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What do Street Dance and Ballet have in common?

By Sarah Squillante

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Photo: Compagnie Käfig performs Correria Agwa. They perform in Ann Arbor on February 14-15, 2014. Photo by Michel Cavalca.

Stand a ballerina and a break-dancer side by side and the differences are obvious – pointe shoes versus high tops. One might plié while the other may isolate an arm like a robot. Ask someone to describe the difference between performance dance (also known as concert dance) and street dance, and you’d probably receive a confident response: The first kind of dancer performs and the other dances informally, for passers-by and friends. But the distinction between these two genres may not be so clear, even for the dancers themselves.

Perhaps the terms may be to blame for this confusion. If we take them strictly at face value, we’d expect performance dancers to be performing (presumably on a stage of some kind) and street dancers to be dancing on a street somewhere. But while most ballerinas aren’t pirouette-ing in alleyways, there is a large concert-dance component to street dance. Even if street dancers hone their craft in a club, in a dance hall, or on the street somewhere, they still perform for an audience.

Compagnie Käfig, for example, is a dynamic France-based company that incorporates athletic samba, hip-hop, martial arts, capoeira dance, and even acrobatics into their style. Director and choreographer Mourad Merzouki and the dancers have been highly influenced by many styles that evolved “on the streets,” but they’ve incorporated them into choreography that is performed for an audience in a performance venue setting. Their moves, while likely pre-staged and pre-choreographed, have an air of improvisation and innovation. These moves, while perfected in the studio, may have been created through informal social interactions or collaboration in the regions where the styles originated. Compagnie Käfig dancers seem to combine characteristics of both street and performance dance.

Street dance, then, can better be defined as a reference to dance styles rather than as a description of where the dancing takes place. These styles, like b-boying, break-dancing, and even the Charleston, while taught in studios and performed on stages, evolved outside of the classroom – in nightclubs,  at raves, at block parties, on the school yard, and yes,  you guessed it – on the street. People who practiced these dances did not initially call themselves “street dancers,” but instead Bboys, lockers, breakers, or funkstylers. The styles were improvisational, and encouraged interaction with audience members and between the dancers themselves. The term “street dance” came along later when these dances were popularized in the 1980s.

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Today, the terms “street dance” and “hip-hop dance” are often used to refer to a studio-based version of the styles, which, like the original street dances, are less defined than their performance-based counterparts. They are sometimes improvisational, but can also include choreographed steps.

Concert dance, on the other hand, is a style whose origins are a bit clearer. Ballet (likely the oldest of concert dances) emerged in the Italian Renaissance courts in the 15th century and evolved in its style as it spread to France and Russia. Today, its steps are entirely in French. Ballet is considered by most as the base of all concert dance styles (like jazz, modern, or contemporary), since it provides the foundational techniques used in many different genres. In fact, it is rare to find a professional dancer who hasn’t been trained in one of ballet’s styles. It’s not surprising that ballet originated as and remains a style of dance that is performed formally for a larger audience – pointe shoes demand special flooring, and partnering between male and female dancers requires pre-planned choreography rather than improvisation. The mimes and steps of classical ballet seem to have been created for the purpose of story-telling, and the tradition has remained alive.

When I think of the distinction between these two genres, I can’t help but envision Julia Stiles as she transforms from leotard-clad ballerina to hip-hop dancer in Save the Last Dance. Iconic dance movies like this one – which are for many people the only window into the dance world – may help us visualize the differences between performance and street dance, no matter how stereotypical they may be.

Movies like Step Up, Stomp the Yard, and Honey, the plots of which focus primarily on street dance, are wildly popular with a mainstream audience (as evidenced by their many sequels). Performance dance, while less popular, has surprisingly been the subject of a few mainstream titles like Black Swan and Center Stage, two movies that, while very different, hold a special place in my heart. These films tell the stories of the rigorous world of professional ballet, but even they aren’t devoid of a street dance influence – both films include that popular dancing-at-the-bar-as-relief motif.

What these films hint at is common in contemporary dance. Companies like Compagnie Käfig cross-over and cross-pollinate from various influences regularly. Is it possible that we all have something to gain from Channing Tatum in Step Up?

Interested in learning more? Check out our UMS Adventure Club: Dance, a game designed to reward your inquisitive instincts with the chance to win a special backstage meet and greet with a UMS artist.

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