toronto was known - at this time - to not be accepting of female dancers. A stigma lies around women of not being as good a dancer based on their lack of strength and drive. I have seen and heard of many women who enter and leave the community quickly based on misogynistic experiences with male community members. The male-dominated community in Toronto would post on private community groups, on Facebook and Instagram, expressing their dislike of b-girl crews and casually explain how there are no "easy-props" for women in the community.
I have continued to love breaking and many of its Toronto community members, yet, I stopped being an active member in 2017 as I felt that I would never be fully respected and taken seriously because of my gender.
Femininity in Breaking Culture
The b-girl crew that I was a part of all passed around Imani Kai Johnson’s From Blues Women to B-girls: Performing Badass Femininity (2014) for its spot-on representation of what it is like to be a woman in breaking. Johnson coins the term 'badass femininity’ to describe the marginalised femininity captured in the performances of contemporary b-girls to argue that non-normative gender performances are necessary consequences of histories of enslavement, genocide, and exploitation (pg15). Johnson states that badass femininity is only one version of a multiplicity of femininities and it resignifies qualities typically associated with masculinity in western culture, such as being confrontational and aggressive (pg15). She argues that this, in turn, creates a higher social cost for b-girls participating in a dance culture that is seen as being by and for young men (pg16). Johnson explains that b-girls are situated between two competing notions of heterosexual femininity; the first is the pornification of women in hip-hop and the second is the average day expectations of polite, ladylike behaviour (pg17).
Johnson explains that her term, badass femininity, describes a performance that shuns notions of appropriateness, respectability, and passivity that is demanded of ladylike behaviour (pg16). It is in favour of confrontational, aggressive, offensive, or explicit expressions of a woman’s strength (pg16). Johnson states that marginalised femininities come out of historical conditions wherein the capacity to take control of one’s subjectivity and claims the body were acts of rebellion against the constraints historically placed on black and brown people (pg18).
Johnson argues that b-girls push the boundaries of gender performativity for female-bodied persons, to which I agree. Yet, I would like to push further the idea of badass femininity to dances that, although they do not appear transgressive, like commercial hip-hop dance, can be a form of badass femme-ininity, especially in the new sites and online arenas in which their performances are taking place. Badass femme-ininity, is defined to me as a transgressive dance performance, performed by women, for women, and within a femme aesthetic. There are crossovers between the two in disrupting notions of appropriateness, respectability, and aggressiveness ascribed to women in a ladylike western culture, but they manifest in very different ways.
My Experience in the Toronto Commercial Dance Scene
White and female-identifying participants dominate the world of hip-hop in heels. However, many men do perform in heels and some of the most successful choreographers in the field go way beyond the representation of the dominant performers' identity. When I jumped headfirst into the world of hip-hop in heels, the situation of insider/outsider community relations had completely switched. I was scared to tell my family and friends that I had joined a 'sexy' dance company as I knew and felt the stigma attached to it. However, what I did not expect was how I felt within the studio and company rehearsals. I felt more connected, happy and confident in myself and body when training in the welcoming environment that the company actively tried to create. It felt like there was nothing to hide. There was a feeling of endless support inside and outside of the studio. However, within a couple of months of joining, I started to receive a backlash online from different acquaintances. They would share their opinions or disappointments of what I was doing, comment on how I was performing, and tell me how they never would have expected me to start dancing in this way.
The company I was a part of was Badass Babes. (The company was disbanded during the covid-19 pandemic due to restrictions around rehearsals and performances, which is why my participation ended.) In this company, sometimes we’d dance in a 'badass' persona, which is seen as masculine hip-hop dancing. We’d dress in sweatpants, bomber jackets, baseball hats and running shoes. At other times we were the 'babes,' an overtly feminine persona, dancing in lingerie and high heels. The Badass Babes comprises of women of all ages, with different careers from lawyers, to dentists, neuroscientists and students. Yet, one thing the dancers all had in common is the assumptions and comments that we faced in the online world. We all received personal comments and messages from family members and strangers across the globe, letting us know their opinion on our expressions of femininity.
Femininity in Commercial Dance
On February 23, 2020, Girls. Girls. Girls. Magazine launched with the now-viral video featuring actress Cynthia Nixon, reading a poem written by Camille Rainville. It outlined the confusing nature of what it means to be a "real woman" or "be a lady" and the constant criticism that comes along with these ideas.
Be a lady they said. Your skirt is too short. Your shirt is too low. Your pants are too tight. Don't show so much skin. Don't show your thighs. Don't show your breasts. Don't show your midriff. Don't show your cleavage. Don't show your underwear. Don't show your shoulders. Cover up. Leave something to the imagination. Dress modestly. Don't be a temptress. Men can't control themselves. Men have needs. You look frumpy. Loosen up. Show some skin. Look sexy. Look hot. Don't be so provocative. You're asking for it. Wear black. Wear heels. You're too dressed up. You're too dressed down. Don't wear those sweatpants. You look like you've let yourself go... (Be a Lady They Said).
