How often do you hear the word “authentic” being tossed around?
“This microwavable bao tastes authentic.”
“These Air Forces are authentic – just look at the label.”
“Our brand is soooo authentic, we mean everything we say!”
It's clear that authenticity is one of the most important values in our society - but it means different things to different people.
For dancers, authenticity isn't just some word to be tossed around.
Because dance is a deeply personal art form, steeped in traditions, emotions, and experiences.
Authenticity is what keeps dance alive.
In this article, we’re gonna break down what authenticity means to dancers – our definition, how we apply it, and what you can do to promote authenticity in the community.
Look it up in the dictionary!
You’ll probably find something along the lines of real, genuine, or original.
But dance culture isn’t that simple.
It lives, breathes, and evolves.
So who decides what’s authentic?
When a new dance style breaks onto the scene, it catches on because a whole community gets what that style expresses.
That style was born out of their lived experiences, so it's those very experiences that define the style and lead to its authentic existence.
Hip Hop first exploded in the Bronx where young Black dancers used their movement as a form of emotional release – a positive alternative to the drugs and violence that gripped their neighborhood due to the longstanding effects of segregation.
New Hip Hop dancers of color approached movement from that same lens too.
Does this mean that the dance style didn’t evolve and change?
New Hip Hop dancers will never dance exactly like the OGs.
They continue to honor the original emotions behind the movement, but they have new stories to tell.
When STEEZY created its first Hip Hop program with Soul Zuberi, renowned Hip Hop instructor and activist, he knew the program would be incomplete without a lecture delving into the meaning behind the movement.
“Even as Hip Hop continues to grow, you still can’t embody it without embodying the soul, heartache, and passion that came with it in addition to adding your new flavor.” - Soul Zuberi
This is what authenticity truly means.
It’s not just realness.
It’s community, culture, and intention.
Focus on seeking, understanding, and honoring the cultures that built each dance style!
Interested in House dancing?
Keep in mind that House movement was born in underground clubs where Black DJs began experimenting with breaks, afro beats, and electronic music.
Learn it by taking classes from instructors who have first-hand experience in the underground club scene... or start hitting up those clubs yourself!
Wanna get into Whacking?
Get to know the roots of the movements by watching Lorena Valenzuela's Whacking history lesson on STEEZY Studio – you'll learn that the first Whackers were Black gay men looking for a way to express their unique identity in an oppressive environment.
When you understand the intention behind these movements, you'll be able to execute them without losing their meaning.
Planning to add some Breaking moves to your choreo?
Breaking is a part of Hip Hop culture that emerged in freestyle sessions among young black men and women, alongside Puerto Rican communities in New York.
Start your Breaking education by attending a few legit freestyle Breaking sessions and getting to know the people there.
Basically, don't fake the funk!
Reach out to the people who are immersed in that culture and open up a conversation.
If your goal is to be authentic in your dancing, getting involved with dance communities and cultures is essential.
“When you’re learning a new dance style, you start with your basics and foundations right? Well, learning the history and culture is part of that foundation – and you’ll never look right executing the moves without that foundation behind it” - Soul Zuberi
...But it's not always that simple.
As dance styles evolve, it's getting tougher to understand the fine lines between authentic appreciation and cultural appropriation.
And it's especially challenging for new dancers and media companies/advertisers who don't know how deeply personal dances can be.
You don't know what you don't know – so, you gotta be willing to learn.
When dancers, companies, and media outlets borrow dance moves, they often neglect to share profits, benefits, or clout with the original creators.
They may not do this out of malice, but they don't recognize the significance of what they're borrowing.
When the YouTube team at STEEZY Studio made a video featuring club dance moves inspired by the Kappa Stroll, we quickly learned that this was not an authentic way to honor that set of moves.
These moves are considered a special rite of passage for members of specific Black fraternities.
In situations like these, the best course of action is to recognize the appropriation, learn about it, and correct it.
Left ignored, the effects of appropriating a dance culture, even unintentionally, can be profound.
“Think about it. People have died over the things that you’re taking. People have lost their jobs, been treated like social pariahs, and spent hours laboring over learning these moves in secret. How can you then do those same moves without demonstrating respect to that struggle? You can’t trivialize the experience.” - Soul Zuberi
Photo via The Boston Globe
Take Hip Hop for example.
The fashion is used to sell products, the dance moves are used to sell music personalities, and the “attitude” is used to sell dance classes.
In these commercial settings, they strip away the history and meaning in favor of flashiness and aesthetics.
Dancers are becoming increasingly vocal on social media when appropriation like this occurs, but often, the conversation ends there.
Without opening up a dialogue and showing people how they can do better, we’ll continue to see inauthentic representations of the dance styles we love.
Wanna promote authenticity in the dance community?
Be curious. Ask questions.
When you encounter a new dance style, make use of social media, your instructors, books (anything you can get your hands on) to learn about its roots.
Give credit to the sources who inspired you through shoutouts in Instagram captions, program notes, and interviews.
Join them in their fight for representation!
Support the growth of the creators by attending their classes, screenings, cultural celebrations, art galleries, book signings, and performances.
If you don’t live in a dance hub, use STEEZY Studio to learn moves directly from dance style pioneers – right at home.
“Dance is politics and silence is action. Every time you support the people of that culture, you’re voting in favor of keeping that culture around – that very thing that inspired you in the first place” - Soul Zuberi
Working to minimize cultural appropriation is not about creating gated cultures that only certain people can participate in – it’s the opposite.
You’re breaking down the barriers between dominant cultures and minority cultures, so that everyone receives respect and appreciation for their authentic work.
Authenticity is so much more than genuineness or originality.
You can’t buy it. You can’t manufacture it.
It’s about understanding the deeper meaning behind your movement and expressing those intentions across every aspect of what you do.
When you experience it, you know it and feel it – and so does everyone around you.