Ella Mesma Company

Dispora Dance Theatre

I Am All Womxn – a reflective blog written by Ella Mesma (independent artist) and Hannah Robertshaw (Yorkshire Dance)

During lock down 2020, Ella Mesma interviewed 5 inspirational womxn and held a closed discussion with 11 more womxn who specialise in hiphop dance styles. These are our (Ella and Hannah’s) reflections on those discussions but include the voices of the womxn involved. We want to thank them for their honesty and generosity.

“I want to take over the world” Kloe Dean

Do we all need to be remembered?

During lock down 2020, Ella Mesma interviewed 5 inspirational womxn and held a closed discussion with 11 more womxn who specialise in hiphop dance styles. These are our (Ella and Hannah’s) reflections on those discussions but include the voices of the womxn involved. We want to thank them for their honesty and generosity.

“name one thing that we own…we are always guests…guests in theatres, guests in organisations…” Kloe Dean

There is no shortage of ambition. All the womxn we spoke with are rich in ideas and passion. Listening to their stories didn’t demonstrate a lack of self-belief but instead indicated that in the hip hop industry, and indeed in the dance industry more widely, there are barriers and glass ceilings to navigate.

“I think gender does play a big part in the way that a womxn’s value is seen… I’ve come up against these invisible glass ceilings because of my biological sex at various points.” Emma Houston

The majority of womxn working in hiphop are always the guest. Being the guest in other people’s spaces means taking off your shoes and trying to find your place in someone else’s programme.  As a guest, you can feel othered and tokenistic, often left with the question ‘am I just ticking the box?’ 

The invitation to be a guest is also held with caution. Is there a genuine curiosity to find out more about the artist and their work? How long will that curiosity last? For many, we don’t even receive the invitation, as our male counterparts already inhabit the spaces. This is the same for panels and other discussion forums. When there is a platform to speak, how many womxn feel safe to do so? Do there need to be new forums and spaces for womxn to speak openly, honestly and candidly?

“I was worried about the repercussions or if what I was saying was right” Kloe Dean

The retreat to silence contributes to the invisibility of many womxn. In the recent emerging ‘me too’ cases within the hiphop scene, many womxn have spoken out about maintaining silence because their perpetrators were in positions of power and authority in the dance scene. The lack of safety is apparent. Now, as more womxn are speaking up, there is an increased confidence and bravery for those coming forward to share their story.

“It’s inspiring hearing about those challenges which are so specific to being a female in a male dominated space. The resilience of women to make things happen anyway” Elsabet Yonas

And when womxn do speak up, there is a real concern about how those womxn are received. Will the community listen or do they get labelled as aggressive or pushy or desperate?

“I get labelled as an angry black woman” Yami Rowdy

In the story of womxn in hiphop, the patriarchy is all too present. Womxn, even in their forties, are still seen as girls, often not receiving the same opportunities as men. Equally, the idea of womxn as ‘emerging artists’ is perpetuated by funders, venues and organisations whereas their male counterparts are often viewed as ‘established and experienced.’

“They are mirrored on the fact we are seen as girls” Amanda Pefkou

Several womxn reflected on the push to be ‘feminine’ in the scene, particularly in relation to more commercial work which often predicates how you should dress or the length of your hair.  

“We were all in a video and they asked all the women in the video to shake their bum. I decided it wasn’t the crew for me” Marie France 

Equally, regular comparisons are drawn to men and how male bodies move. Female identity and acceptance within the form is at the forefront of this and the expectation that a womxn should either dance ‘like a girl’ (i.e. overtly feminine) or ‘like a guy’ (particularly in relation to breaking), suffers under the gender norms so often perpetuated in the style.   

For many womxn, the lack of identity and voice is perpetuated beyond the movement style. It’s important to acknowledge the limiting beliefs and conditioning felt by many womxn in the scene and the ongoing discrimination based on race, sex and class which contributes to the treatment of womxn as they try to establish their careers within hiphop.

“Female voices have always struggled to be heard amongst the noise and this noise comes in different shapes and forms; whether it’s a patriarchal system, whether it’s white privilege, whether it’s any sort of discrimination that disrupts our focus” Rowdy Yami

For the womxn that find a platform to be heard, both artistically and as influencers in a cultural shift, there is a constant battle to stay there. 

“The higher up we go, the more fearful we are of losing that position. It’s really about being vulnerable, confident and proud and connecting to the fact that that position is yours. To know you really can make a change in that place and feeling empowered to do such a thing.” AZARA

The womxn in this set of conversations represented a diverse range of experiences; as performers, choreographers, producers, entrepreneurs, teachers and community leaders. The common thread was how and when their voices can be used for positive change and how to elevate other womxn to improve experiences for younger womxn as they enter the scene. 

“As teachers, we’ve got a position to be able to influence. We can be the role model or influence that we didn’t have” Jemma Mae

The importance to have strong, influential womxn at the forefront of leadership in hiphop was also highlighted in the conversation. Perhaps exaggerated by the highly competitive and fast paced dynamic, there was a sense that too often stories get lost and we need to work harder to celebrate and advocate for each other.

“There have been a lot of women in the history of UK Dance that have come and gone” Kloe Dean

There is perhaps a particular issue about documentation within the hiphop scene, a culture that has long survived on the immediacy of interaction. In the documentation of the origins of hiphop styles, often the womxn were not recognised or recorded. The narrative is owned by men and derives often from a black male perspective. It is also usually documented by men. And if the language comes largely from a male experience, how are those languages adapted and reinvented by womxn? 

“You are a woman dancing this, you are not being the style. Your body is a guest to that – it will never belong to you. I have the guest privilege” Amanda Pefkou

Appropriating movement languages that originate on a different body is an ongoing concern and one explored by dance artist Amanda Pefkou in her work. She uses the style of Krump in her work, which originates from a black cis male body. Amanda questions how this can be adopted and adapted onto a female body. When is this interpretation and when is it claiming something as our own? The loop of responding and reinventing is continuous.

“As a light skinned womxn of mixed heritage, dancing breaking and salsa, I frequently question this of the styles I have studied. Is it about how well we dance them? How much we know them? Or is it something much deeper? How do we pay our respects and honour those from whom this style has come? And then how do we acknowledge all of that and still allow ourselves to become lost in the dance?” Ella Mesma

“I think there needs to be an understanding that we are not trying to be, we are different… I have an issue with this idea of reclaiming because it makes it sound like I’m taking something that is yours and making it my own” Elsabet Yonas

The I Am All Womxn exchange has highlighted the need for greater dialogue for womxn in the hiphop scene. It’s a call to action for more united spaces for womxn to collaborate, exchange, create and to present work together. 

“the idea of supporting one another to shout and have a voice – unapologetically …. the sisterhood that came together and your forward motion Ella” AZARA

So how do we create more dialogue in this area of the dance community and what is the role of organisations and institutions within this? Will formalising the style through the new urban dance degree programme at Northern School of Contemporary Dance, generate a new cohort of dancer/makers that raise the profile or acceptance of the style within the contemporary dance world?

What if rather than shouting alone, we create a support network, an accountability group? As a collective we have so many contacts: what if we help one another in terms of visibility and we hold venues, promotors and organisations accountable to certain values: for example supporting womxn in hiphop more.

“We as one are nowhere near as powerful as we as a collective”. Ella Mesma

Read Ella and Hannah Robertshaw from Yorkshire Dance’s reflections on those discussions which include the voices of the womxn involved here

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