Implications of Hip-Hop-izing Western Institutional Spaces: a reflection on how hip-hop dancers transform “unlikely hip-hop spaces”
Maïko Le Lay
I want to reflect on two hip-hop encounters I’ve had in “unlikely hip-hop spaces”. By unlikely, I mean the idea that there’s a sort of cultural clash between the purpose and infrastructure of a space and hip-hop dancers’ practices, aesthetics, and philosophies. Unlikely hip-hop spaces also suggests that these spaces might not have considered (before hip-hop’s recent popularity and institutionalisation) hosting a hip-hop event, and by extension, democratising their space for people of colour to practice Afro-diasporic performance.
The history of hip-hop is rooted in this cultural clash. Early hip-hop dancers would practice in fancy apartment lobbies, graffers would spray train stations and yards, whilst djs and emcees would perform at block parties organised informally in the streets. More specifically I want to look at how Western institutional spaces such as Paris’ iconic landmarks and Union Station in Los Angeles can impact hip-hop dancers and participants’ movements and agency.
Hip-hop dancers can transform spaces, making them their own in an act of hip-hop-ization.
My experience as a street performance lover, then dancer, led me to research hip-hop in depth as a doctoral candidate in the US. Since my first experience with hip-hop street performance in Paris - both as a tourist/observer and later as a dancer/crew-member - I’ve always been fascinated by the friction between hip-hop culture and Western institutional spaces and politics. These tensions are something I decided to examine further during my research on embodied hip-hop pedagogies. The first hip-hop encounter presented here is from my experience in Paris, over a decade ago. The second is from the fieldwork I conducted in 2018 as part of my broader research on embodied hip-hop pedagogies between 2015 and 2020.
One of the fieldwork projects for my research focused on conducting choreographic readings of hip-hop events – which varied from academic conferences and lectures, to hip-hop workshops, concerts and battles. Choreographic reading constitutes a multimodal and dance-centric analytical method, which sits at the intersection of body, movement, knowledge, space, and power. In dance studies, choreographic analysis often refers to the analysis of dancers’ movements, energy and props at a performance or social dance setting, which in turn, can be put into conversation with dancers’ socio-political contexts. In my research and in this article, I use a similar dance-centric approach to analyse how hip-hop dancing bodies navigate different spaces and value the idea that movement analysis can be conducted everywhere, even in spaces that traditionally do not consider movement as central to their function.
Encounter 1: Politics of street dance performances in Paris
My first encounter with hip-hop dance was as a young adult discovering Paris — the place I was about to live to pursue my undergraduate studies. Naturally, since I had freshly moved to this new city, I started sightseeing the iconic touristic spots - La Tour Eiffel, L’Opéra de Paris, Les Champs-Elysées, Montmartre, La Bastille and Les Quartier Latins. However, it wasn’t until the second time I walked by these historical monuments that these spaces were activated for me; I witnessed street dancers - immigrants from Northern and Sub-Saharan Africa - performing and cyphering in public and through their movement I connected with these institutional spaces in ways that I hadn’t before.
As a young and naïve tourist, I was expecting to see pantomimes, painters of the Seine and singers performing old romantic French songs at these iconic landmarks; but like the other tourists around me, I was drawn to the hip-hop beats and the highly energetic performance of Africanist aesthetics. The hip-hop dancers had made those old French streets their own; they were popping, locking and breaking at the centre of a circle that was formed by tourists who had gathered round to get a glimpse of a show.
I was struck by the difference in vibe between my first and second encounters of these Parisian spots. The first time I went, they were just places, but the second time, when the cypher was going on and strangers from around the world were partaking in a call-and-response and exchanging energy in a communal way, that was a liveness that was out of this world. The dancers had hip-hop-ized that space.
After following multiple street crews around, sketching their dancing bodies, and jotting notes about my experiences, I eventually joined a street hip-hop dance crew. As an audience, I used to focus on the positive ways hip-hop dancers would transform and inject Western institutional spaces with an energy through their hip-hop-ization. It wasn’t until I experienced what it was like to dance hip-hop in the streets that I understood some of the implications associated with this practice.
For example, La PP (the local police) would intervene when the cypher couldn’t get any larger; they’d ask us to turn off the sound system and stop performing. The audience – who were eagerly anticipating the climax of our street shows - would boo the police who responded with “We have to maintain the law!” Even after the audience members sided with us, the police wouldn’t budge. Disappointed, the crowd would slowly dissipate leaving a beautiful, but less alive space behind.
