Seen & Heard At the Dance Teacher Summit
As b-boying gained popularity in the early 1980s, Gregg Russell was a child, training in tap and, later, jazz. He picked up a few breaking moves from friends and TV, but just for fun, he says. That attitude changed when he met Frank Hatchett, whose street-dance–infused jazz classes drove him to explore hip hop and jazz more seriously. Today, Russell is best known as a master tap teacher with Co. Dance convention, but he also specializes in teaching hip hop to recreational dancers and classically trained students.
Dance Teacher: What should hip-hop novices know about the style?
Gregg Russell: In jazz or ballet, we tend to work from the outside in. We rely on the visuals to make it feel good. If I look in the mirror and I’m pulled up and look good, I think, OK, that feels good. But hip hop is more from the inside out. It’s a feeling first and then we clean it as we go. That helps trained dancers know they might not look so good right away. But if they have the feeling, their teachers can help them clean up the look.
DT: How do you address the stereotype that hip hop has to be sexy?
GR: Recently in my class I taught “Vogue,” because I had the pleasure of learning the choreography from Oliver [Crumes], who was one of Madonna’s dancers. We went across the floor and did a “Vogue” combination, and some of the girls went crazy. They thought it was the coolest thing in the world. And it made me excited because they forgot about popping their booty for a couple minutes and enjoyed something else that’s part of the hip-hop community.
It’s important to show students there’s more to hip hop than one step they see in a video. But there’s a way to do it without being condescending or making them wrong for liking that. Every generation has their steps that make the older generation say, “I can’t believe they’re doing that.” It’s our responsibility as mentors and teachers to show them everything.
DT: What is the greatest challenge you face with hip-hop beginners?
GR: Teaching kids not to give up. I know it’s always happened, but I’ve seen it a lot more in the last five years. It surprises me, because [when I was training] I’d just get mad and keep trying until I got it. But kids get something wrong and they’re like, “Well, I just can’t do it.” So training them not to do that is a big thing. That’s why I do break dancing in class—just the basic footwork, six-step, three-step, freezes. It takes them longer to get a result, but when they get it, they feel awesome. It’s an accomplishment because they know it’s a skill that is not easy. They build up that confidence of working through a problem.
Photo courtesy of Gregg Russell