Taking Hip Hop to Competition

October 26, 2008

You see it on MTV. You watch it in the movies. You even catch it on the subway. Hip hop has infiltrated nearly every aspect of popular culture. But how does a dance form that was born on the street find its place on the competition circuit? DS tells you what choreographers demand of their dancers and what judges look for in winning routines.

What is Hip Hop?

“Hip hop is a technique and a vibe at the same time,” says Shelly Massenoir, a judge for Starquest. “It carries a strong energy and understanding of the raw and authentic history of its form.” Hip-hop dance evolved out of a culture that was born in the Bronx in the early ’70s. The first hip-hop dancers began performing to the break beats of funk and soul records, hence the name breakers, or b-boys. Musicality is central to all forms of dance, but with hip hop it’s even more crucial, since the dance evolved at the same time as the music. It’s important for hip-hop dancers to make their bodies look like the music sounds, incorporating treble, bass and accents. Today, hip-hop dance encompasses styles such as breaking, popping and locking. Choreographing jazz or lyrical movements to a hip-hop song doesn’t mean you’ve made a hip-hop dance.


If hip hop is new to your studio or if you’re thinking of taking master classes at conventions, here’s what you should know: It’s a style that asks you to create shapes and put your body in positions that you’ve probably been trained to avoid. Pointed feet become flexed, bodylines are broken, and ballet’s perfect posture is useless. Your stance in hip hop is generally low to the ground. Dancers not only have to use their plié, but also work in parallel for most of the moves.


It can be difficult to let go of classical training when learning a hip-hop routine. Dancers must be able to separate styles they’ve studied to fit a choreographer’s vision. “I need my dancers to put their full trust in me,” says Michael Cuomo, hip-hop choreographer on the competition circuit. “Even though I may throw things at them that they aren’t used to or that seem strange, it’s my job to push the envelope. It’s my dancers’ jobs to make my vision a reality.”


Working out of your comfort zone is more mental than physical. Get past the fear of breaking bodylines and not turning out. Focus on each aspect of your body individually, then learn to work these parts as a unit. Visualize how you want to move and what you want to look like.

Wow Factor

The key to a winning routine in any competition category is to keep your moves fresh. It’s no different for hip hop, a style that often fuses set choreography with improvised breaking, popping and locking. Tricks such as freezes, power moves and flips (or floorwork, if a competition doesn’t allow tumbling) will impress judges much more than gyrating to the beat.


Take as many popping, locking and breaking classes as you can from reputable master teachers. Once you have a foundation in these styles, you can experiment with making them your own. “The more we can create new moves while staying true to basic hip-hop technique, the more we can keep hip hop from being thought of as just ‘booty shaking,’” says Massenoir. Cuomo, whose numbers have scored top honors in the hip-hop category at more than 50 competitions over the last 10 years, says, “Create original themes and blend songs to make a dance one of a kind. Don’t get comfortable as either a dancer or choreographer with the standard. Break the mold.”


Attitude and energy are core factors in a hip-hop number. “I want to see a dancer up there with unwavering confidence, saying to me ‘Hey, this beat feels good,’” says Jason Kalish, who judges for Rainbow Connection. Dancers can draw from this energy to create their own stage personality. Kalish clarifies: “If you’re only trying to be cool, you can lose your audience. Make a connection and establish a relationship with them. Let the audience know you see them and make sure they know you’re happy to be wowing them with your moves.”


No matter what form it takes, dance is a performance art. You’re onstage to entertain a crowd. At the competition level, it can be easy to lose track of the audience in favor of the judges. Instructors sometimes choreograph for what they believe the judges want and dancers tend to forget there is an audience behind that panel. “I ask my students to put themselves in the audience’s shoes,” says Cuomo. “When they watch performances, I want them to note what they like and [what] stands out to them. Then they need to take those qualities and put them to use when they hit the stage. Entertain the people and the points will follow.”

Raising the Bar

To ensure that the hip hop presented in the competition arena is authentic, studio directors and choreographers have a responsibility to expose themselves to the style. “Although hip hop is very popular right now,” says Kalish, “some groups don’t have qualified teachers and continue to try to pass off jazz routines in sneakers as hip hop. The faster they stop that, the more quickly hip hop will become as respected as other categories.” Adds Massenoir: “Unless you have dancers that have some crazy floor skills while at the same time [a routine that] is flawlessly clean and really uses the body through space, [hip hop] will remain a number two or three category [in comparison to jazz, tap and ballet].”


But even if you do have dancers who can pull off a perfect hip-hop number, you’ll still likely be scored by judges who have ballet, tap and jazz backgrounds, with limited hip-hop vocabularies, says Rich Bittner, who has judged for more than a dozen companies. Research judges’ backgrounds before entering a hip-hop routine; if they don’t have strong hip-hop experience, technical jazz moves will likely garner you the most points. If the judges are prolific in hip hop and you still want to submit a routine with technical jazz moves peppered amongst hip-hop moves, enter it in the open category.