In Paris, and in most Western places, performing street shows requires a permit. Whilst I understand why such regulations exist, they are barriers to artistic and cultural expression that only officially organised entities can apply for. But as I mentioned before, most street dancers I knew in Paris were immigrants of colour who often did not have the legal means to do so. In her book French Moves: The Cultural Politics of le hip hop, Felicia McCarren also noted that most hip-hop dancers in Paris came from North and Sub-Saharan Africa or overseas French territories such as Martinique. I was actually one of the only dancers who was female, full-time student, and from a non-African descent background. I would see approximatively 50 street dancers on a regular basis, either at training, street show, eating, or money-counting spots. Overtime, I got to learn that many of the street dancers I hung out with did not finish high school, and some of them didn’t even have papers. For these reasons, they struggled finding formal employment and housing. I hosted street dancers who needed an emergency place to sleep at night and I lived for a few months with two street show colleagues in my 20 square-metre studio in Crimée. All in all, founding an official organisation is not an option for most hip-hop street dancers in Paris, moreover, the time and place restrictions associated with the permits wouldn’t necessarily match with the best slots to perform for tourists.
The first time I experienced one of our shows being stopped, I felt defeated. Indeed, it was difficult to understand why we would be dispersed abruptly in the middle of our performance. Why wouldn’t the police let us finish, at least? I understood then that, despite the popularity of hip-hop and our shows, hip-hop dance performances and certain dancing bodies were not welcomed everywhere. Our capitalist state responds to performative acts in public spaces with hyper policing which reasserts the limited use of public spaces imposed on certain bodies, and especially black bodies. André Lepecki addresses these kinds of limitations on the body in “Choreopolice and Choreopolitics: Or, the task of the dancer.” In his article, choreopolitics is the term he coins referring to choreographing protest, which is the ultimate political task of the dancer. Choreopolitics is the embodied demand to move freely in response to choreopolicing, which he defines as “the way in which the police determine the space of circulation for protesters and ensures that everyone is in their permissible place ” Choreopolicing is implemented in order to “de-mobilize political action by means of implementing a certain kind of movement that prevent any formation and expression of the political” (Lepecki).
Another implication of our shows being cut short was the fact that we couldn’t ask our audience to tip us at the end of the performance. For me, as an undergraduate student, street dancing was primarily my way of learning about hip-hop culture and making pocket money to support my studies. But for my fellow crew members, street dancing was their full-time job, their bread and butter and lifestyle. For many practitioners of colour, remaining unseen and dancing away from institutional/formal spaces is sometimes a question of freedom vs. jail; my crew members knew the dangers of performing in public but they would rather take the risk of being fined, arrested, or jeopardising their immigration status than stop dancing hip-hop in the street.
What surprised me the most was my crew members’ reaction to the show being cancelled by the police; after only a few minutes, they were ready to restart the performance. This was an “aha” moment for me because I saw how hip-hop dancers had the power to reclaim their cultural expression and transform Western institutional spaces. In a way, they defied the spatial, legislative, and cultural restrictions imposed on their moving bodies by doing hip-hop where hip-hop wasn’t technically meant to be. This relationship between institutional space and the resistive power of movement is something hip-hop dance scholar Naomi Bragin discusses in her PhD thesis “Black Power of Hip Hop Dance: On Kinesthetic Politics,” which looks at the significance of dance improvisation in the black radical tradition. Her chapter “Shot and Captured: Turf Dance, YAK Films, and The Oakland, California, R.I.P Project” shows how turf dancers occupy the policed and busy streets of Oakland. Bragin argues that the dancers convey a political message through their collective improvisation and exposure of their black bodies to passers-by, police officers, and the critical audience on the internet. Their works show how, despite the restrictions imposed by society, performances can be political acts as dancers move in controlled spaces. The reflection of my experience with my crew members follows Bragin’s lead in examining how hip-hop dancers reinvent institutional and restrictive spaces and practice freedom of expression.
Through these experiences, I started to recognise my privilege as a French citizen who was enrolled in a higher education institution compared to the different level of risk my crew members were taking when performing hip-hop. This insider/outsider reality is something that was even more exacerbated when I became a scholar and a matter I keep reflecting on in my journey in hip-hop.
Encounter 2: Floor Improv Day at Union Station, Los Angeles
Floor Improv Day was a series of weekly dance and music workshops, followed by an open-floor improv session organised on Sunday afternoons in June 2018 in Union Station; I already knew of Open Floor because I’d participated in several of their dance and music improv-jams - Floor Improv Nights - in Hollywood.
