On Popular Dance Aesthetics: Why Backup Dancers Matter to Hip Hop Dance Histories


  • Mary Fogarty Woehrel York University


In this paper, I consider the influence of American and Canadian hip hop dancers who performed as backup dancers and "extras" in film, TV and live music performances. I discuss the significance of these seeming background performances in the light of the local history of breaking in Toronto, Canada, centred on first-hand accounts of two celebrated b-boys, Arnold "Gizmo" Vidad (Bag of Trix crew) and Karl "Dyzee" Alba (Supernaturalz crew). The discussion raises critical issues concerning the notion of "art" in popular culture and probes the tensions inherent in a dance form that has both professional and amateur manifestations. The commercialization of hip hop is interrogated, and the process of professionalization for dancers who require to make a living is contextualized in a way that seeks to demystify the infrastructures that have influenced hip hop dance aesthetics. In doing so, I suggest that entertainment industries have downplayed the significance of dance and dance histories have downplayed the significance of entertainment industries. Studying cultural mediation through social biographies and influences—however paradoxical—affords new routes into analyzing dance practices, lineages, influences, and aesthetics.

Author Biography

Mary Fogarty Woehrel, York University

Mary Fogarty Woehrel is the Graduate Program Director in Dance Studies (MA/PhD) and an associate professor of Dance at York University, Toronto, Canada. She has written about music, film and dance and is most well-known for her ethnographic research about international breaking scenes that appears under the name Mary Fogarty. Her most recent publication is "Why are Breaking Battles Judged?" in The Oxford Handbook of Dance and Competition and her work can also be found in The Oxford Handbook of Dance and the Popular Screen, The Routledge Reader on the Sociology of Music, Continuum, Music and Arts in Action, and Ageing and Youth Cultures: Music, Style and Identity, among other publications.