Their hands and hips move sharply to the beat. The energy they exude is unmistakable – it is raw and passionate. The dancers swing and shuffle with ease; there is a rhythm to the way they walk and move. Hip-hop is not just a dance form for them; it is a way of life.
Watching a hip-hop dancer at work is extremely thrilling. But watching women dancing hip-hop is a completely different experience. Most of us have only seen women perform the more classical styles of dance – their movements graceful and controlled. To see them abandon themselves to the beat and bare their aggression is thrilling, and yet there is a certain playfulness to their movements that captivates us immediately.
Hip-hop, born in the Bronx, New York, amidst poverty and violence – glorified by mainstream Hollywood movies – has become a global phenomenon. What started with rap music, which became a powerful representation of Black voices, has come to mean many different things.
As hip-hop entered the mainstream, the Indian youth, who were exposed to the culture through movies and the internet, found themselves increasingly drawn to it. Many youngsters in India have now adopted the hip-hop lifestyle. Colleges now boast of ‘dance battles’ and we hear of ‘crews’ taking part in them.
Hollywood jumped on the hip-hop dance bandwagon fairly early, and several movies, such as the Step Up franchise and Breakin’, glorified the dance form. The movements are muscular and require immense physical power – it is no wonder that young boys took to it immediately.
But in this all-boys club, there are several women who shaped the history of hip-hop and left a lasting legacy. In India too girls have entered the world of hip-hop, challenging stereotypes and blazing their own trail.
Equality and fraternity
So what does hip-hop offer women?
For these new entrants, it is the idea of an equal playing ground. That they will be slaying it like the boys and not “like a girl”.
“I encountered street-style dance first in college. I saw most of the guys breakdancing, and I noticed that it was challenging and more difficult than other dance forms I had seen so far. I have grown up around guys. I saw that in this dance form, girls and boys compete equally; so I became interested in it,” says 21-years-old Kavipriya Dayal, known as B-girl Kavi.
B-boys or B-girls are people accomplished in breakdancing.
I met B-girl Kavi at the Spunk Your Creek 4.0, a streetstyle dance battle in Bengaluru’s UB City, organised to celebrate the 44th anniversary of hip-hop. Kavi is amongst the handful of girls who have come to participate in the breaking category.
The dance-battle culture is a showcase of mostly hip-hop forms that originated in the Bronx – a legacy of Black-street culture, where mostly male dancers confronted each other on the streets. Today’s dance battles are an equal ground for male and female dancers, with no separate category for either gender.
B-girl Kavi takes the stage wearing a red sweatshirt and black trackpants. Her red cap is tilted jauntily over a red bandana. She spins, twists and flips on the floor as the crowd cheers wildly while dancing along.
Over the years what is as considered hip-hop has changed, expanded and evolved to include many different dance forms. While hip-hop remains an umbrella term, several types of dance fall under this category –breaking, locking, popping, the boogaloo. Forms such as waacking, a technique created in the LGBTQI clubs of Los Angeles during the 1970s disco era, is also now considered a part of the hip-hop dance scenario. Newer dance forms, such as Afrobeats, danced to an Afro beat with traditional African moves, also affiliates itself to the hip-hop community.
A sense of belonging
Being a hip-hop dancer means belonging to the community. It is not about beating someone or winning, but about sharing and learning. Traditionally, hip-hop is a celebration of male camaraderie, but that’s rapidly changing now.
Twenty-seven-year-old Wihanna Mahajan, founder of Spunk Your Creek, says, “This is one of the largest street battles in the country. This is for the community and by the community. It is a gathering … Hip-hop brings people together. We are celebrating the 44th anniversary of hip-hop through Spunk Your Creek that will have 20 categories of battle.”
Wihanna, a dancer herself, founded Spunk Your Creek to bring dancers together because she believes that she owed it to the community. “There was time when hip-hop saved my life and I just want to give back to the culture,” she says.
With YouTube helping the proliferation of the hip-hop culture, girls believe that the community gives them a sense of belonging and respect in ways they have never experienced before.
Twenty-one-year-old Sushma S Aithal is pursuing a Masters in Physics from Jain College and is a member of the Silence Crew, a breaking dance crew. The journey was never an easy one. Despite strident opposition from family and poor health, she pursued her dance training and never gave up.