Union Station is not like many other stations in the US; built in 1939, it is widely regarded as one of LA’s historical and architectural gems because of its signature Mission Modern style.
The Floor Improv Day events were organised by Open Floor Society in collaboration with Metro Art. Open Floor is a non-profit whose mission is to “engage underserved youth in the art of improvisation to encourage self-empowerment through movement, dance and music, fostered by a multicultural artistic community” (Open Floor Society). Metro Art is an initiative created by the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority with the aim to bring site-specific artistic programming to LA Metro customers’ and engage communities throughout Los Angeles.
When I was living in Paris and Brussels, some of the hottest hip-hop training spots were in train stations because they were usually conveniently located for dancers coming from different parts of the city, offered good flooring, cover from both cold and rain, and even sometimes provided alternative mirrors (reflections from the shop windows).
While seeing hip-hop dancers practicing in stations is fairly common, it is rare to find a planned event organised legally in such a public space. Witnessing subsidised hip-hop events in an institutionalised station such as Union Station, is rare, making it an “unlikely hip-hop space”.
With all of this in mind, I was curious to see how a hip-hop dance class would be organised and decided to attend one of the Floor Improv Day events with my husband Sid.
“Union Station Los Angeles Gallery Aisle” [with no event], accessed in September 2019, http://unionstationla.com
“I was dazzled: people were dancing at a station, in a public space, with live music playing [...]” (Sid). That day, a variety of dance classes were offered but I am going to discuss the popping class Sid and I participated in that was taught by Boogie Frantik, a famous LA based popper.
When approaching the Floor Improv Day event, the music I heard was not the kind of music I would usually hear in a train station. These spaces are usually infused with classical music or jazz, but this time I heard hip-hop and Latin beats. It took me a few seconds to realise that a live band was performing and for my body to get acclimated to this new musical experience.
We were finally there, standing in between the waiting area and the gallery aisle. There was no entrance fee, sign-up tables or anything stopping us from jumping directly into the classes. I noticed some security guards around, but I wasn’t sure if they were doing their usual rounds or were hired specifically for this event. I remember wondering if those guards would have been this close if the event was ballet or modern dance as opposed to a non-Western dance form like hip-hop. I also remember thinking that blasting hip-hop music and dancing hip-hop at Union Station would probably not go so well on a regular day and that the official time, designated area, and the fact that the event was sanctioned by Metro Art were all parts of this unspoken agreements about “how to do hip-hop” in that space.
Most participants were people who were already familiar with the classes offered by Open Floor; some of the young students clearly knew some of the teachers and another group seemed to be professional (or semi-pro) dancers who were either friends with the dance teachers, the organisers, or regulars at the Floor Improv Nights in Hollywood.
Some people were caught by the beats and energy coming from the gallery aisle and I saw the occasional passerby, traveller, or homeless person switch their original walking paths, stop and dance for a moment before heading on their way. Others would remain standing outside of the gallery space but close enough to watch what was going on, stomping their feet to the rhythm of the music or grooving their upper body.
The gallery aisle offered some seating, but people didn’t dare remain seated. I guess it just didn’t feel right to be seated when so many artistic practices were going on in that space; the event had disrupted the usual stillness and created a more expressive space, at least temporarily.
Sid and I were eager to start the popping class. The band complemented the teaching by improvising hip-hop beats and emphasising the pops in the choreographic routine whilst operating a call-and-response process throughout the class.
However, all the dance classes, including the popping one, followed traditional Western dance studios codes of teaching/learning. The popping instructor was counting and demonstrating some moves at the front, whilst we were lined up behind him trying to copy his moves and follow his steps. To me, this linear placement felt at odds with the open-floor, jam-style ambiance of the event. The rectangular shape of the gallery aisle shaped the way the teaching and learning occurred and Boogie Frantik’s placement in front of the lines of students reminded me of a classroom and a dance class in a studio.
It suggested that Boogie Frantik was the authoritative figure and there was a hierarchical power dynamic between him and us. This created a disconnect between the intention of the event, the call-and-response relationship between the teacher and the music, and what I was experiencing as an attendee. I don’t think this was his or the event organisers’ intentions but more so a consequence of a hip-hop dance class being taught in an “unlikely hip-hop” space. So, despite the open floor policy and the importance placed on improvisation by the organisers, the pedagogy and structure at the start of the class replicated a class in a Western dance studio.
