Self Teaching in Street Dance
Fabrice Pika Taraud
A lot of people define themselves as self-taught dancers. Street dance is unique in how it allows us to find our own character and ways of moving. Here I will explore the meanings of that term, but before that I’d like to explain the reason for this reflection.
As a professional dancer I’ve met and exchanged with dancers from other styles for many years. One of the particularities which defines street dance is freestyle; it’s the main way of expressing ourselves unlike some of the more academic dances. It took me a while to understand why some other professional dancers couldn’t improvise in a dance style they have practiced for more than 10 years, it’s as if they had a doctored mind.
I discovered that “practicing” meant that most academic dancers were taking class daily alongside their individual physical training. They were exploring new ways of moving happened only in workshops or during rehearsals for a new show.
I asked myself why was I so surprised by their way of practicing and realised that the main difference came from the fact they were taking classes and had been in a dance school/conservatoire whilst I was self-educated.
How could I be self-educated in dance? Street dance? A form with precise terms, steps and styles?
I began in 1996 in France, near Paris. There was no internet yet and the information was like gold. We were gold digging…
SOURCES OF KNOWLEDGES
In order to understand the perspectives of other street dancers I spoke to people from different generations about their journey and how they found their knowledge and information.
David Mathor (O’ Possee) was living in Guadeloupe (French West Indies) and discovered hip hop in 1984 with the movie Breakin’, he watched it 10 times at the movie theatre and even brought his cousin along who had a better memory than him to be able to remember the steps and build their dance from it. Before that he was able to watch Soul Train on Canal 10 thanks to his proximity with the U.S. East Coast. Only people with cable could watch it in France.
“We were looking and searching for everything with dance inside: Fame, Breakin’ 2, Footloose, Staying Alive, Flashdance. Every music video.”
Steen Körner (Out of Control) discovered street dance during the 80’s - like David - and learnt the arm wave from a book, page by page, and developed his signature, animated, move by move style thanks to that particular way of learning.
His generation (alongside mine) discovered the VHS and the possibilities of recording music videos with dance in them, instead of waiting, full of hope, for their broadcast on tv each day. Street dance video tapes also got out: Battle of the Year, Wiggles, Radiotron...we were getting more information.
The Internet was the second game changer - despite the bad surprises at the end of some downloads - we didn’t always get what we were waiting for. I was waiting for a whole day for an Electric Boogaloo’s dance video which appeared to be an XXX movie when I opened it...
The evolution is real. Every new technology allows information to circulate faster. From three to four movies in the cinema in 1984, there was nothing except the tapes of these movies until the mid 90’s.
Then street dance video tapes and DVDs of events. Event organisers saw the business opportunity and possible revenue stream from selling physical recordings of their events.
One video tape could change the way of dancing for a lot of people. Freestyle Session 5, Skill Methodz, Out For Fame, Battle of the Year 2001, Reck’n Shop, The Cure from Skeeter Rabbit, Flexible Fury. With that material you could practice for years, but with YouTube we’ve got new knowledge every second.
From not enough to, maybe, too much information.
The internet is a non-stop source of information. How can we sort what is relevant or not? A first suggestion on YouTube is not a guarantee of a good choice...a trend can be the truth of a moment but may not last and time spent in front of videos can be endless. Yes, you get new moves, but it can lengthen or nullify the time to find your own dance identity. Besides, it was the same problem with VHS and most of us aren’t clones.
There’s one very important source missing up to now. The other dancers
We learned from other dancers, by watching them, listening to them, talking to them, dancing with or against them. I learnt from Steen, Karim Barouche, Link, Wiggles, Bintou Dembele, Karima and so many more, before meeting them. They inspired me and indirectly helped me find my own way of moving.
One sentence. One tip. One piece of advice can be a total vision changer.
Self-educated doesn’t mean being alone. Each one, teach one applies here too. Sharing is the foundation of our dance movement and there wasn’t any complete or serious book to learn street dance from at that time.
