When Seattle-based dance instructor Alexis Ramirez tells people she teaches girls leadership, empowerment, and social justice through Hip Hop dance, reactions run the gamut from nods of approval to cocked eye brows and “you must be kidding me” stares.
An abundance of sexualized images and misogynist lyrics make Hip Hop music unappealing to white mainstream feminists. In African American and Latino feminist circles, however, views are mixed.
Love it or hate it, Hip Hop culture has been a way for marginalized ethnic groups to express themselves.
“I really feel hip-hop dance is very relevant,” said Ramirez, a 27-year- old social innovator and Oakland, California native, who recently worked with Grammy-award winning musician Sheila E. on a performance of young up-and-coming local musicians at Seattle’s Moore Theater. “It’s so prominent in our culture and considered very cool. It’s actually a good medium for teens to learn.
The 16-week after-school dance workshop developed by Ramirez to mentor economically disadvantaged girls is called Majestic Movers. She began last fall with pilot programs at Aki Kurose and Denny, two of Seattle’s low-income middle schools, where 80% of the students qualify for free lunch.
Ramirez’s passion for using hip-hop as a tool for fostering confidence and leadership skills was so compelling she won backing from the Washington, DC-based non-profit, World Learning. Last year, the 80 plus-year-old organization, which promotes education, study abroad and development in 60 countries, chose her out of 159 applicants to participate in its new Advancing Leaders Fellowship. The fellowship was created to support social entrepreneurs working to launch innovative community impact programs.
During the three-month online training course, Ramirez learned how to advance her project with different modules, such as using research tools for fundraising, grant writing and how to better integrate her vision of leadership, social awareness and hip-hop dance for youth development. At the end of the program, she was one of seven fellows awarded a $5000 grant to kick start her community project.
At first the pre-teen girls were shy and self-conscious . After noticing that many of them hid in the back of the troupe, Ramirez structured her next classes around simple warm-up moves aimed at making students comfortable with their bodies.
It wasn’t long before the girls became confident in their movements and started taking charge, switching off leading warm ups and teaching other girls dance steps when one came late or missed a class.
“I like how we supported each other, said 11-year-old Stephanie Paez, a 6th grader at Denny International Middle School who has been in the program since it started. “Nobody makes fun of you. When we don’t know something, we’ve got each other’s backs.”
Next they discussed lyrics, images and the meaning of popular hip-hop songs, including the ones that objectify and sexualize women.
“I tell them they should think critically about the songs they listen to. I’m giving them the tools to think about it for themselves,” said Ramirez, who grew up in California and received a B.A. in anthropology and dance from Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. “They get it.”.
She uses the songs with negative images of women to spark discussion and create awareness. But when it comes to empowerment, Ramirez is careful to choreograph dances to what she calls “conscious hip-hop,” favoring songs by strong female artists like Fifth Harmony’s “Boss”, who sing about confidence and independence and Beyonce’s popular “Run the World (Girls),”, which the first group of Majestic Movers selected for their performance video .
Asked why girls should join this particular hip-hop dance program, 12-year-old Kametti Johar, a 7th grader from Aki Kurose Middle School whose family comes from Ethiopia said, “You learn about stuff like consent. That no means no.” She added: “That’s why we’re dancing to Meghan Trainor’s song ‘No’. It has a message.
As part of the program, Ramirez invited local hip-hop choreographers to give guest lectures. They served as powerful role models by sharing their latest moves and experiences in the dance business. She said one of the highlights of last fall’s pilot was when she took Majestic Movers to see a free-style dance battle. They loved the intensity and the fierce competition but it didn’t escape the girls that almost all of the dancers competing head-to- head before cheering crowds and a panel of judges were male.
“Girls aren’t socialized to just be fearless,” Ramirez said. “Society tells them you need to be nice; you need to be polite; you need to be quiet. That affects how much they want to take risks.”
At this particular dance battle, one of their guest instructors got into the circle and another girl won the competition.
“The girls were so pumped,” recalled Ramirez. “They said that when the girls danced it was their favorite part of the evening”.
By the end of the program the girls have developed self-confidence and a sense of empowerment through hip-hop and Ramirez’s thoughtful facilitation . They may not be ready to enter the dance cypher but they can imagine themselves taking on roles and doing things they may not have considered before joining Majestic Movers hip-hop dance program. They develop a sense of self-worth that’s about who they are, not what they have or what they look like.
That’s a powerful message for pre-teen girls of color who could use more role models in leadership. As one hip-hop legend sings:
I’m not the average girl from your video
And I ain’t built like super model
But I learn to love myself unconditionally
Because I am a queen
I’m not the average girl from your video
My worth is not determined by the price of my clothes
No matter what I’m wearing I will always be