As more and more accounts of systemic racism in dance are surfacing, many dance organizations are beginning to reckon with histories and current realities of discrimination. For Lex Ramirez, a hip hop choreographer, teacher, and community member, this landscape became a critical moment to educate dancers on the history and culture of hip hop. We jump on a Zoom call to talk about hip hop culture, her work, and her hopes for a changing dance community.
Ramirez tells me she’s shy – but as a kid, she was really, really shy, until at age eight she started dancing ballet folklórico, traditional Mexican dance rooted in folk culture. “I really liked it and I was really good at it,” she says. “It gave me this newfound confidence and a voice that I didn’t really have prior so I instantly fell in love.”
Describing her hip hop background, Ramirez tells me, “I wasn’t studio-bred. Studio hip hop wasn’t really a thing when or where I was growing up, so I learned through friends, through my parents because they grew up in hip hop culture.” The teacher for her high school hip hop team introduced Ramirez to the Oakland battle scene, and soon she was watching battles and joining in cyphers most weekends. While in college in Minneapolis, she learned from local guest instructors who came to teach her hip hop dance team.
I ask her how she thinks growing up in an organic hip hop culture, rather than a studio, shaped her understanding of dance. “Dance is part of my culture – I’m Mexican and Nicaraguan on both sides of the family. We love to dance, and I learned very early on that dance was a communal thing, a way for the community to feel joy and to feel connected with one another.”
She contrasts this feeling of joy and connection with some negative experiences she had dancing in a studio when she first moved to Seattle in 2013, where the way other dancers conducted themselves left her feeling intimidated, “kind of competitive,” and out of place. But it helped her envision the kind of dance community she wanted to see: “That incident really sparked a fire in me, to always be about supporting people, being inclusive, caring with criticism, and giving support so that people can grow.”
Ramirez turned instead to the Seattle dance battle scene and found a thriving hip hop community from there. “I found that the hip hop community was loving, forgiving, inclusive […] I felt really safe and supported. It was where I could take risks, where people aren’t judging me or competing with me.” She cites the crew Massive Monkees and waacker Tracey Wong, familiar faces in the battle scene, as instrumental in her learning and growth as a dancer and community member. She immersed herself in that culture, learning hip hop history and fundamentals, which then served as the foundation for her work.
The values she admired in the battle scene come through in Drop Squad, the dance crew she leads. Since she took over leadership, she’s ingrained her values about what a dance community should be into the crew. “There’s no auditions, it’s for all experience levels. [It] just goes with my belief that dance should be accessible to all people and it shouldn’t be this intimidating, competitive space to go into. At the core I believe people should be given a safe supportive space to explore dance and discover a passion.”
She tells me that this is why her niche is teaching beginner dancers, or dancers who are getting back into dance after a break. “I don’t want there to be barriers for people who want to explore dance.” And she’s proactive about trying to remove those barriers however she can; in 2015, Ramirez received a grant to teach a Hip Hop and Social Justice program to middle school girls. “I believed learning about hip hop dance specifically would empower these girls, many from under-resourced communities, to be leaders in their communities.”
Most recently, she draws from her immersion in hip hop history and culture in her new hip hop fundamentals class at Westlake Dance Center. She tells me that an instructor at WDC reached out to her specifically to give up their teaching spot to Ramirez, recognizing a need for a hip hop class informed by history. “There’s a lot of conversation right now about appropriating Black culture and hip hop, and calling classes ‘hip hop’ when it’s really a blend of [styles], and not about teaching hip hop history.”
I ask her for a rundown of her fundamentals class. How does she honor that history in her teaching? By going back to why hip hop was created, she says. She gives me a summary of what she tells students: it started in the 1970s in the Bronx, where Black and Latinx communities created a culture that was a safe escape from oppressive circumstances. “That’s why I really stress building community in my classes.” For example, she always groups up and asks an opening question of the class so they can get to know each other.
“It’s important for me to honor those roots and keep talking about them throughout class. I try to center BIPOC in the music I choose.” She chooses music specific to different points in hip hop history, talks about who the artists were, and takes students through social dances from the era.
She also acknowledges a racial dynamic to her position as an instructor: while she’s Latinx, she’s not Black. “That’s why it’s important for me to talk about the history and to address the fact that I too am somewhat of a visitor to this culture. I can’t just take what I want and what I like from it and give the creators no credit. That’s been a journey of learning, getting feedback from people, listening, and doing the best I can to honor hip hop culture and pass on knowledge that is correct.” She says she appreciates being corrected and called in: “I’m super open to people more knowledgeable than me saying, you know, ‘actually…’”
I also ask her about the context around her class at Westlake, which recently changed the names of its other hip hop classes to “Choreography.” She says, “It’s significant because there’s a history of studios using ‘hip hop’ – that name – as a way to hook students in without teaching the history and fundamentals.” She explains that in many classes labeled “hip hop,” instructors just jump in to teaching a combination, “but there’s there’s no disclaimer that this is inspired by hip hop, or this is a blend of my styles. So it gives this idea that hip hop is commercial – it doesn’t honor how hip hop was created. And then it’s taught in spaces that aren’t inclusive of the people who created hip hop. It’s significant to teach youth where this dance comes from. I feel like that kind of respect is given to a lot of other dance forms but not necessarily hip hop.”
She refers back to that desire to see hip hop respected when I ask her what changes she’d like to see in the Seattle dance community and beyond. “I’d love to see a shift in how people think about which dances and genres are important. We need to start giving equal weight to all these dance forms so people who want to dance are seeing people like them teaching and taking classes.” She’s thinking about dance at the university level, and how hip hop is represented in other venues like music spaces. She recounts experiences with white leadership at music and arts institutions lacking knowledge of hip hop as a culture and art form – “It’s the biggest genre in the nation and you don’t know anything about it? And you work in music?” She wants to see institutions educating themselves proactively, rather than reactively.
She’s thinking about this on the smaller scale too. She’d love to see studios providing training opportunities, and instructors taking initiative to go through them. This is inspired by her work at Seattle Theatre Group, where she’s working on, among other things, a series of short hip hop instructional videos for kids taught bilingually, in Spanish and English. “I’d want people to incorporate more of those conversations [around equity, diversity, inclusion and accessibility] and trainings, that way they’re not teaching one demographic, but have an awareness of how to teach other groups.”
So she’s got her crew, her classes, her projects with STG – anything else on the horizon?
“First of all,” she says, “[the pandemic] has been really rough, and I’m really proud of myself for just staying afloat and continuing to teach dance. I don’t have any big works coming up because mostly I’m in community, teaching, creating works for my crews, things like that, but I do want to create something very meaningful that incorporates hip hop and my Latinx culture and maybe live music, so I’m trying to manifest that, but it’s just not possible right now…I’m just excited to have meaningful work during these times.”
Catch Lex’s classes socially distanced in Volunteer Park on Tuesdays, online with Velocity Dance Center on Wednesdays, and online-in person hybrid with Westlake Dance Center on Thursdays.