Koutsougera, Natalia. “Performative femininities in transnational urban dance styles: Aspects of gendered resistance.” CHS Research Bulletin 10 (2022). http://nrs.harvard.edu/URN-3:HLNC.ESSAY:102284673.
Fellow in Comparative Cultural Studies 2021–22
Urban dance is often used as an umbrella term which encompasses hip hop, street and club dance styles such as breakdance, popping, locking, waving, hip hop party dance, dancehall, house dance, waacking, voguing, afrostyles etc. This research focused mainly on urban dance styles which were initially developed within metropolitan environments of the US during the 1970s. They encapsulate afro-diasporic and latino-diasporic cultural values and their current immense reappropriation correlates to multicultural and cosmopolitan identities and lifestyles. These transnational dance scenes constitute male-dominated, female-dominated and/or queer-dominated zones. The aim of this project was to explore the performative possibilities of contemporary urban dance femininities in Greece and foreground their resistant narratives through ethnographic methods and additional snowball interviewing techniques.
This research is focused exclusively on urban dance styles that are related in Greece by some means to hip hop culture, such as breakdance, popping, waving, hip hop party dance, dancehall, afrostyles, waacking and voguing. They also constitute male-dominated (e.g. breakdance, popping), female-dominated (e.g. waacking, dancehall, afrostyles), queer-dominated (voguing, ballroom culture) and gender-mixed (e.g. hip hop party dance, waving) zones. Male breakdancers are those who usually hold the reins of hip hop authenticity and develop exclusionary discourses regarding dance directed towards those outside the breakdance community. In this sense, hip hop becomes a boundary for authenticity. According to my long-term ethnography, the translocation of young women from breakdance to other dance styles which incorporate more feminine or gender-neutral elements above other things, involves a gendered dimension and stems from the exclusion they may receive from male hip hop dance communities. As this research has designated it is not easy for bgirls (breakdance girls) and female poppers to stay for a long time in these spaces, as they are often receptors of intimidations, mansplaining and “bro-code” attitudes.
Although the research had embarked with a transcultural prospect, due to the pandemic limitations it remained in Greek geographical borders. However my forthcoming documentary “Girls Wanna JUST Dance” (November 2022) manages to capture transcultural aspects. Further, the research resulted in the creation of a global digital questionnaire which will circulate for 12 months and contingently will prove to be a useful tool to support further international research and a following book. The research project also supplemented the documentary.
Performative femininities in hip hop, street and club dance styles
The concepts of performativity and the performative are commonly known as employed by Judith Butler (1990). Through the constant repetition of social norms, ruptures may occur which expose the fallacy of the Law and in terms of gender, heteronormativity. This perspective has proved to be very productive in terms of the performativity in urban dance. Both male, female and gender queer dancers through reiterated dance acts – mobilized through “freestyle” and the struggle for a distinctive dance style – experiment with the limits of institutional norms inside hip hop and wider hegemonic structures. This creates a moving terrain of exclusions and inclusions in the intersection of gender and authenticity.
Femininity as a cultural construct always plays a pivotal role in hip hop and street dance cultures either as a stigmatized attribute (e.g. breakdance and hip hop styles) or as an important axiom (e.g. vogue femme, waacking) which needs to worked and cultivated. Certain values in urban dance such as musicality, circular movement and grace are often associated by dancers with the category of the female.
This research has found so far that few female hip hop dancers in male-dominated spaces strategically employ material connotations of femininity (e.g. long colorful nails, short tops, skirts, cyclical movements, movements from local effeminate popular dances such as tsifteteli) or feminist language to promote their own feminine embodiments amongst men. On the contrary in female-dominated or queer-dominated dance styles things are much different. We observe the performance of hyperfeminine selves whose authenticities revolve around the experimentation with different properties of the feminine. However the gendered identities of all dancers are not experienced organically through a compact notion of femininity. Femininity emerges as a fluid and elusive category.
