The name of the course is Beginning Jazz Dance, but with the rhymes of Fat Joe spilling from the four mounted speakers inside Ausettua Amor Amenkum's Tulane classroom, there's no question why this is called the "hip-hop dance class." The 27 students crammed onto the slick wooden floor are typical of this class, not just in size but makeup: there's only one African American and only one male. They're also lucky, because despite the addition of another class, Amenkum's hip-hop dance class consistently features a waiting list of dozens hoping to see her connect the cultural dots between African and hip-hop music in motion.
"The crazy thing is that the hip-hop class came about as kind of an accident," jokes the 45-year-old Amenkum after class, her waist-length dreadlocks draped over and around silver and shell jewelry and all-black dancewear. "I was trying to warm up the students in my African dance class (in 1998) by listening to hip-hop. Then Bev (Beverly Trask, member of the Tulane dance faculty since 1979) walked by and heard it and said, 'You're teaching hip-hop.' 'No, I'm not,' I said. The discussion went from there and we knew we wanted to teach hip-hop here."
"Ausettua's fantastic," says Trask, who also collaborates with Amenkum in Visual Rhythm, a fall program that takes Tulane freshmen to Congo Square for a glimpse at the city's unique dance legacy. "The response from Tulane is overwhelming; she could be teaching two more classes. Each semester, it becomes a community of student and teacher that is a really strong bond of dance and life."
The Seventh Ward native earned her degree in psychology from Dillard University. But her interest in ethnic dance led to her becoming the director of the Kumbuka African Dance and Drum Collective, a group that since 1981 has been dedicated to presenting and preserving traditional African culture. Tulane recruited her to teach African dance in 1993.
While Amenkum was initially apprehensive about teaching a hip-hop dance class, she appreciates how it complements her African dance class. "I kept telling myself I know how to dance, but I think of hip-hop as something that's part of the younger generation," she says. "But I realized with the first class that the spirit would take over, the pulse would take over from the music, and it would take a life of its own.
"In the African class, we have live drums, and that makes it intense," Amenkum continues. "When you leave, you feel elevated. And African dance is different in that it is extracted from such a rich tradition that has been around for centuries. That's why I recommend students take African dance first. Hip-hop is built on African elements. Hip-hop is a hybrid dance; it actually draws upon African, jazz, modern and ballet."
While Amenkum favors R&B -- from newcomers like Usher to Janet Jackson's older material -- she still enjoys New Orleans' patented bounce brand of hip-hop found in rappers Mystikal and Juvenile, artists she says represent the city's "long-time obsession with the butt."
"New Orleans rap has that bounce, it has that pulse that runs through all of it," Amkenum says. "That's how I select music for class. I want music that's current, that's popular with the students, but it's gotta have that pulse and stay funky."
Amenkum's appreciation for both forms of dance inspired Nina Bozak to take Amenkum's African dance course before moving on to the hip-hop class. Bozak says the classes add even more diversity to her dancing repertoire, which already includes flamenco, eastern European folk and Latin.
"At first, it was really hard to tune into the drummers (in the African class)," says Bozak, the choreographer of the Shim Sham Revue's burlesque troupe the Southern Jezebelles. "But once you can tune into them, it opens up a whole new world as far as rhythm goes. The way your body moves, it all comes from drums.
"I learned from all of this that there's this whole lineage of dance that stems from African dance," Bozak continues. "And then when it hit the United States, especially New Orleans, it evolved into jazz, which evolved into hip-hop. It helps so much when you learn where it all comes from."
While Amenkum is determined to teach students like Bozak the rudiments of dance, she conceptualizes the hip-hop courses as ideally having a much broader impact. "A lot of times we end class with a lecture, because something comes up and we talk about the rappers or whatever. From that, it goes on to the sort of dialogue we had today," Amenkum says. She has just concluded a class discussion on the common use of explicit language in rap lyrics, with the students finding it a non-issue, while she deems it "scary."
"Even though it's a dance class, it's necessary to have some dialogue about the history of hip-hop," she adds. "The future of it, what impacts it, and why it is so popular among white college students. It's an interesting phenomenon."
- Tulane University
- When she's not placing one campus under a groove, Tulane dance instructor Ausettua Amor Amenkum also directs the popular Kumbuka African Dance and Drum Collective.