Where is Disability in Hip Hop Dance?
As someone who grew up with a dance education and a physical disability, the answer to this question is not clear, even for me.
My parents put me in dance school when I was 4 years old and I attended weekly dance lessons in the evenings and on weekends until I was 18. During this time, I was routinely performing for an audience; in my classes, exams and shows on stage. For anyone accustomed to performing regularly, it is likely they will have suffered slight nerves, perhaps before a show or an exam, just as I did. But having been born physically different, I felt not only self conscious about my performing abilities but about the way my body appeared when compared to other performers. I was born with my left arm visibly shorter than my right; stopping just below the elbow and my hand missing. I say missing although I don’t usually describe my hand as such. After all, the word missing implies something that was once there is now gone, but can my hand be gone if it was not there in the first place?
I grew up happy and healthy despite my “missing” hand, learning with ease and enjoyment how to do things independently. I had never known any different so any struggles were only in adapting to my environment which, as children, we all do anyway. I never felt I struggled with dancing. It was always a soothing hobby for me; something I enjoyed that enabled a physical release. I did ballet, tap and jazz classes but my favourite, and a class that I started a bit later on in my dance journey, was hip hop.
Steezy dance studio in Los Angeles, recently named “the Netflix of dance” after the popularity of its online classes during the most recent lockdown, describes hip hop as "a movement that represents the freedom to learn, grow and evolve.” Jessie Ma, director of content at Steezy Studio states, “African American and Latino youths were neglected by mainstream institutions. Desperate for a way to escape their everyday struggles, invented their own art forms.” Hip hop was an adapted form of dance that originated from the segregation of ethnic groups. Much like the way I grew up adapting to the two-handed world that I was born into, the very foundation of hip hop dance was born from the exclusion and oppression of these people who didn’t fit in and how they adapted their own dance style.
Having grown up mainly doing classical styles of dance like ballet - which I found to be the most disciplined form - hip hop was a place where I felt more relaxed. Every Thursday evening, my sister and I would get in the car with my mum who would drive us into town to Footlights dance school where we danced an hour of tap followed by an hour of hip hop. My hip hop teacher, Amy, was a petite woman but she was loud and had a strong passion for choreography. My favourite style of hip hop was the more commercial stuff we did to popular dance songs as it felt like I was a backing dancer in a music video. I still remember the songs we choreographed moves to: Bad Romance by Lady Gaga, Disturbia by Rihanna, Low by Flo Rida, Get Sexy by Sugarbabes and On The Floor by J-Lo. We were a class of mostly girls so a lot of sexy, female empowering songs were chosen. One evening Amy dedicated our whole lesson to perfecting our strut! We all stood in a line at one end of the studio and strutted the length of the room and back, focusing on our timing with the music, our hips and our attitude, which was a word often quoted by her in our classes. It was a class to really let loose and have a good time.
As well as feeling relaxed, I felt encouraged to express a lot of the emotions that were being restricted in classes like ballet. What I mean by this is that hip hop dance allowed me to exhibit a range of expressions because it appeared to me that there were less rules. This appealed to my free spirited nature and I fell in love with the unrestricted flow of energy I felt whilst engaging with hip hop. It wasn’t just dance, a way of exercising or synchronised series of movements, it was a form of expression that served as a creative and emotional outlet. An outlet that I always knew I needed but wasn’t aware of until I started hip hop dance classes.
All throughout my time as a dancer, I had always been the only dancer with one hand, and now that I think about it, the only dancer who was physically disabled at all. This didn’t really bother me during my younger years, I was used to being the odd-one-out. Gradually as I got older, and more acutely aware of my difference and place in the world, I had moments of deep insecurity over my physical difference. The rooms we practiced dance in had giant mirrors and I could see the way I differed in my reflection on the wall during the classes I attended. It was easy for me to notice my quite obvious physical difference, I saw the way I danced differently from the others and sometimes this would make me feel like an outsider, as though I didn’t belong. Albeit uncomfortable, these moments were only ever fleeting and the solace I took in actually dancing outweighed the temporary discomfort of my insecurities.