In the framework of Greek hip hop, young women who experiment with their femininity through hip hop may be represented as “dangerous”. Female dangerousness as the border and disclosure of gender power relations is not a newly discovered phenomenon in modern Greece as it is a common topic of exploration in anthropological works.Synonymous to defiance, eventually this female dangerousness in hip hop and street dance cultures constitutes an amalgam of both culturally constructed notions of femininity in Greece and imaginative diasporic black and latinos’ nuggets. It resonates with the transnational hybridity of contemporary hip hop.
Α view to gendered resistance
Gendered resistance in urban dance styles depends on the male, female or queer dominated framework they belong. The notion of resistance is a highly problematized area in the social sciences. During this research the interpretation of resistance evolved through the triptych of queering, vulnerability and agonism.
Firstly I utilized the critical lenses of queering (Warner 1993, Sullivan 2003, Butler 2011) to interpret the performativities of cisgender and gender queer dancers. Queering was realized through the use of strategic parodying of heteropatriachal normativities through dance, the hybridization of androcentric hip hop styles with effeminate urban dance styles in choreographies and competitions (all-style battles) or through the immediate appropriation of queer dance styles (e.g. voguing). Vulnerability as conceived in Butler, Gambetti and Sabsay’s book (2016) is construed conjointly with resistance in a synergetic, causative and interweaving manner. In these terms, this research designated that women may resist not only in sovereignty and bodily competence (e.g. breakdance) but also unconsciously through the exposure of their vulnerability or failure to repeat male competence. Following this lead, notions of resistance and resilience are viewed and interpreted in this case not under the prism of antagonism and victorious subjectivity but as agonism: as constant strategic open-ended challenging instead of momentary frontal collision (Athanasiou 2017).
The augmenting incidents of femicides and transphobia in Greece and the recent developments of the Greek #Me Too resonating global feminist emancipations have reinforced the resistant narratives of cisgender and queer dancers who explore more subversive and gender-conscious pathways both in their off-line and virtual worlds. However the majority of women in these styles keep a low profile in order to survive male catachresis and find a female co-dancer to cope with a common mentality. They may adopt epidermically feminist-like positions or keep an elastic-interstitial stance which serves their profits in the large-scale dance scene avoiding blatant resistant confrontations.
The main resistance strategies adopted through femininity from women rest with the abandonment of male-dominated hip hop dance styles and the embracement of dance styles where femininity is celebrated. Women feel more comfortable in their safe zones to fight misogyny and mingle with other women and queer of gender people. At the same time, Lgbtqi+ populations through the embracement of dance styles such as waacking and voguing resist heteropatriarchy through the expression of their fluid sexualities. Parallelly, gendered resistance is realized within intersectional frameworks. Thus, women and Lgbtqi+ populations through urban dance resist against parental structure and class pressure, populist nationalist rhetoric, cruelty over gender difference, governmental restraints imposed due to the pandemic condition and various forms of precarity. Non-Greek female dancers who live in Greece through mingling with Greek crews resist racism and marginalization.
Resistance in which ways?
Dancers’ gendered resistance is played out verbally, bodily and spiritually. Women and Lgbtqi+ populations may verbally interrupt incidents of mansplaining and slut-shaming, perform effeminate dance poses and employ unexpectedly feminine elements in dance moments, expose their muscular or semi-naked bodies in the social media, use drag techniques and participate in protest marches to support Lgbtqi+ rights. Women create “healing zones” with feminine atmospheres (e.g. a bgirl often trains with soft pop music to heal from machismo) and explore their femininities away from male gaze. They also embrace hip hop and street spirituality.
Through urban, hip hop and street dances more and more cisgender women and queer individuals constitute free-floating and fragmented bodies. Through alternating liquefactions and concretions of their bodies they reinvent new movement languages which incarnate fantasies and imaginary selves, deconstruct previous dance imaginaries and gendered embodiments, and experiment with new subjectivations, meanings and modalities of dance power and desire.
