The Hip Hop and Disability Problem: why do dancers ‘overcome’ it when they could be ‘celebrating’ it?
Hello. I’m Porcelain. A disabled writer and performer who’s passionate about representation within the arts. I was thrilled to see Emily Tisshaw’s article Where is Disability in Hip Hop Dance?’ on Ink Cypher because there was so much within her writing that I could relate too. However, my approach differs in one way - and looking at how much I agree with her it does feel like I’m splitting hairs - but to me the distinction is important.
Emily talks about the dignity in the response she received from Kayla Maria with the quote ‘I am not a disabled dancer, I am a professional dancer that also happens to have a limb difference.’ Kayla is a phenomenal dancer who has the right to identify and describe herself and her practice in whatever terms she wishes. But there is a different approach that I prefer to see in disability arts.
I wasn’t born with a disability, but I ‘acquired’ several long-term chronic illnesses in my teens. My experiences in the dance world before and after becoming disabled are different and this is what motivates me to shout about disability pride...and I feel so much joy when I see others doing the same. I don’t like seeing dancers talk about overcoming their disability to pursue their career of choice. I want to see proud, disabled advocates shouting about their unique perspective and what that can bring to their performances. Some of my best choreography comes from movement created when - due to pain or an opiate - I couldn’t move my body in a typical way and had to explore alternate movement types. An action as simple getting a snack from the kitchen can create a treasure trove full of unusual and unique movements and dynamics. I’m not the performer I am today in spite of my disability, I am this performer because of them.
Having originally trained in other forms of dance I was on a contract in Dubai when the venue I worked at had a Hip Hop night once a week. Choreographed shows were fine because we could rehearse them, but freestyle sets terrified me initially! Luckily Yufo Trickster a Bboy from Sharjah was on our team and he showed me the ropes. There’s a freedom to Hip Hop dance that blew me away, it didn’t feel like there was a right or wrong way of doing things - as long as it was safe and looked good I could do anything. It could also be practised anywhere, so instead of waiting for an hour or two before the venue opened when we could practise on the stage, we could train anywhere...on the beach, the grass outside my home, anywhere we had chance. I remember we were at a bus stop one time and Yufo suggested we work on the trick he had taught me the day before until the bus arrived.
For this essay I spoke to three disabled dancers who are thriving within Hip Hop dance and I was curious to see if their schools of thought would be similar to mine, Kayla’s or something entirely different.
The first dancer I spoke to was Laura Dajoa. She grew up in East London enjoying Hip Hop music because that’s the style that felt most natural to her. She’s currently touring with ‘Look Mum, No Hands!’ by Mimbre and Daryl Beeton. Laura works as a choreographer, dancer and has a very impressive credit list including: Moxie Brawl/Punk Alley (2021), Public Health England Campaign (2020) and the Paralympic Heritage Flame Ceremony.
Next was Hearns Sebuado. He’s a freelance dance artist, who was born in the Philippines and moved to London at the age of 10. The same year he turned to deaf...the reasons for which were never uncovered. As a child in the Philippines he saw a Hip Hop dance group rehearse in the street and became fascinated by them. From that day on he knew he wanted to be a Hip Hop dancer. His main styles are Hip Hop and Latin but he’s trained in ballet, contemporary, musical theatre and jazz. Career highlights include performing in Miami, Azerbaijan and Louisiana as well as performing with Deaf Men Dancing.
Finally, Jung Soo “Krops” Lee. He’s from South Korea and was already a breaker when in 2013 he had an accident during practice. He was rushed to hospital after landing on his neck and was told he would never stand again - paralysed from the neck down. Amazingly after six months he started to regain movement in different parts of his body and in May 2014 after a month of therapy he stood up on his own...but he had to learn how to do everything again. Throughout all this Krops never gave up on his desire to dance again and he has now achieved that dream. He’s even performed the trick that caused the injury and now he’s part of ILL-Abilities crew, an all star crew of differently abled dancers.
Q1) Do you prefer to be described as a dancer or as a disabled dancer? Can you explain any reasons for your preference?
Laura: I’m really easy when it comes to that kind of stuff. I think it’s useful for people to know that I’m a wheelchair dancer so they know what to expect but I’m cool with whatever terms as long as it’s not, you know… (Laura and I shared a quiet moment here as unfortunately we both know what kind of words could go after the ‘you know’)
Hearns: I wouldn’t label myself as a ‘disabled dancer’, I’d rather be specific since ‘disabilities’ are varied. I always describe myself as a ‘deaf dancer’ in my profile or biography because it’s important to be identify what disability you have.
Krops: I always introduce myself as a dancer because dance is just a body language that you can see. Anyone can dance. That means there is no disabled in this language.
I prefer to specify I’m a disabled dancer as I’m proud of my identity and there are still people who don’t realise it’s possible for disabled people to have successful dance careers. Unlike me, the three dancers all seem to agree, the term they use is dancer. Any mention of disability is for practicality not for social or community reasons. I love Krops description of dance as a body language and with Hip Hop being such an international movement and dancers travelling globally for competitions and performances it’s fitting to describe Hip Hop as a universal language.
