At Rennie Harris' hip-hop university, teaching the teachers
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At Rennie Harris' hip-hop university, teaching the teachers
Stephanie Sanchez participates in the dance battle at the winter cypher session of Rennie Harris University, held in Boulder, Colo., Dec. 17, 2022. Rennie Harris University aims to give educators a working knowledge not only of hip-hop dance technique, but also of its origins and culture. (Stephen Speranza/The New York Times)

by Sophie Bress

NEW YORK, NY.- On a Friday morning in December the hip-hop choreographer Rennie Harris was in Boulder, Colorado, teaching a master class. Rather than taking a post at the front of the studio and staying there, Harris moved among the students, weaving his way through the room and dancing along with them. He offered a few critiques, but more often he paused to share stories and historical tidbits, illuminating the lineage and theory behind the movements he was teaching.

But this was more than just a master class. It was one of the final sessions in a yearlong program to train and certify hip-hop and street dance teachers. A few days later, most of these students became members of the first graduating class at the newly minted Rennie Harris University.

Over the course of his decadeslong career, Harris, who turns 59 this week, has been a guiding force, ushering hip-hop and street dance into new spaces and championing their history and legacy. He is perhaps most widely known for bringing these styles to the concert stage with his Philadelphia-based company Rennie Harris Puremovement. (The company will present its signature work, “Rome & Jewels,” a retelling of “Romeo and Juliet,” at the Joyce Theater in New York in February.) Rennie Harris University builds on the principles that have shaped its founder’s career, bringing them into the classroom.

“What’s special, I think, about the curriculum is the pedagogy piece,” Harris said in an interview. “Because no one’s teaching how to teach hip-hop, everyone’s just teaching people how to do it. It’s the assumption that because you can do it, then you can teach it, but everybody doesn’t know how to teach it.”

Hip-hop teaching, he said, often focuses largely on learning choreography. Rennie Harris University aims to broaden the scope by giving educators a working knowledge not only of hip-hop technique, but also of its origins and culture. And because hip-hop and other street styles have historically been overlooked in academic settings that teach dance, a program like this one could help place qualified instructors in institutions where these styles have not been offered or prioritized.

Farrah McAdam, a member of the first graduating class, said there were additional benefits: “I think this program helps quote, legitimize hip-hop, even though it’s legit as is, right? But we know in education or academic spaces, ballet and modern are seen as a higher priority or a higher foundation of dance than hip-hop or other cultural forms.”

In dance programs across the United States, classical ballet and modern are typically part of the core curriculum, while genres like tap, hip-hop and other street styles are often offered as electives — if at all. And while faculty members, dancers and choreographers have grown more vocal about the need for change — especially after the police killing of George Floyd in 2020, which brought renewed attention to racial bias in the arts — it has been slow in coming.

For D. Sabela Grimes, a multidisciplinary artist and associate professor of practice at the Glorya Kaufman School of Dance at the University of Southern California, this phenomenon is part of what he calls the “ballet industrial complex.” Ballet, “at least in the American context, has created pathways for people to have careers as performers,” he said, “and then go into higher education.” But, he added, that has not been the case for hip-hop and street dance teachers.

Grimes, an original “Rome & Jewels” cast member, said he was hopeful about the change he is seeing on an institutional level — and that programs like Harris’ would help with the momentum.

“I think the program will be a resource,” he said, but “what I have learned working in higher education is that we’re going to need more. Times are changing, which is beautiful, but these institutions don’t move at the same pace that hip-hop culture in a really general sense moves and popular culture also moves.”

Harris’ program may be the first of its kind at this level, but similar ones are in the works. Last fall, the British dance company ZooNation rolled out a slate of courses to train hip-hop teachers. And Moncell Durden, a dance scholar, hip-hop figure and a former member of Rennie Harris Puremovement, is developing a teacher certification program in Black American dance as part of his organization, Intangible Roots. It’s slated to begin in the fall, online and with in-person sessions in Los Angeles.

The seeds for Rennie Harris University were planted more than 20 years ago, when Harris started Illadelph Legends, a dance festival that gathered hip-hop and street dance pioneers to teach classes and discuss the culture and the history of the forms. Harris said that Durden, who was also involved with the festival, had proposed a partnership with UNESCO to create a certification program that would explore hip-hop as a form of traditional folklore. The idea didn’t come to fruition, Harris said, but he couldn’t get it out of his head.

He got to work mining his connections across the dance world, he said, and “called some in favors.” Rennie Harris University welcomed its first pool of applicants in early 2021.

The program is structured to allow students to take technique classes locally, with a list of qualified instructors near their homes provided by the school; students also meet virtually to take a rotating slate of courses online. Sessions cover hip-hop and street dance-specific injury prevention, pedagogy, theory and history; Harris’ contribution, a series called The Day Before Hip-Hop, traces the roots of the form back to the period of American slavery. The courses are taught by renowned dance scholars including Ayo Walker, Thomas DeFrantz, Charmaine Warren and Brenda Dixon-Gottschild, and hip-hop and street dance practitioners like Buddha Stretch, Pop Master Fabel and B-boy YNOT.

“Most people think that dance is just dance,” said Stephanie Sanchez, a graduate of Rennie Harris University. “And it’s not, it’s so much more than that — it’s research, development, where this move comes from. And that’s exactly what Rennie is doing with this program.”

On top of their course load, students attend multiday intensives called cypher sessions, with in-person dance classes and lectures. On the roster for the winter session, held at the University of Colorado Boulder in December, were classes like Wake & Break, Tops & Rocks, Popping Combo and Can U Freestyle. (The spring session is in Miami; tuition covers the classes but students pay separate fees for travel, room and board.) The cypher sessions, named for an important hip-hop practice in which dancers (or rappers) gather to perform and cheer one another on — usually in a circle, taking turns in the center — bring students together in a community, a vital part of the Rennie Harris University experience and of hip-hop culture more broadly.

To earn their certificates, students are required to pass an extensive slate of assessments. These include teaching a mock class, taking a written test and participating in the cypher-end dance battle, which welcomes dancers from the area and offers a $3,000 grand prize.

Preparing to pull out their most impressive stunts, the students at the cypher session in December may have been feeling the pressure on the evening of the battle. But a strong sense of unity was the prevailing note. As the judges paused the competition to deliberate after the first round, the competitors fell into a cypher, dancing for — and with — one another as if they’d been dancing together for years.

Many Rennie Harris University graduates have taken on Harris’ sense of mission. Tyreis Hunte, a senior at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, said they hoped to bring hip-hop and street dance into the academy in a deeper way, “to educate communities about the history and the integrity of street dance and street culture.”

Some are already teaching dance, like McAdam, who works at Sonoma State University in California. She said her experience at Rennie Harris University had deepened her relationship to hip-hop. That it is not only about her teaching, she said, “but also just showing up to jams and battles and spaces, or opening doors for other people to come into the teaching space that might not usually have the access.”

For Harris, too, the program is about opening doors. It’s an opportunity to share his knowledge, and also to widen hip-hop and street dance’s circle of influence and help reshape priorities.

At Rennie Harris University, where the second cohort has already started classes, “we’re flipping the script,” he said. “Hip-hop dance is first. House dance is first. Street dance is first — that’s the focus, right? Anything else is secondary.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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