Last night I was fortunate enough to be among a packed audience of 60+ folks at a "Conversation with Ken Swift and Joe Schloss, PhD" at the NYU Tisch School of the Arts. Ken and Joe were speaking on the subject of b-boying as a cultural phenomenon historically, in the present day, and into the future. I've heard Ken speak in the past about b-boying, and hip-hop dance, so I wasn't expecting much new territory to be covered. I was very wrong.
It was cool seeing the mix of academics, younger b-boys and b-girls, and elder dancers in the audience. I sat next to Jessica, a young Italian b-girl from the Flavor Kingz crew out of Rome. "We have the moves in Italy, but we don't have the culture," she explained to me. "That is why I am here."
We all got a lesson in hip-hop culture — the "five elements" — over the next two hours….
For me, one of the most interesting topics we kept coming back to was how to preserve the essence of b-boying, and hip-hop culture in general, now that it is global and being named and claimed in a number of different contexts. A couple dancers put it bluntly: what do we do when the originators are all gone?
As someone who practices another dance form, Lindy Hop, that faces similar dilemmas, it's one that is close to my heart. With the passing of legendary lindy hopper Frankie Manning last April, the question of preservation and continuation of the legacy has been foremost of many of our minds and hearts.
At this discussion about b-boying, there were a number of answers.
From an academic perspective, Joe Schloss, PhD, has been chronicling b-boying as an artform through his research and publishing. Notably his book Foundation that came out last year. Similarly, Imani Johnson, PhD, a Post-Doctoral Fellow in the Department of
Performance Studies at NYU, is researching the b-boy "cypher" as a cultural form.
There was pushback against the notion of the academy saving hip-hop, however. Another professor in the audience chided audience members for taking
frantic notes when they should be just focusing on the legends in the
room and taking in their essence (or something like that.)
Ken Swift argued that it was the face-to-face transferal of knowledge from elder to younger dancer that was key. Joe Schloss agreed, adding that hip-hop dance was unique in that you had teenage dancers who eagerly learned from 40-year-olds, which was not something you see much in common culture.
Joe continued, explaining that hip-hop dance was notable not just because of the movement but because of how it was imparted, not through formal studio classes, but through imitation, competition and innovation. Ken related how as a b-boy, you never asked another dancer how they did something. You studied it on the sly and then tried to emulate it in private.
This vernacular form of learning really struck me, as someone who has been stuck in the studio learning mode for awhile and not knowing how to take it further.
From Ken's perspective, it's about being humble, and acknowledging that everything builds upon something that someone in the past created. (Check this video for example.) Ken learned from the dancers that he idolized, we learn from Ken, and someday someone will learn from us. So you got to give respect to your roots and your elders who taught you.
Joe related how in b-boy online forums, dancers get into heated debates about who did what move first — Did Frosty invent the "suicide"? Who was the first to do an air flair? Etc. This is both healthy and destructive. It's healthy to keep going back to give credit to those that innovated and contributed to the dance. But it's destructive when it divides us and creates fights — sometimes real fist-fights — about who "stole" and "bit" from who.
Kudos to the Hip-hop Theater Festival for organizing this event, and NYU for hosting. It's certainly an important topic, particularly how you preserve this vernacular artform.
As a way of moving forward, I think it would be interesting to host a conversation among dancers and academics on how older vernacular dance forms like flamenco, lindy hop, tango and tap preserve their forms. I think this might be instructive for b-boying and hip-hop dance as they seek ways to protect their art. B-boying is after all not the first "street dance" and breakers can learn from older traditions, just as they learn from each other.
As the event came to a close, and the b-boys were exchanging hugs and clasps, I saw that the Italian b-girl Jessica seemed troubled.
"So did you get out of this what you hoped?" I asked.
She frowned. "We have a lot of work to do in Italy." I guess we all do.