In F(l)avour of Masculine:
The Disbalance of Power in the European Street Dance Battle Scene
Same as you, I am looking for idols. Like you, I find it easier to believe I can become someone, when people who look like me win.
I am a white, middle-class, non-disabled, cisgender woman residing in Europe. I acknowledge the privileges granted to me and recognise that I am a guest within hip-hop culture - the topics I discuss are based on my and fellow females lived experiences, yet it is important to say that due to my positioning, my views are limited.
For the longest time there were no women idols around me - I’ve learned from and looked up to male-identifying dancers and mentors for most of my life, especially when it came to popping and hip-hop. Seeing successful examples of men and their embraced dance qualities I felt the way to succeed within the battle scene was to man up, to continuously tap into my masculine*. In Godlive Lawani’s words, ‘I didn’t try and embrace my femininity, I was concerned with showing how strong and masculine I could be.’ (Dance As Hard As A Man, Ink Cypher, 2021) Embracing femininity**, vulnerability and authentic expression seemed to collide with building strength and character for this scene, as entering it often required me to put on a masculine front.
The reasons for this collision is rooted in the patriarchal social system. Like the rest of the world, men hold many more positions of power within the street dance battle scene. Hip-hop is built on the idea of community, unity, peace, love and having fun and we as women are not always having that much fun. Women have not had an equal influence in this scene from day one.
The key word here is power - those holding it are in control of values, trends and the direction of the development of our beloved scene. They decide what is celebrated and what is awarded. The power disbalance between men/women and masculine/feminine in the European street dance scene is vivid and the current event statistics, history and recent exchanges with impactful figures of the community has helped me unpick it. I am hopeful (in a utopic way) for a future in which I see more female-identifying idols in positions of power, win and prosper while showing up as their whole selves and celebrating femininity without the constant need to man up.
I play this fun game at every dance battle event - I count how many assumed women pass preselection, how many end up in the semis or finals and how the judges, MC, DJ and organisers identify. I play the same game at every workshop or dance class I take - I count how many women vs. men are participating.
This long-lasting observation shows that there are far more women involved in the dance scene (learning, attending events, taking supporting roles) but very few competing, taking power positions or lining up to win. In addition to that, there are very few dancers who enter the game representing predominantly feminine qualities, and almost none who win when approaching battles this way.
When asked why we see so few female winners in the battle arena, judge and DJ, Kevin Gopie, also known as DJ Renegade, says: ‘In my experience teaching and observing, a lot of PEOPLE have the potential skill but are not willing to go the extra mile necessary to break through. It just so happens that, probably driven by ego, more men are willing to. When the women do, they achieve the results. I'm not saying it's 100% fair, as there are likely sex-based biases, but the imbalance can be addressed by harder work ethic’. But is it only one extra mile that is needed for us to break through, or is it ten more on top of adjusting our expression to fit the masculine set of values imposed by the environment?
I agree with Kevin that men are more willing to take opportunities or risks and thanks to their (sometimes blind) confidence end up where they want to be. Renegade also provides a shocking example: during an open judge congress for WDSF in 2022 (training and certification for judging the Olympics) 150+ men and only 6 women applied. Why are we as women not taking space in these contexts? The required skills are there, so is it a confidence thing?
As author Heather Bussing argued the myth of women’s lack of confidence on HRExaminer: ‘[Confidence] is a natural attribute of being in an environment where we feel comfortable, competent, and appreciated, where we have the resources and autonomy to do great work.’ Heather has it on point. We see far higher numbers of women and non-binary individuals entering and winning battles of styles derived from club culture and LGBTQ+ communities (house, waacking), where femininity was celebrated far more than in hip-hop, popping or breaking - where predominantly masculine energy rules.
Most women stay away from battles as it’s not a fulfilling environment which supports them to flourish in their authentic ways. Consequently, a smaller number of women enter, fewer get the chance to win and attain power.
How did we get here in the first place?
In my dance journey, I was lucky to learn from street and club dance pioneers - Loose Joint, Buddha Stretch, Henry Link, Tyrone Proctor, Archie Burnett and many others. A great number of men built careers travelling worldwide and sharing their knowledge. Unfortunately, I could count their female counterparts on the fingers of one hand - Latasha Barnes, Marjory Smarth and Kim Holmes. I can’t stop wondering why we have so few female pioneers today. I refuse to believe that back in the day, block party and club floors were burned without women.
There is plenty of proof that women participated in the scene - ‘Back to School Jam’, the very first hip-hop party in 1973 was organised not only by DJ Kool Herc but also by his sister Cindy Campbell. ‘Check Your Body at the Door’, a remarkable film about underground house dancers in 1990s New York, featured a number of women as well, including Marjory Smarth, Barbara Tucker and Cindy-Lee ‘Asia’ Moon. In the earliest images of Rock Steady Crew breaking in the yard of Booker T. Washington Junior High School in 1986 New York, we see teenage girls performing as well.
