Monday, December 28, 2009

Editorial: Street Dance, The Hip Hop Elements, & Technology

We're continuing our editorial series through the rest of this week leading up to the New Year's holiday. One of the themes we've pursued this year is the effect of technology on street dance culture and the artform. It's not a surprise since we live in a fast-paced, socially-networked global community that is struggling to find a balance amidst all the digital noise. But what about technology's effect on all of the four hip hop elements: graffiti, emceeing, DJ-ing, and bboying (we'll include street dance styles like popping and locking as well)? If we take a closer look, we'll discover that street dance remains one of the most organic aspects of hip hop culture. (Photo above is from a Google Images Search for graffiti.)

Technology has affected many of the hip hop elements in profound ways. Some of this is due to the ease with which these elements can infuse technological advances in image-making or audio production. As a result, practitioners in these elements have also reaped commercial benefits by marketing their skills and art. Let's look at graffiti, for example. In the early days of the graff movement; we saw writers using spray cans, pen tips, markers, stencils and basic illustration materials to create their urban canvases. Today, the tradition continues. But some graff artists have also branched out to using digital tools whether it be Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator, AfterEffects or various other graphic design programs available online. These practitioners have grown by incorporating these image-making programs into their repertoire. Commercial benefits can be reaped when the artwork is marketed as individual paintings or part of a larger collection. They might even be found in a book collection at your local Border's. For graff writers, there is a viable career path by stepping into the larger commercial visual arts scene.

Now, for emcees and DJs, the music industry has always been a visible presence. We're familiar with how emcees have become superstar rappers on the radio and MTV. And we know of a few DJs who went on to become mega-producers behind the scenes for recording artists. Along the way, audio post-production software like Pro Tools, Auto-Tune, and even Garage Band have been instrumental in democratizing the recording studio. A singer's voice can be tweaked and improved with Auto-Tune. Layers of music can be recorded and re-recorded with Pro Tools, accomplishing a clean, professional sound. And even the recreational hobbyist can lay down a rhyme with just a Mac laptop and Garage Band. This audio technology movement has opened up many commercial doors as well as artistic possibilities for the musically-inclined in hip hop culture.

But for street dancers, this is a different story. When compared to our peers in the other hip hop elements, we're still very organic in our relationship with technology. Rarely do we see bboys, poppers, lockers and waackers using the computer to enhance their dance technique or choreography. The nature of our artform is based in progressive time. It occurs spontaneously in the moment even when we prepare through rehearsals and extensive training. Street dancers still perform with their own bodies, moving to the music. Unless, we consider the use of artificial body parts or enhancements, we're not going to find a widespread effect of technology on our dance. Only with Youtube and Facebook have we seen an increased exposure and awareness of different dancers, crews, and events. But the dancing is still organic.

What does that mean for the future of street dance culture? Will we be left behind as other hip hop elements explore venues with technological enhancements? The plus side of our organic nature is that our dance forms will always remain based in our natural-born abilities enhanced only by training. The negative side is that there are artistic possibilities that we may miss out on without pondering how technology could actually affect our dance movements. While we're not intending to promote dancers becoming like bionic men and women with futuristic implants, it's worth considering how we might translate our movements in a way that can be digitally enhanced to create interesting light shows, moving art installations, or visual effects. There isn't a killer affordable software program out there yet in the mainstream that is marketed towards dancers. Perhaps this will change once we crack how to move street dancing forward in technologically-influenced ways.

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