CM . . .
. Volume XIII Number 2 . . . .September 15, 2006
Breakin’ In: The Making of a Hip Hop Dancer.
Elizabeth St. Philip (Writer & Director). Silva Basmajian (Producer).
Montreal, PQ: National Film Board of Canada, 2005.
57 min., VHS or DVD, $99.95.
Order Number: C9105 048.
Women in popular culture.
Grades 10 and up / Ages 15 and up.
Review by Frank Loreto.
In the land of hip-hop, I am clearly an alien. I know where it is situated on the musical map; I teach many of its residents; I can see that it is a big place with lots of people who seem happy there. However, I cannot understand the language, the culture or why anyone would willingly embrace the place. I had hoped that Breakin’ In would shine a new light and show me how old and stodgy I have become. Now, seeing how the land treats its female population, I dislike the place even more.
Breakin’ In is the story of three young women dancers in the hip-hop music scene. All three come from Toronto, and each has a desire to succeed in this difficult world. Linda, at 21, is a single mother of a three-year-old son. Michelle, a trained dancer majoring in Kinesiology, is trying to decide between a career in dancing or medicine. Twenty-five-year-old Tracey, seven years in the industry, wishes to launch an American career and knows that time is not her friend. Breakin’ In is the story of three young women dancers in the hip-hop music scene. All three come from Toronto, and each has a desire to succeed in this difficult world. Linda, at 21, is a single mother of a three-year-old son. Michelle, a trained dancer majoring in Kinesiology, is trying to decide between a career in dancing or medicine. Twenty-five-year-old Tracey, seven years in the industry, wishes to launch an American career and knows that time is not her friend.
Breakin’ In follows each dancer and shows what it takes to be a star and what it could possibly cost. This is not a film for the faint-hearted as the language is harsh, graphic, and some of the people in charge are so despicable that one could question the legality of their existence. However, all three women know this in advance.
Linda openly states that her major asset is, “my ass.” She has had a difficult life so far. At 18, she was alone with her baby and living in shelters. She states that “not every day we had money for food.” In the hopes of being noticed, she dances at two nightclubs, three nights a week. She auditions for the video follow-up to the song, “Take dem clothes off,” but does not make the cut. If she had, she was planning on using the $200 to help her family and her mom. The father of her son criticizes how she is raising their child and thinks that she should concentrate on school and family first. As the film progresses, Linda discovers that she is pregnant and is unsure if she wants the baby or not. Her goal of becoming a dancer is still a priority, and so later on, when she says that she “took the baby out,” her dream can stay alive. Neither she nor her boyfriend were ready for a new baby.
Michelle is a dancer just about to complete her degree in Kinesiology. Her parents, aware of her desire to pursue hip-hop dance, are not supportive. Her father states that there is to be “no compromise” in what she chooses to do. He feels that the “videos are regressive regarding the feminist movement. All has been wasted.” Michelle also auditions for the “Take dem clothes off” video and is successful. She is asked how far she is willing to go, and she admits that she does not know. This is not an actual dancing role, but it would be good resumé material. She is presented to the artist Thug Pretty who is looking for, “ass, titties, nice bodies.” She is willing to wear provocative clothing, lingerie, but ultimately refuses the part. She will “not compromise her values--like wearing clothes”. At the end of the film, Michelle decides to go to grad school, not medicine.
Tracy has been in this business for seven years and is considered one of the best in the Toronto. In the United States, she would be earning four times the $400 she makes in Toronto for a video. She feels that it is time to move south, and so when she hears of a Missy Elliot video audition in New York, she has to go. She borrows $200 from friends to pay for the trip and joins the 2000-2500 applicants for the eight places on the video. In one scene in the film, she attempts to get a credit card from a salesperson in a mall, but when she answers the question, “Where do you work?” the application is torn up in front of her. She goes to the stores to look as she cannot afford to buy anything. One fan approaches her and is thrilled to get her autograph. Tracey’s gamble pays off as she is selected and joins the Missy Elliot tour. The film does not show what kind of dancing she is doing.
Breakin’ In is disturbing in so many ways. The hip-hop industry generates $1.2 billion. A video can cost half a million dollars to produce. The dancers make $100 a video or nothing if they need the screen time. One of the agents states that he is looking for “eye-candy, voluptuous, Chinese look. A pretty face in a bikini ain’t the same thing. Good looking people make good tv.” The dancers are chosen not so much for their dancing skill as for body and looks. In Thug Pretty’s assessment of Michelle, he states that she is “well featured from above, but flat from the back.”
Breakin’ In is a disturbing film. However, it shines a light on a major aspect of popular culture. No doubt many students want to be part of this high profile world. The three women featured in the film could be in anyone’s class. For this reason, the film perhaps should be shown in Dance class, Career Counseling or Sociology. Given the harsh language and images, this should be for senior classes only.
Frank Loreto is a teacher-librarian at St. Thomas Aquinas Secondary School in Brampton, ON.
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