Classic Songs for Hip-Hop Class That Never Get Old

Hip-hop choreographer and teacher Jonathan Lee has worked with recording artists as well-known as Madonna, Britney Spears and Pitbull, but that doesn't mean he can always connect to their music at first listen. “Sometimes I have to take away the lyrics and listen solely to the instruments," he says. But he still tries to remain true to the song's essence: “I approach choreography like a singer approaches a song," Lee explains. “If there are ad-libs or slow runs, I'll incorporate that into my choreography."

This kind of attention to detail also translates to Lee's teaching style, particularly when it comes to beginners. “I can break hip hop down for beginners and make them feel comfortable," he says. “I need to stand out from all the other hip-hop teachers out there, by making my class a no-judgment zone while still challenging my students. I want them to leave class thinking, 'That hurt so good.'"

Artist: Michael Jackson

Song: “Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'" “I've used this in my warm-up—as soon as I play it, the room goes up. Every time I hear it, whether I'm in the club or it's on the radio, it gets me so hyped. It's timeless."

Artist: Michael Jackson

Song: “Smooth Criminal"

“I first saw the video for this song when I was 5 or 6, and when he did that lean, that was everything for me. I knew right away that's what I wanted to do when I grew up. I've remixed this song so it's slowed-down and more of an a cappella version, and I use it during stretches on the floor in my warm-up."

Artist: Missy Elliott

Song: “Work It"

“Missy changed the game of hip hop. There are so many things you can find to work with in her music. She plays with house rhythms and break beats, so sometimes I work in a little more popping and locking. It's so versatile."

Artist: Mary J. Blige

Song: “Real Love"

“There's a particular step Mary does in every one of her performances—she has this Mary groove. I've incorporated it into my choreography. I love her cadences as a singer: She has the flow of an emcee but the passion of a soul singer."

Artist: Bob Marley

Song: “Could You Be Loved"

“This song takes me back to my Jamaican roots—my mom was born in Jamaica. You hear that guitar solo first, and then when the reggae beat drops, the song totally changes. I love reggae and dance hall music. I grew up in Flatbush, Brooklyn, and my first parties were all dance hall reggae.

Teaching Tips
A 2019 Dancewave training. Photo by Effy Grey, courtesy Dancewave

By now, most dance educators hopefully understand that they have a responsibility to address racism in the studio. But knowing that you need to be actively cultivating racial equity isn't the same thing as knowing how to do so.

Of course, there's no easy answer, and no perfect approach. As social justice advocate David King emphasized at a recent interactive webinar, "Cultivating Racial Equity in the Classroom," this work is never-ending. The event, hosted by Dancewave (which just launched a new racial-equity curriculum) was a good starting point, though, and offered some helpful takeaways for dance educators committed to racial justice.

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The author, Robyn Watson. Photo courtesy Watson

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According to, out of the 30 top-ranked college dance programs in the U.S., tap dance is offered at 19 of them, but only one school requires majors to take more than a beginner course—Oklahoma City University. Many prestigious dance programs, like the ones at NYU Tisch School of the Arts and SUNY Purchase, don't offer a single course in tap dance.

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After months of lockdowns and virtual learning, many studios across the country are opening their doors and returning to in-person classes. Teachers and students alike have likely been chomping at the bit in anticipation of the return of dance-class normalcy that doesn't require a reliable internet connection or converting your living room into a dance space.

But along with the back-to-school excitement, dancers might be feeling rusty from being away from the studio for so long. A loss of flexibility, strength and stamina is to be expected, not to mention emotional fatigue from all of the uncertainty and reacclimating to social activities.

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