Monday, July 16, 2012
A CLEAR CUT SPACE FOR WOMEN IN HIP-HOP
For two nights in a row, the audience sprang to its feet to cheer, yell and stomp in a standing ovation for "Paying Homage," a hip-hop piece choreographed by Akira Armstrong for the dance group Pretty Big. People were psyched out of their minds to see this tribute to female MCs from the last two decades, a list which included Roxanne Shante, MC Lyte, Da Brat, and Queen Latifah. The mood of the piece was joyous and celebratory, but also proud; never over-smiley, the dancers wore facial expressions that read "We are the real deal and we take ourselves seriously."
"Paying Homage" was one of many outstanding dance numbers presented in the 8th Annual Ladies of Hip- Hop Festival, an event brought to New York by Michele Byrd-McPhee. Women came from all corners of both the U.S. and the globe to compete in a Ladies Battle, participate in two days of dance workshops, and dance in two consecutive nights of performances. A full agenda for sure, and reflective of the many dance forms that fall under the umbrella of hip-hop, including waacking, krumping, dancehall, popping, house, and flexing.
Ms. Byrd-McPhee gave form to the Ladies of Hip-Hop Festival out of an awareness of "the narrow opportunities for women in Hip-Hop" and a desire to create "a safe space, a neutral zone where the art does not get lost or stifled because of complexities of male/female relationships. Spaces were it is okay to be women as you define it, not as defined by others. " (Source: LOHHF website.)
Everything about the two nights of performances showed that creating a space in hip-hop where women can define themselves has enormous payoff.
First, there was the overall spirit/mood/vibe of the performance nights. The host, Shernita Sofly, put the audience at ease with her hugely funny and off-beat humor, and ability to connect with what the audience was doing and feeling in the moment. By cutting loose and having fun, she set things up so the audience could do the same.
Then, there was the awesome diversity of how the women presented themselves - playful, raw, rough, angry, sensual, sexual, graceful, defiant, athletic. Yet all of this never seemed forced or externally imposed; every feeling and image conveyed seemed to come from within. The dancers fully inhabited their bodies, quite a departure from the way much of dance for females is structured so that we are treated as the vessels for someone else's vision or are put out there just to please or pacify a crowd rather than to challenge the audience emotionally or intellectually.
You could see from the backstage and off-stage interactions between the dancers as well as the interplay between audience and performers that all of this was a team effort; everything in the festival was about women backing other women. Also: whenever Michele, the LOHHF Founder and Director got up to speak, she made sure to credit all the other women who supported her and were part of her team. She made it clear that it took a village to raise a festival.
Women from the audience (including other dancers) cheered fiercely and joyfully for women onstage. Choreographers designed pieces so that dancers visibly pulled for each other while performing. A great example of that was "Gracefully Strong," choreographed by Valerie Chartier for the krumping crew Buck Swans. While each krumper stepped forward for her solo, the others would surround her and emotionally and physically validate what she was expressing through her body. The effect was gripping.
In sum, a clearly-defined space for females in hip hop to lead other females and be led by other females looked good on everyone involved - both performers and the audience. Right there in the theater, I could feel the effects of racism and sexism melt under the intelligence, leadership, and serious artistry of a mighty army of women.