To conclude cisgender women with their ambiguous performances together with non-binary and queer collectivities in urban dance, disrupt the boundaries of cis straight femininity and expand its meaning while exposing cisgender identity as drag, as parody, characterized by elasticity and openness. Both gendered groups expose the illusionary status of heteronormativity inside hip hop and society through femininity. In such terms the authenticity of hip hop and street dance performance in Greece is rendered liminal, ambivalent, fluid and contested. Accordingly, gendered resistance is negotiated and renegotiated through constant and repetitive performativity. And through incessant performativity urban dance femininities consolidate a queer horizon and envisage how hip hop and street dance should be.
Contribution of the CHS Fellowship
This research was a continuation of previous audiovisual and ethnographic works. However, during my CHS Fellowship I had the chance to delve into the notion of resistance and dismantle the polymorphous subversive narratives of dancing femininities. I also had the chance to focus on the notion of femininity and deconstruct it from a queering perspective. I am thankful to the Center of Hellenic Studies for the access to the Harvard online resources as I managed to gather a significant body of literature ranging from urban, hip hop and street dance studies to femininity studies, post-structuralist feminist work, performance theory and queer theory.
I intend to present extensively the findings of this research project in the CHS Greece Annual Research Workshop 2022 alongside with a sample of my audiovisual work in progress. I will also optimize the findings for the completion of a book and during the post-production stage of my ethnographic documentary. The contribution of the CHS fellowship will be mentioned in all these forthcoming ventures.
Results relevant to this project were discussed in the following papers:
- Natalia Koutsougera, “Cisfemininities as bodies-without-organs in hip hop street and urban dance styles”, Hip Hop Dance Almanac, 2021.
- Hip Hop Dance Almanac // Ink Cypher
- Natalia Koutsougera, “‘Out in the streets’: hip hop narratives in contemporary Greece”, Meridians – Feminism, Race, Transnationalism (forthcoming Spring 2023).
- Koutsougera Natalia, “‘The voice of the street’: ‘street’ self, ‘street’ spirit and woman’s performativity in hip hop” ( “Του δρόμου η φώνη”: Στριτ εαυτός, στριτ πνεύμα και γυναικεία επιτελεστικότητα στο χιπ χοπ). Feministiqá. Vol 2. Spring 2019.
- Koutsougera Natalia, “Women’s performativities and gender politics in hip hop and street dance cultures in Greece”, Dance Studies Association 2018. Conversations Across the field of Dance Studies. The Popular as the Political | Volume XXXVIII.
Athanasiou A., 2017. Agonistic mourning: Political Dissidence and the Women in Black. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Bragin N., 2014. “Techniques of black male re/dress: Corporeal drag and kinesthetic politics in the rebirth ofwaacking/punkin”, Women & Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory, Vol 24(1), p. 61-78.
Butler J., 1990. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. London: Routledge.
Butler J., 2011. Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex. London: Routledge.
Butler J., Gambetti Z., Sabsey L., 2016. Vulnerability in Resistance. Durham and London: Duke University Press.
Gupta-Carlson, 2010. Planet B-Girl: Community Building and Feminism in Hip-Hop, New Political Science, 32:4, 515-529.
Johnson I. K., 2014. “From blues women to b–girls: Performing badass femininity”, Women and Performance: A Journal offeminist Theory, Vol 24 (1), p. 15-28.
Leblanc L., 1999. Pretty in Punk: Girls’ Gender Resistance in a Boys’ Subculture. London: Rutgers University Press.
Muñoz J. E., 2019. Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. New York: NYU Press.
Pabón J. N. & Smalls Sh. P., 2014. “Critical intimacies: hip hop as queer feminist pedagogy”, Women & Performance: a journal of feminist theory, 24:1, 1-7.
Sullivan N., 2003. A Critical Introduction to Queer Theory. New York: New York University Press.
Warner M., 1993. Fear of a Queer Planet: Queer Politics and Social Theory. Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press.