Hip Hop Goes to College

Sep 29th, 2008

by Jennifer Anderson – Dance Teacher Magazine

Hip hop has swept the nation, but what is its place in higher education?

While many dance studios have begun to make hip-hop classes a staple in recent years, colleges have not exactly followed suit, and many students are getting frustrated. “It only makes sense that hip hop should be included in higher education,” says Ithaca College senior Kay Cotton, who is president of the student group IC Hip Hop. “It’s going to continue to be in high demand from dance students, so doesn’t it make sense for future dance educators to learn and understand the style?”

Nonetheless, it’s not always obvious where it fits into the higher education setting. Some colleges and universities make sure to offer credited classes, while others offer it as pan of a jazz curriculum or bypass it altogether. Meanwhile, student-run hip-hop clubs are sprouting up at colleges everywhere. Here, we talk to dance professionals and students about how they view the anform’s place in higher ed.

Trend or Mainstay?

What came first, the surge in classes or the hit television shows? It’s hard to pinpoint cause and effect, but one thing’s undeniable: Hip hop’s popularity shows no signs of slowing down. Television programs like “So You Think You Can Dance,” “America’s Best Dance Crew” and MTV’s “Dancelife” are just a few examples of the genre’s heightened exposure.

“It’s such an entertaining, fun style to watch and perform,” says Cotton, who joined the college’s recreational hip-hop club, IC Hip Hop, to compensate for the lack of courses offered at Ithaca. And she’s not alone in her pursuit. Due to increased student demand, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, recently added hip hop to its roster of classes, says Jeff Friedman, PhD, assistant professor of dance at Rutgers’ Mason Gross School of the Arts. Even so, it’s only a portion of the jazz curriculum.

A Place in This World

The debate is whether hip hop “should receive the same amount of serious contextualization as classical ballet and contemporary forms,” Friedman explains. “All world forms have need for context, and college dance departments need to consider this factor.”

Like world dance forms, hip hop has a rich history. It is a folk art “created among the common people as an expression of their everyday lives,” writes dance educator Kelsa Rieger in Cityfolk Enews, an online newsletter about traditional and ethnic performing arts. “It emerged from the inner-city streets of the South Bronx in the early 1970s: a new style of music, instrumentation, dance, fashion and visual art that together made up a rich and colorful expression of life for the people, place and time in which it was created.”

Until the college suspended operations in June, Rieger taught hip hop in the dance program at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Antioch included the courses “Introduction to Hip Hop Dance and Culture” and “West African Drum and Dance” as part of its curriculum. “Kelsa really wanted students to have an understanding of the cultural context that generated hip hop,” says Jill Becker, former dance program director. “She brought in guests and had the students do readings. Some were really interested in understanding the social, political and economic context.”

Still, many view the artform as a pop-culture phenomenon, explains Becker. “But I take it seriously, and think students can learn a lot about the culture that generated hip hop.”

Perhaps the problem is that some college faculty members don’t know where to find “authentic” hip hop. In the e-newsletter, Rieger talks about how the artform has changed drastically (due in large part to the media) from its beginnings and what is currently being taught. She likens the two styles to the way that samba can refer to either “the raw, authentic, hip-driven dance seen on the streets of Rio de Janeiro, or the smooth, elegant, partnering danced at ballroom competitions in the U.S.; the two look almost nothing alike. The ‘hip hop’ taught in most dance studios across the country today is a far cry from anything you would have seen at one of DJ Kool Herc’s block parties in 1975.”

The educational worth of hip hop extends far beyond the movement involved, and dance professionals like Rieger and Becker are doing their part to spread this knowledge in the higher ed setting. “It’s important for students to value vernacular dance alongside performance dance,” says Becker. “I would like to offset the high art/low art/folk art distinctions-it’s all high art.” And, of course, students are speaking up. “Hip hop is here to stay,” says Cotton, “so the dance community can only benefit from accepting and including it.”

DT Jennifer Anderson holds a BA in Dance and English from Rutgers University and is the rehearsal coordinator for American Ballet Theatre.