“Make Some Noise for the Ladies…”
Sexism in European Hip-Hop Dance Battles
Foreword: on positioning
Before I begin, it’s important to note that I write from the perspective of a white, middle-class, non-disabled, cisgender, femme woman. I recognise that aspects of my identity afford me certain privileges, and that the sexism experienced by other women will be nuanced, multifaceted, and may differ from my experiences due to the unique intersections of identities and oppressions. I acknowledge that people are increasingly rejecting binarised notions of gender, with some identifying as gender fluid or non-binary. However, within the constraints of this article, I refer to self-identifying women and men, whilst being aware that these terms do not encapsulate all gender identities. I have sought to include perspectives and experiences of other women from diverse backgrounds in my research and writing, although ultimately, this text comes from me, through the lens of my life, identity, ideas and values. It offers a viewpoint, and there are many others – all valid. We must have many more conversations in order to hear more voices and get a fuller picture on this issue.
Where are all the women?
Let’s begin with a game. Take 20 seconds per bullet point to name as many of the following within hip-hop/street dance culture:
• Event Organisers
Reflect on your list of names. How many of those are women? And in which categories? If anything like mine, it may have been easier to think of prominent male figures for many categories, save for the last three or four. Men seem to occupy the public foreground when it comes to the “centre stage” roles within hip-hop – those that gain the most cultural capital or clout – yet when we consider the essential but less visible roles of producing, administration and general organisation, it is often women doing the groundwork. How many successful male dancer/choreographers have a fantastic female producer or director beside them? How many events, projects or performances simply would not happen, if not for women doing a considerable amount of the admin?
That said, it is not that women don’t occupy the more visible roles within hip-hop... we absolutely do. We are just generally less recognised or remembered for them. There’s a reason why most hip-hop heads know who DJ Kool Herc is, but not his sister, Cindy Campbell – it's the gender bias of HIStory. As Clara Bajado – a pillar of the UK street dance scene – recently noted during a panel discussion at Flavourama festival in Austria: we are not outnumbered, we are simply under-represented.
“Too many man”
Take battle judge line-ups as an example: at Summer Dance Forever 2021 in Holland, 3 out of 15 judges were women – 20% of the jury. In 2020, it was only 2 out of 15 (both in waacking, which was a new category that year, and is a typically feminised dance style). Granted, COVID-19 travel restrictions have made inviting judges from other continents difficult, but surely there are ‘nuff talented female dancers in Europe to have at least one woman out of three judging each category?
In 2016 Juste Debout tried to address the judge gender imbalance by inviting an all-female panel for the world tour. However, this decision ironically highlighted the issue at hand. One year of celebrating and promoting women does not counter the competition’s lack of female judges since its inception in 2002. We need women included every year, without having to shout about it or make it a special edition.
One potential explanation for the historic lack of female judges is that fewer women have won these competitions overall, assuming victory is a necessary prerequisite to judging. However, many men have judged events which they have not previously won, after having represented in a specific dance style or across the wider culture over several years. Meanwhile, same-generation women who have equally repped – sometimes in multiple styles – have been omitted, whether intentionally or unconsciously. Even some women who have won events have not thereafter made it onto judging panels. Parallel to society, it seems that women in hip-hop battle culture have to work harder to prove themselves and gain a seat at the judges’ table.
Perhaps this will gradually shift as more women progress to higher levels of competition and/or win overall. But it begs a bigger, chicken-and-egg kind of question to do with gender representation and bias: must more women win battles for there to be more women judging them? Or, do we need more women judging for more women to stand a chance of winning? Representation matters, after all. Women offer alternative perspectives, ideas and insights to the male experience, bringing balance to a panel. Interestingly, in this year’s first ever WDSF Breaking Adjudicators License examinations, the few women on the course statistically outperformed the men: 3 out of 5 women scored within the top 10, compared to 7 out of 62 male entrants. Further research from other data would be needed, however, to determine whether this was a one-off, or an indication of a larger trend of women outperforming men. Why so few women registered for this course is also worth investigating further.
