Hip hop. Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre. If you’re a white girl from suburban New Jersey, as I am, the mention of either of these cultural institutions may intimidate or even elicit fear. I attended my first hip hop class at the Alvin Ailey Extension, on West 55th street and Ninth Avenue in Manhattan, on a whim. I had always admired those who executed the seemingly effortless urban dance; the artistic significance of which, I feel, is often underestimated. Despite my status and after considerable self-conscious procrastination, I decided to make a go of it.
The first class I attended was held on a Monday evening. On the schedule, it was listed as “Absolute Beginner Hip Hop,” but I very quickly learned that “absolute beginner” was a broad term, indeed. The class was large. Attendees ran the gamut from seasoned backup dancer to a couple of middle-aged white women who looked like they had just stepped out of a Lord and Taylor catalog (this, despite wearing workout gear). I hovered in the back of the room, stretching half-heartedly in my spandex and sneakers and biding my time before the inevitable humiliation. The ice was broken when the teacher, named (or nicknamed?) “Tweetie,” arrived, ten minutes late. She surveyed the room. “When you come to class, you should wear gym sneakers…,” her gaze fixed upon a barely-clothed sixteen year-old, “and some sort of clothing. Girl, that’s disturbing.” The teenager clutched her booty shorts, which were already riding up even though she hadn’t begun to move. “Sorry…I’ll put on pants.” Thank goodness, Tweetie had said what the rest of the class was thinking. We were off to a good start.
The entertainment didn’t end there. Throughout the hour-and-a-half-long class, Tweetie’s sharp, witty comments and her hilarious forays into physical comedy were frequent and well-received. The class was light-hearted and fun, if challenging for a beginner. By the end, I truly felt I had made progress. After all, we had spent practically the entire first half hour before even attempting the dance combination isolating body parts to the hip-hop beats of Tweetie’s iPod, so I had to have gained some rhythm, hadn’t I? In the subsequent weeks, I found myself anxious to return for more of Tweetie, her music and moves. My experience at the Alvin Ailey Extension was markedly different than visits I have made to other dance studios in Manhattan, where I sometimes go for ballet class. At Ailey, the people—students and teachers—are real. There is no pretension or satisfaction taken in intimidating those who have come to learn for fun. If you’re wondering if one can actually gain dance skills in such an environment, you’ll be impressed to know I’ve already moved up to a higher-level hip hop course. Thankfully, Wednesday night “Beginner Hip Hop” is taught by the same instructor.