“I love to compete with guys. I don’t feel like a B-girl, but I want to be a B-boy and compete with B-boys. I feel I am no less than a B-boy. The boys treat me as an equal, a part of the community, and help me a lot. We are all homies,” says Sushma.
Breaking is what we commonly recognise as hip-hop. It is a physically demanding dance form requiring immense strength and agility that does not come naturally to girls. The dance form favours a rather macho aesthetic and was originally formed around masculine physical expression. The dance was created using male social practices and cultural values within the Black urban ghetto communities of New York City during the 1970s and ’80s.
Many female breakers or B-girls, however, have still embraced the style.
Most women in India first encounter dance via classical dance that is not only considered acceptable because of it is sanitised and structured, but also because it favours a more “feminine” aesthetic. Since breaking is dominated by a “masculine” aesthetic, it is inevitable that most practitioners are male. But girls like Sushma are determined that their dedication will get them there some day.
“We need to train hard and overcome our physical inabilities. We may not have as much endurance as the guys, but I believe we will make it,” Sushma says.
Battling with the guys is both aspirational and challenging for the girls.
“Since you are battling guys, you need more confidence. You need to battle like a guy. Because they are strong. So when we battle, we are supposed to be equal and we have to show them that we are indeed equal,” says Kavi.
What pushes them is the “respect” they say they gain from the boys for trying.
“B-boys understand it is a hard dance form and they respect B-girls for this,” says Kavi.
B-girl Ritu was, in a way, a pioneer in the B-girl category – she was among the first girls in Bangalore to start performing this dance form in 2008. She was also the first girl to be part of Bangalore’s legendary breaking crew, Black Eyes, at a time when hip-hop was merely a whisper in the underground circle.
“It was difficult at first because I didn’t have the strength to do all the moves the guys were doing. So I had to start doing push-ups. They already had athletic bodies; therefore my progress was slower than theirs. It was challenging, but they were very supportive,” she says.
What makes their arduous training worthwhile is the sense of belonging they feel with the community. “I always felt very comfortable and welcome here. There was a sense of respect here that I never felt anywhere else, especially for girls. Everyone knows who you are and they give you that respect,” says Ritu.
“Our bodies are not as muscular as men’s. If you look at Rebel BC One, the biggest international breakdancing competition, there has never been a girl in it. As it is there aren’t that many B-girls compared to men, but I do think that it is possible to break into the competition. It is not the community that is restricting us, but since it started with guys, it is still new for us,” says Ritu.
Even though breaking practically dominates the hip-hop dance culture, girls have found their space in other dance forms such as waacking and newer ones such as dance hall and afrobeats.
Bengaluru-based Divya Eswaran, a member of Afrontal, an all-girl afrobeat dance crew, says, “I started as a classical dancer. Until the 10th standard, I trained in Bharatanatyam. Apart from that, I would go for western-dance competitions in schools and colleges. I had no idea what hip-hop was. During my second year of engineering, a senior of mine started a hip-hop group and asked me to join it. I thought, ‘How different can western dance and hip-hop be?’ I believed western dance means you dance to an English song. And then I went there and I was introduced to a completely new dance vocabulary.”
YouTube has come as a big blessing for young dancers. They can now learn from international dancers and it has provided them with a platform to share their ideas with one another. Most Indian dancers in the scene now are either self-taught or have learnt from their peers.
“When we started off, YouTube was our biggest teacher. We taught each other, and then we started hearing about other dancers in Bombay. We started travelling for battles only after this. Because it was so new for people, we started getting small gigs here and there, such as college fests,” says Ritu.
21-years-old Phup Hkonshan Mirip, better known as Mimi within the dance community in Bengaluru, is a practitioner of the waacking dance form.
“I started dancing two years ago when I came to Bengaluru from Arunachal Pradesh. I was introduced to waacking by a senior from college. Now I try to train girls in Arunachal Pradesh by sending them videos. They don’t have a proper source to learn from,” Mimi says.