Q2) What was it that attracted you to Hip Hop dance?
Laura: I think Hip Hop is the foundation of where people were socialising, it’s such a social dance. Hip hop grooves are simple but they bring people together and that's what I really love about the music. I grew up admiring the culture, admiring the music and loving the scene. When I was younger I did the whole stage school thing when your parents send you off for acting, singing and dance. And yeah, sure, that was cool, but then I started to focus on Hip Hop dance. When I acquired my disability I started going to Breakin’ Convention every year and it’s all about the cyphers and circles that people are jamming in. That really felt like home.
Krops: The beauty of breaking is that there are no rules. It’s only about peace, unity and having fun. Everything can be Hip Hop as long as you’ve got your soul.
Hearns: I was inspired to dance when I was young when I could hear everything, I saw these Hip Hop dancers in the streets in the Philippines and that inspired me to do the same.
Hearns spoke about the connection between his Filipino origins and Hip Hop dance and Laura (who is also Filipino spoke about this) mentioned growing up being surrounded by Hip Hop culture in East London; both of these highlight how global Hip Hop is with people all over the world feeling connected to it from a young age. Krops and Laura highlighted the freedom from conventions which made Hip Hop so accessible as well as feeling accepted and at home within the community. These conversations brought me great joy and I’m sure these key aspects of Hip Hop has helped attract diverse dancers and will continue to do so. I didn’t find Hip Hop until adulthood - when I quickly fell in love with the open and almost casual style after having more experience of highly regimented dance styles. Whilst in those other styles I felt my diminishing mobility meant I could no longer dance ‘correctly’, in Hip Hop as long as I was safe and it felt right there didn’t seem to be a wrong way of doing things. There have been times when I’ve really needed that freedom to just dance without the stress of being ‘right’.
Q3) How has being a dancer affected other areas of your life?
Laura: I think it definitely helped my confidence as I’m a bit of an introvert and I’m quite happy being by myself. It really taught me about engaging with other people and engaging with communities. It’s been an opening to make connections and meet people.
Krops: For me dance was the way to express myself. I was a really shy guy when I was young but dance helped me a lot. Also sometimes talking may hurt people but dancing is just expressing so it’s also the beauty of body language.
Having seen both Laura and Krops perform, I never would have guessed that they had ever been shy or introverted. I hadn’t really thought about it before hearing these answers but I would be more confident joining a group I didn’t really know in a jam than I would walking up and saying hello. Perhaps Hip Hop language - as Krops so beautifully describes it - can be easier to express ourselves through than our first language. I like the idea of people who communicate differently with others e.g. non verbal or BSL users using Hip Hop as a method to express themselves and connect with others. This applies outside of disability as well...at international events how many people have danced together that don’t speak the same language? How many people with opposing political or social views have danced together without disagreement or conflict? Whilst I’ve been writing this and thinking about dance as a profession and concentrating on those making a living from Hip Hop, the answers have highlighted how powerful and important Hip Hop dance can be as a hobby. Spending your time doing something that provides exercise, expression, confidence and social interaction is a great use of time. Turning the music up and jamming is a great way of relieving stress.
Q4) What is the importance of representation to you?
Laura: It’s so important. Representation is really important for me because I tick a lot of boxes. I didn’t know this to start off with...but there's a power that comes with that. Experiencing these things means you can identify ways where you can implement change, or you can start making changes. Change has been a long time coming and I want to see myself being represented on stage. I keep repeating it but...representation is so important. I see both sides of the coin - I grew up without a disability then I acquired one - and I didn’t know how to navigate that process, but I still wanted to dance and I didn’t see myself being represented on stages. I was just like, you know, why not? Let's do something about that. That's been my driving force to make change.
Hearns: I wasn’t born deaf, I become deaf at the age of 10. I woke up one morning completely deaf. I always knew I wanted to be a dancer/performer and I told my teacher at High School that I wanted to study performing arts and he laughed at me...told me that I can’t hear music or sing. But I followed my instincts and went onto study a National Diploma in performing arts and got a triple distinction. Then I went to study a dance performance degree at Middlesex University and I was the first deaf dancer to graduate from there.
Krops: I was a dancer before I got injured. So all the knowledge that was there from before...but after the injury I was not able to dance the same as before. This also meant that nobody could dance the same as me. Dance shows not only movement, but life. The importance of representation for me is that every dance can’t be the same as before, not even yesterday. Everyday we change. This is the beauty of dance.
