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March 9, 2011

Hip-hop and its heritage: Rennie Harris comes to Stanford

Award-winning choreographer and dancer Rennie Harris protects the legacy of hip-hop – and teaches a few steps to students along the way.

By Cynthia Haven

Rennie Harris teaching the techniques of early hip-hop styles at Roble Dance Studio to student (from left) Megan Kanne, Katherine Disenhof and Andrew Smith. (Photo by Linda A. Cicero / Stanford News Service)

In 1993, Rennie Harris' hip-hop dance company made its debut before an all-white audience in Philadelphia. No matter how hard the group danced, the audience was dead.

The dancers of Harris' Puremovement went backstage between numbers, where they pushed, shoved and blamed each other, exhorting their fellow performers to "dance harder."

The crestfallen crew finally came out for the curtain call. Harris is still awestruck as he recalls facing the audience: "You heard this roar," he said. The audience stood up, and the applause and cheering were like thunder.

Harris, who is currently a visiting artist with Stanford's Institute for Diversity in the Arts, recalled the event to a small class of half-a-dozen gathered in the Roble studio. One of hip-hop's leading ambassadors to the world is now a 47-year-old wearing a baseball cap and a hoodie. He's facing a new generation of dancers.

Harris carries considerable heft in the world of dance: Since the age of 15, he has taught workshops and classes at Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Bryn Mawr. He was awarded a Pew Fellowship in the Arts for Choreography in 1996 and more recently a medal from Washington D.C.'s Kennedy Center as a master of African-American Choreography. Last year, Harris received a Guggenheim Fellowship and an honorary doctorate from Bates College. His acclaimed Puremovement has gone beyond its roots in Philadelphia – it has toured the globe.

Harris founded his company based on the belief that hip-hop is the most important original expression of a new generation. He extols the "deep humanity and vision" that the uninitiated may see as simply another fad in kaleidoscopic pop culture.

It's not, said Harris. He sees himself as much more than a guy teaching a few steps to a handful of kids. He's a fierce guardian of tradition that predates the very existence of pop culture.

He links the origin of the dance to slave ships, where Africans were made to dance to stay healthy during the voyages where so many perished. "This was the beginning of black contemporary culture," he said.

"They had to figure out how to do traditional movement, traditional rhythms on a tea kettle, pots and pans, banjos, while shackled," he said.

Although hip-hop hit the world in a big way in the 1980s, Harris points to a very early film clip where "I saw cats in the 1800s doing the same thing we're doing right now."

The dancing that began in the streets of the South Bronx has now gone global.  It is, however, one rooted in a particular culture.

"People confuse the youth culture and the urban culture," said Harris. "I'm almost 50 years old, and I'm a hip-hop dancer," he told the class at Roble. "It's not a youth thing."

Globalization has too often meant global theft: Today's hip-hop is co-opted, he said, and co-opted not only by commercial forces, but by a generation ignorant of its origins.

In a classroom session at Harmony House, he grilled the students about hip-hop's history – what party dances did they know about from the 1980s? "My mom used to do the bump," recalls one, barely audibly.

"Oh man, you make me sick!" he prodded the class with a grin while munching on a huge sandwich. "What about Cabbage Patch, Roger Rabbit, the Steve Martin? Even people who don't dance know about those dances."

Student Katherine Akemi Disenhof said that Harris "brings a relaxed sense of humor to the class, yet he is clearly passionate about hip-hop."

"Rennie stressed the point that all dancers need to know and respect the historical roots of a style."

Harris said he often encounters kids telling him that they've been doing hip-hop for years, and "They're shocked when you tell them 'maybe what you're doing is not hip-hop.' "

In some cases, "they couldn't tell me how it ever started," nor could they name a major figure of hip-hop.

Harris' cultural mission includes simple acknowledgement of a heritage. "Nobody is asking for 40 acres and a mule," he said, but "you have a history in this country of white folk taking what is black and then claiming it as if it were their own."

He pointed out that someone would be expected to have training and credentials to teach ballet. He, for example, couldn't just try teaching ballet for a quarter – "I'd have so many people on my ass about it!" he exclaimed. Hip-hop doesn't earn a fraction of the same respect, and that concerns him.

In the studio, Harris demonstrates a step, and the kids move in a wave across the floor, imitating it. "It's a party dance. It's always been a party dance," he insisted.

The kids make it look easy, but it isn't. Said student Sara Daoud, "So much footwork was involved, it was often hard to keep up with the speed and rhythms."

"He was honest and really hands-on. I would mess up a lot, but he would let me know immediately and correct me."

For Harris, there's an inherent contradiction in teaching hip-hop and its popping, locking, campbellocking and house: "It's like teaching jazz at Julliard – the whole thing is improvisational. How do you teach it? How do you teach people to be loose? How do you teach people to be free? Atmosphere has to do a lot of it," he explained at a January Aurora Forum.

The students nevertheless seem to get the message: "The spirit of the street dance flows within him, taking shape as a profound expression of culture and history," said Andrew Smith. "He showed me the brilliance of a dance style that I previously didn't appreciate or understand."

Harris teaches with words, but his true eloquence is reserved for the dance. The cosmopolitan choreographer has learned to navigate worldwide audiences without the ongoing clapping, stomping and cheering affirmations, "the love and attention at every point," he grew up with in the African-American audiences of Philadelphia.

Harris emphasized that "music is always God speaking – on whatever level" – and so it is still, wherever he performs.  For him, dance is perhaps the best part of that conversation: "Everything we do that involves another person involves wanting to be loved."



Cynthia Haven, Stanford News Service: (650) 724-6184,

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