In today’s world, Hiplet Heals

The Hiplet Ballerinas are a force within the dance world. A fusion of classical Pointe, Hip Hop and other urban dance styles, Hiplet Ballerinas and it’s homebase, the Chicago Multi-Cultural Dance Center, aim to make ballet accessible to all.

Prior to COVID-19, the Hiplet Ballerinas toured the world, from Germany to Seoul, South Korea where they’ve appeared in commercials and sold out symphony halls. Most recently, they were the focus of a feature film in SxSW, “Because We Can.” Their founder, Homer Bryant, has also been recognized by the Smithsonian as an American Culture Maker in their exhibit launching 2021.

Established in the early ‘90s by Homer, CMDC is on a mission to provide a safe and welcoming environment for students of all abilities and socioeconomic backgrounds to pursue serious dance training. The school is a non-profit and home to more than 200 students, majorly Black and Brown dancers.

Although not all dancers of the school aim for a professional career in dance, Homer firmly believes a training in dance, especially classical Ballet, creates harmony of the mind and body. By dancing, you work both sides of your brain, leading to purely better and more thoughtful human beings.

“The lesson is repeated until it is learned. It may be presented to you in various forms. Once you have learned it you can then go on to the next.” – Homer Bryant

Homer was once a principal dancer and member of Arthur Mitchell’s Dance Theatre of Harlem. His history of inclusivity in dance is extensive, dating back to the ‘70s when he and Arthur began dying tights and shoes of dancers to match their skin tones. At that time, ballet attire was primarily and for the most part remains, catered to a white dancer – pink tights, light shoes. When the tights and shoes don’t match the dancer, the legs are cut off from the beautiful lines the body makes. To Homer, this wasn’t and still is not acceptable.

We sat down with Homer to learn more about his history and how the Hiplet Ballerinas are coping in the midst of a global pandemic and the reckoning of the effects systemic oppression and racism have in our society.

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So, you’re back in the studio! Welcome home.

We started back on the 22nd. Nine kids in a room, one teacher is the best, you know. And Hiplet have been coming in Mondays and Wednesdays, though. I give them the floor and then they do their own thing. We’re trying to keep them together and keep our sanity.

We did a story on Hiplet in 2017 as an introduction of the artists to our audience. Now, with COVID-19, it’s important to understand the impact the events have on our artists. The first question I have for you today is why is it so important for people to be open minded to new forms of classical arts, like the Ballet?

In today’s day and age, you have to remain relevant. There’s always a new generation coming up and they have to know about the past as they go towards the future. Because the past does not belong to them. It is something they learn so they can create their own future. When I decided to put Hip Hop and Ballet together, I knew I had to stay relevant with the kids. You incorporate this newness and make them aware that it’s not where you take things from, it’s where you take them to.

You have been recognized for years due to your work in this space, most recently with your distinction as an “American Culture Maker” in The Smithsonian’s coming exhibit, The American Scene. How does it feel to be seen this way?

It still hasn’t hit me. They came to interview me and I know there’s stuff out there about me and I’m still in awe. I need to go see it for myself to believe it. As far as I’m concerned, I’m just a Black man doing what he loves to do with all of the difficulties that has come to us doing Hiplet. I’m just having a good time. You keep your head up, and you go through all these adversities and you just go day to day. I try to stay as positive as possible. It’s just another day for me and it’s in paradise.

You had a goal to enroll 500 students in CMDC and recruit 50 male dancers off the streets of Chicago. Does this remain your goal today?

That is still my goal and my dream to recruit at least 500 students and 50 or so males. There are a lot of guys out there that love Hip Hop and they love all these different kinds of street dancing. When you bring them into the studio, you can take them so much further because of the knowledge of the classical Ballet. Here’s the thing about Classical Ballet: Classical Ballet trains both hemispheres of the brain. You know, it gives you a balance and gives you an important balance because you’re looking at yourself in the mirror and you’re in the mirror and you’re doing all these kinds of crazy things. Sooner or later your periphery opens and you’re seeing all these other people in the mirror and they’re doing the same thing but from their own hearts and their own mind. We’re all going in the same direction as individuals, but we’re going together and that’s so powerful. That creates diversity. That creates harmony. That creates more physical awareness. But you’re also creating better human beings. So I love to take kids off the streets and create better human beings through the discipline of dance.

If you find a way to get a grant to bring 50 young men in here. Let them sign a contract to commit themselves for five years through the discipline of this program. It has to be a cooperation and you need corporate help and foundational help. It’s hard to do it alone. Harmony and cooperation with the masses will help [this goal].

What was the last performance for Hiplet Ballerinas pre-COVID and how has COVID impacted CMDC and the Hiplet Ballerinas?

We’ve lost $80,000 which has been very difficult to swallow. The Hiplet Ballerina tour was doing so well. So, so well. Folks around the country have been loving it. Like I said, ballet is boring. What you do with it makes the complete difference. And when you stay relevant with the audiences, it’s like they have never seen performances like this before. Because of COVID, we have paused our shows. Hopefully we will get back. We just have to find new ways right now.

Part of that is your recent feature film in SxSW, “Because We Can.” With the festival going virtual, was their any impact on Hiplet or do you think you were able to reach a wider audience with the event being virtual?