Dance like a woman
Women have found their space in hip-hop in the forms of waacking and afrobeats. The reason men do not pick these dance forms is because of their more “feminine” moves, having been conditioned fairly early on about masculine and feminine body language. But as these dancers point out, dance movements are also culture specific.
Dancers of forms such as dance hall and afrobeats move their hips a lot. “Here, people think it is very feminine because there is a lot of hip movement. But in Africa, men move their hips and it is attractive. It’s not at all ‘feminine’ thing. But guys are afraid over here; the minute you say move your hips, they think it means moving like a girl,” says Anjaly Ariyanayagam, another member of Afrontal.
“In my tribe—the Singpho tribe—pelvic movements are part of our dances, even for men. If I show my parents the afrobeats or dance hall style, they wouldn’t find it strange. In my tribe, women use their shoulders a lot and men use their hips,” says Mimi.
What is masculine and what is feminine is often decided by the prevailing culture. “In the koothu, men do a lot of pelvic thrusts. But if you tell them to move their hips from side to side, they will say, ‘Oh no! That’s too feminine’,” Anjaly says.
Participants of dance battle are mostly college-goers. Only a few professionals, male or female, are seen participating and Divya is one of them. Girls encounter barriers in the form of family pressure to not take up dance professionally, particularly dance forms such a hip-hop, which is associated with western dancing and does not carry the same gravity as an Indian classical dance form.
“It wasn’t a problem for me to learn the different forms of dance. It became a point of conflict when I told my parents I want to take this up professionally. They were supportive in college when I stayed back late to practice. But when I told them I wanted to continue dancing after college too, my dad warned me to think about it carefully, about how it might turn out in the future. My mom was not happy. It’s understandable since they have not seen people around them take up hip-hop dancing professionally,” says Divya.
While girls usually start dancing at a younger age when compared to boys, at the professional level there are more male dancers.
“When I was younger, I saw more girls dancing than boys, but as you grow older, you see that boys are more comfortable with the idea of dancing when they understand that there are dances that are very ‘masculine’, like hip-hop. Girls want to dance when they are older, but there are not enough role models for them,” says Anjaly.
Dancing means staying out late for practice, usually with boys, and travelling for battles, all of which become a problem for most girls. “It was difficult for me to get permission for all of these,” says Ritu.
Anjaly and Ritu both work full-time, and find time for dancing outside work. Mimi has to divide her time between her studies and dance.
“My dad is a government employee and my mom is a teacher, and they don’t really understand that it is a serious occupation. They don’t mind me dancing as long as I don’t take it up as a profession,” says Mimi.
The idea of success
Besides, earning a living from dancing professionally is difficult. Until recently, the only available for girls was to be back-up dancers for either actors or other artistes. Being successful meant being seen on television.
“The idea of success here is rooted in the belief that you have to be seen on television. For dancers, if you make it to a reality show, you are considered successful,” says Divya.
However, things are turning around and more avenues are opening up.
“Now, we can conduct workshops and classes, and popularise our dance forms through videos online,” says Divya.
Although the chance of girls beating boys in battles is very slim, several of them still come forward to participate in battles.
Wihanna’s sole aim is to spread the culture. “Hip-hop is only 44-years-old and it will take some more time to really establish itself in different countries. We need to educate the masses because everybody thinks what Prabhu Deva or Hrithik Roshan do is hip-hop,” says Wihanna.
Hip-hop offers these girls a way of exploring how far they can push their bodies – many called it a liberating experience and some even said it was almost like meditation. In the process, they have discovered ways of doing hip-hop their way.
“I was surrounded by boys and I would try to imitate the way they moved … I would try to do all these difficult flips … But I now have learnt that you don’t need to do this. As girls, we have some distinct advantages over boys. They might be better at the more powerful moves, but we can add our own style to it. You just to need to understand it in a different way … That we move according to our bodies,” says Ritu.
Ritu, who has dabbled in various forms of dance, from Bharatnatyam to gospel choreography, thinks hip-hop gives you the space to experiment with your body.
“As an Indian girl especially, we have all faced harassment and all of things you have ever wanted to scream at the men staring at you, you can now do through dance. You can explore all these facets of your body that you can’t do otherwise … It’s definitely a liberating feeling,” says Ritu.