Browse By

Chicago’s Hiplet Dancers Bring Celebration of Dance and Culture to Milwaukee

Chicago’s Hiplet Dancers Bring Celebration of Dance and Culture to Milwaukee 

  On Mar. 9 The Hiplet Dancers of the Chicago Multi-Cultural Dance Center performed at the Marcus Amphitheater in Milwaukee. As attendees approached the venue they were greeted with a stunning view of the building awash in blue and purple lights against the night sky. The audience could almost feel the excitement and preparations happening  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 non-profit dance school since then. Bryant created Hiplet in the 1990s, with the intent to make ballet accessible to all.

  Former NFL player was introduced as the theater’s new Cultural Ambassador before the show, and said the Hiplet Dancers have “changed the culture of what ballet is all about.”

   It’s hard to imagine what the love-child of traditional ballet and hip-hop would look like, but this show exceeded all expectations. As the first dancers appeared onstage dressed in white glittering crop tops and matching skater skirts, I knew this would be something special to witness. While the dancers were en pointe, the number was modern and fun, almost a bit sassy, even. Throughout the show, it was fascinating to see the ways in which each number juxtaposed elements of modern dance with traditional ballet. I never thought that I’d see a dancer twerk in ballet pointe shoes, but it was done flawlessly.

   Each number fluidly evolved, and consistently surprised me. When dancers exited the stage, they’d reappear in the number in a different costume, or type of shoe. Some went from ballet shoes to sneakers, or from a tutu to joggers, all in one dance. The nature of the show seemed to live in these slight changes, so nothing ever felt stagnant, as if the goal was to always be changing and moving in new and exploratory ways.

   The performers clearly enjoyed themselves the entire time they were on stage, but their personalities really came to life in the moments when the beat picked up and the audience began to clap them on and cheer, unable to hold it in until the end of the number. I was sitting close enough to the stage to see every detail of their faces, and in each dance there was a moment where it seemed the cast realized the audience was enjoying themselves, and their bodies visibly relaxed, their plastic-performance smiles melting to genuine passion,  they really did have fun doing what they love.

   Each dance was different from the next, from the scenic design to the costumes to the choreography and music, but they still fit together to celebrate black dance and its history. In both Acts, multimedia videos were played to explain why Hiplet is so important. The first included a history of Bryant dance, how CMCD came to be, and where they draw inspiration from. The preceding dance focused on elements of traditional African dance, celebrating the origins of black dance, but still adding that unique modern twist, an isolated limb here or a catwalk strut there, using pointe shoes as stilettos. 

   The next opened with the notes of a classical violin, the dancers dressed in black, a stark change from the previous jewel-toned prints. It began with what looked to be a pas de deux, a duet between a male and female(presenting) couple, and later incorporated group sequences and even a backflip when the violin turned to Bruno Mars and Micheal Jackson The costumes went from stunning ballet tutus and leotards and sequined tuxes to two-piece sets that looked to be what I’d imagine Nike or Addidas would create if they clothed formal dancers. 

   Act II opened with another film focusing on the dancers’ experience with Hiplet, from their 2021 performance on America’s Got Talent to the present. “Ballet can be boring,” one dancer said, “Unless you have the right dancers.”

   The next dance was a Swan Lake remix, with yet another costume change, this time from long, flowing tutus to spandex and bustiers.

   But the third number for the act might be my favorite of the entire show. It opened with a sole dancer, dressed in a maroon leotard and chiffon skirt, looking up at a projection of the night sky and full moon. As Aretha Franklin began to croon, 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 this lone dancer off in the corner next to the dark sky made humanity feel so small in comparison. The lighting was a strangely realistic imitation of moonlight, it was just surreal, even other-worldly. I felt as if I was peeking into her bedroom window, watching her dance for the sole purpose of dancing to love herself, to move joyfully just for her. 

   The real turning point of this number was about halfway through, the dancer feel, and stayed down, leaving the audience reeling, it was unclear if this was a choreographed moment of if she really did injure herself. The other dancers came right to her onstage, offering 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 that this was important, even though you weren’t sure exactly why. It’s so rare that we see women, especially in competitive industries like dance, supporting each other. This one moment felt so pointedly against that, clearly aiming to comment on the way women in the media are pitted against each other, all too often.

   This dance was the perfect segway into the final movie shown, a slideshow of powerful black dancers that paved the way, featuring Eartha Kitt, Pearl Primus, Katherine Dunham, josephine Baker. I’m ashamed to admit I recognized only a few names, ut I think that was the point, to make the audience think about their own understanding of black art and see how underappreciated the contributions of  black women are.

   The finale was a celebration of Chicago and hip-hop, dancers appearing in adorable bulls-jersey inspired dance outfits, moving in sneakers and pointe shoes to the music of Chicago-based artists including Chance the Rapper. The costumes were trendy and modern changing from sportswear to popular styles of the late 80s and early 90s 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, flailing their arms to imitate the dancing on stage, to see that inspiration in action. Think after-school special, or Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, or even Blossom. It felt like a summer block party, making me want to get up and move as well.    The entire production felt like something out of Center Stage, in the best way possible, a true joy to watch.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.