New hip-hop class reinforces the power of community through dance

By Emma Yarbrough | Emory Report | Oct. 20, 2020

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Julio Medina is breaking new ground for the Emory Dance Program, helping students connect through the university's first course in hip hop dance. Photo by Gianna Mercandetti.

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In 2013, Julio Medina graduated from Emory College of Arts and Sciences and left Atlanta to pursue a graduate degree from the UCLA Department of World Arts and Cultures/Dance. A QuestBridge scholar and Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellow, Medina knew he wanted to eventually join the academic world. Last year, he returned to Emory as a faculty member in the Emory Dance Program.

This semester, Medina realizes another goal: teaching Emory’s first course in hip-hop dance.

“I actually feel that was my subconscious goal when I graduated,” says Medina. “When I left [Emory], I sort of thought, ‘I want to get hip-hop into dance curriculums at the university level.’”

Often regarded as a popular form of dance not suitable for institutions of higher learning, hip-hop dance is slowly making inroads at universities, challenging the traditional, Eurocentric curricula that lauds ballet and modern dance as the sole pillars of formal training.

For his part, Medina sees inclusion of hip-hop classes as an opportunity to expand the Emory Dance Program’s reach on campus.

“There’s room to grow, room for flexibility in dance programs. We don't need to make everyone dance hip-hop, but it can be a viable and valuable option,” says Medina. “There’s a community of students that we can draw into the program if we open up these types of classes.”

Lori Teague, director of the Emory Dance Program, agrees.

“This form is about improvisation and individuality — an expression of power and creativity,” Teague says. “This is where it aligns beautifully with the mission of our program. It is drawing in a different kind of dancer with different strengths. It is always good to broaden what you can offer because it allows you to deepen what you value in your program.”

Because dance requires specialized marley floors to protect against injury, Medina’s course is taught in person. This offers students an opportunity to experience the community that results from bodies sharing space, instructors note. But they share that communal experience while adhering to strict guidelines to ensure their safety, such as following established traffic patterns throughout the space and dancing within individually designated six-foot squares.

“We get to feel and dance with the ensemble in real time, which is something that can’t be replicated through Zoom,” says Genevieve Chan, a first year student from Taipei, Taiwan. “Cheering on our classmates, calling and responding to each other’s movements and having the space to share our art is a very valuable experience.”

“When I think about hip-hop dance, and this is true of other African dance forms, it is very much a collective experience,” explains Medina. “It goes back to the ring shout tradition as well — the circle in African dance. The observers are as much involved as the main participant. The cheering is in fact saying ‘I see you. I acknowledge you. I acknowledge your efforts.’ It’s a way to build people up and support them in a way they may not be getting in society.”

Even Medina can’t help but get caught up in the festive energy of his class. “I think students are leaving class a little bit happier,” he says. “That also falls on me. When I’m teaching hip-hop, I’m a little bit livelier. I feel like a DJ or an MC trying to hype up the crowd.”