When someone had a move or a step, that person became a teacher of that move.
Bboy Neil (1 Point C’est Tout, Vagabonds Crew) was a young, gifted prodigy from Villeneuve La Garenne - a Parisian suburb city. When he entered 1 Point C’est Tout with Tony Maskott, David Colas, Regis Truchy and Gemini he began daily practice with “la creme de la creme” of the Parisian street dance scene: Pascal Blaise, Ibrahim Dembele, Walid Boumhani, Karim Barouche (RIP) and Xavier Plutus.
“It was moving from a departmental level to an international level. I was gifted, but aware of the looks from the elders, I couldn’t mess up my potential.”
When Neil came back to his neighbourhood full of the Parisian practice journey he had training with his former crew, everybody levelled up around him.
For my part, I travelled and took some workshops to meet some of the references of street dance because I understood that a real-life meeting was priceless.
I was lucky enough to be able to do it. I went to New York to meet Caleaf Sellers, Marjory Smarth (Rip), Shannon Mabra, Mr Wiggles and Jazzy Jay. It happened and I learned more during a night of clubbing than one week of workshops. I saw them all goofing around and having a good time, totally opposite to a workshop context.
I travelled to Los Angeles for the B Boy Summit 2004 and 2007 and met the Electric Boogaloos, Slick Dogg and Dolla Bill, Flat Top, Boppin Andre, Shabbadoo, Poe One and Kmel in the flesh and blood and in the energy of their homeland. I discovered people I didn’t know like Demons of the Mind, the strutting community and Adesola.
Those trips allowed me to feel and better understand the way of life that gave birth to popping and locking. I listened to music with a new perspective and shared all my new knowledge with my friends and students.
I met Acky, who taught me the importance of the hips in Paris and Gucchon in Finland. I was introduced to the Moscow popping community thanks to a Evgeniia who introduced me to Aleksei who asked Kavun to take care of me...so I have been able to practice with them during their monthly gatherings.
With some of them you‘ve got to show your motivation, like with Fox (Aktuel Force), when he grabs your triceps with his stroooooong grip, he tells you the pop is coming from here and ends with: ”You‘ve got 15 days.”
Meaning that’s the time you’ve got to be able to pop properly if you want me to share my knowledge with you.
I asked a lot of questions, I listened and watched.
Because that’s my way of learning, I can usually find several ways to teach or explain something very technical in a simple way. My teaching quickly become coaching, I prefer suggesting instead of showing so my students can find their dance identity. Being alone with the notion of “biting isn’t allowed!” didn’t ease my capacity of learning someone’s else choreography at work...
So far I’m talking about the technologies and inspirations, whereas the main part of this essay hasn’t been explored yet. What does self-teaching or education means?
There are as many versions of self-teaching as there are self-educated dancers.
Ucka Ludovic Ilolo:
“I think self-teaching is creating our own schooling. People think self-teaching means not taking classes, but you can do it. The main difference is you choose where, when, which class and what you want to practice or keep from the content of this class.”
“When you‘re self-educating you’re discovering your own lack, so you decide to go and search for the information at the opposite end in comparison to traditional dance schooling. What you need to learn is already decided before you begin.”
“Self-teaching is very close to the first human way of teaching: experience. When we feel and experience something, we must give meaning to it. It teaches us to discipline ourselves and to understand the responsibility we have to looking for knowledge and to make oneself better.”
“Even if you’re self-educated you can learn from another person/dancer.”
“Self-teaching is taking class from yourself.”
“But self-educated is beginning to know yourself, to get near your own self, to discover how you function…to learn whilst alone how you feel, how you develop an idea, personalising what you are about to create, to create a new way of functioning, to see the world, to start setting in motion a new system that is specific to us.”
“It’s simply creating independently.”
“Understanding everything alone.”
