Chicago Hiplet Dancers celebrate dance and culture in Milwaukee – The Round Table
The Chicago Hiplet Dancers celebrate dance and culture in Milwaukee
On March 9, the Hiplet Dancers of the Chicago Multi-Cultural Dance Center performed at the Marcus Amphitheater in Milwaukee. As attendees approached the site, they were greeted by a sweeping view of the building awash in blue and purple lights against the night sky. The audience could almost feel the excitement and the preparations as they took their seats and settled in for the show.
The Chicago Multi-Cultural Dance Center was founded by Homer Hans Bryant over 20 years ago and has served as a nonprofit dance school ever since. Bryant created Hiplet in the 1990s, with the intention of making ballet accessible to everyone.
The former NFL player was introduced as the theatre’s new cultural ambassador ahead of the show and said the Hiplet Dancers had “changed the culture of what ballet is”.
It’s hard to imagine what the love child of traditional ballet and hip-hop would look like, but this show exceeded all expectations. When the first dancers appeared on stage wearing shimmering white tops and matching skater skirts, I knew it would be something special to see. While the dancers were on point, the number was modern and fun, almost a little sassy, even. Throughout the show, it was fascinating to see how each number juxtaposed elements of modern dance with traditional ballet. I never expected to see a twerk dancer in ballet slippers, but it was done to perfection.
Each number evolved with fluidity and constantly surprised me. When the dancers left the stage, they reappeared in the number in a different costume or type of shoe. Some went from ballet flats to sneakers, or from tutu to jogging, all in one dance. The nature of the show seemed to live in these slight changes, so nothing ever seemed to stagnate, as if the goal was to always change and evolve in new and exploratory ways.
The performers were clearly enjoying themselves the whole time they were on stage, but their personalities really came alive in the moments when the beat picked up and the audience started cheering and cheering, unable to hold it in until at the end of the number. . I sat close enough to the stage to see every detail of their faces, and in every dance there was a moment when it seemed like the actors realized the audience was enjoying themselves, and their bodies were visibly relaxed, their plastic performance smiles melting into real passion, they really had fun doing what they love.
Each dance was different from the next, from set design and costumes to choreography and music, but they still fit together to celebrate black dance and its history. In both acts, multimedia videos were released to explain why Hiplet is so important. The first included a history of the Bryant Dance, how CMCD came about and where they draw inspiration from. The previous dance focused on elements of traditional African dance, celebrating the origins of black dancing, but still adding that unique modern twist, a lone limb here or a catwalk there, using spikes as stilettos.
The next opened with the notes of a classical violin, the dancers dressed in black, a stark departure from previous jewel-toned prints. It started with what sounded like a pas de deux, a duet between a male and female couple (presenter), then incorporated group sequences and even a backflip when the fiddle turned to Bruno Mars and Micheal Jackson. The costumes went from stunning ballet tutus and sequined leotards and tuxedos to two-piece sets that looked like what I imagined Nike or Addidas would create if they dressed formal dancers.
Act II opened with another film centered on the dancers’ experience with Hiplet, from their 2021 performance on America’s Got Talent Until now. “Ballet can be boring,” said one dancer, “unless you have the right dancers.”
The next dance was a Swan Lake remix, featuring yet another costume change, this time from long, flowy tutus to spandex and bustiers.
But the third issue of the act might be my favorite of the whole series. It opened with a single dancer, dressed in a maroon leotard and chiffon skirt, gazing at a projection of the night sky and full moon. As Aretha Franklin began to sing, the audience was transported to this dreamy setting full of romance and hope, forcing me to feel the vastness of the world as I watched. Something about the proportions of that lone dancer in the corner next to the dark sky made humanity feel so small in comparison. The lighting was an eerily realistic imitation of moonlight, it was just surreal, even otherworldly. I felt like I was peeking out of her bedroom window, watching her dance with the sole purpose of dancing to love herself, moving happily just for her.
The real turning point in this number was about halfway through, the dancer felt and stayed on the floor, leaving the audience in shock, it was unclear if it was a choreographed moment or if she had really hurt. The other dancers came directly to her on stage, offering her a hand and helping her up, and the group continued to dance together. That moment of silence filled the room, adding weight to the air and you just knew it was important, even if you weren’t sure exactly why. It’s so rare that we see women, especially in competitive industries like dance, supporting each other. This moment turned out so pointedly against that, clearly aimed at commenting on how women in media are pitted against each other, too often.
This dance was the perfect segway in the final film shown, a slideshow of powerful black dancers that led the way, starring Eartha Kitt, Pearl Primus, Katherine Dunham, Josephine Baker. I’m ashamed to admit that I only recognized a few names, but I think that was the point, to make the audience think about their own understanding of black art and see how much the contributions of black women are underrated.
The finale was a celebration of Chicago and hip-hop, with dancers appearing in adorable bull jersey-inspired dance outfits, moving around in sneakers and pointe shoes to music from Chicago-based artists including Chance the Rapping. The suits were trendy and modern, ranging from sportswear to popular late ’80s and early ’90s styles in neon pinks and yellows. It was an explosion of color and texture in the most vibrant way, and it was amazing to see the two little girls in front of me sitting on their knees in their seats, waving their arms to mimic dancing on stage, to see this inspiration in action. Think about special after school, or Fresh Prince of Bel-Airor even Flower. It felt like a summer block party, making me want to get up and move too. The whole production looked like something center stagein the best possible way, a real pleasure to watch.