When I think about representation there was something I read before meeting Laura. Early in her dance journey Cindy Claes - the artistic director of East London Dance’s Limitless at the time - sent Laura a video of Luca Patuelli (amazing dancer and founder of ILL-Abilities) to inspire her to keep dancing. Nine years later in 2017 at Liberty Festival Laura performed for the Access All Areas/Vital Xposure’s show Pullens Party...the stage next to Pullens Party was for ILL-Abilities. Laura hung out backstage with the ILL-Abilities crew who had inspired to keep dancing. Whilst I was furious to read about a teacher laughing at Hearns ambitions, I am not surprised, it’s a story I’ve heard so often. The stories that break my heart are where audience members approach me after shows, telling me they used to dance or act when they were younger but they were told it ‘wasn’t for them’ and were pushed into other things. This is why it’s so important for me to celebrate disability within Hip Hop, whether the dancers are active change makers like Laura or are doing what they love. They have the power to change other peoples narratives. When the next person is told to give up or they can’t do it, they can say - well what about them?
Q5) I asked Hearns and Krops if they had found the Hip Hop community supportive and if they offered ways to adapt their practice to make it accessible?
Hearns: I can follow the steps and movement because I can pick up choreography quickly. Lots of Hip Hop dance artist are open minded and willing to learn how to make things easier for deaf dancers, e.g. to learn the beats and be on sync.
Krops: I’ve tried to understand my situation and body conditions first. I think dance is the same as cooking, you need to know your ingredients first to make a great dish. You need to understand your body conditions to make your own art. Hip Hop helped a lot because there are no rules and you don’t have to be always normal.
A lot of my work within Hip Hop has been as a solo artist or freestyling - I’ve never been part of a crew. My only experience of this was learning some tricks with Yufo...I remember trying to emulate his style of movement and him telling me there was no need to do that. A breaker and someone not from a Hip Hop dance background can dance together, each with their own style and flare. Before our conversation I had read how Hearns can’t always hear the music at shows/ rehearsals so he’ll spend a lot of time beforehand studying the music and learning the rhythms. He sometimes does early rehearsals without music. To most dancers this would be an unusual way of doing things but it’s great that the community are open to using whatever methods best serve each dancer. Krops again provides a beautiful analogy. It’s this level of openness and adaptivity that makes Hip Hop such a great place for disabled dancers.
Q6) I asked Laura about her ambitions to incorporate sign language into her dance practice as I’d read that this was an ambition of hers.
Laura: I’m really interested in how access can be at the heart of work. There’s the genesis of the idea and then how is the access going to be creatively used but also functional. I’m navigating through BSL and it can be very difficult. It’s a language and you need to understand how to use the language properly in order to be creative with it. It’s very interesting to collaborate with and I’m all about collaboration.
During our conversation Laura mentioned a few times how she loved collaboration; I found this a delightful approach and the more I think about it the more I recognise that a lot of Hip Hop artists prioritise collaboration.
Q7) Final question for Laura - I saw a quote on your website saying you wished dancers could just be dancers, not having to use certain labels or umbrellas. Is this something you wish would happen right now or further down the line?
Laura: This is an aspiration for when inclusive practice is more regularly practised and recognised - then I would want a level playing field for everybody to just be dancers. That's the point that I would like to get to...I don't want it to happen right now because it's not the world we’re in at the moment. There are all these labels that we need to define us, that we identify with and they need to be recognised. It’s one of those aspirations that’s going to be a long time coming because I appreciate where we are at the moment.
Talking to Laura I felt like we had similar views on most things but this quote feels much closer to Kayla's school of thought. I explained: “at the minute I think it’s important for those who are comfortable specifying that there are disabled people within the arts do so because not everyone knows we’re here yet.”
I want to end this with another gorgeous quote from Krops: “Disability isn’t a negative word, it means you’re special.” The interviews I conducted have given me a lot to reflect on, perhaps I’ve been taking too much of a hardline approach. The thing that’s really stood out for me is how much of the interviews were positive. When discussing disability and representation within the wider dance world I often need to remind myself and others to stay positive and solutions focussed. Just ranting doesn’t help anyone and the main emotion that I’ve seen associated with Hip Hop from these dancers is joy.
With Hip Hop having powerful change makers such as ILL-Abilities and the recent social shift of a higher awareness of access and inclusion things certainly feel like they’re on the right track. Yes, I would like to see more representation and awareness of disability within Hip Hop but doesn’t the fact that myself, Emily Tisshaw, Kayla Maria, Laura Dajoa, Hearns Sebuado, JungSoo ‘Krops’ Lee and many others are all happily existing within Hip Hop with differing views show that Hip Hop is doing what it does best? Accepting all and making us all the richer for it.
Commissioned for Ink Cypher, May 2022
A response to Where is Disability in Hip Hop Dance? by Emily Tisshaw
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Porcelain Delaney is a disabled theatre-maker whose practice spans a wide span of genres including circus, hip-hop, cabaret and more. After working as a performing artist for a long time she grew frustrated at the lack of representative characters and stories being performed so she started creating her own shows to share lesser told narratives. Her work centres around telling women, disability and working-class stories. She is a DaDa-Fest Fellow and currently working on an Arts Council Project Grant to develop her one-woman show Breeding Machine.