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Hip-hop dance training: where to start popping, locking and waacking?

Boy Blue Entertainment’s 2017 show Blak Whyte Gray. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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With no hip-hop dance-graded syllabus available, where’s best to learn house and krump? Anna Winter finds out how to take street moves into the classroom

Hip-hop dance is in the ascendant, both on stage and in the studio. There’s Hamilton, of course, making massive waves in the West End, and, in 2017, Arts Council England awarded three of the UK’s hip-hop companiesBoy Blue Entertainment, ZooNation and Avant Garde – national portfolio organisation status.

Still, the nature of the dance form, and its relative youth as a genre, means that training for the profession isn’t as clear-cut as it is for the likes of West End theatre or ballet. There’s no graded syllabus for this kind of dance, which comprises multiple styles such as locking, popping, breaking, waacking, house and krump.

ZooNation Academy

Chantal Spiteri, of the ZooNation Academy, explains that hip-hop dance “hasn’t come from an institution but, to use a cliché, from the street. Taking that into a more formalised setting is obviously a journey. We’re not there yet but we’re on the way.”

The ZooNation Academy was set up 10 years ago by Kate Prince, who scored big critical successes with narrative works such as Into the Hoods and The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party.

Read our interview with Kate Prince

The academy comprises a youth company and weekend classes. The former “is by audition only. They’re what we call the elite young hip hoppers”, says Prince. Acceptance into the company, which has a residency at the Southbank Centre, means dancers are required to take classes at the academy, without charge, where they’ll be taught all styles under the hip-hop umbrella. The academy has two branches – one on a Friday at the Lyric Hammersmith and one on a Saturday at the Urdang Academy in Islington.

The most talented young dancers can get picked up by the professional company for its narrative productions.

The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party review at the Roundhouse, London – ‘superbly athletic’

“If someone wants to be a hip-hop dancer, the best thing they can do is join the academy, audition for the youth company, be on our radar and then audition for each of the individual productions and get cast based on what they’re suitable for,” says Spiteri.

One academy success story is Mikey Utera, who began lessons at the academy at a young age, Spiteri says. “He always had potential, but he started at a medium-low level, worked his way up to advanced lessons, the youth company and was most recently in our Mad Hatter’s Tea Party and Into the Hood Remix. Now he teaches all over the world. When you see kids blossom into incredible performers, it’s the best thing.”

Spiteri notes that young hip-hop performers are encouraged by ZooNation to take up classical dance too. “You need to do ballet; that’s the foundation of all dance and helps with everything. While we’re still trying to create a decent long hip-hop career for dancers, it’s not entirely there yet so you need to be as versatile and employable as possible.”

Professional dance colleges

Carrie-Anne Ingrouille
Carrie-Anne Ingrouille

Another route in is through dance colleges such as Urdang and London Studio Centre. Neo Gordon, manager of Urdang’s dance department and a former ZooNation company member, says: “The top colleges are now pushing commercial and hip hop. Students who’ve trained exclusively in hip hop and have no experience of ballet, jazz or contemporary dance can still get into Urdang if we see potential.”

In Manchester, the Shockout Academy offers a BA (hons) in commercial and professional dance, and an academy for under-18s.

Still, the commercialisation of hip-hop styles can be a concern. “It’s from streets, house parties, from clubs – there’s a big social element to it,” explains Carrie-Anne Ingrouille, another ZooNation alumna. “I think that’s the hardest thing to capture in training because dancers who want to understand these styles and have them as another part of their toolkit have to take themselves out of the studio a little bit.

Kloe Dean of Myself Dance
Kloe Dean of Myself Dance

“We’re lucky in the UK because we do have a lot of teachers who have learned from the pioneers of styles like locking and house. They are well-educated and able to pass that information on. As with other dance styles, there’s a lot of… the politest way to put it is ‘gobbledygook’ out there. Someone who doesn’t know much about street dance styles might think they’re learning the right history and vocabulary from a YouTube video but actually they aren’t.”

Dancer, teacher and choreographer Kloe Dean, who formed all-female collective Myself Dance, sought out popping and locking training from style pioneers such as Fred Folkes. All interviewees recommended classes given by Boy Blue founder Kenrick ‘H2O’ Sandy at Studio 68 in Southwark. Dean also teaches foundational styles, as well as choreography, at Studio 68. Another teacher there is Boy Blue company member Theo ‘Godson’ Oloyade, who specialises in krump. For a youngster hoping to become a professional dancer, he recommends six to 10 hours a week of training and time spent “studying the culture and styles of dance.”

Around the UK

It’s not all about London. Spiteri says “we want to start building longer term and deeper relationships around the country”. ZooNation Academy has four partner venues: Southampton Mayflower, Birmingham Hippodrome, Leicester Curve and the Lowry in Salford. A new branch opens at the Mayflower in spring and a version of the youth company’s 2011 show Groove on Down the Road will be performed with local talent this summer.

“We have to be careful to not be a London company that’s coming in and taking over,” says Spiteri. “We’re sensitive about what’s already there. There are some incredible independent dance schools around the country, working hard to get things off the ground. If we can all connect, we can make everything stronger.”

Look for training opportunities on The Stage website