This video was passed throughout the hip-hop in heels community, as many of the dancers related to its message. A few choreographers even used it as a soundtrack for dance workshops, including Jessica Castro, a major New York City choreographer. Castro has worked with artists like Beyoncé, Janet Jackson and Jennifer Lopez, and has her own heels dance companies and classes. Castro and the Badass Babes teach class participants how to deal with these external assumptions through dancing for yourself whilst learning to be comfortable in your own body and sexuality. Within this choreography, Castro produced heels dance content outside of sexual expression. This was one of many examples where the dance genre showcases women's emotions in a sexualised genre without sexual content. This is common within the industry yet is rarely talked about as it does not fit the assumptions of pornography or degradation.
I feel that heels dancers challenge these dominant notions of sexuality and beauty and they actively engage with male rappers and their lyrics by openly expressing their sexuality. Setting choreography to "Be a Lady They Said" is an example of this, just as much as is dancing to an openly derogatory piece of music from male hip-hop artists. However, some companies are doing this with the direct purpose of "female-femmeing," which I want to illustrate next.
Femme is generally a term used to describe a lesbian who actively embodies a feminine appearance, role, or archetype. They are often assumed to be socially or sexually unqueer until they prove otherwise. Meredith Heller's "Female-femmeing: A Gender-Bent Performance Practice" (2015) explores female-identified individuals performing traditionally feminine acts that are generally seen as non-transgressive, non-queer and non-gender-bending (pg8). This is based on how femme femininity reads as a hegemonic female hood (pg8). Heller argues that femininity is often presumed to mean social alignment but argues that some femininities can actively contest this. Using Jose Esteban Munoz's theory of dis-identification (1999), Heller explains the many ways in which her coined term "female-femmeing" can bend and expand hegemonic femininity. Using drag communities of various American cities, she suggests that by reading female-femmeing as queer, we extend drag narratives and overall understandings of femininity. This is an essential step for queer ideology as she asserts that female-femmeing aligns with the intents, methods and goals of progressive contemporary drag practices and queer culture (pg2).
In reading queer hip-hop in heels dancers through a lens of female-femmeing, we can first see why they are misread as cis-gendered and why it is important not to read them in this way. Through their transgressive performances, the femme body serves as an anti-identity body and as a queer body in feminine drag, as explained in Lisa Duggan and Kathleen McHugh’s “A Fem(me)inist Manifesto” (1996) (pg153). The choices of the dancer refutes the idea of a girl-by-nature and is a girl-by choice (pg154). This kind of gender trouble is not a legible gender transgression like that of the butch, drag queen or b-girl but a betrayer of legibility itself (pg155).
Devaluing to Redefinition: Claiming of (Online) Space
New forms of agency in dance can be found due to online spaces of support, financial gain and the opportunities given to women in studio and competition settings. Women are redefining hip-hop on their own terms via YouTube, Instagram and TikTok. This is similar to how Johnson argues that with the b-girl community, the internet became a powerful medium for women in the breaking community as it created a system of visibility and enabled new forms of communication with each other (pg23). It is also providing more opportunities for queer femme-ininities to be seen and heard and for women to redefine their expressions of sexuality. Through continuing to dance in derogatory ways female hip-hop dancers are challenging and transgressing hip-hop identities.
With changes to how commercial dance is being taught, transmitted and its economic footprint, new questions of these derogatory performances and identities are being brought to light. I want to argue that by revising gender-coded movement expressions and openly challenging these assumptions of what constitutes appropriate femininity and the femme in hip-hop, we can change women to subjects instead of objects. We can provide agency to move female hip-hop dancers and their expressions past an idea of a passive commodity to conversations about the body and pleasure and pose alternate motives, identities and experiences of women in overtly sexual feminine drag.
If a commercial female hip-hop dancer is dancing in a so-called derogatory or degrading manner, what are the alternative reasons as to why they might do so past being a prop for the patriarchy or to perform solely for the male gaze? What are the changes being made to the form and its practitioners due to its new popularity and communities in the online space? What if these so-called degraded women are queer? Dancing for economic gain? Performing in drag? Or just simply find pleasure in dancing in this way? Femme identities in commercial dance can disrupt many notions of being a female dancer in hip-hop and the narrative of degradation. Female commercial hip-hop dancers may appear to follow heteronormative gender stereotypes, as the women are assumed to be cis-gender and follow their assigned and correlating gender category. However, what about the femme queer identities (like myself) that exist in this form?
I want to destabilise the tendency to see overtly sexualised feminine hip-hop dances as exclusively a site of women’s subordination but instead as a site of complex meanings. Meanings which can reconstitute women’s agency to be pleasurable or pleasured, dominant or subordinate and a mixture of meanings and messages based on different experiences of gender, sexuality and pleasure.
I was part of two hip-hop communities and the difference in my experience was influenced not by the movement but by the community's support and the wider cultural acceptance of what identity constitutes an appropriate representation. Although, as a b-girl, I was accepted culturally, I was not accepted in the community. As a heels dancer, I faced a broader cultural backlash yet felt supported within the small community. Yet, what I feel when I am performing both styles is a form of badass femme-ininity.
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Commissioned for Ink Cypher, November 2021
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Deanne Kearney is currently a Ph.D. student in Dance Studies at York University in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Her research follows the performance of popular dance and music and their interactions with the online world. Her Master's research focused on the Canadian krump scene.
Kearney is on the editorial board of Riffs Journal, a journal for experimental writing about music and the International Secretary of PoP Moves, a research group for the study of popular performance. Kearney is a commercial and hip-hop dancer, as well as a freelance dance writer and critic. Her writing can be found at DeanneKearney.com.