“If a teacher make you understand something…it’s great. On the other hand, if you understand it on your own…I think there’s more anchoring.”
“I found self-teaching more comfortable and it fitted me more…because you can do what you want, and you’re becoming the builder of your own house…”
“I’m inspired by my family, their characters, what I like, dislike. I let my sensitivity get out, it multiplies my senses, so I have a very personal musical approach.”
“My imagination is fusing, I see links everywhere, so I create endlessly.”
“David Colas motivated me…his fine musicality was precise and inspiring.”
“Nature inspires me more than anything…elements and animals are originals and creative.”
Being a searcher.
With your own body mastering a PhD. Search. In my body, not necessarily in what others do.
It’s looking for paths and following them, seeing where they take me.
It’s a lot of freedom too. The freedom to create your own style away from the mass production copycats.
It’s going against the tide too, in a movement which is already a countermovement. #Roadlesstraveled
It’s taking the useful in the common lexicon and leaving the rest.
Less dogma, more movement.”
“I don’t have a dance role model. I always wanted to be myself, to have my own flame. I’m searching my live energy.”
“It was more like a background noise of movements. I was just dancing, dancing because it didn’t have a precise name.”
“I didn’t take dance classes. I didn’t have the money for that.”
SM: I was watching music videos then i began to practice with Tony Maskott for 3 years so i don’t see myself as self- educated.
FPT: How many times a week were you praticing with him?
SM: Every Saturdays afternoon and sometimes Wednesday afternoons for show rehearsals
FPT: What were you doing the rest of the week?
SM: I was searching for dance step variations at home by changing direction and levels.
FPT: Did you learn it from someone or ask you to do it?
SM: No, I did it on my own...ooooohhh, i never saw it like that. OK. I’m self-educated too.
FPT: Did you feel a difference as a woman in Street Dance?
SM: Of course, I felt I had to be four times better than a guy to be considered. I knew I was safe as woman because I was like Tony Maskott’s little sister and everybody respected him.
Entisssar “Loops” Al Hamdany:
“Self-teaching means overwhelming passion, curiosity, desire, perseverance, feel as your normal state.”
“Becoming a baby again with your own soul and existence.”
“I refused to take class or workshops because I didn’t want to be influenced. I already had my way of dancing.”
“I had to meet new people.”
“It made me think differently and developed my imagination.”
“I took inspiration and gained a new body awareness with taï chi Tokitsu-Ryu. My master allowed me to understand what being in your body means. When I learnt drums with Steve Philips he told me to let myself be carried away by the music, to improvise instead of putting my improvisation on the music.”
“My mother and my aunties inspired me, I liked their way of dancing, my cousins too.”
“Being self-educated in street dance for me is a way for you aspire without a coach/mentor/teacher on your side every time who will tell you what to do.”
“When I don’t get the answer I want, I find another way to progress.”
“Giving dance classes helps me too, as a self-educated dancer, I know the struggle, so I wanted to find an easier way to understand and learn for my students. Sometimes, I found an exercise for them and realised afterwards that I needed it too…”
“Every time I hit a wall, or I feel stuck; it helps my improvement.”
“It’s like building your own house without an architectural diploma. Your house may be leaning but at least you will have built it.”
“It’s cut from my mother's cushion pieces and I put it on my back to be able to practice the windmill, no one told me to do it.”
“We never took classes. We learnt from each other, by talking, watching and reproducing the elders’ movements without biting.”
“It’s learning from the fields of philosophy.”
“I started very young so I listened to my teacher.”
“My potential brighter future didn’t leave space for my own free will.”
“I won prestigious battles, toured with a famous dance company and even played in movies.”
“I finally took the time to ask myself what I really wanted when my children were born.”
“I was in popping, but it wasn’t my heart choice.”
“I’m becoming self-educated in breaking at 40 years old."
“It’s freedom, no code.”
“It’s an energy, you’re expressing yourself.”
“You appropriate the step and you put your identity in it to create your own signature.”
