Does Street Dance need a formal teaching curriculum?
by Natasha Bunbury
I believe Street Dance needs the underpinning of a syllabus. To understand why a formalised structure is relevant, we must first look at and understand why and what it has prevented it from happening before now.
Hip Hop and Street Dance’s roots originate in social dance and culture. Much like some other dance forms, it grew from a self expression of every day life and although it has now become a publicly recognised dance form, it had not been acknowledged by the dance industry until recently. Unfortunately, like many other non-western dance forms, Street Dance has been affected by an industry hierarchy dominated by an elitist attitude towards the art of dance, one that really only reveres dance forms with European ballet technique at their root. This stance, compounded with the social politics affecting African culture and people from the Diaspora over the last 50 years, left the birthing stages of Hip Hop and Street Dance overlooked.
Previously written off as an America dance craze of the 1970’s and 80’s, with the dawn of MTV, Hip Hop and Street Dance found a home in popular culture with Rap music leading the way. Besides a few Hip Hop dance movies such as Breakdance and Beat Street in the 1980’s, the bulk of the development and growth of Street Dance happened through the music video phenomenon as nurtured by the music industry. However their agenda is not dance development but to sell music on a mass scale and make money.
Today, Hip Hop and Street Dance styles contribute to the success of a multi-million pound global industry and are a necessary component of any successful pop star’s performing vocabulary. As a consequence of the music industry’s grip on influencing popular culture, Street Dance is now the most accessible form of dance in the secular media.
Never the less Street Dance has been hijacked.
With the music industry’s focus on selling music to the masses by attracting as much attention as possible, Street Dance by association has become linked with negative Hip Hop imagery. For example the controversial glorification of gang culture; the proliferation of sexual images of semi naked women and of course all that bling. It has left many people concerned for the effect on society and the youth of today. Sadly, these often over exposed images take away from the fact that Street Dance is a serious art form, a huge vehicle for positive self-expression, and a means of employment in the creative industries.
Despite all this Street Dance fever is still growing rapidly. The general public wants to see more and do more of it. Demand is high in schools for their extra curricular school clubs. Youth projects, centres and services all around the country are requesting Street Dance work because it truly benefits and engages children. Also, to further the argument for more Street Dance, the style has been extremely successful engaging African-Caribbean children, especially boys, who have been highlighted by this government as failing in the state education system.
Seems peculiar then that Street Dance is still not accessible as part of our regular dance curriculum.
On the underground dance scene, inner city London groups such as Xposure, GWI and Boy Blue have successfully been running classes for years. Groups like theses are seldom subsidised or run on funded monies and usually have to operate more as a small business.
Many excellent community Street Dance teachers (such as those found working with the above groups) have to support themselves by working a “paying” daytime job to be able to fund their community work. The conflict here is that the majority of these tutors would have liked to gain a qualification in their chosen speciality.
The fact is they have been forced to study in other subjects in order to teach; perhaps a fitness qualification or another dance genre certificate. These dance artists have maintained an art form without any major support from the dance industry and without being able to gain a qualification to prove their level of competence in the field of their expertise.
This lack of acknowledgement by the mainstream world of dance over the years, has felt like rejection to the Street Dance community. Similar to other episodes in black dance history, Street Dance has seen many contributions go unnoticed, without the roots being respected or the pioneers spoken of, often due to the social politics of those times. But today in regards to Hip-hop and Street Dance, there is no real excuse for not acknowledging such a phenomenal contribution to arts and culture of the 21st century.
One person who actively contributed to changing this approach to dance was Jane Carr, a ballet teacher and the director of the Dance and Drama department at Morley College. During her time at Morley College, Carr truly advocated accessible dance for everyone. Found in south London (but also near to the Thames), Morley students come from wide ranging social and economical backgrounds. Historically Lillian Baylis founded Morley College over 100 years ago and thus the college also has historical links to the Old Vic and Sadler’s Wells Theatres. The arts have always been important at Morley College as well as its aims to provide education to working class men and women.
Street Dance became a popular course at Morley College. Yet, regardless of the courses success, Carr noted the efforts of the students seeking to become professional dancers could not being fully maximised within what was then offered in the dance curriculum accredited courses. Often students became disheartened with their studies caused by not being able to tap into their full potential or talents. It was clear to the college that the current standards of dance curriculum provision needed to reflect a broader approach to providing equal dance opportunities.
Coincidentally at the same time, I had already begun researching how possible it would be to develop some form of teaching structure for Street Dance. I had personally experienced career frustration with the lack of professional progression available to me and having done the music industry route, I wanted more than to be a backing dancer.
I felt the only way forward would be some form of standardization across the genre - one that would eventually lead to a recognized benchmark of quality. A structure to teach, to help set the terminology of movement, and promote and protect the true foundations and history of the Street Dance form.
