DANCING GODDESSES: African American Women Hip Hop Dancers – Cultural Contributors

By Ariyan Johnson

“When rap aesthetics and hip hop style are embraced, the acquiescence implicit in the ascribed ‘place’ of the female is often contested by the signifier of rebellious youth.”

 Halifu Osumare

Why do discussions of Hip Hop dance and its major contributors seldom acknowledge the role of African American women? As with many art forms, the gate-keeping is male-dominated or generational, springing from a different era which misses subtle appreciations while assigning their own values to the art, or those in positions of power no longer resemble the ethnicity, cultural background, and racial genetic make-up of the originators of the artistry. Throughout the history of Hip Hop, it was often dance that kept it alive and transforming the culture within its reiterations. African American women Hip Hop dancers with their resiliency in those early days of the late 1980s and 1990s became the catalyst—from the streets, to the clubs, to the videos, then to the world, helping preserve and continue its legacy. My lens as a Hip Hop lover is to add to the conversation as the historical development of dance within the culture of Hip Hop is still being shaped. We are not a monolith. Many writings are not from practitioners of this time or overlook in depth the female voice not labelled as B-Girls. My intention is to share a glimpse of a time when I was both a participant and a bystander and shine a light on the power and ingenuity of African American women Hip Hop dancers, those who burst forth within Hip Hop and expanded other areas of the culture. The aesthetics of early Hip Hop artists included African American women backup dancers who contributed to Hip Hop history through their style, distinct narrative in movement, and overall lived experience in the culture that went beyond dance, impacting the global culture. Who are these women?

My phone rang and it was “Big Lez,” Leslie Segar, who grew up in Queens, New York, asking if I could do the Coca-Cola SummerFest tour, she was choreographing for the chart-topping girl group SWV. The year was 1993, no cellphones just land lines, no internet yet, just pagers. These modes of quick communication were coupled with the constant use of payphones. I was known for being professional, able to come into a project last minute and pick up choreography fast. I could look cute, mind my own business, and worked hard. Just Another Girl on the IRT, one of the first Hip Hop teenage girl’s coming-of-age stories, complete with a Hip Hop all-female dance duo, was my choreographic offering with my dance partner Kisha Richardson that fused Hip Hop with other dance techniques. The film had been released earlier that year by Miramax, making it one of the first Black women lead films to have major distribution. My press obligation done, I had time to make “tour” money. Back then you could make $150 a show or $1500 a week on tour plus at least $35 dollars in per diem. This was our hustle; African American Hip Hop women created their own opportunities and ensured employment by uniquely honing their talents in ways their peer group would recognise. Cultivating a culture of support was essential in the early days of Hip Hop. Few talk about the difficulty we needed to overcome in doing business in the late 1980s and 1990s. You had to have a level of boldness to be a dancer in the beginning because the industry was new. “Everything was long form…I would see a music video, find out who casted it either by calling the station or record company and talking to the receptionist,” says Leslie. It was the network of African American women peers who kept each other employed. If one left a job, another would come in and fill the job just left vacant. Leslie danced for SWV and then rotated out onto another gig. Many dancers in those days danced for the same artists just in different time periods. Marjory Smarth, danced for 2 in a Room with Cetra Dance Wilkins. When she left to go and dance with Heavy D, then in came Neetra Estwick who also left, and then I stepped in to do the Asia and Australia tour with fellow dancers Cetra, Ejoe Wilson, Raymond Ultarte (Voodoo Ray), and Luis Rodriguez Jr. (Boogie Lou).