“My parents were against it, i did it anyway.”
“I was a savage. I was raised not to talked to guys at that time.”
“So, to find information it was more complicated.”
“There were too many guys. I didn’t want one flirting with me.”
“I was annoyed because every famous street dancing woman was called the girlfriend of, the sister of.”
“I just wanted to dance so I found my own gym with my association (TSR) in St Ouen, not in Paris.”
“My crew were mostly women (Ladyside, Kart’l).”
IT'S ABOUT LOVE AND PASSION
Being self-educated requires dedication, and it comes with love and passion. I don’t see any other way to explain these decisions.
Only passion can motivate you to take a 1h30 hour trip to find a place to practice and catch the last train to go home - like Otuawan.
Going to live at Damon Frost’s house to be able to learn from him - like Steen Koerner.
To go to dance parties despite the fact you’ll have to deal with gangs in front of the door before and after. Just because you love the music, just because you know you are leveling up every time you’re dancing with others - like David Mathor.
When you learn English - like Jikay - to be able to learn and understand the popping styles and definitions on a web forum. I see determination.
Choosing war ruins in Lebanon as a spot to practice - like Entissar - because nobody would bother him there.
The four to six hours daily training during my high school years and then after my day at work. I did that for 10 years at least.
Developing the skill to quickly find the dancers who can help, inspire, or motivate you in a new training spot or an event.
Watching Boogaloo Shrimp’s broom scene in Breakin’ for 2 to 3 hours in a row to understand where his pop is coming from.
Asking Entissar to teach me how to listen to the music after 15 years of practice because I reached a limit in my dance.
Recreating ourselves without losing our identity when the originators told us we were using wrong terms.
Seeing one step, one move, one time and create an infinity of movements and variations with that glimpse like a lot of us did.
As my research progresses, I’ve realised we’ve all deployed an ingenuity and an endless hunger for knowledge, but most of all we value that journey and the tools we’ve created to learn.
A lot of self-educated people and self-educated dancers have imposter syndrome. We are non-schooled people with a non-academic dance background. The ability to bounce back in order to achieve one’s goal is priceless.
When i asked Jikay about his self-education, an unexpected thing happened. He explained why he was calling me sensei for two years although we danced together only once.
Just by talking about popping, dance videos or giving him feedback about his dance, I answered questions or confirmed the intuitions he had. He would have found out all this on his own but I spared him weeks/months of research without knowing it. He’s following a path I already took so if I can be a scout - as my elders were to me - the circle will be closed.
Self-educated dancers always find a way to learn, progress. An observation that was often made during my interviews can summarize their mindset:
“I had to do it so I did.”
In hip hop and street dance we used to say we create from nothing. I disagree…in street dance we are our own architects, tools and raw material. We create from the feeling of lack.
Lack became the space and freedom towards an infinity of possibilities.
Lack became wealth.
Self-educated dancers, for the most of us, are always moving forward to the next nugget to progress but we haven’t paused to realise that it’s our experience that makes us the gold that other people are digging for.
The unschooled has become the teacher.
In this article Street Dance is an umbrella term for locking, popping, b-boying, hip hop freestyle, even house dance.
During my interviews some women brought the difficulty of being a self-educated woman in street-dance to my attention. I wish to make research about this topic soon. It’s a journey which deserves to be highlighted.
Commissioned for Ink Cypher, November 2021
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Fabrice “Pika” Taraud
I started in 1996 in Chatelet les Halles as a street dancer who was dancing every style from Bboying to locking without forgetting hip hop freestyle and popping. I fell in love with this last one and had the chance to meet a lot of my inspirations and international dancers thanks to several trips to USA, Asia, Africa and Europe.
I’m a professional dancer for 20 years and I need to share how much street dance is a way of empowerment for me and for us. For this reason I’ll do my best to bring to light the inventiveness and smartness deployed in a lot of street dancers life path.