So together with Pineapple Dance Studio’s Street Dance teacher Sam Crosby, I would sit for hours brainstorming ideas on how to make this idea manifest. Although we didn’t complete our project, these points became clear…
1. Street Dance is for the most part is about creativity. That freedom of expression has to be preserved regardless. Therefore limits cannot be placed on the dance form vocabulary or its definition. The only restriction comes from what can be expressed/physically performed by the body.
2. Movements can be grouped together through their commonalities and still be recognised in their tradition/background. For example a Boogaloo step and a wave both have fluidity as the common factor.
That same year, I completed my studies at Morley College returning the following term as a sub-tutor teaching Street Dance. Eventually I joined the dance and drama department as a resident teacher of Street Dance. Carr then approached me to be involved in writing the Criteria units that were to be submitted to the Open College Network London Region (LOCN) for the accreditation of a Street Dance curriculum. I was excited, happy and ready to help.
There was resistance to the idea of accrediting Street Dance; some said it couldn’t be done, and we would change it by conforming it. The assumption expected was that we would use the same model used to accredited western dance forms, but I felt the way western mainstream dance forms are structured would not work for Street Dance (or as I also believe for African and Caribbean Dance).
The difference is in Street Dance is that creativity starts the process. It’s the urge to project something about yourself that says who you are, a defining moment that says “Look what I can do” or “Can u do better?”. But secretly within you’re challenging yourself to push your own limit of how great you can be.
Although there is a foundation of original repertoire to be learnt in all the sub-styles, it is the attitude, individual character and energy that separates it from the rest. A jazz move could be adapted to Street Dance, just by changing the core elements, the overall sense of grounded-ness, dynamic and spatial qualities.
Whilst researching for the accreditation, I spoke intensively to one of the Hip Hop worlds original pioneers - Poppin’ Pete of The Electric Boogaloo’s who created Poppin and Boogaloo. He agreed that the input of formalised education was the best way to maintain the real history of the pioneers and their contributions to dance. We also talked about how to manage the new styles developing all the time from new crews over the world. I wanted the accreditation to be user friendly to all, and serve Old Skool Hip Hop and emerging New Skool flavours.
Therefore the design of the criteria remains relevant to those whose technique is being studied. For instance, teachers who specialise in Street Lock and Breakin wouldn’t have to change what they already teach to fit into the criteria; students would gain a qualification in those techniques and prove knowledge and understanding of those styles. If the student then wanted to qualify in Poppin and Boogaloo they could continue their studies with another teacher who specializes in those techniques.
The LOCN qualification can be obtained at a level 2 or 3. Included in the vocabulary units is the exploration of movements and their origins historically with emphasise on terminology and being able to perform individually, confidently interpreting the stylistic qualities and attitude are included in the form and its performance units.
Never the less, in the technique units, the focus is on the correct alignment, complex coordination, and rhythmic structures needed to demonstrate Street Dance routines effectively.
The pilot course ran successfully at Morley College during this academic year 2005 to 2006 with majority students finishing with a level 3. Students are now leaving the course confident in their abilities and knowledge.
Regrettably, those students who wish to pursue higher education still have limited options. I know there is a foundation degree at WAC Performing Arts and Media College that contains a module of Street and Hip Hop dance (validated by the London Metropolitan University). It also has an option to transfer onto an equivalent degree if the student wants to take a third year at University, or follow a route into the profession. However no degree with a complete focus on Street and Hip Hop dance currently exist. I hope in the near future this will change along with all mainstream dance curricula in education.
Generally, structured education can offer freedom and a deep understanding of oneself and ones studies. Creating a syllabus for Street Dance can benefit dancers, choreographers, schools, and all communities and audiences. This is a healthy way forward for all parties, ultimately unrestricted choice, equal opportunities and equality.
Natasha Bunbury is an ADAD Forum advocate for Street and Hip Hop dance and currently a resident dance teacher at Morley College teaching Street Dance and Street Jazz. In conjunction with Morley College, Natasha has recently researched and written the first LOCN accredited Street Dance course in the UK.
As a freelance dancer/choreographer/teacher Natasha has worked with Irven Lewis Urban Jazz Dance Company and toured with Movement Angol. Natasha has worked a variety of dance projects over the years, recently including teaching at the Richmond Dance Festival; Leap into Dance 06’, and Free Summer festival at the Royal Festival Hall ‘03. Commercially she has danced for artists such as Dinah Carroll, Mn8, Hip Hop rapper Chubb Rock.
Natasha is looking forward to becoming a member of the board at WAC Performing Arts and Media College that specializes in arts for young people of all backgrounds across London.