Furthermore, woman judges provide valuable female role-models for younger generations of dancers. Again, representation matters. If we see examples of successful women, we are more likely to believe in the prospect of our own success. On the flip side, if mainly men continue judging battles, it perpetuates a value-system that foregrounds male perspectives on, and examples of, what “good” dancing is. Such a system may implicitly favour male competitors who mirror and reinforce this particular image of excellence, thus ultimately sustaining the cycle of male dominance and leaving less room for artistic diversity.
In the famous words of British grime MC Skepta: “We need some more girls in here; there’s too many man.”
Language “for the Ladies”
The marginalisation of women in battle culture is also evident in the language some hosts use when referring to female competitors. Certain word choices unveil a covert sexism which is so entrenched in our culture that some barely notice it – but for myself and many others, it grates. Whilst male dancers’ gender is almost never acknowledged, womanhood is frequently commented upon, highlighting the extent to which battles normalise and take for granted masculinity/maleness. Repetitive, generalised gendered comments such as “make some noise for the ladies” or “the women are representing today” – despite being well-meaning – can come across as patronising and reductive, foregrounding our gender over and above our actual skills. As Kamilė Dav, a London-based popper recently put it: “We don’t need extra support for finding our way out of the kitchen to the dancefloor. We’re either good or not. Support us for that.”
There is a subtle and nuanced difference between giving genuine and specific props where due, versus reducing women to one homogenous group that nullifies our individual identities and skillsets. Good intentions should be paired with an awareness of and sensitivity to the specific context and environment when making these comments or observations. An example of where hosts managed this well was at the 2021 Flavourama Hip-Hop 2vs2 battle. After several consecutive pairs of German women won their battles, the hosts, Niki Awandee and MC Redchild, bigged them up: “German girls I see you” … “shout out to the German girls today.” For me, this commentary was equally about their Germanness and exemplary performance as their femaleness. It was both descriptive and positively reinforcing, rather than reductive, and was made in direct response to the situation at hand; not in an arbitrary, throw-away manner.
At a recent London ‘Last Survivor’ concept battle, I publicly called out the host after several gendered comments were made, asking why he had asked a female dancer to “speak for the ladies” immediately after asking a male dancer simply “to speak.” Genuinely surprised, he swiftly apologised, and people clapped. He later approached me to talk and apologise personally, and actually thanked me for making him aware of the issue, as he hadn’t realised the implications of his words. He also asked me to send him this article, which I absolutely will. Such situations offer a valuable opportunity to raise individual and collective consciousness and instigate change; we just need the courage to speak up.
Hosting is certainly not an easy job, and I salute all hosts putting in long hours and maintaining maximal energy and engagement at hip-hop events; I would probably lose my voice post-preselections. Nevertheless, those holding the mic hold significant power and influence, and represent our community and collective cultural values through their words. This role should not be taken lightly, and the power of language not underestimated. Simply referring to “people” or “dancers” instead of “men” or “women” creates a more inclusive culture, and also recognises those who self-identify outside of the gender binary. I hope that as the profile and outreach of hip-hop battle culture continues to grow – entering institutions as globally influential as the Olympics – our hosts speak with a mindful awareness of the messages they spread and values they uphold through their language.
Actions Speak Louder
Other facets of sexism in hip-hop battle culture are far more overt, from unwarranted physical contact, to inappropriate comments during practice, to clear institutional gender discrimination. General battle etiquette (excluding krump) is: come as hard as you want with your dance, but no touching. And yet, I’ve seen footage of a friend pulled backwards by her ponytail during a UK cypher battle by an older male dancer. I’ve seen a popping finalist at Juste Debout Spain flick his female opponent under her chin, as one might do to a child. I’ve seen another male popper grab his opponent suggestively by her hips when she turned away from him mid-round at a Polish battle in 2019. The host reproached him for this afterwards, but the immediate response from some spectators was laughter. That he had the audacity to do this – publicly, whilst being filmed – speaks volumes about how some men (#notallmen, but enough to illustrate the issue) still perceive female battlers, particularly in more male-dominated styles.
