Majestic Movers: Teaching Girls Leadership Through Hip-Hop Dance

By Stephanie Genkin

I’m not the average girl from your video
And I ain’t built like a supermodel
But I learned to love myself unconditionally
Because I am a queen
I not the average girl from your video
My worth is not determined by the price of my clothes
No matter what I’m wearing I will always be
India.Arie
—India Arie, “Video”

The message India Arie croons in this popular song is the same one Alexis Ramirez is trying to instill in the 15 middle school girls who attend her after-school program “Majestic Movers.” The 26-year-old social innovator founded the hip-hop dance program in Seattle, Washington, for at-risk girls after being selected as a World Learning Advancing Leaders Fellow.

For years, social commentators have condemned hip-hop lyrics and videos as degrading to women — especially women of color — but Ramirez embraces the popular music genre as an appropriate tool for teaching pre-teen girls empowerment, leadership, and social justice.

“Hip-hop is rooted in overcoming struggle, and a lot of the populations I’m working with are doing just that,” said Ramirez. “It has a really strong message. You can use it to teach about teamwork, dealing with hardship, and finding your voice.”

She’s not pretending that hip-hop doesn’t have an ugly side that glorifies violence. And she can just as easily point to plenty of songs that objectify women, portraying scantily-clad black and Latino women in music videos as hyper sexualized gold diggers.

“We talk about that in the program,” she said, adding that she addresses the offensive lyrics and images to prompt the girls to discuss what it means to them, and to raise their awareness.

Originally from California, Ramirez is a recent graduate of Macalester College in Minnesota, where she earned a B.A. in Dance and Anthropology. She moved to Seattle with the dream of combining her passion for dance with her desire to work with youth.

The idea for Majestic Movers came to her after working for the Seattle YMCA Boys and Girls Outdoor Leadership Development program, where she coordinated rock climbing and snowshoe club programs for girls and a trail service for boys.

“That taught me there are different mediums to use to send messages to youth, and there are different ways to learn,” said Ramirez.

When she heard about the Advancing Leaders Fellowship — a World Learning program designed to support agents of change from the organization’s vast alumni network — she hoped she had her platform to launch Majestic Movers.

Ramirez and 45 other alumni were selected from a pool of more than 150 applicants to join the 2015 Advancing Leaders Fellowship Program in June.

“When I found out I was accepted, I started crying. I was so overwhelmed,” recalled Ramirez, who went to Spain with The Experiment in International Living and to Bali, Indonesia, with SIT Study Abroad.

Advancing Leaders Fellows complete a three-month virtual training course focused on project design, project implementation, monitoring and evaluation, proposal writing, and fundraising. At the end of the program, she and the other fellows were invited to submit proposals to fund social innovation projects in their communities. Ramirez was one of more than two dozen fellows who competed for funding.

“I never imagined I would also become one of seven participants to be awarded a grant to support my project,” she said.

Ramirez’s application stood out, recalled Judy Huret, a member of the Advancing Leaders Fellowship selection committee, because “she understood her community and planned multiple activities that were likely to resonate with them.”

Huret also noted that her end goal of fostering the next generation of socially aware leaders was important. “The issues facing girls in the U.S., especially girls of color in our cities, are critical to our nation’s future,” she said.

The three months of training and a $5,000 grant helped Ramirez establish the first hip-hop dance club in Aki Kurose, a public middle school in Seattle’s south side, where 82 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch.

Ramirez is launching a second program at Denny, a middle school located in west Seattle for another group of girls age 11 to 14.

During the 10-week program, participants learn from prominent hip-hop dancers in the community, go on field trips to community dance events, and even choreograph their own performance.

“In the beginning, we did a lot of team building, and I taught them some hip-hop dance techniques. Each practice was different,” said Ramirez, noting that early on she focused on activities geared toward empowerment and leadership and later emphasized dance as they prepared for a performance video.

Ramirez, who has danced since she was eight years old, also teaches hip-hop three times a week to adults at the Salsa N Seattle Dance Studio and leads the hip-hop performance group Drop Squad.

But it’s the Majestic Movers program for sixth to eighth grade under-resourced girls, as she refers to them, that is her calling.

“Leadership in Seattle is very male-dominated and predominantly white,” she pointed out.

“My ultimate goal is to empower girls, help the emerging generation of young adults of color become leaders for social change and develop confidence in their own abilities,” said Ramirez.

Her acceptance into the Advancing Leaders Program validated her idea of using hip hop as a tool for working with teenage girls of color and developing their confidence

“Just like Majestic Movers helps girls see what they are capable of, World Learning help me see what I was capable of,” observed Ramirez. “It helped me realize I can do bigger things.”