Whilst the dance class started stiffly it soon became more communal. As the participants were trying to figure out the moves, we began helping each other out, enacting the “each one teach one” motto of hip-hop. We started to get closer and shift from the formal lines to a more messy and informal configuration. “Usually, everybody is very protective of their personal space. Here, the other person lets you in in their personal space” said Sid. People were keen to dance close to each other and share not only their space, but their in-the-moment feelings and mood. I experienced these exchanges when I made eye contact with a participant across the room, we smiled and nodded, communicating with our eyes and sways.
Towards the end of the class, we all started to improvise and exchange with each other, finishing up with a call-and-response with the musicians. Sid mentioned that “the event was evolving according to the mood.” What was happening and how we behaved was influenced by the energy created from the moving bodies in conversation. We then organically created a large circle. Boogie Frantik popped when the drummer hit, my hips swung side to side on the rhythm of the beats, and everyone’s groove fuelled the percussionists’ hands to play
Le Lay, Maïko. “A dance class at LA Union Station,” June 2018
faster. We were really “feeling it” and in total sync with the beat of the music. We were feeling it so much that our energy travelled like a wave across the room. From two or three people, it was now a crowd of people performing the same moves, with the same vibes, in absolute tandem. Slowly, people who were watching and standing on the outside of the gallery started approaching the crowd and took part in the embodied exchanges with the rest of us. Like Sid, we all let go of the fact that we were in a station and that we were all strangers. “I immediately felt like dancing when I saw people dancing, even though I am not a professional dancer. I did not feel inhibited or too shy. [...] I just went with the flow” (Sid).
The more rigid organisation of the start of the class had made way for a large cypher - taking up almost the entire gallery - composed of dancers, enthusiasts, musicians and passers-by. Micro cyphers were popping up: “[...] it was really different and yet the same” (Sid). Participants in the circles were in conversation with the musicians, with each other, and with dancers in the neighbouring circles as well. It was like a communal effort to re-choreograph the space. We, the participants, had hip-hop-ized the space and shifted what teaching and learning hip-hop could look like in the train station. The usually cold, large, rectangular high ceilinged gallery space was now filled with warm moving bodies who were eager to freestyle.
For a few short hours, the gallery of Union Station was transformed as a site of Africanist exchange where kids, seniors, travellers, and homeless people were learning and choreographing the space together. Freestyle, call-and-response, cyphering, “each one teach one” were the essential aesthetics of this event and created another kind of hip-hop teaching and learning at Union Station. However, this raises the problem that hip-hop dance scholar Imani Kai Johnson describes in her work on global breaking cyphers when using dark matter as a metaphor: What are the implications of participants “doing but not necessarily knowing” that they’re performing hip hop? What are the implications of people thinking they don’t support hip-hop when in fact they do? And what is the relation between “doing but not knowing” and the invisibilisation of Africanist aesthetics in hip hop? The dark matter metaphor acts as an umbrella for all the unseen elements of a cypher such as their multidimensionality, invisible energy and material forces, as well as the invisibilisation of Africanist aesthetics(X). Indeed, she argues that despite the depths of material forces demonstrated by Africanist aesthetics - such as those embedded in hip-hop - and their epistemic qualities, Africanist aesthetics and people who contributed to their creation and development, often remain invisibilised. A cypher is not simply a circular geometrical structure, but a
Le Lay, Maïko. “Freestyle circle and a dancer showcasing his moves at Union Station” June 2018
combination of multiple dimensions including people, histories and energy which impact one another.
Dancing bodies at the Floor Improv Day re-choreographed Union Station. Their pedagogy, synergy, fuel, and movement not only transformed what the space looked like architecturally, but also the flow, mood, and the air in the room. The transformations happening within these short classes showed me that the teaching and learning of hip-hop can happen anywhere and moving bodies can reconstruct rigid spaces, making them hip-hop and our own.
Dancing hip-hop in public spaces can have different meanings and implications. Hip-hop dancers at Floor Improv Day were not risking their safety and had little chance of being stopped by the police, yet in Paris, dancing hip-hop was considered a criminal act, if not criminal, then definitively an unwanted and illegitimate one. As I navigate different hip-hop scenes (streets, studios, theatres, academia etc.) I constantly reflect on the complex issues of authenticity and appropriation.
When I look back on both the Parisian and LA experiences, I feel quite confused about the informality/formality of both types of hip-hop practices. On the one hand, hip-hop started in the streets and was created by diverse communities. Doing hip-hop in the streets, with people from non-dominant cultures, is how I was introduced to hip-hop. Therefore, part of me feels like it should remain in the streets and that the inherent opposition to Western hegemonic practices and structures are part of what makes hip-hop, hip-hop. But I also know that this statement is extremely problematic and does not help hip-hop, Africanist aesthetics, or advance our society.
