Years ago in Glasgow, the Cher Farewell Tour I was on intersected the Dance Theater of Harlem UK Tour. After gushing with rehearsal directors Keith and Kellye Saunders about running into other black people on the street, I took company class and spied on a rehearsal. I watched the Robert Garland ballet Return and became a huge fan of the dancer doing the “Mother Popcorn” solo set to James Brown at the top of the ballet. Please allow me to digress: Dionne Figgins was tremendous because she was able to apply star power and black girl magic to the already challenging job of negotiating classical steps with old school, vernacular jams our parents did at dance halls back in the day (i.e., the slop, the four corners, etc.). This was a rehearsal, yet Dionne danced 100%, not a single step taken for granted.
I was off that night and able to see the DTH concert. It seemed that Dionne was understated. She was dedicated on the pointe shoe and then physically inhibited in vernacular steps. The incredible flip between ethereal lift and booty back black that awed me hours before was missing. It turns out that she had been given a note by then Artistic Director Arthur Mitchell to dial it back. Too much hip, too much weight, too much getting down into the ground. This was a ballet company, after all. The dancers needed to look dignified.
I was horrified. It devastated me that a visionary who leveraged his unprecedented privilege in classical ballet with a garage to train young, otherwise rejected black folks in it saw no value decades later in offering social dances belonging to our “classical” form equal respect. The slop needs to be revered and fully danced with all the information—in this case the heaviness and stank and sweat and years of recovery from slavery—as sou-sou, releve and fifth position. Honor needs its life in both idioms, even if they are choreographed into the same eight counts.
This is why I have a hard time with the “Hiplet” these young ladies are doing. It’s not that I cringe at the fusion of ballet and hip hop. But this fusion should recognize and respect the specific attributes that authenticate them both as art forms, and the difficulty of maintaining the key ones (especially in a point shoe) through this merger is tremendous. To do disservice to point shoe mechanics for the sake of a groove doesn’t make us better or imaginative or new. It makes us irreverent. Because the truth is that critics, employees and colleagues (myself included) would never have forgiven Dionne had she forsaken classical ballet specificity just because James Brown was screaming on the track.
As much as I’m happy to see my young sisters on Good Morning America, I can’t forgive compromises on ballet technique in this context any more than I can stomach the re-appropriation of hip hop by white folks who lack the information (see third paragraph since a lot of those things apply here too). Please note the qualification—not all white people, just those who make no effort to understand the origins of hip hop and are unable to connect to whatever rhythmic imperative our black grandmothers involuntarily bopped their heads to. The reason dancers cringe when we see the theft is that there is profound audacity in building on a dance language when the perpetrator lacks the fundamentals.
In the case of Hiplet, we’re talking about masterful usage of the feet, articulation of the arch, precision on the box, a second-nature relationship with fifth position, and a whole lot of other things that non-dancers would be bored silly reading in this blog. That mastery needs to be there in spades before we get to the butterfly or the cabbage patch. The evidence is there in the first two counts of eight, when the ladies are in place approximating very classical footwork that comes straight from the syllabus. You shouldn’t fly the plane before you ace the simulator. You oughtn’t reverse two-and-a-half somersault dive from the platform until you’ve worked out flipping dry in a harness. Most would call it dangerous; so is subjecting an unskilled foot to the precarious nature of toe shoe. The bottom line is that this Hiplet presentation wasn’t ready to put before the five million folks who watch Good Morning America.
Nor was it ready to be shared on Youtube prior.
So that we’re clear, this is not about shaming young people. I want these girls to succeed; my investment in the first ever audition for black ballerinas by IABD in January was about seeing that they have places and opportunities to dance professionally. If Homer is able to profit from this buzz in a way that will result in enrichment, financial opportunities, scholarship and maybe master training for these ladies, fine. I mean them no ill will. But otherwise, this prematurity does the young ladies in the video few favors.
Consider this: Misty Copeland, and a slew of her contemporary black colleagues whose names the world unfortunately does not know, honored and respected that point shoe and all the expectations therein. Every trite expression applies: She defied the odds. She persevered to make history. Whatever doors she didn’t break down, she walked through them ready to win. She did not get there presenting sub-par point technique. This video provides the naysayers, ballet “purists,” and racist gatekeepers of classical ballet a Get-Out-of-Jail-Free card for perspectives that impeded Misty’s—and her predecessors'—ascent.
God knows I am so happy that Homer Bryant has, like several dance teachers with fewer resources than they deserve, taken up the mantle of bringing young people to dance. And God bless him for opening his mind to ways of keeping kids invested. But there has to be a balance (pun intended) between reach and integrity—and if anybody wants to find funding, I’d be happy to fashion a solution that will get these kids closer to this balance, along with the fusion they are after.
In the meantime, can we stay out of cockpits and off of diving boards, shall we?