Choreographing Gender in Hip Hop Dance

An illustration of gendered movement from Shira’s gendered focused Expressions piece

When I decided to take on choreographing my third piece for Expressions Dance Company this semester, I wasn’t too worried. I had choreographed two pieces before, and they had both been a lot of fun. However, in beginning to choreograph this semester, I started questioning choices that I had formerly seen as normal—I began to realize how complicated it is to inhabit the duel identity of “Feminist” and “Hip Hop Dancer.”

Okay, let me back up for a second.

Dancer: I have been taking dance since infancy, and Hip Hop dance since middle school. However, it was only after I arrived at Harvard that I decided to focus on dance as my main extra-curricular. Two years later, I have 8 pieces with Expressions Dance Company under my belt, not to mention 3 that I have choreographed, and a year working with a dance company in Boston. Dance is a huge part of my life, so I am no stranger to the gendering that happens in Hip Hop dance, which constantly conforms to conventional gender roles through its divisions of dancers along gender lines, and gendering movement based on who is doing it.

Feminist: I have always considered myself a feminist. When people would say, “What, a feminist? Those crazies?” I would say, “Well, actually, being a feminist just means you believe in equal rights for women, which of course I do! Don’t you?” However, it was when I began working for the Women’s Center that I realized there are more questions I wanted to ask myself about what being a feminist means to me.

Some of these questions revolved around my role as a Hip Hop dancer, and especially as a choreographer. I got to thinking: What does it mean to be a feminist if I listen to, and choreograph to music that strongly objectifies women, music that reduces their identities to a sexual function? What does it mean to believe in the fluidity of gender and the gender spectrum if I divide people up into “girls” and “guys” for different sections of my pieces? What does it mean to support the queer community if all of my partnering sections pair men and women in heterosexual couples?

My first semester in EXP, the traveling sub-group of Expressions Dance Company, I choreographed a very feminine, “sexy” piece to a Rihanna song. Given the style of the piece, I delegated it as an “all girls” piece, a common choice for a Hip Hop piece with such feminine movement, and we performed it as such. However, a lot of the guys in the company expressed a desire to be in the section, picked up parts of it, and would perform some of the sexiest moves off to the side at rehearsals and backstage at shows.  And let’s be real: they were awesome at it, feminine choreography and all. But still, it didn’t cross my mind to open up the piece to allow them to join in. Second semester, I choreographed my first all company piece, which was based on the movie, Mean Girls. It was also an “all girls” piece. When approached about letting guys into the piece, my opinion was that the piece was based on mean GIRLS, so what was the problem with that?

One year later, my dance life, and view on gender, were drastically different.  I had joined Static Noyze Dance Company, where I had been told repeatedly that something I needed to work on was making my dancing more “feminine.” “You know, just watch Sarah. Or Peter. Watch how feminine their moves are.” Through statements such at this, I began to divorce the concepts of “girl” and “guy” from the terms “feminine” and “masculine.” Paired with this was the introduction of a lot of gender-studies into my academic and extra-curricular life, looking at the fluidity and complexity of gender in my History and Literature tutorial, and through my involvement in the group The Seneca, where I began to more deeply explore the idea that sex (male vs. female), gender (man vs. woman), gender-performance (femininity and masculinity), and sexuality are “grey areas” (and please excuse me as I explain these very complex concepts in a painfully simplistic way).

In my dance sophomore year, I decided to share my new realizations through my choreography. I choreographed a piece called “Check Other,” referencing the boxes you mark on forms that read “male” and “female.” This dance, which I co-choreographed with my brother, Yonatan Kogan, was our attempt to break down the gender binary through dance. Dressing female-bodied dancers in pink and male-bodied dancers in blue, the dance started with an extremely gendered segment in which the male-bodied dancers did push ups and the female-bodied dancers ran while making sex-faces. The dance then progressed through a couples’ piece that had an equal amount of homosexual and heterosexual couples, a super feminine dance done by the male-bodied dancers, and a more masculine piece done by the female-bodied dancers. The climax of the dance was a more contemporary style piece to a love song in which a male-bodied dancer danced to a female-bodied version of themself, and a female-bodied dancer danced to a male-bodied version of themself (at least, that is what I had in mind in the choreography—the dance was potentially open to different interpretations!). The dance ended on a less serious note with a dance to “Man, I feel like a Woman,” in which everyone, including the male-bodied dancers, were dressed in skirts and, if they could pull off the choreography, heels. This ending section was our attempt to create a physical manifestation of the complexity of gender through a recognizable figure, the drag queen.

