(Sarah – Audience Member) A breaking (breakdancing) battle is an infectiously exciting atmosphere, even for an audience member who has never quite managed to master the somersault. The blaring music, head spinning and the final judgment of the winning team create a unique environment where dance — something usually focused on the performative — becomes a competition — a dialogue. And not only a dialogue between the two competing dancers: The entire audience seems to be quite enthusiastic to put their two cents in — cheering, howling, shouting, booing — and any kind of ruckus-causing and verbal feistiness is highly encouraged. A few weeks ago I attended a battle on campus that hosted a bunch of crews from the tri-state area. I found myself swept away by the scene, even working up the courage to call out a few plucky comments myself.
And then something happened that altered my outlook on the environment: A b-girl went up to compete. By now I had become accustomed to the cocky persona dancers adapted during the dance-off, standing across from their opponent, calling them out on repeat moves and generally trying to throw them off. But her opponent was doing something different. He was grabbing his crotch, after which he bent down toward her and blew kisses at her. This wasn’t the typical assertive, performative insult I had been watching. He was targeting her gender. Although no space is truly gender neutral, I had assumed this would be as close as any place could be. I didn’t expect that gender would be used pejoratively here to intimidate someone and delegitimize her moves. It made me wonder: Where are the lines between friendly jibes and sexual objectification? Where, and how, do we draw those lines?
(Stephanie – Breaker) It might make sense to think that the dance floor between two battling crews is a gender-neutral space. At the very least, every dancer is compelled into a uniformly masculine identity in this male-dominated form of dance. However, that hasn’t been my experience. Breaking involves a huge persona component: On the dance floor, you are more "you" than you are in real life, however it is that you craft your style and expression to reflect that identity. An overwhelming majority of the time, b-girls deliberately emphasize their womanhood — with personality, with movements of the hips, with expression and with moves built into their style that are not easy for men to do.
In the battle that Sarah describes, what bothered me was the blowing kisses. Crotch-grabbing, or some variation thereof, is the most popular burn in the breaking world, and it is non-gender specific. The gesture is made by both girls and guys, regardless of anatomical impossibilities, to both girls and guys. It’s part of the psychological battle that accompanies the dance, part of what makes breaking truly unique. You try to get into the mind of your opponent, to throw them off. However, a guy, for instance, would not blow kisses at another guy, although I might playfully blow kisses at a close friend when Sympoh is having an internal, Sympoh-only practice battle. The kissing was more disturbing to me both as a dancer and as a woman — which are, to me, the same identity. The great thing about hip-hop is that after all the crotch-grabbing and battling is done, the two crews come together to congratulate each other — and if a girl is a good dancer, she will always get respect from everyone around. The mutual congratulations may have taken place after this particular instance, but it wasn’t with the same feeling of good, clean competition, nor with sincere sentiment from the b-girl involved.
(Rivka – Bellydancer) The first time I ever performed with Raks Odalisque, Princeton’s belly-dance troupe, I was terrified. Before going on stage, I spoke with a Mormon friend of mine in the group, seeking reassurance that I was not a “slut.” I couldn’t get the word out of my head, and I was certain that when the lights went up and the crowd started catcalling, I would vomit. In contrast to my expectations, the crowd’s reaction had the opposite effect. Both guys and girls called out “appreciatively,” but in some unwritten code, they did not comment on our bodies, opting instead for “do it,” “shake that,” and “aywah” — Arabic for “yes.” These remarks were plenty suggestive, but instead of making me self-conscious, they helped me relax, even prompting me to turn up the heat in a playful call-and-response. In a ballet or modern dance performance, catcalling the dancers would be woefully inappropriate; as a belly dancer, nothing feels worse than a silent crowd.
A different code existed for comments before and after the dance. Some were positive, such as complimenting my ability to move my hips and torso separately, and some were negative, such as commenting on the inappropriateness of my dancing. However, none were suggestive. In all my performances so far, only one friend has broken this code, looking me up and down and saying “nice to ‘see’ you,” followed by another elevator look. Even though it was mild compared to the things people say during a performance, this suggestive comment outside the dance made me feel low. In contrast, the highly suggestive catcalls during the performance give me a “dancer’s high.”
Overall, whether a gesture is offensive, playful or overly sexual seems to rest on two considerations: context and interpersonal relationships. In the battle incident, the part that most disturbed Stephanie was when the b-boy blew kisses, not the dick-grabbing. In belly dancing, blowing kisses would be sweet, while dick-grabbing would be disturbing. What is offensive to a b-girl might inspire a belly dancer, and vice versa; both types of gestures might seem offensive if you don’t know the culture-specific “code.” However, it is also important to know the individual. In belly dancing, audience members who don’t know one of the girls usually sit quietly — most comments and catcalls come from friends. This accords with Stephanie’s observations in the breaking world: Friends know more about the person, so they can come up with personalized burns, and these jibes are more acceptable coming from someone you already know and feel safe around. No matter what, such actions should stem from knowledge of and respect for cultural and individual sensibilities as a unified whole.
Stephanie Teeple is a Wilson School major from Callaway, Virginia. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Sarah Zarrin is a Classics major from Saratoga, California. She can be reached at email@example.com. Rivka Cohen is a Near Eastern Studies major from Charleston, West Virginia. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.