I was always included and treated the same as the other girls in the dance school and was never made to feel any different. However, taking into consideration the roots of hip hop, I can’t help but think that if instead of my disability being ignored, it would have been fitting for it to have been highlighted, even celebrated for being different. Had the class, the tutor, and even myself, been more conscious about the roots and culture of hip hop dance, perhaps my disability could have been celebrated because it is what made me unique. This is seen in the dance crew ILL-Abilities, who are a dance crew formed of dancers with different abilities. They pride themselves on their unique dance moves and inspire audiences with their performances. If there was a place for my disability to be flaunted, hip hop dance should have been it.
I went on to study performing arts for two years at college in which there were lessons solely dedicated to dance (ballet, tap and jazz/commercial). I enjoyed every moment and even though I loved dance and loved performing, I felt that professionally, it would never work out for me because of my disability. No one had ever told me directly that I wouldn’t be a successful performer, it was just a decision I had come to on my own based on the way I had been taught to dance; a way that promoted symmetry and synchronisation, something I didn’t have, rather than the individuality which I did. There was also the lack of representation of dancers who were disabled. Where were all the dancers with disabilities in my training? Was I the only one? In my years of dance education, there wasn’t one person who I felt was qualified to speak to me about this or who I could could turn to to discuss these concerns. The only option for me was to stick to what I saw and I was nowhere in the world of dance so I kept quiet and I carried on down the cookie cutter path that was laid out for me - in a profession where I didn’t rely on my body parts being symmetrical.
Dancing and performing on stage was something I had done for 16 years of my life yet I still couldn’t get past the feeling that I shouldn’t take it seriously. That, and the fact I had many influences in my life who heavily encouraged me to be “realistic” about a life long career, compromising initial high aspirations for the sake of stability. I chose to give up dancing and opted to go to university to study a joint honours degree in English Literature and Creative Writing, which ironically, I later discovered, also carries the stereotype of being another undergraduate course commonly associated with no real financial benefits, unless you’re the next JK Rowling. But even this seemed more within my grasp compared to becoming a professional dancer - you only need one hand to write with.
The real problem was not my body, or my disability. The main issue was my belief in myself, a belief that I had embodied due to my dance education being confined to more traditional styles of dance and not seeing myself represented within the dancing world. The hand I had not been born with, commonly referred to as a “missing” hand, wasn’t the thing that was missing at all. What was really missing was the inclusion of dancers with disabilities within mainstream media. I couldn’t see us anywhere, yet I knew we existed. I existed. Hip hop dancers with disabilities were the thing that was missing.
Fast forward a few years after finishing my degree, apparently older and wiser, I find myself working in retail as a shop manager. No longer dancing in front of an audience but I still held a passion for dancing in my underwear around my kitchen. The routines from my hip hop classes are still embedded within my memory and I play out some of the moves whilst I dance in the evenings. I feel a great significance in this lone daily practice. It is playful and I am free. I sometimes upload videos to Instagram under the popular hashtag #MovementIsMedicine. Instagram was originally a platform with a reputation for the superficial, a space plastered with photographs that showed the filtered version of peoples lives. A few years ago I made the conscious decision to take off the filters and I began following accounts that showcased a less filtered version of life. I started to follow a lot of online activists, accounts of people that were activists not only in the disabled world, but body confidence role models and people who were rejecting an Instagram curated life.
One evening whilst monotonously doomscrolling, I saw a professional hip hop dancer on the story of an account that I was following. This dancer was Kayla Maria and she had an arm exactly the same as mine. Finally, I had found a dancer who looked like me! I hit the follow button and began sifting through Kayla’s many other dance videos. Kayla has over 51k Instagram followers and uses her platform to regularly advertise the dance classes she teaches. Seeing someone who looked like me, who is a professional dancer, making a living from teaching was a revelation. However, I had a mixture of feelings; I thought back to my decision to not continue to dance and felt almost saddened that I had, before I even considered a career, chosen to not take dance further, but I also felt proud and was elated to see the representation and popularity for a body that looked like mine.
Dance Reel by Kayla Maria G
Kayla gave me an overwhelming sense of pride in my disability and boosted my confidence; she also broke down a restricting barrier and belief that I had held onto so tightly for years - that my body wasn’t suitable for professional dance and that I couldn’t have a career from it. One glance at one story on Instagram and the dancers that I thought were missing from the hip hop world, had been found.
