Response to Sally Sommer’s article: Balletic Breakin’ When Did Hip Hop Find Its Swan Side? Dance Magazine (January 2012 p.90-94)

by theoystermangrove

Written by: James Morrow MFA in Dance Hollins University/ the ADF, Currently of Faculty at Jacksonville University and Episcopal School of Jacksonville.

When did hip hop find its swan side? When will we stop associating all dance to the ballet standard, and begin to enjoy movement for what it is? Why do we have to admire it only when it starts to look “Balletic?”
The following url address offers a clip of Powerful Pexster and Mr. Wave on Graffiti Rock: (

Seamless transitions seep from hand to leg to neck to foot, only to reverberate back up the spine. The movements are mesmerizing, and mirror that of Lil Buck and “turf dancing.” The liquid flow, toe perches and rippling arms are there. They have always been there. Sure, they have evolved. Fortunate for us, movement is not created in a vacuum. Young artists create their own styles and new versions of earlier lockers, b-boys and even candy ravers that set precedent. Sally Sommer’s Balletit Breakin’ calls attention to an allegedly new aesthetic, yet, could it be that for urban aesthetics to be recognized by the larger white community it needs to be aligned with classical vocabularies of movement and music? Only now will the perpetuating hierarchy of statist art acknowledge, “Wow, THEY really understand music and how to dance to it. Now, let’s start to watch.”

I question Sally Sommer’s need to inscribe ballet onto the already established dance forms of jooking, turf dancing or relative urban aesthetics. I insist upon recognition for what these dance forms stand for independent of the majority favorites: a beautiful embodiment of musical scoring situated within the reality of American disenfranchisement, particular to lower income communities in cities such as Memphis, Oakland, and Los Angeles. This movement did not originate on bodies decorated with giant buckles on their shoes, corsets around their midsections, and large collars cuffed around their necks. And let’s be honest, special shoes? Those would be gym shoes, and there isn’t anything “special” about them. The fact that these dancers rise up and down to glide, stall, perch in their gym shoes is the “special” aspect.

Consequently, I find Sommer’s conversation regarding the care and use of shoes in ballet and hip hop problematic. She emphasizes a use exclusive to one competition or show at a time, painting a frivolous and irresponsible image of the dancer and their form. There are no funds to buy and replace shoes for each and every event. Unless a dancer is sponsored by a brand and if that brand supplies the dancer with their “special shoes,” that dancer is purchasing their shoes and wearing them at every function that he or she goes to. Moreover, a real talent and pride comes with the cleaning of said shoes. I know I may be “old school”, but when a dancer connects with a certain pair of shoes there is an honest and long-lasting bond. In my own experience, I would never discard my trusted shoes for a new pair nor would most b-boys, house heads, dubsteppers, jookers, or turf dancers that I know.

In reading Balletic Breakin’, it is clear that Sally Sommer is moved by the dancers she has encountered. However, I am asking for a level of responsible research to be invested in the history and reality of hip hop; to take the time to commit to understanding where it both comes from and how it continues to live. I am asking for an ethnographic approach to jooking and turf dancing. I am troubled by statements in her writing such as, “They appear to glide rather than ‘do steps,’ their arms floating around bodies, framing the torso or head.” She is inferring a direct association of the idea of a “step” to vocabulary movement specific to familiarized dance forms, such as ballet. No house head at a party is just doing steps. No body jooking or turf dancing is just doing steps. Poppers and lockers are not just doing steps, as neither Odette nor Odile are just doing steps.

Old videos of Mr. Animation and Chuco from Airforce Crew at Radiotron available online at offer evidence of their consistent flow, popping-and-locking, hitting-and-flexing from one movement to another just like Oakland dancers “No Noize,” “Man,” “B,” and “Dreal.” There are definite differences and similarities, alike. But ballet? With my career entrenched in urban aesthetics, I had never considered labeling the aesthetic of hip hop as “balletic” because the language emergent in hip hop is its own. Furthermore, no one owns the rights to hip hop; the essence of its beauty and Sommers does not get to claim, or colonize, its moves for ballet.

I had the opportunity to watch Montreal’s RUBBERBANDance Group at the ADF in 2010. I witnessed the staging of a contemporary ballet and release aesthetic with a B-Boy foundation, all set to the classical score and presented on a proscenium stage. However I found one major factor missing: soul. Despite the major facility and form of the company of dancers, the movement did not live in them. This movement became so codified and so unison that at times it looked like the dancers were restricted from the ability to express and communicate individually—one of the true tenets of hip hop culture; the ability to “go off.”

“Going off” is synonymous with improvisation. Lil Buck’s performances take him places; he begins a journey and takes his audience along for the ride. He remains open. When he spins and glides over to the flower pot, he decides at the very moment to experience a duet with the factors in his environment. If you were to ask Lil Buck to perform that same solo thirty minutes later there would be overlaps of similarity, but the truth is that he is moving from the top of his dome; he is flowing and improvising from within, which is exactly where and how urban aesthetics lend themselves.

The limitless range of expression indicative of jooking and turf dancing extends to many of the same elements as b-boying, boogaloo, locking, hitting and virtually any Africanist movement. It is polyrhythmic, virtuosic, there are isolations of embodied rhythm, forward poise, and punctuation to name a few. Dancers start out fluid and then surprise their audiences with an immediacy of sharp staccato phrasing. And, although these fluid movements have always been an aspect of urban, street, and Africanist aesthetics in dance, they have not always been a component in classical ballet.

Then why, Sommers, do you consider these movements “balletic”? The way I see it, it is arguably the other way around. Historically, ballet appropriated aesthetic qualities from Africanist traditions. Perhaps we should question, “When did ballet find its b-boy?” Or, rather, it’s Balanchine-boy. Let’s stop accusing movement forms that function with fluidity and suspension, as falling into “balletic territory.” It is disrespectful, and further perpetuates the hierarchy of ballet over other dance forms. All movement is created from inside a human being and that person’s epistemological perspective. Quit trying to label it. To label it only limits it. And to label it incorrectly is just irresponsible.

Lil Buck Yo Yo Ma Dying Swan –
Tuf Dancing YAK Films –
John Lennon Da Silva Dying Swan –