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Local News: Big Primpin’. The world of rap video dancers Black Habits Articles Hip hop is a man’s world. Rap music and the culture that surrounds it is a better-than-billion-dollar industry, but most of the money favours wallets over purses. Female rappers are outnumbered by dozens to one; hip-hop DJs, producers, promoters and posses are overwhelmingly male. Then there’s the rap video. Eleven out of 10 feature thirsty shots of hard-bodied dancers cavorting in tight or no clothes. It’s a tradition copied from rock (see: David Lee Roth, California Girls): In Rapland, women are hot, horny and lost in lust with their men. It’s also pure fantasy.

The dancer’s job rarely brings a fair paycheque; screentime is measured in milliseconds; talent is too often subordinate to sex appeal. At casting sessions the women are openly treated as interchangeable, disposable goods. In the words of rap celebrity Snoop Dogg, a pretend pimp who moonlights for real as a pornographer, “I bust a brand new ho in every video.” So what motivates the women to compete by the thousands for entry-level jobs with no obvious benefits past minor, fleeting fame? Their varied reasons are explored in Breakin’ In: The Making of a Hip Hop Dancer, first-time filmmaker Elizabeth St. Philip’s year-long study of the lives and ambitions of aspiring video dancers. The movie premiered this spring at Hot Docs, Toronto’s annual do*****entary film festival; it airs nationwide May 27 on CBC Newsworld’s Rough Cuts. Breakin’ In focuses on three black women from Toronto; all three begin the film falling short of their dreams. St. Philip starts with Linda Boahen, a 21-year-old single mother living in Regent Park, one of Toronto’s poorest and toughest neighbourhoods. She is raising her three-year-old son, Jordan, in public housing. Linda has already appeared in six Toronto hip-hop videos, always dancing as an extra, always hoping the next job will bring her big break — she wants to be a famous rapper. In the meantime, she styles hair and makeup to get by. “[It’s] not everyday we have money to buy food, not everyday we have money to go shopping and stuff, but we’re still living,” she tells the camera. “And one day we can have it all.” Next comes Michelle Odle, a 22-year-old university student who is eight months shy of completing her kinesiology degree. Michelle has a video career on par with Linda’s, though she has kept it secret from her classmates. Her parents are anxious for her to pursue medical school after graduation; she is torn between becoming a doctor and remaining a dancer. St. Philip cuts to Mr. and Mrs. Odle. “What would you say or do if she said it’s going to be dance?” the director asks off-camera. Michelle’s father responds: “If she said that I’d probably go ballistic. After she’s regained consciousness we’ll have a discussion about it.” He laughs, though it is hard to know if he’s joking. “No, that would not be acceptable to me. No. I am non-compromising on this.” Breakin’ In’s third lead, Tracy Armstrong, 25, has been working the rap game as a dancer for seven years; she practices her routines seven days a week. Tracy lives to dance, and has seen the peak of the mountain that Linda and Michelle hope to climb: she had a breakout role in reggae star Sean Paul’s smash hit Get Busy video and is known in Toronto hip-hop circles as one of the city’s premiere dancers. Tracy’s determination is boundless, her options in Canada are not. She can earn a maximum $400 dancing in a local video production, but five times that amount for similar work in the United States. “Everything I do right now is for the U.S.,” she says. “I love Toronto, but there’s only so much I can do here.” She vows to establish herself south of the border within the year that Breakin’ In shadows her. “I watch a lot of music videos on television. I see a lot of shows discussing women in music videos — that this is exploitation, that [the dancers] are being victimized,” St. Philip tells me, seated in an empty theatre at the National Film Board’s Toronto headquarters during a rare moment’s peace from the bustle of Hot Docs. “Usually [the speakers are] teachers or outraged feminists. I hadn’t seen much or anything from the dancers’ point of view.” St. Philip, a black woman only a few years older than her subjects, took a year’s leave from her job producing stories about medicine for CTV to make Breakin’ In. She interviewed more than 100 women before narrowing her focus to Michelle and Tracy, both trained dancers from an early age, and Linda, who is self-taught. (A fourth woman was filmed but dropped from the doc’s final cut.) St. Philip tracked her subjects from home to auditions and back again. The video directors she meets along the way — all male, again typical of the rap game — come off as frat boys catching work between steak dinners at strip joints. One explains his artistic vision: “Your eye is captivated by an obvious presence of beauty of some sort. It makes you want to watch the video again. There’s a whole philosophy behind it, of course.... Good lookin’ people make good TV.” A label exec is quicker to the point: “It’s hip hop. We’re looking for ass, titties.” Michelle, auditioning for a $200 role that involves cuddling in a singer’s lap, is shown tugging her hemline lower down her thighs. “My parents probably wouldn’t agree with the skirt and the make-up levels I’m working with right now,” she says. She agrees to a description of the job’s parameters, “as long as it’s clean.” Linda is competing for the same video. She shrugs off questions about a shower scene. “I’m cool with anything,” she laughs. St. Philip quickly learned how her subjects are different. “Michelle loves urban dance, I think she likes the idea of the entertainment industry. But as she keeps going to auditions, she finds out that [the directors] might be less interested in her dance skills than T&A and a pretty face,” St. Philip says. “Linda believes she will be Beyoncé. A lot of people would say, ‘Get real, it’s a one in a billion chance, if that.’ But I think in Linda’s own mind, the world she sees on television seems like it’s one break away — so why not her?” Perhaps because no dancer has leveraged a video career into larger celebrity. Melyssa Ford, a North York, Ontario native who has been the featured bauble in big-budget videos by Jay-Z, R. Kelly, Usher and Sisqó, is probably the rap world’s best-known video actress — she does not dance — but even she has been unable to find significant work elsewhere. Michelle’s video career feels like a diversion, Linda’s a daydream. Tracy, though, is dead serious. With nothing worthwhile happening in Toronto, she borrows $200 from her mother to cover a 12-hour train ride to New York, where megastar Missy Elliott is auditioning dancers for a new video. “To be successful you gotta be very clear about what you want to do,” she says. “Once you’re very clear about that, think about nothing else. Once you think about nothing else, be positive that that is what you want and go for it. Release all fears and be positive.” Elliott’s production company barred St. Philip from filming what was likely the performance of Tracy’s career, robbing Breakin’ In of its natural climax. That’s a rare upset from St. Philip’s sure-footed first movie. Her subjects’ storylines come, by turns, to jarring, triumphant and unsettled conclusions; watch Rough Cuts to work out the math. Breakin’ In: The Making of a Hip-Hop Dancer airs Friday, May 27 on CBC Newsworld’s Rough Cuts at 10 pm ET/ PT.

Note: By Matthew McKinnon, who writes about the arts for May 25, 2005
Posted on Friday, June 03 @ 16:09:53 MST by bspringer

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