Theorising Hip-Hop Dance in the Philippines: Blurring the Lines of Genre, Mode and Dimension

This is an excerpt from J. Lorenzo Perillo’s “Theorising Hip-Hop Dance in the Philippines: Blurring the Lines of Genre, Mode and Dimension” (2013) published in the International Journal of Asia Pacific Studies (IJAPS). This research explores the choreography of Manila hip-hop dancers, with particular attention to meaning-making via genre, mode, dimension and conflict.

Access the full paper here.


There are perhaps very few ways to make sense of this dance—a clearly distressed six-year old boy simultaneously crying and dancing to African American rappers Snoop Dog and Dr. Dre's song "Next Episode" on one of the Philippine's major television programs. Yet, in April 2011, "make sense" of dance and Hip-hop is exactly what tens of thousands of social media users attempted to do as they consumed and cyber-scolded the noontime game show, "Willing Willie." The show's host, Willie Revillame, coerced a child contestant, to "gyrate like a macho dancer in a gay bar," while he himself stood by laughing and mocking. The spectacle attracted just criticism in a peculiar blend of moral righteousness, homophobia and children's human rights advocacy, from the national and diasporic publics that demanded to hold this popular show accountable. On one level, the network's rebuttal featured as the epigraph to this article, is a tired corporate gesture in which ideas about dance, music and performance are managed in order to shield profits, at the cost of validating social and economic inequalities in the Philippines. On another level, the response downplays the uncanny character of the choreography by familiarising the "body wave" in a succession of popular dances; this gesture appears intent on appealing to the vulnerabilities of the postcolonised with a brand of folk nationalism. The "Willing Willie" controversy, its instance of dance and Hip-hop music, begs a serious look at how these meanings fundamentally shape our understanding of global Hip-hop culture.

My main project in this essay represents an attempt to think through this negotiation that the "Willing Willie" controversy reminds us of, what dance comes to "mean," and I will do so by focusing on a cadre of dance artists in Manila. Although Hip-hop is recognised as a global musical culture, scant research has examined its choreographic material and how it offers a vista into the worldviews of Hip-hop practitioners. This essay will seek to respond to this, often subdued, absence by outlining ways Hip-hop dance acquires meaning. In this article, I will privilege the ways dancers theorise their practices as constitutive to one viscerally compelling tactic through which to read more critically and understand better the principles articulating their aesthetic sensibility about the world. This article will assert that a dance-based system of knowledge is helpful to our understanding of music and performance in Asia and the Pacific because it fleshes out the internal discourses of Hip-hop. Put another way, I will suggest the ways people think about Hip-hop dance enable and preclude other possibilities of thought and even, other possibilities of dancing.

The issue that I find myself revisiting in the process of thinking through this discourse is the degree to which Filipinos in Hip-hop dance symbolise contemporary postcolonial Americanisation, the cultural globalisation of Blackness, or a transformational cultural movement of their own. To begin its inquiry, this research asks how do dancers think about the contemporary performance juggernaut known as Hip-hop? What makes one system of thought more appropriate, compelling or explanatory than another? Given the prevalence of "authenticity" in New York Hip-hop culture, how do we see different sets of principles undergird Hip-hop practices in Manila? The history, geography and cultural pluralism of the Philippines suggests that response to these queries might arise not from a unifying theory of Hip-hop, but rather, from a piece-meal attempt to critically question our assumptions about theory, dance and power.

My primary goal in this essay alludes to the unfolding of the exceptional explanatory power that Filipino Hip-hop presents as a case study for understanding these intersectional axes. Elsewhere I have discussed the multiple conduits of diasporic and folk dancers that have come to augment the ways Hip-hop in the Philippines flourishes across commercial and educational venues. In top educational institutions, such as the University of the Philippines-Diliman, scholars have included Hip-Hop dance as an integral component of the curricula for more than a decade. Beyond the imaginary demarcations of the nation that even today continue to be disputed and across Asia and the globe, leading dance crews with members of Filipino descent dominate competitions and draw millions of online viewers. While U.S. popular discourse has often asserted the primacy of Hip-hop as a culture and lifestyle inclusive of different types of performance (i.e., music, theatre, turntablism, spoken word, fashion, graffiti), for the Philippines, dance clearly plays a specifically instrumental role. Indeed, the Southeast Asian archipelago's unique historical and contemporary formations of Spanish colonialism, indigenous resistance, Japanese occupation, U.S. military base extra-territorialism, and religious and linguistic syncretism suggest ways in which a simple theory of Hip-hop as the globalisation of American Blackness might not fully explain what the culture means.

In order to chart the journey this essay undertakes around the edges of internal Hip-hop dance discourse, I will detail four main aspects—genre, mode, dimension and conflict. These seemingly inseparable cohesions of thought about Hip-hop each draw attention to the principles of meaningmaking already present in community practices. I will start with a description of genre because dancers use the pliancy of genre to place themselves within and beyond the categorical boundaries of Hip-hop. I will then move toward a lengthier discussion of various modes of activity—kompet, raket, klase and konsept. These modes inspire my focus on intersubjectivity and raise questions that effectively undermine an engrained commercial/underground binary. The last two approaches—dimensions and conflicts—are the least drawn-out. Dimensions of dance, or the dance's featured movement, language, music, costume, body, space and socio-cultural meaning, supply theorists with the building blocks for de-essentialising Hip-hop "authenticity" as well as appreciating local and indigenous epistemes. These elements of dance insist on depth and breadth in an activity that is often woefully reduced to a predetermined sequence of physical gestures. Finally, I will describe an example of Hip-hop's conflicts as they articulate the contested natures of meaning-making specific to this cultural practice. Taken as a whole, these areas aim to solidify conventional concerns around studying Hip-hop dance and oddly do so from a place where I find myself regularly opposed to pinning dance down. This explanatory framework, hopefully, clears up more room to move when theorising through and about Hip-hop and promotes the critical study of dance practices in the Philippines with larger implications for contemporary popular music and performance in Asia and beyond.


Resources:

Perillo, J. Lorenzo. 2013. "Theorising Hip-Hop Dance in the Philippines: Blurring the Lines of Genre, Mode and Dimension." International Journal of Asia Pacific Studies 69-96.

n.d. "Philippine All Stars." Philippine All Stars Hip-Hop Dance Group. Accessed September 22, 2017.

Philippine Star. n.d. "La Salle Dance Company-Street." Accessed September 22, 2017.