In 1994, Homer Hans Bryant — dancer, instructor, and founder of the Chicago Multi-Cultural Dance Center — did something most classically trained performers would roll their eyes at: He choreographed a piece, played some of the decade's most popular rap music, and encouraged dancers to break it down on pointe. Back then, it was simply called "Rap Ballet"; and though it may have disrupted the preconceived stereotypes of what both dance and dancers should look like, it never seemed to completely infiltrate the industry in a way other contemporary styles have. Nearly 25 years later, Bryant is still teaching that same hip-hop-meets-ballet technique — only this time, Hiplet (pronounced "hip-lay"), as it was formally named in 2005 (and trademarked four years later), has become widely known through video shares on social media, having gone viral both within and outside the dance community.
"We all start in ballet," 18-year-old Nia Parker says. "The way we approach Hiplet is that we don’t let just anybody do it, because you have to have strength training in your ankles, or else you’re going to hurt yourself, guaranteed. In traditional ballet, you’re very lifted; your center of gravity is higher off the ground. With Hiplet, you learn to dance towards the floor more, so you kind of reverse your center of gravity from what you’ve been originally taught. But, you still have some classical elements in it as well. If you cut your body in half, it’s like your legs and your arms are doing opposite things, but the entire picture makes sense. It’s like a puzzle." The concept of Hiplet may seem oxymoronic: How can something as rigorous and position-driven as ballet mesh so well with something as free-flowing and gritty as hip-hop? But, as 18-year-old Nia Lyons explains, “Ballet tends to be more traditional, more strict, and more demanding. And hip-hop tends to be more of a social movement; it’s how you feel and how you interpret the move. Hiplet is the perfect world of both: You need to have the technique and discipline in order to get, and be able to move freely, on pointe, but not to the point where you can’t express yourself."
In May, a clip of the girls dancing to "If It Ain't Love" by Jason Derulo was posted to the Só Bailarinos Facebook page (and subsequently written up by BuzzFeed). Since then, they've performed on a variety of talk shows, popped up at New York Fashion Week, and entertained the It crowd at the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund event in Los Angeles, showing just how much influence (and intrigue) the movements possess. When I first heard of Hiplet, my immediate thought was Kanye West's music video for "Runaway." But for these girls, the genre is something they've grown up watching (Parker's mother is a former dancer at the Dance Theater of Harlem and current instructor at the Chicago Multi-Cultural Dance Center), learning, and yearning to become a part of. And to see what they do in the studio on Friday nights become a mainstream movement isn't just really exciting, it's empowering, too. (Though, as 18-year-old Camyrn puts it, "it’s not as big as the whip/nae nae.")
"[I feel like] dance has always been seen as this weird world where performance artists put glass in their shoes to get the roll right, and they’re all starving because they need to be skinny..." Parker says. "Recently, I’ve noticed more dancers get integrated into fashion and sports campaigns, and it makes sense. Because we are athletes, right? And I feel like this exposure for dance is helping [make] the argument that ballerinas are just as hardcore as your favorite basketball players. We’re on the same playing field. This is hard. It’s basically our lives."
Besides the actual movements and choreography, music and fashion are both essential components to Hiplet. As Parker says, "The music helps us play with the ratio of ballet to hip-hop, and hip-hop to ballet," noting that they recently performed to "Burn It Up" by Janet Jackson and Missy Elliott, where the moves were more "hard-hitting," compared to the routine they did to "In Common" by Alicia Keys, which featured "a lot more classic elements." The moves seen here to "Ex Calling" by 6lack, is a combination of both. The costumes, of course, then tie the entire mood together. Like the idea that you can do Hiplet to any song, "you can wear anything with Hiplet," Camyrn says. "You can wear baggy jeans and a fitted top, or you can wear an actual ballet costume. Honestly, it goes from one end of the spectrum to the other, and everywhere in between that."
"Before we went viral, costumes were certainly an element, but definitely not as much as they are now," Parker explains. "We’d try to be edgier, but with this new wave of attention and all this exposure we’ve gotten, we’re like, 'Wow, we can really jazz it up, step it up, and get a little more extravagant.' We’ve worn more contemporary-style dresses, we’ve worn some leotards that only have tutus in the back, we’ve worn leotards with tutus all around to play on the whole ballerina thing, and we’ve worn plain unitards. With self-expression in Hiplet, it gets to a certain point where we’re allowed to add our own element to each step."
The Hiplet ballerinas aren't just adding new, inventive elements to each step, however. They're also offering a new idea of what a "dancer" looks like, particularly in an industry that has a long history of excluding women of different skin colors and body types. And this is where their influence truly manifests. "We’re breaking the boundary of what people would say is 'appropriate' for the ballet world," Lyons says. "The fact that we aren’t your traditional ballerinas, we aren’t that stereotypical size, weight, figure, etc. It’s opening doors. Because while you have people who are completely against the concept of Hiplet, you also have people who find it inspirational, and it motivates them to try dance themselves." This influence is something all three girls are particularly proud of, and it's something that continues to push them, and their practice, forward. "We’re all diverse," Camryn adds. "There’s such a variety when it comes to race and body type. We’re not cookie-cutter at all. We're not like The Rockettes, or anything like that. And I think that’s what makes it unique, and that’s what draws people in; they’ve never seen something like this before."
For Parker, though, what their studio is doing isn't just showing a new type of dance — it's working to push the entire industry forward. "Strict classical ballet, the companies that you would be auditioning for, they have their look, they have their type, and they’re usually not going to budge on it, even if you’re that good," she says. "With Hiplet, it’s more inclusive. The girls we have, we all come in different shapes, sizes, and skin tones. We don’t care what you look like, as long as you can do the steps and have fun while doing it. We’re a more inclusive style, and it allows people who don’t identify with classical ballet to still implement pointe work into their dance life. I feel like my generation, that’s how we are. We don’t identify with how the French courts used to [dance]. This is the 21st century dance style."