I think we reached a wider audience when SxSW when online. We received tons and tons of calls and lots of emails. People are loving it. The one thing people have said was that the film was not long enough. So, I spoke to the director, Addison and told him we need a Director’s Cut. It needs to be at least 20 minutes to an hour. So he’s agreed to put something in addition to that. We’re loving the fact that Hiplet’s “Because We Can” is out there. It shows people about these African American girls and how they feel. They’re speaking from their heart about how studying classical ballet and what taking it to a different level has done for them. About how they go to perform and see other kids of color and how inspiring they are. To me, that’s so rewarding. Hiplet was a dream in my mind. It was just rap ballet and rap turned into Hip Hop so I would talk about my Hip Hop Rap Ballet. This is in 2009 and I’m like, I got to find something else to call this rap ballet, Hip Hop Ballet and so it just came to me. The Hiplet Ballerinas have taken the world by storm and it’s a beautiful thing.

And you trademarked “Hiplet” in 2009 so you’ve just passed 10 years of that trademark!

Yes, 2009 we trademarked. I want to see Hiplet the movie, Hiplet the Broadway show, even Hiplet the Nutcracker.

As a company focused on the beauty of Black artists and dancers, what has been the reaction to the Black Lives Matter movement within your group?

We are so focused on the fact that we are Black. And because we are Black and because we are classically trained, we have a responsibility to go out there and show the world that Black is not only Beautiful. It is focused and it is disciplined. It is unified. It is loving. It is respectful. When we go out, we don’t care who you are. We see color, yes we do, but that’s the beauty of the rainbow. That’s the beauty of the Classical Ballet training because you look in the mirror, you see yourself and then you open your perspective and your periphery and you see everybody else. Everybody else is doing the same thing in a different form because you have your body shape and I have my body shape and all those shapes are different colors of the rainbow. We go out there and people see the beauty of movement. They see the harmony and the creativity and the feeling of being together.

Do you think the movement will bring greater diversity to a classically white Ballet world?

It’s going to take insightful younger girls who are more aware in order to bring more diversity. Misty Copeland can’t do it by herself. The Hiplet Ballerinas can’t do it by themselves. We have to do what we can in our little corner of the world, though, and drop that pebble in the water and let it ripple as far as they’ll go. The waters of the world sooner or later will come together. 

You mention Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly and Ginger Rogers as major influences in your life. Do you feel like you had many Black ballet and dance figures to model growing up?

No, I grew up in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands with black and white television. There was Fred Astairs, Ginger Rogers, Gene Kelly. There were no black dancers on the TV. Every once and a while you’d see the Nicholas Brothers and that was major. But there was far more Gene Kelly than the Nicholas Brothers. But because of Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, my passion for dance was born and that seed was planted. Once I left the Virgin Islands, Arthur Mitchell came into my life, a Black man. Louis Johnston came into my life and all these gentlemen were strong in the discipline of dance and arts. So I went past the Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire and thought, oh my gosh, I have some idols here.

Why is it so important for People of Color to see dancers and artists that look like them growing up?

It’s important for people, especially children, to see people of color performing as they grow up because for me, it was Fred and Ginger and Gene and I didn’t think that a Black man would be able to dance. Then, when I came to New York and I saw the Arthur Mitchells and the Jeffrey Hold and the Sammy Davis Jr. on TV, I’m like Black people can do this. Here’s the sad thing. Still to this day, you go to a ballet school and you have an African American girl and she’s wearing pink tights. It does not match the color of her beautiful skin. You see her brown arms and her brown face and her pink legs. It is a total disconnect for me. That does not happen at my school and that did not happen with Arthur Mitchell and Dance Theatre of Harlem. He started dying tights with tea bags and everything he could think of until he got the right shade for the different girls and their complexions.

How long ago did you begin dying tights and shoes?

This was in the ‘70s! And now we have companies trying to bring out brown shoes and brown tights. Look how far behind we are, and it’s wonderful that we are all for one now. But we need to donate money to these schools and send them tights and shoes.

What advice would you have for people hoping to pave the way for a more equitable future in the arts and especially in the dance world?

Right now, if you have a poor kid, economics play a big difference. It can take $100,000 to train a dancer. To seriously train a classical Ballerina, it takes hundreds of thousands of dollars. These kids out here are extremely talented and gifted, and you just need to have the finances to help them out. I would love to build a state-of-the-art million dollar facility for kids where parents don’t have to worry.

Corporations can donate. People can donate.

We need help, we need funding and we need finances. We need grants and scholarships. Let’s have people support a child. You can sponsor a future Hiplet Ballerina by sponsoring CMDC. If everyone can chip in where they can, that would be the most helpful. Because the children are the future and you’re helping to preserve a better future through the discipline of dance.

Every theatre that brings Hiplet and took that chance has had positive reactions. Overwhelmingly positive reactions.

Yes, it’s one of the best-selling shows and brought in new audience they couldn’t reach before. Theatres are struggling to find new audiences and stay relevant, but when you open ticket sales to the public it’s a completely different story. It’s really about educating people why Hiplet is important, why our audiences need it.

How can people keep up with you in the coming months?

  • Follow Homer Bryant on Instagram and the CMDC website.
  • Follow Hiplet Ballerinas on Instagram and their website.
  • Support Hiplet Ballerinas through donations! A sustained monthly donation goes a long way towards supporting the arts. With Hiplet’s help we’ve compiled the typical amount it costs to support a dancer annually:
    • Pointe Shoes: $400 per month ($4,875 annually)
    • Sneakers: $150 per month ($1,800 annually)
    • Costumes: $900 per month ($10,800 annually)
  • See the Hiplet Ballerinas live! Upcoming tour dates include Marion, IL in August and Milwaukee, MN in September.

In light of this interview, we’ve started an online petition you can join!

Help us increase awareness and support of our Black ballet dancers through the expansion of the Ballet Shoe Emoji. We’re aiming for 100,000 signatures and we need you help.

Visit Change.org for more information.

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