Practice sessions can likewise be a playground for prejudice and unsolicited remarks. I have received multiple sexualised comments regarding my body during drill sessions. Another woman was advised to “dance more sexy” when training top-rock. I’ve heard of groping during krump sessions. A male house dancer once slapped my upper leg at a practice jam (I was wearing shorts) and remarked “you have thighs, you.” He was later surprised that I could do push-ups. Physique comments are always a risk if training in shorts or a cropped top during warmer weather. Assumptions of weakness and surprise at strength are frequent.
The breaking scene is, as far as I understand, another realm entirely... B-girls are frequently side-lined and undermined, whilst toxically-masculine egos reign supreme. The separation of dancers into b-boy and b-girl categories, whilst giving women more visibility and win opportunities, often highlights sexist attitudes and the overall second-class status of women in this style. At the 2021 Red Bull BC One UK prelims, for example, the host announced that he’d “seen the b-girls warming up, and they’re good... some of them could even smoke some of the men...” implying that women a) being good at breaking, and b) beating men, is unexpected and therefore noteworthy. Meanwhile, at JBL Unbreakable 2021 in Belgium, hosts referred to the “beautiful b-girls,” as if their appearance has any relevance in a dance-sport competition. It’s a battle, not a beauty pageant, bro. One host later observed that “actually, the b-girls did pretty well… clean, on beat, changing levels,” again indicating his apparently low expectations of the women’s competition. Once more, language is key. Take out “actually” and “pretty” and you have here a compliment; add them in, and it’s undermining. Replace “beautiful” with “strong,” “talented,” “powerful,” “fresh,” and you recognise the b-girls’ incredible skills, rather than perpetuating the archaic and painfully sexist idea that women should above all look pretty – even when spinning on their heads.
Furthermore, a pro b-girl friend has recounted numerous stories of blatant gender discrimination at an organisational level across Europe and beyond: being paid less than her male colleagues for judging in France; being asked to give up her semi-final spot to a more famous b-boy in Portugal; doing a b-girl 7-to-Smoke in a small side-room with bad flooring during the lunch break of the “main” b-boy competition in Belgium. And at the 2019 WDSF World Breaking Championships in China, not only was the b-boy prize money over double that of the b-girls ($20,000 versus $8,000), but apparently the organisers also attempted to cut the invited b-girls' fees, after already having signed contracts and flown them there. After some of the b-girls protested, I was told, they managed to retain everyone’s original fee, but others did not even try arguing the decision, presumably fearful of the potentially adverse consequences of rocking the institutional breaking boat. Could you imagine how a proposal to cut the b-boy fees would have gone down?
In 2024, breaking will appear at the Paris Olympics for the first time in history. It will command much press coverage and public attention. And as the dance form continues to evolve from cultural practice into elite sporting activity, the industry must professionalise. Equal pay in sport is a hot topic, and inevitably prize money and competitor/judge fees will come into question. Will Olympic b-girls receive the same fees, funding, resources and attention as the b-boys? I hope so, but I have doubts. Arguments for paying elite male athletes more are usually concerning performance level or duration – in tennis Grand Slams, men play more sets than women, for example – so some may argue that b-boys doing more rounds, or more virtuous power-moves than b-girls warrant more money. But isn’t this pure biological discrimination? A fairly standard b-boy move may be doubly difficult for b-girls due to physics and physiology. Equally, Serena Williams might lose to the top 100 male tennis players, but she is nonetheless one of the greatest female players of all time. Pay elite sportspeople equally for their equal hard work, training and relative performance success, and see what happens. I bet if more b-girl battles had a $20,000 cash prize, we would see more women breaking at an exceptionally high-level. Heck, I might even become a b-girl.