My crew members would probably have officialised their practices if they could, to avoid the constant confrontations with the police. I know there was a debate in France for a long time between people who were in favour for the creation of an institutional program for hip-hop dancers to officialise their practice and those who thought that such program would endanger authentic hip-hop. The main argument for those against was that there isn’t one unique hip-hop dance form and that no program could authentically teach all dance forms and the social practices associated with hip-hop. Those against were also concerned that the kind of hip-hop dance that would be taught, then replicated by students elsewhere, and therefore considered legitimate in France, was a type of hip-hop dance that was adapted to the choreographic needs of theatres, so perhaps, closer to contemporary dance. The aim of the national diploma was to help hip-hop dancers teach in schools or other institutions, be equally recognised and paid to dancers of Western dance forms, receive training on pedagogy, health, and safety, and eventually, access important things like healthcare. It has been over five years that the creation of such certified program has been in the making. The Ministry of Culture hasn’t fully okay-ed this state-sanctioned diploma yet. In the meantime, the Centre Formation de Danse (CFD) in Cergy has started offering a subsidised certificate program in hip-hop, while waiting for the state diploma program to fully exist.
Adding breaking into the Olympics is another multi-year debate where practitioners keep asking themselves if it should belong in such an institution and be recognised as a sport. I am for the safety and promotion of hip-hop expressions globally and on diverse platforms, but I can’t help but ask myself what is the cost of legitimisation?
1) Le Lay, Maïko. Cypher to Classroom: An Ethnography and Choreographic Reading on Teaching and Learning and Embodied Hip Hop Pedagogies Otherwise. University of California, Riverside, 2020.
2) Lepecki, Andre. “Choreopolice and Choreopolitics. Or the task of the dancer. Communaute des Chercheurs, accessed in January, 2020. https://communautedeschercheurssurlacommunaute.wordpress.com/choreopolice-and-choreopolitics- by-andre-lepecki/
3) Bragin, Naomi Elizabeth. Black Power of Hip Hop Dance: On Kinesthetic Politics. Dissertation, University of California, Berkeley, 2015.
4) In 1972, Union Station was designated as a Los Angeles Historic–Cultural Monument and placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980 quoted from website: https://www.unionstationla.com/history
5) Johnson, Imani Kai. Dark Matter in Breaking Cyphers: Africanist Aesthetics in Global Hip Hop. Manuscript Draft from December 2019.
Bragin, Naomi Elizabeth. Black Power of Hip Hop Dance: On Kinesthetic Politics. Dissertation, University of California, Berkeley, 2015.
Johnson, Imani Kai. Dark Matter in Breaking Cyphers: Africanist Aesthetics in Global Hip Hop. Manuscript Draft from December 2019.
Le Lay, Maïko. Cypher to Classroom: An Ethnography and Choreographic Reading on Teaching and Learning and Embodied Hip Hop Pedagogies Otherwise. University of California, Riverside, 2020.
Lepecki, Andre. “Choreopolice and Choreopolitics. Or the task of the dancer. Communauté des Chercheurs, January, 2020. https://communautedeschercheurssurlacommunaute.wordpress.com/choreopolice-and- choreopolitics-by-andre-lepecki/
McCarren, Felicia. French moves: The cultural politics of le hip hop. Oxford University Press, 2013.
Commissioned for Ink Cypher, November 2021
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Maïko Le Lay
Dr. Maïko Le Lay is a French and Japanese scholar-practitioner. Le Lay received her PhD in Critical Dance Studies from the University of California, Riverside. Her doctoral research on embodied hip hop pedagogies advocates for more performative and culturally sustaining practices in K-12 and higher education classrooms. More specifically, she conducted an ethnography and performed choreographic readings of hip hop events, dance classes, and lectures, and examined the tensions between Western and hip hop epistemologies in these Western institutional spaces.
Le Lay possesses a MA in Political Sciences from the Universite Catholique de Louvain (Belgium) and a MA in Media and Cultural Studies from the Universite Paris III Sorbonne Nouvelle (France). After her doctoral studies, Le Lay completed a postdoctoral scholarship in the Connected Learning Lab at the University of California, Irvine and started a YouTube channel during the pandemic to render embodied practices more accessible to wider audiences.
Maïko Le Lay