By Zoe Huettl

Ballet is a very structured form of dance. From the performances to the steps themselves, each moment is fiercely technical and a particular kind of graceful. Homer Hans Bryant and his Hiplet™ ballerinas are reinterpreting and rejuvenating these traditions, infusing traditional ballet with hip-hop and pop music. Bryant and his dancers not only cross borders between styles of dance and music, they also bring dancers of color into the spotlight in an often Eurocentric art. They have been featured everywhere from Buzzfeed to Good Morning America, and have gone viral both inside and outside the social media dance community.

The creator of this innovative mix of styles is Homer Hans Bryant, the artistic director of The Chicago Multicultural Dance Center, which he founded in 1992. Bryant’s credits within the dance world are wide-ranging and impressive, from the Dance Theatre of Harlem to Cirque du Soleil to ‘The Wiz.’ At CMDC, Bryant works to bring dance technique to all. They offer an extensive and well-respected ballet program, as well as classes in Modern, Contemporary, Hip-Hop, Acrobatics, Tap, Latin and African Dances along with Hiplet™. Their goal is to bring the many varieties of dance to students, truly living up to their name as a center of multicultural dance. They also have a strong scholarship program, which aims to bring dance to all students regardless of financial status. While the school has gone viral for Hiplet™, its mission and values set it apart as an institution ready to change the dance world.

The idea of melding hip-hop and ballet did not originate with Hiplet™ but began in the nineties with “The Rap Ballet” and similar works that involved putting current hip-hop moves on pointe. Hiplet™ is, however, the first solidified and taught style that involves a blend of pointe technique with hip-hop influenced movements. For those less familiar with dance, ballerinas often dance ‘on pointe,’ which means that they use shoes that allow them to dance on the top of their toes. Many traditional pointe steps involve balancing, turning, and moving on and off of pointe, or from their shoes flat on the floor to balancing on their toes. Pointe technique is incredibly rigorous and takes years of practice to perfect. Hiplet™ takes this style of dance and incorporates the isolations (where parts of the body move individually), popular music, and freer upper body movement found in hip-hop.

Blending these two distinct techniques has many implications both for dancers and for the wider social context of Hiplet™. Especially in the case of ballet, Eurocentrism and racism pervade the most famous groups and highest quality schools. ABT, one of the most prolific American companies, had its first African-American principal ballerina (the phenomenal Misty Copeland)  2015. While Copeland has a stunning career, her recent and huge significance illustrates just how few ballerinas of color are given large platforms. Hiplet™ dramatically changes the narrative, showcasing many dancers of color performing in spaces usually monopolized by others. Their high profile performances online have forced the dance community to recognize the talents of dancers of color, as well as their popularity. Such social changes are not limited to the dance community; Hiplet™’s  introduction to the mainstream through shows like ‘Good Morning America’ has profound significance. The imagery around women of color in the mainstream media is often negative and Hiplet™ provides a challenge to this racial bias. By bringing passionate, skillful dancers of color into the limelight, Homer Hans Bryant and his ballerinas are providing images of successful, innovative dancers for the next generation.

Another facet of Hiplet™’s social significance is its unique blend of technique that calls into question conventional attitudes about the value of different styles of dance. Traditionally, ballet is seen as an upscale, highly sophisticated form while hip-hop is not always given mainstream artistic praise. This snub can be attributed to many social biases such as racism and classism, as well as the relative newness of the form. Bryant forces the two techniques to be seen as equals by meshing them together in Hiplet™, emphasizing that they both have artistic merit. Additionally, Hiplet™’s blended style also makes ballet much more accessible. In most communities, the classical music traditionally used for ballet is unfamiliar and possibly intimidating. For many, going to see ‘La Sylphide’ may seem odd and uncomfortable. Hiplet™ offers ballet in a context with much more familiarity, incorporating pop music without the traditional ballet performance formula that can seem confusing. By uniting two different styles of dance, Bryant and his dancers challenge stereotypes of hip-hop while making ballet technique more approachable.

By blending hip-hop style and music with pointe technique, Homer Hans Bryant and the Hiplet™ ballerinas have challenged both artistic and social norms. They have created a new technique that makes ballet more accessible to those for whom it may have seemed foreign. Their work also emphasizes the skill of dancers of color in a very white-washed community by creating a unique and highly-skilled form.  As Hiplet™ technique expands into more schools or even starts a touring company, it highlights Homer Hans Bryant and his Hiplet™ ballerinas as a group that breaks social, artistic, and economic boundaries.

Steven Norwalk