In the 1970s, America was still getting used to the idea of a working woman and a woman in control of her reproduction system after birth control was approved in the 1960s. The timeline of events was different within the African American and Latino communities, which were facing additional oppression caused by white supremacy and racism. In these communities, women have laboured for centuries and struggled to access health care and forms of safe contraception. In many cases, poor life opportunity and inadequate finances forced females to fall into the role of main family carer.
The house club legend Archie Burnett discussed reasons why fellow female dancers would stop clubbing or practising dance: ‘They get married or get pregnant, they create families and can’t get out that much... It’s easier for men to get up and go but is not as easy for a woman to get up and go, as she has all of these other responsibilities. It sounds sexist, that’s just the way the world was.’
During 1980-1990s, street dance was not seen as a potential career opportunity either, Archie remembers: ‘No one thought of going around and teaching what they did as a kid... though a lot of the men were married, they could still go and do what they do, because there was someone at home, taking care of the kid.’ Very few dancers would be scouted for big commercial jobs - a few examples of legendary pioneers from the popping scene we know of were Bruno Falcon (Pop N Taco) and Timothy Earl Solomon (Popin’ Pete) who featured in Hollywood movie Breakin’, as well as Steve da Silva (Suga Pop) who worked with artists like James Brown, Michael and Janet Jackson, Lionel Richie and Sheila E. Women who featured in similar jobs would usually have a classical or jazz training background.
The deep-seated perceptions of female roles within the wider society, as well as the lack of stable income-generating opportunities in street dance impacted the very low number of female dancers who would remain active. Short-lived female presence in the scene in the past resulted in there being very few female pioneers today and a lack of femininity influence. This allowed the competitive component of the scene to be shaped as the majority - men - pleased.
The competitive scene has been predominantly populated and shaped by men who acted in the late 90s - those who started organising local parties and sessions, and in later years battles and competitions. They are the predecessors of the battle culture we have today, which means that all the masculine experience, trauma and then-acknowledged core values were strongly woven into the mix. Clara Bajado, a well-known female mentor, judge, event organiser and choreographer within the hip-hop and house scene says: ‘I don’t particularly think that masculine traits have been “valued” but they have been unconsciously set as the standards and habits have created some kind of bias thinking after that.’
When asked what values the battle scene holds now, DJ Renegade stated: ‘Dominance in the arena and knowledge of the dance style’. In contrast, Clara identifies these values as self-worth, community, respect and fun. She explains that striving to be the best you can in your artistry, being present and living the moment, engaging in fair play, being respectful and having fun is of highest importance to her.
The contrast between these two answers is huge - as both Clara and Renegade judge events today, can you imagine how differently their decisions are informed when selecting a winner? The beauty of our scene is that it allows many values and approaches to co-exist, as long as a strong foundational value of respect and commitment to the culture is kept. These differing views prove that individuals approach the battle game from completely opposite angles, and this is crucial for the diversity of the scene.
The battle arena is one of the few spaces in which women’s culturally perceived masculine expression is celebrated, which otherwise would be criticised outside of the scene. These expressions could be seen as angry, passionate, aggressive or even dominating - all of which would be popularly assigned to a man, yet I argue, they are human traits. These expressions inform the dance quality, which is valued within the male-dominated dance battle scene. But what do we do with the rest of ourselves? The delicate, vulnerable, emotional, authentic and whole-human selves?
There are very few female popping competitors, who developed an authentic style based on feminine qualities. Cintia Bandidas, Ida ‘Inxi’ Holmlund and Paris Crossley surprise battle audiences with their expression, which present grace, intricacy and authenticity, alongside knowledge of style and powerful hits. However, even with the highest level of skill the masculine movement quality, dynamic or energy is often favoured over the feminine by judges, and we rarely see these women win in the finals. It seems that battle environment is not welcoming different types of strength or approach, which the majority of female competitors hold.
‘The feminine energy is a strength and should be appreciated like the masculine.’
- Ida ‘Inxi’ Holmlund, 2022
So, we’ve arrived at a junction in which personal values meet the values of the competitive scene. Should we adapt our dance style to the masculine if we want to succeed? No. We wouldn’t find ourselves in this position if the power within the scene was distributed equally.
The key topic, that is not often discussed and acknowledged, is who holds the most power within the battle scene. It is the organisers and producers. When creating an event, they decide who represents in the most important roles and what the perfect balance is. In 2021, Francesca Miles in her article for Ink Cypher Make Some Noise for the Ladies…: Sexism in European Hip-Hop Dance Battles provided appalling examples of leading street dance events like Summer Dance Forever and Juste Debout having less than 20% of female judges across all categories.
‘…it has been proven for more than a decade now, that the more women battled, more women judged and more women have been repping - more were winning these recognised events.’
- Clara Bajado, 2022
From events in 2022, I was happy to see diverse judging panels at Hip-Hop Weekend in Sweden, Flavourama in Austria and Soul Sessions in Norway. Unfortunately, there are several counter examples of organisers who proceeded with all-male judging panels - Battle Bad in France, Ground Zero in the UK and others.
That brings me to the second most powerful component of the scene - us, the members, participants and the community. Street dance battles are usually paid events, to which we choose to go to independently. If we don’t agree with the way an event is organised, we have the right to withdraw and express why we won’t be attending. I believe that people organising events care about the opinion of the community and will take it into consideration.
