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Breaking all the Rules

by Rob Scher / Images by Sydelle Willow Smith / 27.03.2013

“What’s hip hop anyway? It’s not strictly American, or African – it’s simply a feeling.” Sino asserts. She’s the crew leader of ACE and sits before us – her pulpit a chair, the sermon, what it means to be South African, female and a career hip hop dancer. Preach sister, preach!

“You mean to say someone dancing hip hop in South Africa is not going to look exactly the same as their American counterpart?” I ask.

“They shouldn’t, not if they’re doing it right. Hip hop’s not like ballet, where there’s a right or a wrong move. It’s a personal thing, a reaction.” Sino explains as we try get to the root of this oft-cited criticism of hip hop dancers in our country, that they simply emulate international fashions and trends.

Ace Chains

Dancing since the age of 6, Sino’s in a position to talk. Having auditioned and been accepted into the Debbie Allen Dance Academy in Los Angeles in 2011, where she spent several months learning and performing hip hop in the US, Sino returned to Mzansi with a fresh perspective. A perspective that’s informed the way she’s gone about forming the dance crew ACE, and the way they approach their dance form.

“I get where the criticism is coming from,” says fellow member Dippy. “South Africans need to represent. People who don’t understand the foundations and don’t know how to join the two worlds do end up mimicking. And it looks whack!” She says with an air of finality. Nuff said.

“That’s someone who doesn’t really know hip-hop.  It shouldn’t be a criticism of hip-hop, but rather a criticism of that person,” Sino picks up the thread. “It’s very important to learn technique no matter where it’s from or what you do. Once you know and understand that, it’s easy to play around in that form. When you know the rules, it’s easier to break them.”

It’s hard to catch these girls out. I try a different approach, “so what about ACE? How are you incorporating all this into what you guys are bring to the party?”

“The challenge is having people understand what we’re doing.” Says Sino, without missing a beat. “Personally, I feel the audience we’re dealing with is not as up to date with what we do in our craft, as someone might be overseas. In the States, the crowd knows what’s currently relevant. Here we have to convince them – impress them. It’s difficult.” She sighs.

Ace Jump

“So how do you do that?” I ask.

“Well, music is key. We put a lot of effort into the mixes and anything goes – if it sounds good we’ll use it. Most of the music we use is actually South African.” Sino smiles.

“Is that it then? An understanding of the basics and some local tunes, and you can say you’re staying true to your roots?” I ask. Having spent time with both sbujwa and pantsula crews over the past few weeks, we’re not letting the girls off that easy.

“Haha!” She blurts. “Indigenous dance styles are different. We have a lot of respect for them but the fact remains that in hip hop, the USA created the technique. I find it weird that we specifically get called out on this. Take a local singer making popular music, do you say to them: ‘you must only sing traditional African music’? No, the very fact that we’re South Africans making music or dancing hip hop is what defines us – it’s going to be different.” Sino is supremely confident, not missing a step.

Ace Crew

Conversation inevitably moves towards the issue of being females in a male dominated culture. Sino loves this question. “That’s our thing. That’s where we go in. Our previous crew was also all female. Yes most of hip hop, not just dance, is male dominated – it’s for that very reason we started our previous crew and this one – to represent females and encourage others who have the ability to do it.”

“It’s a righteous sentiment but is it working?”

“Overseas, this isn’t an issue. Women over there are beasts. A male won’t undermine a female, because they know they’re killing it. It’s dancer against dancer. Here there’s still a prejudice. It’s rare to see an all female crew.  I think a lot don’t believe they can do it as well as the guys. We’re all about that – we take them on and do it exactly as they do. If not better!”

“So breaking stereotypes and owning competitions is the way to overcome this?” I ask rhetorically.

“Exactly. But also showing that we don’t need to be like a guy to win because that’s what usually happens – this idea that you have to be kind of a tomboy. You can dance hard, and dance female. You don’t have to dress like a guy. You don’t have to become a man to be hip hop. We can do what the guys do, but we have the advantage of being female so we can do things they also couldn’t do – we’re actually at an advantage here.” Sino smirks.

Ace legs

The sermon’s almost at an end. It’s been revelatory. I don’t think I’ve been this stirred by girl power since the Spice Girls. “Is this the year a girl crew takes the title?” I ask.

“Whatever happens in the competition, we’re getting our word out. We’re focused on more then just winning. We have a message: represent females and through that also try to win. This isn’t just another street battle – The Red Bull Beat Battle is a big platform. Even if you’re not interested in dance, anyone who watches will see us doing our thing and that’s what we want!” And with that, Sino spits her final words of truth.

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* All images © Sydelle Willow Smith

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