Writer Discovers Her 'Urban Beat' In Dance Class

Freelance writer Sarah Wildman says she has studied dance for most of her adult life, but she until recently she had never taken a hip-hop class. Wildman signed up for a class at the Dance Institute of Washington and wrote about her experience in the recent fitness edition of the Washington Post Magazine. Host Michel Martin talks to Wildman about what she learned and they practice some moves in the studio.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

And onto a different kind of education story. We found it in the pages of The Washington Post magazine, which we dig into just about every week to find interesting stories about the way we live now. In this case it's about the way we dance now.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: Now, if you'd like to get your groove on, you're not alone. Sarah Wildman recently learned how to move her body to the sounds of J. Dilla and Flying Lotus and other hip-hop tracks at the Urban Dance Institute of Washington here in the nation's capital. She wrote about taking a hip-hop class in this week's magazine, Fitness Edition, and she joins us now to tell us more. Welcome, thanks for joining us or welcome back, I should say.

Ms. SARAH WILDMAN (Writer): Thank you so much. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So you write that you've always danced in any city you've ever lived in, that there have been a number of them, but you've never taken a hip-hop class, so what made you decide to do that now?

Ms. WILDMAN: I'd always wanted to take a hip-hop class, but maybe I was a little bit afraid to, that I wouldn't do it as well or that I needed to know something I didn't know. I didn't have the right gear. And I thought, given that I was coming back to dance after a year away, I had a baby last year, that, you know, it was a good time as any to start.

MARTIN: Now, when you say you were nervous, I think we should kind of cut to the chase, is it part of, you know, kind of stranger in a strange land kind of thing because hip-hop is identified as kind of an African-American art form? Even though hip-hop is worldwide now, but was that part of it because you're white you thought, oh, maybe I won't fit in?

Ms. WILDMAN: I don't know if it was that. I mean, maybe a little bit, I guess, if I'm completely honest. In fact, when I met Junious Brickhouse, who is the founder of Urban Artistry, the company that runs the classes I took at the...

MARTIN: The incredibly aptly named Junious Brickhouse.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WILDMAN: Yes. I said to him, you might remember me, I'm the white girl that introduced herself to you at class today. Yeah, I was definitely aware of it. And I was aware that there was a certain street sense that I didn't know if I had. But coming into these classes, all that dropped away. There was an incredible welcoming overture from pretty much everybody I encountered.

MARTIN: But, you know, I do think we should talk a little bit about the fact that you say in the piece that some dance and exercise classes, no matter who's running them, take on this high school-ish kind of "Mean Girls" or you call it the familiar "Mean Girls" swagger from some of the class regulars. I mean, anybody who's ever taken a dance class will know what I'm talking about. They're just, like, that's my spot.

Ms. WILDMAN: Right. Don't block the mirror, please.

MARTIN: Don't block the mirror, please, this is my spot.

Ms. WILDMAN: And there's a banter with the teacher. They all know each other. Often someone's sleeping with the teacher. You know, there's something with the...

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Oh, I didn't know about that part. I missed that part. But then you add the racial dynamic to that, I do wonder, do you think that other people might I'll just be honest, I mean, minorities by definition are used to being in the minority. But for somebody who's white who isn't used to being in the minority, do you think that that's, you know, part of the hesitation that's embracing the form?

Ms. WILDMAN: Well, it's interesting because hip-hop is now taught pretty much everywhere. I mean, it's taught at Washington Sports Club, it's taught at Drive Motion, which is a more, let's just say it's a whiter dance class. And so it's become normalized or commercialized. It's become across the board. And I actually thought it would be more interesting and more true and more authentic to take it in the community and not sort of take that step back, you know, to sort of say, this is where it's coming from and if I want to learn it, I want to go to the roots and I want to really understand it.

And if I feel uncomfortable, well, you know, that's good. Maybe occasionally white people, because we always have that sort of privilege on the street, maybe I should, you know, take that discomfort and, you know, embrace it.

MARTIN: But it turns out that concern was, however present or implicit it was, really wasn't there at all. You actually really had a good time.

Ms. WILDMAN: I had a great time. I thought the women were incredibly welcoming and, as you said, sometimes it's cliquey. This wasn't cliquey at all. I mean, in every break somebody extended a hand to me and said, you're new. And I said, I'm not good. And they said, no, it doesn't matter. You know, if you're into it, if you want to groove and you're here, then great, join in, you'll pick it up.

MARTIN: What did you like about it? And particularly as a person who experienced and enjoyed many different forms of dance, including classical dance and modern and has in fact studied taken classes all over the world, what did you like about it?

Well, first of all, I mean, it is like you're in the club, right? I mean, it's what you listen to when you go out. And so, inherently your body's already moving. You walk in and you hear that beat and you just want to move. So maybe you can't pop and lock and do New Jack Swing exactly right, but you're already kind of feeling the music in your body.

And there's a little - while there's precision to it and definitely there's technique to it and they're teaching something, you also have a little fluidity with how you interpret the movement in a way you don't, for example, in a ballet class.

MARTIN: So, any tips for somebody who's thinking about taking the plunge and still a little nervous?

Ms. WILDMAN: My biggest worry for anyone, which was mine, too, is your cardio level. I mean, it is hard. I was in full sweat. I realized, oh my god, I thought that, you know, yoga had kept me in shape. Not in shape like this. They are in amazing shape and this is like "American's Best Dance Crew." I mean, they are moving and they look incredible and it's fun, but you got to go in there knowing you're going to sweat.

MARTIN: Okay, I think we should drop a little J. Dilla, so we could see some moves.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: Are you going to bust a move for us? I want to see, like, Sarah Wildman, bust a move.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: What's your signature move? Come on. Show me something.

Ms. WILDMAN: I think I can do I can kind of do a roll pretty well.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) It's all right if you want to see through (unintelligible) tomorrow. Right now.

MARTIN: All right, she's got it going on, okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WILDMAN: I'm taking African (unintelligible) jazz classes also, too. I mean, this is just different because this is more street. And...

MARTIN: She's doing the roll.

Ms. WILDMAN: Yeah.

MARTIN: Okay. All right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Sarah Wildman is a freelance writer and contributor to The Washington Post magazine. We'll have a link to her story if you want to read it in its entirety, we hope you will. Just visit the TELL ME MORE page at NPR.org. Sarah, thank you.

Ms. WILDMAN: Thanks for having me.

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