Reshaping the Narrative: Making Noise and Claiming Space
The above examples paint a lucid picture of the present European hip-hop dance battle circuit and its sometimes subtle, sometimes screaming sexism. This is of course only part of the bigger picture of the industry overall; the choreographic and commercial sectors are unfortunately beyond the scope of this article, but I hope to hold and hear more conversations on this.
It is also not completely grim. Women are shining and succeeding throughout hip-hop dance culture, despite the barriers and discrimination. Kate Prince has achieved international success and Arts Council England National Portfolio Organisation status with her hip-hop dance theatre company ZooNation, founded in 2002. B.Supreme has provided valuable opportunities and platforms for women in hip-hop since 2006. Myself UK Dance Company has been consistently empowering and
showcasing female hip-hop dancers since 2008. French afro-house crew Paradox-Sal has been trailblazing since 2012. Aim Collective is currently killing it in the UK popping scene. Alesya, Marie Kaae, Toyin, Tasha, Mavinga and Khoudia have all won House Dance Forever. Flavourama has become one of the most reputed European top-styles events, and is organised by a team of meticulous, forward-thinking women. There are countless other examples of excellence.
Nonetheless, there is clearly work to be done. How do we move our culture forward in a way that levels the playing field, celebrating and welcoming people of all genders? Hip-hop has always been a vehicle for identity negotiation and construction, and it therefore has the power and potential to de-stabilise and deconstruct the gender divide – if we are all on the same page.
A key approach is to make constructive noise: to have honest, open conversations about the scene, and call out sexist behaviours and practices when they arise. Many people have experiences and opinions but do not share them publicly; this must shift for there to be tangible change. In extreme cases, direct action such as boycotting events might carry a powerful message (imagine if b-girls all refused to enter the Olympics unless paid equally). But I’d also advocate wherever possible for calling in – having difficult but necessary conversations about sexist behaviours and discrimination with the perpetrators, in order to fully address issues at the source and formulate solutions together.
Men must allow space for women, and women must claim space: consistently show up, apply for opportunities, share work, represent at events, and generally be as visible as possible. Not enough women in a battle line-up? Rock up in force and rep hard. Don’t like how events are run? Organise new ones that better reflect (y)our values. More women-led events would be welcomed, but men should also be welcomed into these spaces. The aim is to unite the community, rather than perpetuate gender-based divisions. We can ask organisers to proactively include more women and non-binary people across dancer, judge, host and DJ line-ups – perhaps using quotas for larger events and programmes. 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.
Lastly, education and pedagogy are paramount. Knowledge dissemination is one of hip-hop’s core elements; the more we teach values of equality, acceptance, respect and openness, the more we create a welcoming culture and community that holds space for all identities and rewards success more equally. Having powerful female role-models as well as feminist men in teaching and coaching positions will inspire and influence current and future generations. Our youngers will carry the hip-hop dance baton forward; it is up to us how and what we teach them.
Commissioned for Ink Cypher, November 2021
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Francesca Miles is a dancer, teacher, scholar and emerging DJ, with a passion for hip-hop culture and associated "street" or club-born dance forms. She is a member of the award-winning hip-hop dance company, Boy Blue Entertainment, and has performed at platforms including Breakin' Convention, Barbican Art50 and Latitude Festival.
Francesca also teaches for ZooNation, Chisenhale Dance Space and Trinity Laban and is on the Francophone committee of PoPMoves: an international popular dance scholars’ network. In 2020, she began learning the art of deejaying, and has since spun for Stronger Together Collective and Drums Radio.
Her current dance practice focuses mainly on house, hip-hop, popping and breaking, though her dance initiation was through ballet and contemporary. Francesca graduated in 2016 from University of Roehampton with a first-class BA in Dance Studies, and won an award for her dissertation research into UK Hip-Hop Dance Theatre.
Francesca Miles, Credit Yoann Rasoa