A contribution of the culture that is not often mentioned is the Hip Hop Feminist Cyphers that emerged. There were no agents setting up auditions, negotiating pay or handling the contracts at that time. All of that was handled by these women personally. These pioneer women became the catalyst for the current dance agency industry through every fight for payment, every next job quoting a higher price than the last one, and the maintaining of a sisterhood of employment through dance partners and the group of women you knew who could kill it on the dance floor. You always replaced yourself on a gig with someone who was as good as you or better because most likely you would circle back to that artist or production company again in another job capacity. The sisterhood of circles worked this way. April Thomas, Merylin Mitchell, Carolyn Brown and Leslie were dancing for Keith Sweat. April brings in Suncerae Clark Fredericks and Aphrodite Keys to replace Leslie. Everyone leaves and a new crew consisting of Merylin, Carolyn, Shane Johnson, and Saleema Mubaarak go to dance for Bobby Brown. They also did Mary J Blige Real Love video with their baseball hats, biker shorts, and oversized shirts, that iconic look that contributed to the culture of the street-sexy never-before-seen, captured on camera of strength and style. Suncerae brings me in and gets Jossie Harris Thacker as she finishes dancing for Heavy D with Leslie. As each sister in the circle worked on something, they were supported by one another in employment. Although it was competitive when auditions came around, when not word of mouth they were found mostly in the industry paper Backstage, we were still a support system when one of us booked the job.

Having dancers was a big deal for the musical artists back in the day. It wasn’t considered “commercial” but part of the culture. An exception was my run-in with KRS ONE for the We In There video which was a rupture between the artist, production company and the record company over my dancing solo on the rooftop being considered “commercial.” I was left on the editing floor for a full day’s work and never received payment as a casualty of their debate over “commercial” becoming a dirty word. Suncerae remembers being edited out of the Mary J. Blige Be Happy video and not getting paid. It seems the final video product shifted the ideas of payment. Almost everyone I did research with for this article has a story of someone not paying them or having to fight to get their money. Joyce Van Hook wrote about her experience dancing in the Notorious Big video shoot under the Brooklyn Bridge. “They didn’t want to pay us [the dancers] for overtime so I walked off the set and they stopped me before I left and asked me ‘what do I need to give you in order for you to stay.’ I said we all need our coins.” This story had a happy ending because they did get paid for all of their work. Cetra mentions, “We were young and the industry was new,” which explains some of these faux pas.

The fashion and beauty aesthetics of African American women Hip Hop dancers was specific to the culture of New York—Hip Hop’s birthplace. Booking jobs included talent and swag. We needed something to look good on our bodies and be comfortable to dance in. Our shoes were chunky. Most wore combat boots. We were New Yorkers, so we had to have something durable that could handle the demand and ruggedness of our streets. Cross Colours was the most frequently used clothing brand. Dancing for Keith Sweat was the brand that Suncerae, Jossie, Marcia Turner and I used. Artists often gave dancers sole responsibility for coming up with the look. Keith Sweat gave Suncerae the money, and she bought our outfits for our Los Angeles performance dates. Creative direction and styling were shaped by these African American women Hip Hop dancers who knew what was “fly” and could endure throughout a performance with no wardrobe malfunctions. These pioneer women were before the video vixens of scantily clothed, just eye candy or strippers of today’s twerking—we were dancers. At the 1992 Grammy Awards Momma Said Knock You Out performance with LL Cool J, the look complemented the boxing theme in the lyrics. Although baggy jackets over a tank top and red boxing shorts would seem like it covered bodies, it wasn’t fitting for every move executed. The red shorts had slits on the sides, exposing more of the dancers’ bodies than we wanted. Our endowed gluteus maximus muscles were going to swallow up those shorts with the hard-hitting choreography that April was giving. We ended up banding together and demanding additional white biker shorts underneath. Suncerae remembers the stylist making a last-minute dash to CONWAYS on 34th Street to get them for the ten dancing women on stage minutes before showtime.

In the African Diaspora cultural experience, dance is always present, and the creation of Hip Hop by African American youth shares these characteristics.  As record companies came in to capitalise on culture, separating and creating genres officially called “Hip Hop” and “House,” making money was an added bonus for the artists. As the music changed with each innovation from the marker of DJ Kool Herc with the merry-go-round turntable effect that extended the breaks of instrumental parts of the songs and rapping on the mic simultaneously in 1973, the focus was to get folks dancing. As the dance changed in the 90s, so did the music. Why go through musical evolutions if it wasn’t to hype the crowd with getting heads bopping and having bodies sweating on the dance floor? Dance has always been the catalyst to move the culture forward. Hip Hop dance was very competitive, very athletic, with strong, powerful, big movements that required great movers to execute. African American women did the same moves as the guys but also did them looking cute. The guys could just exist. African American women already had their personal pride in how they carried themselves. But on stage or inside the circle (also known as cypher), we always had to transform into Dancing Goddesses.

