Before Hamilton became synonymous with hip-hop theatre, nearly five decades of the hip-hop movement supported that massive hit. So, yes, if you’re a high school student reading this article, there’s a good chance your grandparents were grooving along the cutting edge of hip-hop’s birth into our world culture. (Grooving? Go ask your grandma.) 

The start of hip-hop history

In summer 1973 in Brooklyn, NY, DJ Kool Herc was spinning vinyl at a party, and had a wild idea. He put the same record on a pair of turntables, then isolated and extended the instrumental/percussion breaks – all the better to bring dancers onto the floor, he thought. He was more right than he could’ve ever predicted.

The people heard music in a way they’d never before experienced and were pulled to the rhythm and the beat. Without planning to, Herc had created a hot, new form of expression that took root in the souls at that party as soon as the sound hit their ears. From that tiny seed of experience, hip-hop has grown into a global influence in music, dance, fashion, language, technology, art, and so much more. It’s more than a musical category or style of dance: It’s a movement.

But what, exactly, is hip-hop

We did a short, unscientific experiment and said this phrase to a handful of different aged people and ethnic groups asking them to fill in the blank: “We say hip-hop, you say [fill in the blank].”

The answers we got largely fell into three categories:

  • Hip-hop is a movement; a culture
  • Hip-hop is a musical category
  • Hip-hop is a style of dance

Lin-Manuel Miranda on Hip-Hop

In a July 2020 interview with Billboard.com, Lin-Manuel Miranda said, “I mean, hip-hop’s the language of revolution, and it’s our greatest American art form.” 

However, long before Miranda spoke with Billboard, we interviewed him for Dramatics Magazine in March 2016 and he wasn’t talking so much about revolution as he was about being an aspiring actor. Here’s a brief excerpt we love, because, well, #thespiansforever:

[Miranda’s] earliest artistic goal was to be in his sixth-grade play. “The entire school would watch the sixth-grade play,” he said. “I remember as young as second or third grade already fantasizing, ‘What’s going to be the sixth-grade play when we get to sixth grade?’ It’s funny in retrospect to think how much of my life was spent thinking, ‘What show are we going to get to do?’ which is not the usual elementary school concern.

For fun, test your Hamilton IQ with our most popular quiz.

Hip-hop in theatre today

While Hamilton gets a huge amount of attention these days (rightly so), hip-hop’s influence has been seen and heard in a variety of musical productions: “Witch’s Rap” from Into the Woods, Stephen Sondheim in 1987; “Today 4 U” from Rent, Jonathan Larson in 1996; and “Dancing Is Not a Crime” from Footlose, Jeremy Kushnier in 1998, just to name a few.

Broadway choreography has also embraced hip-hop, with folks like: Jennifer Weber, 2023 Tony nominee for & Juliet and KPOP; Andy Blankenbuehler, multi-Tony winner for In the Heights and Hamilton; and Chirstopher Wheeldon, the talent behind MJ the Michael Jackson musical.

Choreography is especially important because it’s the easiest segway for students to bring their existing talents to the stage. If you’ve been to the International Thespian Festival (ITF), you’ve likely danced with Santana Trujillo in one of her hip-hop workshops. And if you haven’t experienced ITF yet, join us June 23-28, 2024 in Bloomington, Indiana.

Santana Trujillo is the owner of Gayton Dance Studio in Denver, and a favorite teaching artist at Thespian events like ITF in the United States and internationally.

Here’s Trujillo showing you how to step up your freestyle and TikTok game. These are five hip-hop dance moves every theatre student needs to know. Stand out at your next audition!

So whatever your niche is now or what you hope it will be, do yourself a favor and embrace hip-hop as one more must-understand theatre fundamental. It’s the way of the world, on stage and off.  ♦

Patty Craft is a regular contributor to Dramatics.org. 

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