Hiplet Dancers on the Fusion of Classical Pointe with Hip-Hop and Urban Dance

Pronounced ‘hip-lay,’ this evolving style melds the energy and intensity of hip hop with the precision and technical finesse of classical ballet.

Like cookies and cream, or chocolate and peanut butter, it just makes delicious sense to combine hip hop with ballet. And, not unlike these addictive, indulgent treats that are better than the sum of their parts, once you discover Hiplet, you might never want to experience them apart again.

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Alexandria Franklin (left) and Taylor Edwards of the dance company Hiplet. Courtesy Hiplet

The dance style—a captivating fusion of hip hop and ballet, with some jazz and modern thrown in—has roots in the 1990s, got its name in 2005 and was trademarked in 2009, but it only hit the mainstream once the Chicago Multi-Cultural Dance Center (CMDC) began to perform it. Their viral Instagram video that dropped December 2016 scored them a performance on ABC News, which boosted interest in the style and drove up demand for classes and performances.

The CMDC’s Homer Hans Bryant is considered the originator of Hiplet, which takes the technical precision of classic—read: Eurocentric, primarily white—ballet with the creativity, eclecticism and percussive roots of several African dance styles. His “Rap Ballet” in 1992 was formative in Hiplet’s later establishment as its own form. One that unlike ballet, with its oftentimes limiting exclusivity, is joyfully inclusive.

Hiplet seamlessly melds dance forms into something new. Photo: Blake Martin, courtesy The Hiplet Ballerinas

What is Hiplet?

It’s early evening in Chicago when I catch up with Hiplet company captain, Taylor Edwards, and fellow dancer, Alexandria Franklin. I have watched countless hours of their performances on YouTube and on social media platforms, so it is a thrill for this dance-lover and shameless Janet Jackson fan to have the opportunity to talk dance, bodies and music with the duo.

Edwards provides some background on her career, which included practicing Hiplet before it was formally named.

“I started Hiplet when I was 12 or 13,” she tells me. “I’d already had prior training; it was something I was already practicing in the studio I’d come from before, which was very versatile. My dream was to always be part of a company that mixed every style of dance. I pride myself on being a versatile dancer. Hiplet for me was like, ‘Oh wait, this is every style I’ve ever asked for in one!’”

Franklin’s story is different, but she also began early.

“I started official, formal training with Homer when I was 11,” she says. “When I was a kid, Homer had a company called the Bryant Ballet, but his choreography was always ballet set to different kinds of music, like a jazzy piece on pointe. This was well before he thought of the name Hiplet; it was Rap Ballet back then.”

For a deeper understanding of what the emergence of a form like Hiplet might mean to young dancers, earlier this year, the first prominent Black ballerina, Misty Copeland was interviewed on NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross. Copeland revealed that she had been required to wear “flesh-colored” tights throughout her time at the American Ballet, despite the fact it was not her flesh color, but that of her white colleagues. She’d also had to powder her face white and bear the brunt of audiences’ undue criticism of her work on social media.

For all its evolutionary improvements, the pace of change in ballet is lethargic and the damage done to women’s bodies and souls trying to fit a near-impossible mould is immeasurable. New forms of dance offer a paradigm shifting alternative, and Edwards is proud to be a part of that shift.

“Being a Hiplet helps me understand my purpose more as an artist, not just as a dancer,” she says. “To have so many people saying ‘I’m glad to see somebody with booty dancing’, and to know we’re breaking that barrier in dance that you have to fit a certain mold.”

It’s important to note that Hiplet is in no way easier than classical ballet. As an offshoot of the form, it is still an elite physical discipline, largely performed en pointe. However, it is significantly more accessible in its embrace of race, culture, body shape and size. And more than a decade after it was born, it is evolving along with the people who practice it. Unlike ballet’s rigid lexicon, Hiplet allows modifications to moves, new interpretations and variations.

But let’s hit pause. For anyone watching the Hiplets on YouTube, it’s evident that these dancers still have bodies sculpted by intensive training. To play devil’s advocate, I suggest that surely there’s still expectations surrounding bodies and physicality that might be a barrier to performing Hiplet.

“I’m gonna play devil’s advocate back!” responds Edwards with a laugh. “It’s true, we are fit and we dance a lot. Alex has a different build, so her story is different, but for me—would I be hired in a classical ballet company? No, I would not, simply because of my body.”

She continues to consider the question. “If I was at a ballet audition, I would most likely be cut because I’ve got hips. I’m not fat, but I’ve got a bit more meat on the backside, and you don’t see people who look like me very often in ballet, if at all.”

Edwards is quick to point out, however, that as much as they’re breaking the mold when it comes to body shapes in professional dance, they’re also breaking the mold when it comes to skill. “We’re all classically trained, but we are dipped in versatility, as Homer would say.”

Franklin recalls an audition for the Nutcracker at which she was a likely pick for Clara, the young protagonist, until the director told the group that they’d be choosing Clara based on who they could get to play her parents.

“I immediately knew I was not being chosen because in the neighborhood I was in, they were not going to cast Latin or Black parents,” she explains. “Small things like that at auditions, these micro aggressions, people might not even realize they happen.”

Where to see Hiplet

In collaboration with the Chicago Black Dance Legacy Project, the Hiplets are performing at the Ravinia Festival from June 6 through September 10. The theme is metamorphosis, which certainly aligns with the concept behind Hiplet.

It’s the latest opportunity for the Hiplet dancers to engage with audiences, and not in the staid way that classical ballet tends to require—if you’ve ever clapped at the wrong time, or coughed, you know it is not the done thing.

“We tell the audience that they can laugh, they can clap, they can do whatever!” Taylor enthuses. “We don’t want you to sit there and wait to clap at the end of the piece. We want the audience to interact with us from beginning to end. We break that barrier between the audience and the stage.”

Franklin adds that, “a lot of the music in our show, people have heard before. You might have a favorite song and you get to see us perform to that, like Roberta Flack’s ‘The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face’ or ‘Wish I Don’t Miss You’ by Angie Stone.”

As for a Janet Jackson special? It’s a dream that Edwards intends on manifesting.

Imagine if Janet called you up to perform on stage, I pipe up—hopeless Janet fan that I am.

“She’s touring now and she’s going to do one more tour before she calls it a day, I think,” Edwards responds. “We could get on that last tour.”

And if not Janet?

Beyonce,” says Edwards, with confidence.

Hiplet Dancers on the Fusion of Classical Pointe with Hip-Hop and Urban Dance