“Me and Lez loved to go into the circle and battle the guys,” says Jossie, who grew up in Harlem, New York. A circle was formed while people were dancing when someone was exceptional to look at, and those who entered the circle thereafter showcased their moves. For dance, the circle was more about community, an exchange of movement languages that levelled one another up and an unabashed expression to impress. In the clubs, we all were uninhibited to dance and enjoy the various rhythms. Hip Hop wasn’t called that yet and a break beat was common in what is now differentiated as House and Hip Hop music. Back then some artists did both, like Queen Latifah who my club dance partner Lea Byrd and I did her first video Dance For Me in 1989 along with her pioneering African American women dancers Kika Martin and Allison Ashmawy. Marjory, known for her African stylised House moves documented in Diane Martel’s Wreckin’ Shop, danced for Heavy D. Leslie danced for Mary J. Blige with Jossie Harris, and also for CeCe Peniston with Voodoo Ray and choreographed her Keep On Walking video. Some dancers were strictly Hip Hop, and Suncerae embodied that. Coming from Washington Heights, she was a beast, having breaking battles with many guys in her neighbourhood’s asphalt, on cut-up cardboard-boxed corners. When in the streets, it was the block parties and mini dance sessions that rallied community.

We competed within community. It wasn’t personal and there were no hard feelings as you left your all on the dance floor. We competed against the guys, we competed against other African American women and loved it. Jobs were gotten by being the best, and if at the club someone tapped you on the shoulder because you showed out, it meant they wanted your energy for their project. Back then artists hung out in the clubs religiously to find dancers because dancers gave them a level of swag they couldn’t achieve visually on their own. Dancers, too, peeped each other’s moves so they had folk to call on when they got a gig. Back in those days, everyone negotiated their own prices for tours and video shoots. For the most part, production companies would cut you your check, but it wasn’t always guaranteed. The one area where our fee was never an issue was television. I remember my first television gig, the 1992 Grammy Awards. The day of the audition I was filming the bathroom scene in Just Another Girl On the IRT. I told Leslie Harris, the director of the film, that I had an audition and would be back. I took the train from Brooklyn to the audition on 48th street in Manhattan. When a general audition was held, you knew that the choreographer would hire their crew so limited spots were going to be available. These auditions brought out the best of the best. The audition was only supposed to last a couple of hours. Needless to say, I missed the rest of filming that day, and Ms. Harris ended up using the bathroom scene with Kevin Thigpen fumbling through the medicine cabinet while you hear me in character off screen screaming in labour. In those days, auditions were difficult to navigate. You never knew what to expect. Like gladiators, the fight was to the death, armed with knee pads, tiger balm, and water to get through to be the last one standing in employment. Unlike gladiators, though, these dancers had to maintain their Dancing Goddess images while sweating through gruelling audition processes and at least 8-to-12-hour rehearsal days. As Suncerae reminisces on the A.D.O.R. Let It All Hang Out video we did together and her recent hip replacement, “We shouldn’t have been dancing that hard for that long especially in combat boots and on concrete [during video shoots] because it took a toll on our bodies.”