I reached out to Kayla via Instagram, and asked her about her journey with dance. I originally worded my message to Kayla with the phrase “disabled dancer” to which she told me “I’m not a disabled dancer. I’m a professional dancer.” I apologised quickly and she told me not to and said, “everyone has different perspectives.” Again, I thought back to how my perspective of professional dancers and how I thought I would never be included. Kayla proudly stated; “I’m a professional dancer who just happens to have a limb difference.” I noted the dignified indignation in Kayla’s response. This told me everything I needed to know about Kayla’s confidence and pride in herself as a dancer. Something that I was missing and can learn from. Kayla continues to teach heels and hip hop classes and her goals are to “break barriers and normalise disabilities.”
Upon discovering Kayla, and wanting to feature her in this article, this led me to another dancer Vehbi Can Yesil who also has a limb difference similar to mine and Kayla’s. Vehbi is an actor and krump dancer from Germany. Again, I followed Vehbi on Instagram and reached out to him. He told me “My disability is not a disability anymore. My limb difference has effected my dancing in a positive way because the movements are so unique and people can’t copy that. My disability created my dance style.” Like the dance group ILL-Abilities, Vehbi’s attitude matches that of the origins of hip hop culture: people create their movement whilst acknowledging their struggles. He tells me that, “Krump means life and this dance helped to build my life.”
Dancer by Vehbi Can (Jr Game)
Traditionally, hip hop dance has been focused on unison and synchronised forms. Hence my reasons for believing I could never adapt and be a dancer in the professional world. I didn’t match. However, with the dancers I have mentioned, this need for symmetry is almost redundant, much like the pioneers of hip hop dance and culture, their differences have given rise to their success. Hip hop dance is always evolving, new moves and trends go viral on TikTok and illustrates how dance is weaved through the fabric of our communicative world.
With the knowledge that I now have, I feel confident that I could start dancing again. I moved to a new area couple of years ago and did a quick google search to find out if there were any hip hop dance classes I could attend. I found zumba and kick boxing lessons within walking distance but no hip hop dance classes. It came as a disappointment to me but not something I was really hung up on. I still dance around my flat at any opportunity I can and the videos I upload to Instagram under the hashtag #MovementIsMedicine embody the empowerment I now feel in my body. I have no shame in the way my limbs move and I am free to dance in my unique way, exactly as I wish.
So where does disability fit into hip hop dance (or where does hip hop dance fit into disability), as an industry and a culture? Hip hop offers a space away from the disciplinary structures of classical styles and opens up colliding, revolving doors to new ways of performing and expressing oneself. Even though my journey was stifled by my own belief system I would encourage anyone of any ability to take up hip hop dance as I feel it breaks down a lot of the rigid barriers practiced in other styles of dance; it offers people a release and a way to express themselves away from the structural concepts of other dance forms. Hip hop is the nonconformist, the rebel of dance, breaking away from what we commonly refer to as “normal.” It has character, individuality and most importantly, inclusion.
For those within dance institutions, if we want to encourage talented and driven people with disabilities into the hip hop dance profession, then we must seek them out and celebrate them. What message could we portray if we started to not only include hip hop dancers with disabilities, but showcase disability as a main component of our hip hop routines? How much further could hip hop dance evolve if we included those with physical barriers?
Commissioned for Ink Cypher, November 2021
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My name is Emily Tisshaw and I am a writer and disability activist. My path to writing was unconventional: after dropping out of university where I studied English Literature & Creative Writing after an ongoing battle with mental health, I managed to build a platform online via my blog and by writing for Within Reach, a charity magazine which helps people with upper limb differences.
Prior to my writing endeavours, I grew up in the dance world from a young age, regularly attending a local dance school, later going to study Performing Arts at college. However, I was always of the belief that because of my physical disability, the dance world; a place of symmetry and image, was somewhere I didn’t belong. But I continued to dance at parties and in the privacy of my home, if not for anyone else, but for my sanity! Under the belief that #MovementIsMedicine.