The final power holders are the judges. At the moment, there is no clear judging system for dance battles (apart from Trivium in breaking for the Olympics), meaning each judge creates their own unique set of values to decide the winner. It can be based on all or any of the following - musicality, technique, presentation, creativity and personal preference of qualities - which creates a grey area in the battle scene. Organisers hold a huge responsibility in appointing judges who they trust will do a fair job and hold as little bias as possible.
The utopian battle scene I created in my head, where men/women and masculine/feminine qualities are equally welcomed and celebrated is not the ideal for all. Many are protective and afraid of the scene changing, as they would have to share their power, finances and opportunities with more female-identifying or gender fluid individuals. However, if the authoritative figures of our scene - organisers, judges, audiences, participants - understand the communal power we hold and align together behind a vision for the future of the scene, then changes would be swift and effective.
Changing The Game
‘I think that starting with the basic idea what we as women and men should fit the mould endangered our own capacity to demonstrate our complexity and non-conformism.’
- Godlive Lawani, 2021
As time passes and street dance progresses, we witness more practitioners approaching the battle scene as a part of their artistry. Not disregarding the strategy needed to battle, people are showing up as their full selves and not limiting their expression to one specific quality. This is visible in styles deriving from club culture, which focus on freedom: male-identifying house dancers like Kwame, Ejoe, Dat Boi Troy, Frankie J and many others embrace both feminine and masculine energy while gliding, swirling and skating through the powerful house moves. It is no surprise that we also see many female winners who thrive in this style, such as Mavinga, Khoudia, Toyin, Alesya, Marie Kaae and others.
There are some exemplary and progressive event organisers who are aware of the importance of female representation and are actively working towards re-balancing the power in the scene. Flavourama, a house and hip-hop battle in Salzburg, is organised by a trio of women from Austria who annually appoint a majority of female judges. We also see female DJs, MCs, graphic designers involved in the process of creation and delivery of this event. Another excellent event celebrating female creativity is the Womanhood battle, created by Soul Sessions in Norway - an event for female-identifying participants only, organised, led and judged by women.
Some organisers have addressed the ever-changing needs of this community and created concepts that differ from the traditional dance battle. For example, I Love This Dance by Vice Low was created based on artistic exchange and freedom of movement. This showcase is not tied to one dance style or music genre, allowing participants to access the full palate of their expression. In this environment, we witness feminine qualities dominating much more.
Some dancers have been able to generate income from their craft through teaching, choreographing, competing and other avenues for a few decades now and this visibility encourages more people to take it up as a professional career. We see more examples of women today, who balance family and work in the competitive battle scene with the support of their community and network. To further this, organisations and events must consider the roles of working parents and care givers and factor in additional support where possible - this can be financial cover for childcare or logistical arrangements that assist the family whilst travelling for work.
‘Once you realise that possibility exists, then you know it can be done. That’s why I think there will be more [female dancers] in your generation.’
- Archie Burnett, 2022
With spaces in which female representation is alive and feminine quality is encouraged to thrive, we will be able to rebalance the power in this scene, creating an environment which welcomes different movement approaches and strengths. If the community keeps applying the same current set of values that predominantly suit the masculine, we will not find out how far our feminine can go, how far the dance scene can develop or how far our whole self can reach.
I am grateful for the community and the scene we have today, and I am keen to see continuous change. I encourage myself, as well as all female-identifying dancers to keep exploring, creating our own ways of moving as well as practicing foundations and bravely stepping on the stage to shine our light. As many say, one of the answers for change is in the numbers and coming together with that force that is undeniable. Let’s become the idols we never had.
*Feminine - characteristics such as vulnerability, gentleness, delicacy, submission. In dance can translate as slow, graceful movement, emphasising torso and hip motion as well as whole-body flow; most often embraced by female-identifying dancers.
**Masculine - characteristics such as strength, power, leadership, assertiveness. In dance can be seen as fast, powerful, expansive, attacking, gestural; most often embraced by male-identifying dancers.
Commissioned for Ink Cypher, May 2023
A response to Dance As Hard As A Man by Godlive Lawani
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Gabija is a dance artist and producer, mostly active in the hip-hop dance scene.
Her producing work involves hip-hop dance theatre (credits include Far From The Norm, Making an Elephant), dance festivals (Festival of Dance by Messums Wiltshire), underground battle events, jams and parties (6 Corners, JAMx2, Pop The Funk). In her role as a producer, she strives to support unique creativity and to create spaces for wide sharing and celebration of street and club dances.
Her artistic practice includes choreographing and performing for hip-hop dance theatre companies (credits include Making An Elephant, Boy Blue Entertainment, Actual Size Dance Company), teaching dance technique classes (Future, The Place), competing in the underground battle scene and exploring movement improvisation with live music.
Recently, Gabija launched her blog platform The Artistic Waffle, which tackles topics related to the well-being, experience and financial freedom of dance creatives and beyond.
Gabija Cepelyte, Credit Artur Matos