The streets was possessive and you had to represent. I for one did not let it be known I was also trained in Ballet, Modern, and Jazz. Many concealed information that would outcast you. In the Salt-N-Pepa Start Me Up video, I danced with some folk like Laurieann Gibson. At the time Laurieann didn’t disclose her Canadian heritage for she was steeped in NYC culture, and her contributions to the culture of Hip Hop deserves mention from acting in the film Honey with Jessica Alba to choreographing for great artists like Lady Gaga and Niki Minaj. She also danced with Joyce for Mary J. Blige. Joyce also danced for Whitney Houston, danced in a skit on Saturday Night Live with Chris Rock, did the Missy Elliot The Rain video, and the Back Street Boys to list a few. There weren’t many who had the whole package like Joyce. I remember doing the Mass Order classic House video Lift Every Voice with her and being mesmerised by her ease in freestyling aggressive moves while looking like a Queen. Nadine Ellis danced with Joyce and did Aaliyah’s video Rock the Boat as well as doing Ya Kid K’s Let This House Beat Drop video with me. Nadine is now an actress starring in the television show Our Kind Of People on the Fox network. Kim Holmes did the Missy Elliot Video with Joyce and went on to dance for Salt-N-Pepa, Mary J. Blige, Little Kim, Jay Z, and others. Kim’s effect on the culture was a lasting imprint as she went on to become a prominent teacher. We all remember Bell Biv Devoe’s dancers Towilla “Tee” Lynn, Nikita Leone, Marzella “Pluke” Lewis, and Debra Moton, who are collectively Str8 Ahead jump over each other’s head in their routine. Their athletic contribution to the culture was highlighted in the New Edition Lifetime network movie. There weren’t that many of us dancing at this calibre during this time, but I would be remiss not to mention Latisha Oliver who danced for Janet Jackson, Bobby Brown, and others as well as Jennifer Farris Melchor who danced for SWV, Mary J. Blige, and others who now is a studio owner with her own dance company. Cetra and I danced for Mary J. Blige, Crystal Waters and others, but Cetra was always pushing the element of performance, going on to sing background vocals for Justin Timberlake and Faith Evans. Whenever I worked with Cetra as a dancer, I was amazed at what a chameleon she was. Cetra’s swag was unmatched.

Streetstyles were the niche of African American women. Many times, in the early days there were songs that celebrated the African American woman and her style. This was the era where African American women were referred to as queens but one song in particular, LL Cool J’s 1990 hit Around The Way Girl captured the true essence of these dancing goddesses with lyrics “I want a girl with extensions in her hair, bamboo earrings…”. We created outfits that could transition from day wear to going to the club at night without having to make a stop at home to change. Our bags were filled with accessories that supported our look (s) for any occasion that might pop up. In some ways, there was a “uniform” which consisted of some baggy jean or shirt, some form-fitting garment, combat boots, a bag with outfit changes, snacks, earrings and lipstick.

New York’s humidity was brutal on hair. You had to look street-sexy good all the time because you never knew when you would get paged, go out to a club, or be seen by someone who might get you a “hook-up” to something going on within the Hip Hop community. There were perms or natural protective styles that were indigenous to our culture and consistently looked good no matter what, whether sweating all day running around the city taking care of business to dancing all night. Most of these ladies in some way chose braids as the constant go-to. One particular woman who deserves credit for influencing other women with her style and grace is Jossie. A pivotal shift in culture came when Jossie became one of the Fly Girls on the television show In Living Color. Her contribution to the culture was her style, illustrated by her natural look of big individual boxed braids which sat on top of her head in a high ponytail that mimicked a crown with the braids adorning her face. These braids (a.k.a dookie braids) inspired Janet Jackson’s character in the California native John Singleton’s film Poetic Justice. Her look was so iconic it influenced Michael Jackson. His Remember The Time video was a huge shift in the culture with an all-Black cast of A-list celebrities, Hip Hop choreography, African costumes and hair. Fatima Robinson, a pioneer Hip Hop dancer, choreographed this major contribution and put female African American Hip Hop choreographers on the map. Jossie remembers when doing the Remember the Time video that the cast wore African headpieces and wigs. Michael Jackson so loved her look that when the stylist insisted she wear a wig like the other dancers, Michael said “no.” Jossie danced in a slew of music videos and her partnership with Leslie was noteworthy. “As much as I love Remember the Time I wished the routine was elevated ten times harder and more intense, but the song didn’t allow for that…,” said Leslie. Television was impacted by Hip Hop culture, and Leslie is etched in our memory, in silhouette, with her dance contribution during the opening credits of the television show Living Single. Leslie garnered an MTV Music Award nomination for best choreography and went on to further the culture in television, first becoming a host and producer for Black Entertainment Television’s Rap City, which she hosted for seven seasons, conducting interviews with international artists. She went into radio, blessing the airwaves on many stations like Hot 97, and continues to infiltrate the radio waves with her own show.

