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From Hip Hop to Home: A Dance Teacher Reflects

Why foundry10 dance teacher John Roque will no longer label his choreography as hip-hop dance. Learn more about the evolution of foundry10 dance program (formerly hip hop) here.

John Roque dancing as a child in Manila, Philippines

Dance and movement has always been a huge part of my identity. At five years-old, I was growing up in the Philippines trying to do the Running Man and Popping while my family cheered me on. I was always the shy kid, but there’s something about dance and movement that was an outlet for my expression and voice. I remember always being asked to dance, “Mag Hip Hop ka!” (Do the Hip Hop!).

When my family immigrated to the US in ’95, I learned more about the origins of dance. I admired the strong Black and Brown trailblazers of hip hop culture. They influenced the music I was listening to, how I dressed, talked, and expressed. Dancing through hip hop culture was my primary form of expression.

My dance practice evolved from just performing hip hop moves to putting them together and creating choreography influenced by many other dance styles. This became my base or foundation. I wouldn’t call it “pure” hip hop, but it was a foundation nonetheless.

In high school, I joined the Shorecrest Hip Hop Dance Team and was introduced to a new realm of dance performance and competition.When I graduated, the decision to join the Seattle dance community where I grew up, trained, and evolved felt natural. Dance fueled all of my actions.

The Boom-Katzz

I became a member of several Hip Hop-based dance groups. The training I received from choreographers like Kolanie Marks, Cameron Lee, Daniel Cruz, and amazing California-based choreographers like Shaun Evaristo, & Keone Madrid influenced all of my movements. Through this process, I began to put together my own identity in my movement and eventually started my own dance company. I had been teaching dance for other studios for almost a decade. In this time I was influenced by other types of dance styles like House Dance, Contemporary, Jazz, Tutting, and more. I started experimenting with music genres and created choreography with all types of vibes and feeling. It was the perfect release. The choreography evolved, yet it was still being labeled as Hip-Hop.

John Roque Choreography

As the dance industry became more popular, it became apparent that Hip Hop foundations were now the base and Choreography was in the forefront. From my experience, you only did Hip Hop foundational moves mainly in lower-level classes, while advanced classes were a blend and beautiful mixture of foundations, current trends, and personal influences taught to Hip Hop or Pop music.

This was something new, but what should we call it? It never had a label other than Hip Hop. Dance studio owners didn’t know any different and us teachers/choreographers were just focused on the craft. There was a movement from the California collegiate dance programs that described and labeled it as Urban Dance to separate itself and give respect to Hip Hop. Urban Dance became really popular with the rise of Youtube and social media and started to really blow up. That movement and community is strong to this day. In my experience, the label Urban Dance failed to get any major traction in the Seattle dance community, however.

John Roque Choreography

Fast forward to today’s current climate and Black Lives Matter movement that is happening. I acknowledge and realize the ignorance on my part on how I’ve appropriated Hip Hop Dance by mislabeling my style and classes as hip-hop and by not speaking up about it. I realize that there’s such a thin line between appropriation and appreciation and how those lines can be blurred and crossed and that the industry’s complicity in taking advantage of hip-hop is damaging. I was part of a system that used Hip Hop for marketing and promotion and spread a lot of mis-information that is still hurting and confusing people today. I acknowledge that through this journey, in which I’ve benefited, I’ve hurt black people, their voices and the culture inadvertently. For that, I am regretful and I apologize. I’m still a thankful guest in this culture and I want to take time to really educate myself and reconnect before I ever teach dance again. I will also stop labeling my dances as Hip Hop unless they are genuinely honoring the Hip Hop foundations, styles, and culture. I have some unlearning and relearning to do.

With the current state of things, there’s now a shift in the dance industry for people who were calling it Urban Dance to simply call it Choreography for now, and even that community is split on this decision. I know calling it Choreography is just a bridging term until the industry can find proper and honoring labels.

Keone Madrid summed this up beautifully and I’m sure it speaks to a lot of us dancers and choreographers right now:

“When I walk into a classroom what do I say I’m teaching? When a non-dancer asks, “what style of dance do you do?” How do I answer? If I’m creating a meaningful piece for theater or film, what genre do I pick? If a hip hop figure questions my movement choices, what does that discussion look like? At the end of the day it’s all semantics. It’s dance. It’s art. It’s my life’s work and I know what I put into this craft. But these questions will be important for community leaders to answer. Not just for ourselves but for the next generation.”

Going from hip hop, to being told I’m not hip hop, to ‘hip hop with air quotes and an explanation’, to ‘urban dance,’ to discarding a word that clearly doesn’t work, and back to an orphan of genre has been an interesting journey, but a beautiful learning experience nonetheless.” — Keone Madrid

As a member of the Dance team at foundry10 (formerly Hip Hop team) I know we’re going to be using this time as a reflection. We are currently listening and trying to navigate what it looks like in terms of our dance programs and what the evolution of those looks like. It’s definitely an interesting time, but what won’t change is the drive to help bring dance and the arts to students who want it.

There’s so much to unpack here, and frankly I don’t even know where to start. It does feel like a huge part of my identity is in question and I’m trying to figure out what to do with that. All I can do right now, is to say thank you to Hip Hop and Dance for giving me this gift. For helping me find my voice, for unlocking other areas of art for me. I met my wife and fell in love through dance and cherish the memories with friends created through sweating on the dance floor together. Now onto the long journey of discussion, reflection, and exploration.

John Roque is a dancer/choreographer, filmmaker and graphic designer at foundry10. Learn more about the foundry10 team, here.

Twitter: @foundry10Ed

Facebook: @foundry10

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foundry10 is an education research organization with a philanthropic focus on expanding ideas about learning and creating direct value for youth.