In this piece, gender was the center and the focus. The gender binary was in fact highlighted, in an attempt to break it down. The dancers were constantly being divided, organized, and even presented in a specific way, based on if they were male-bodied or female-bodied. Every choice we made was hyper-aware of gender, making sure that couples were specifically not only male-female, that women were shown doing “masculine” choreography, and that men were shown doing “feminine” choreography.  In retrospect there may have been problems with this approach, as in our attempts to break down the “girl/guy” dichotomy of hip-hop dance, we did highlight it even more. My brother brought up a point at the Gender 101 workshop we planned for the members of our piece through the Women’s Center, that perhaps another choreographer, Wes’s piece had in fact been less enforcing of the gender binary. Wes’ piece completely ignored the distinction of gender, and placed people randomly, not focusing on gender symmetry in formations, or anything of the sort. Is a more effective way of breaking down this binary simply to not focus on it?

This is one of the questions I have been asking myself this year, especially as the duel dancer/feminist identity has become more and more of a part of who I am. Currently, I am choreographing a dance that has nothing to do with gender: it includes male-bodied and female-bodied dancers, who all do the same choreography and are not divided up in any particular way. I do not want gender to be the focus of my dance. However, sometimes I feel that this approach may lead to me unintentionally conform to standards I don’t agree with, by simply following the norms of Hip Hop that already exist. This has led to a big question for me: how can one not conform to gender roles or enforce the gender binary, but at the same time, not make this non-conformity the focus? Is this even possible when the movement style itself inherently does conform to such standards?

Taking a step back, I think the bigger question is this: is an effective way to treat people equally (regardless of their gender) to not focus on gender at all, seeing people through a gender-less lens? Or must we make a conscious effort in our choreography, and the movements of our every day life, to focus on gender in order to move towards a place where we will one day not have to? I am not sure of the answer.

These are all questions I have been asking myself, that I struggle with every day, both in my choreography and in my life. Thank you for reading my confused ramblings, and I hope that maybe, just maybe, you will question how you choreograph difference into your life.

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4 thoughts on “Choreographing Gender in Hip Hop Dance

  1. jeff

    LOL i didn’t know you wrote blogs! you write pretty well shira. the way i deal with that question is that instead of thinking about dance in terms of how it can affect people, i think about how it affects me. if you choreograph with the thought of “how can i make this dance tell people about being manly or womanly”, the choreography starts to become impure because you will have initial thoughts of what movement should be from listening to the music, but then be like “oh no that isnt male or female enough, i have to change it” and then maybe opt for a more obvious motion that might be seen as more sassy or beefy, but is less fitting of whatever is going on in the music.

    my point is, i lean more towards not focusing on gender, because the people i put into my dances aren’t there because of their sex or sexual preference. if they dance the music in a way that looks good as a whole, then they deserve to be there. if you’re good, you’re in. that way you arent giving people special treats for being male or female. same with the process of choreographing. if the music says dance feminine, then do it. if it says dance masculine, do that.

    1. Shira

      Hey Jeff! Thanks for the response 🙂 As such a great choreographer, I really value your perspective on this. I love your attitude of focusing on the music to choreograph, and who looks good doing the movement style that you put together to, regardless of sex or sexual preference. I think that, as a choreographer, I tend to focus a lot on what message my dance portrays, and that it’s good to take a step back from that sometimes.

  2. bradleyhcwc

    Shira, this is a really awesome reflection about your thoughts on gender and hip hop dance. I also wonder about what peoples’ experiences are when they’re not being choreographed, like at dance parties. Are there other, more subtle ways, that gender norms are enforced through the way we move our bodies, or do people not feel the same constraints on the dance floor?

  3. Anonymous

    Shira,
    As a dedicated fan of Hip-Hop and other problematic forms of music (jazz vocals are typically VERY hetero-normative and certainly don’t work outside the barriers of the gender binary), I often question how to balance the art forms which I love and the feminist within!
    Fortunately, we are not the only one’s who refuse to stay within the gender mold that currently exists. Music videos are getting progressively more diverse; both with respect to race and sexuality.

    Check out one of my current favorite videos (more pop, debatably R&B, than hip hop):

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