It is no secret that African American women deal with disparities set against them by various oppressive systematic frameworks, so it seems even more disappointing when it comes within a construct they helped create. For a number of reasons, these pioneers of Hip Hop haven’t received due recognition. Some cite the White executives who don’t know the history, dance institutions that ignore the African Diaspora artforms and contributions of Black artists especially women, the westernised dance world that appropriates Black artists without credit, those within the community misinformed about their value, or men who want to spotlight their own contributions rather than including these women who shared the building of the culture. Some of the blame rests with the ladies themselves who needed to heal from industry biases and trauma in order to recognise their own value and shift their misconception of “being just youth having fun” into owning their worth as true architects of the culture.

Recognition is huge not only for self but others. I felt that these Dance Goddesses of this era who have danced collectively with major stars touring all over the world, having become artists in their own right, were well versed in identifying milestones within Hip Hop culture while penetrating the invisibility of their and other Black women Hip Hop dancers’ contributions. It really was a collective effort that spanned globally. Although not consciously coordinated, there are several specific events that helped change and cement Hip Hop not only nationally throughout the USA but globally through the women who danced it. For me, it was a sacred time contacting some of these women and chatting about old times. A few I had to study from referrals from the core group of ladies who brought them back to my remembrance. The survival of these ladies born in culture that influenced a burgeoning industry makes them the predecessors of Hip Hop dance today.

Like Misty Copeland and Alvin Ailey whose contributions to the field of dance are celebrated, so should these invisible women of Hip Hop dance be recognised. I was unable to reference everything in this article. This is only the beginning of a longer written dialogue, and just scratches the surface of a much-needed exploration. Hip Hop culture is a global phenomenon, in part because these ladies contributed time, talent, and creativity on stages across the world, as well as sharing their brilliance in music videos, films and television. These African American women dancers have kept Hip Hop culture alive and allowed it to thrive. Pioneer musical artists whose performances featured African American female dancers shifted the culture and caused Hip Hop to reach its current international stature. I am grateful to be among the tribe. By the mid-nineties I was representing Hip Hop in movies with Oscar winners Warren Beatty and Halle Berry as a rapper in Bulworth. My participation as a dancer in those early days and then transitioning into a multidisciplinary artist of dance and film has allowed me to continue to contribute to the culture as a tenure track Professor of Dance at University of California, Irvine, where I teach Hip Hop. The seminal African American women Hip Hop dancers I recognise here helped positively affirm cultural identity for Black women everywhere and inspired a social identity among women across all ethnicities. What we see in Hip Hop today can be traced back to its source—these women who all shared their love of dance with the world.

Commissioned for Ink Cypher, November 2021

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Ariyan Johnson is a dance graduate of La Guardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts. She holds a B.A. in Speech Pathology and an M.A. in Applied Theatre. A multi-disciplinary artist and pioneer of Hip Hop dance having worked with LL Cool J, Queen Latifah, Salt-N-Pepa, and others with Best Actress Nominations for Just Another Girl on the I.R.T., where she represented Hip Hop female dance duos, as well as an award winning film-maker with her film Triggered.

She’s a three-time Artist-in-Residence of the Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs doing intergenerational storytelling work, a community partner with Los Angeles Unified School District, and served 10 years as Artistic Director and Resident Choreographer of Faithful Dance Company. She’s taught Hip Hop to genocide survivors at the University of Rwanda, New Jersey Performing Arts Center, and presently an Assistant Professor of Dance at the University of California, Irvine.