Hiplet: Hip-Hop-Ballet or Neither?

The videos of young African-American girls body-rolling and hip thrusting across a dance studio in pointe shoes surfaced on my Facebook news feed weeks ago. Evidently, they sashayed across a Good Morning America producer’s screen, because this past week the girls gave a performance on the show that sparked a pretty nasty debate in the dance world.

It isn’t easy to pinpoint the sides in the argument against/in favor of hiplet. There’s non dancers vs. dancers, dancers vs. ballerinas, ballerinas of color vs. ballerinas who fit the white swan mold that’s been perpetuated in this art form for centuries (and is finally facing some due criticism), and plenty of people outside my reductive categories.

Some viewers are honing in on the race issue. Facebook commentators are railing against elitist balletomanes and argue that hiplet is new and progressive and wonderful and worthwhile and the white balletic establishment rejects it because the dancers don’t look like Svetlana Zakharova and they need to be dragged off of their high horses to accept diversity for what it is: important and necessary and beautiful.

Some black ballet dancers are also calling out race, but with a different angle. They think that hiplet is perpetuating the stereotype that black girls are better at and should stick to hip-hop: that they aren’t as good at—and thus aren’t doing—classical ballet. (Food for thought: what if the hiplet girls were white?)

Bunheads of all races have one consistent issue: “it’s unsafe.” The girls’ pointe technique isn’t up to par, their ankles look like new born bambie’s and attempting any moves—ballet, hiplet, what have you—without the proper strength and form is going to end in snapped tendons. Many have it out for the girls’ teacher, Homer Bryant, a well-respected figure in the dance world who, in their opinion, should know better.

Some people don’t know what all the fuss is about and think young girls have the right to have fun and dance however they wish. Others are adamant that hip-hop and ballet cannot and should not be combined.

I’m inclined to disagree wholeheartedly with this latter opinion. I am white and have grown up in the diversity-lacking ballet world for most of my life. I, too, think going on pointe without the proper technique is unsafe. I was very against Free People’s horrible ad where they put a model in pointe shoes, called her a classically trained ballerina, and tried to sell knitwear to actual ballet dancers. We weren’t having it.

But I think when we call hiplet “unsafe,” the anti-elitists are right when they say we’re ignoring thornier issues. I wouldn’t say it’s a race thing. In a way, it’s selfish thing. It’s a “I’ve-trained-my-entire-life-to-be-good-at-this-and-this-girl-who-has-no-training-and-no-technique-is-getting-all-the-attention-and-they-should-have-hired-a-real-dancer-and-in-fact-it-could-have-should-have-been-me” thing. I’d be lying if I said that train of thought didn’t spring from a personal place.

So are the bunheads on social media just bent out of shape because the hiplet girls went viral while they themselves are slaving away with little to no attention? Yes. And they frame the outrage that “real” ballet dancers aren’t getting their due with (not necessarily dishonest) concern for “not-real” ballet dancers’ ankle health.

My opinion? Combining hip hop and ballet should be done. (In fact, it has been done—sort of. Watch thisor better yet this). But this is not the way to do it. The problem with hiplet is that in combining the styles, the hybrid diminishes them. Hiplet is only “ballet” because the girls are wearing pointe shoes, which in turn limits their ability to achieve the precise, hard hitting, movements that make hip-hop so exciting and impressive.

I definitely think the girls should keep at it. Keep at their ballet training and build that technique to silence the haters. Become consummate hip hop artists, too. You know that idea that you have to master the rules before you can break them? In a few years, hiplet girls, you could prove us all wrong.

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