Teena Marie Custer and the True Meaning of Hip Hop Dance


(Left To Right) Jordan McDowell, Laura DeAngelis, Teena Marie Custer, Niasha Whitfield, Kelsey Kempner

After being awarded the incredible opportunity to take an eye opening class from Teena Marie Custer, my outlook on hip-hop, and consequently the greater art form of dance, has been entirely altered. I used to try my hardest to put genres of dance in boxes, sealed and labelled with their own traits and definitions. However, I really did always find this difficult to do. Sure, ballet, modern, and contemporary, are different forms. But how different are they really? All have similar qualities and values, and one cannot study one of the three forms without studying each of the other two. I’ve spent years trying to decide how to really define ballet versus contemporary versus modern. What I realized this Friday, under the instruction of Custer, was that truly the more you know about something the more you realize you don’t know. The only reason I never questioned this about the various genres of Hip Hop is because I never studied it in depth


Teena Marie Custer advocated a belief that real hip hop is not the same thing as the commercial “hip hop” one typically studies in class. She used ballet as an analogy, saying that just like one cannot do a petit allegro without starting at the barre, one also cannot become a “hip hop dancer” without having experience dancing in the streets. Custer’s roots stem from street styles of breaking and house, styles that I never studied in depth before. If one had asked me a week ago the difference between the two, my response probably would have been “there’s a difference?”. But now I have just as many questions about the various branches of hip hop as I’ve had about the various branches of concert dance.


What I think is truly great about Teena’s class is that she caused me to leave thinking. The concept of “what is hip hop? What is it in relation to the greater art of dance?” was my nightly topic to mull over in the shower that night. Teena didn’t just teach us a few pieces of movement then send us on our merry ways. Teena taught us history and culture. The movement we were doing was able to have a developed character in my mind, which, just like how giving intention to concert dance makes it better executed, made my performance in class better. Her teaching technique is important because just like painting is more than a brush stroke and ballet is more than a tendu, hip hop dance is more than one pop or lock. Hip Hop dance tells a story just like any art form, because at the end of the day, all art forms have something to say and a story to tell. And Teena Marie Custer made me realize this on an entirely new level. An entire world of dance was opened up to me thanks to Ms. Custer on Friday, January 15th.


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