Since the dawn of tap to the emergence of vogue, movement vocabularies founded in the nightclubs, parks, and community centers of New York City have defied the constructs of proscenium dance performance. Yet, due to their development primarily outside of institutional art spaces, these dance forms are widely referred to as “street dance,” a label that in some contexts is employed pejoratively, and in others is the source of deep pride.
Melanie Aguirre, a native Brooklynite and the daughter of Paradise Garage and Loft members, has been surrounded by the innovation of street dance for her entire life. A professional dancer and former member of the prestigious House of Ninja, Melanie organizes dance competitions and parties within the New York City club scene with her organization Rep Your Style. Versatility is essential as the best dancers from the worlds of Hip Hop, Breaking, Locking, Popping, Vogue, House, Hoofing, Waacking, Flex, and Lite Feet go head to head in style versus style battles. The melding of aesthetics, histories, and hyper-localities comes to bear in real time.
Shelby “Shellz” Felton, a well-known dancer in a Brooklyn-based form known as Flex, is proof of this stylistic cross-pollination. At an event hosted by Rep Your Style at 5 Pointz last year, Felton competed in a Flex versus Vogue battle, after which she was recruited by competitor Omari Mizrahi to join the House of Mizrahi. “Me, voguing?” Shelby says of her newfound dance community, “that would’ve never happened if Rep Your Style hadn’t brought the two forms together.”
Troubled by the disconnect they witnessed among street dance styles, Melanie and her partner (renowned b-boy Victor “Kid Glyde” Alicea) founded Rep Your Style in 2012 as a platform to unite and celebrate the distinctive contributions of New York City’s homegrown dance forms. Melanie found that rather than being a strategic competitive distancing, the separation of urban styles from interacting with each other had more to do with the politics of space in New York City and the economic disparities that sustain it. For marginalized communities of color, the cost of a subway ride or a cover charge limits many to accessing dance communities solely within their immediate surroundings. Melanie and Victor also realized that the commercial and concert dance industry’s disturbingly commonplace exploitation of dancers’ labor would only shift when urban dance artists felt empowered to protect the integrity of their creative product.
Because battles and cyphers are key pedagogical frameworks in street dance disciplines, competition was the first initiative they used to bring all the communities under one roof. But competition, Melanie insists, is not the guiding ethos of Rep Your Style. Instead, it’s to provide a physical space and an opportunity for dancers to meet and share.
The price and availability of space is one of the most pressing realities for New York City-based dancers. For the street dance community in particular, space is a commodity made less accessible due to increased police surveillance. NYPD Police Commissioner Bill Bratton’s recently instituted “Broken Windows” policing strategy criminalizes low-level offenses like subway dance performance in the belief that it will discourage serious crime and “urban decay.” As a result of this policy, the arrests of street dancers who practice and perform on the train has increased by 500 percent since last year—a disproportionate number of which are young male dancers of color who participate in a Harlem-founded dance form called Lite Feet.
Fines, jail time, and confiscation of equipment are the day-to-day consequences for street dancers whose only available space to develop their craft is in public. In light of “Broken Windows,” Melanie positions Rep Your Style as an activist project: “We stand to encourage people to be creative leaders. Our community wants to survive; our dancers don’t want a police record.”
The fundamental obstacle facing Rep Your Style is one that haunts the dance world as a whole: money. Corporate brands like Red Bull have hired Melanie and Victor as talent and event consultants, which has transformed Rep Your Style into a management agency for street dance professionals. Although project-based corporate consulting covers production costs to some extent, this means of revenue is not consistent. Rep Your Style depends primarily on the resources of its immediate community to support operations and has had to develop sustainability models outside the corporate funding matrix to keep their initiative afloat.
While big brand sponsorship of street dance culture has its immediate financial benefits, historical accuracy and conceptual rigor are often eclipsed in favor of increased profit margins. For the Lite Feet community in particular, the daily police harrassment due to Broken Windows has been met with an equally as targeted assault: the reckless appropriation of the Harlem Shake by corporate media stakeholders.
The 2013 release of a song entitled “Harlem Shake” by electronic dance music producer Bauer incited the creation of a convulsive “comedic” dance meme that has since gone viral and garnered tens of thousands of YouTube renditions and millions more views. With versions made by college sport teams, Google headquarters, and the cast of the “Today Show,” the Harlem Shake dance meme has proliferated our digital landscape
on a global scale, even as it looks nothing like the original Harlem Shake—a dance integral to Lite Feet movement vocabulary.
According to Kevin Ashton in Quartz Magazine, the Harlem Shake-turned-meme was not a spontaneous viral Youtube phenomenon, but was actually a digital marketing stunt spearheaded by Maker Studios, an LA production company partly owned by Time Warner that creates Youtube content for clients like Target, Mattel, and Disney. Upon Googling “Harlem Shake,” one will discover that the original Harlem Shakes’s digital archival presence has been subsumed by pages and pages of the meme version instead. The rich history and technical complexity of the Harlem Shake have been turned into a worldwide inside joke.
The gross misrepresentation of the original Harlem Shake via the viral meme serves as a sobering reminder of the role of digital archives in the preservation of contemporary dance forms. Digital media platforms like YouTube have also been utilized by street dance communities as a pedagogical tool. “If you want to learn the real Harlem Shake, it can be taught. There is a technique and multiple elements to it; it’s not just thrashing your arms around,” says Chrybaby Cozie, a legendary Lite Feet dancer who has been featured on in Lite Feet tutorials produced by YAK Films, a Bay Area media company dedicated to documenting urban dance forms.
Education is central to Rep Your Style’s mission as well. With their initiative Rep Your Style Academy, Melanie and Glyde host Breaking, Waacking, and Lite Feet workshops around New York City as well as in Europe and Asia.The ultimate goal, however, is to provide free satellite street dance programs in community centers across all five boroughs. But as contemporary dance makers know all too well, visibility and financial backing are key to bringing any strategic plan to fruition. In reference to NYU’s recently opened Center for Ballet and the Arts, Melanie mused, “Could you imagine if there was an Institute for Vogue Studies? ”
In her seminal text Unmarked: The Politics of Performance, performance theorist Peggy Phelan writes that visibility “summons surveillance and the law; it provokes voyeurism, fetishism, the colonial/imperial appetite for possession.” She complicates the notion that increased visibility of marginalized communities will result in recognition by those in power, and therefore, infrastructural change. Visibility, she contests, renders such communities vulnerable to the consequences of thoughtless appropriation. For Rep Your Style, acknowledgement and support of such a magnitude would signify recognition of street dance’s critical contributions to the contemporary arts landscape as a whole. Ultimately, it is the existence of aesthetic hierarchies segmented along racial, class, and economic lines that dictates how audiences are trained to see and value dance performance.
“We need long-term investment,” Melanie concluded, “How art is valued really comes down to how people are valued.”
ALI ROSA-SALAS is a dancer and an independent curator from Brooklyn. Her interest in New York City street and social dance forms led her to produce NO SUCH THING AS NEUTRAL, a symposium sponsored by the Barnard Center for Research on Women that examined the contributions of Flex and Lite Feet to the contemporary dance landscape.