The members of Rennie Harris Puremovement want to challenge your preconceptions about hip-hop music.
When the company performs Friday at the Lied Center in Lawrence, you’ll see virtually none of what you’d see in a typical hip-hop music video.
“Hip-hop gets a bad reputation because of what’s pushed in front of us commercially,” said Harris’ son, company member Brandyn Harris. “But most of us in the company don’t even listen to that stuff.
“Our show is mainly about having fun and dancing with one another. Everything we do is very respectable and for audiences of all ages.”
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But while all of the company’s ensemble choreography is by Harris, some of the interspersed solos contain movements created by the individual performer.
“So if that performer’s personal style happens to be something like krumping (that Los Angeles-born style that features aggressive jabs and pelvic thrusts) you may see some of those kinds of movements in the show, but very little,” said company member Katia Cruz.
“The choreography we do is wonderful, and I am so honored to be a part of it. I grew up admiring this company. It’s legendary. Being in it makes me feel like I’m a part of hip-hop history.”
A dance lesson
Speaking by phone from Philadelphia, Harris provided a comprehensive lesson on the history, styles and terminology of what has come to be called hip-hop dance.
“What we understand as hip-hop comes from the social, or party, dances that are popular in different cities around the nation,” Harris said. “So there’s no universal hip-hop dance. There are individual dances indigenous to the different cities.”
In addition to the party dances, hip-hop also draws from street dance, which Harris terms “styles” rather than “dances,” because they refer to how one dances, rather than to a specific vocabulary of steps.
The street style that originally contributed to Philadelphia’s hip-hop dancing is rooted in the 1960s and was called “GQ” (in reference to the men’s magazine). Derived from the Latin cha-cha, which was danced in Philadelphia’s black social clubs, the style is termed GQ because people dressed up to do it, the men often sporting fashionable suits.
Hip-hop dance, at least as a term, didn’t emerge until the 1980s. It was preceded by the evolution of an entire hip-hop culture that included other forms of expression, such as graffiti and poetry. Though that culture certainly included dance, the movements were done to funk, not hip-hop, music and varied considerably from one city to another.
On the West Coast, they were “locking” and “popping” to funk music, while on the East Coast they were “breaking.” (And no, it is not properly called “break dancing”: that’s a term coined by the commercial entertainment industry when it appropriated the dance style for Hollywood films and music videos.)
The original breakers — the young dancers who did all that flashy floorwork, spinning on their heads and freezing in contorted body shapes — called themselves b-boys (or b-girls).
“For us, the term ‘break dance’ is a misnomer, because that was the media’s term. But the term b-boy can mean a few different things,” Harris said.
“It can mean you’re a boogie boy, which is short for boogaloo, which is a West Coast style, or it can mean you’re from the Bronx. Or it can mean that you listen to break beat music, because it was during the break sections of the funk music that the breakers danced.
“‘Break’ was also used as a slang term to mean ‘be upset.’ Like if you ask me, ‘What’s wrong’ I might reply, ‘My mom is breaking on me,’ which means she was going off, or yelling at me.”
Telling a story
Eventually, these dance styles were adopted by professional dancers and choreographers, and a commercial dance form, tagged hip-hop, took shape.
It can be seen today on the dance-competition reality shows, such as “So You Think You Can Dance,” and in the back-up dancing for many popular recording artists’ live concerts and music videos.
“Most of that stuff isn’t real hip-hop. It is a combination of the staccato isolations of jazz dance and the attitude and gestures of the rappers,” Harris said. “Real hip-hop dancers don’t have the time to swag and sway and grab their crotch and act like a gangster because we are doing party dances, with vocabulary and steps and a partner.”
Though Harris’ company takes authentic hip-hop dance and presents it onstage in a concert-dance context, he said his work doesn’t change the essence of the dance form.
“It’s not like stories, narrative or dramatic choreography didn’t exist before we brought it into the theater,” he said. “We were doing it on the street, in the community, at the church. Street dance has always been theatrical on some level.”
Harris was reluctant to give detailed descriptions of the three works his troupe will perform.
“Hopefully, people will just be adventurous and go see it, without my having to expose what they’re going to see,” he said. “I always find it interesting how much people want to know about something before they’re willing to try it.
“Why come to the show if you already know what it’s going to be? When I go to a show, I don’t even want to look at a program. I want to be surprised. That’s a really important part of the experience.”
Rennie Harris Puremovement performs at 7:30 p.m., Friday, Nov. 14, at the Lied Center, 1600 Stewart Drive, Lawrence. Tickets are $11-$30 through Lied.KU.edu.