The relentless pursuit of center stage for Black ballerinas

Homer Hans Bryant, the founder of Chicago’s Hiplet dance company, isn’t interested in reshaping dancers for Eurocentric ideals. He’s reshaping dance itself.

Homer Hans Bryant
Dancer and choreographer Homer Hans Bryant, the founder of the Chicago Multicultural Dance Center, has trained a notable list of names over the decades, from Lady Gaga to the Obama daughters. But perhaps his proudest accomplishment is the creation of the Hiplet Ballerinas, his professional performance company. Brittany Sowacke for WBEZ
Homer Hans Bryant
Dancer and choreographer Homer Hans Bryant, the founder of the Chicago Multicultural Dance Center, has trained a notable list of names over the decades, from Lady Gaga to the Obama daughters. But perhaps his proudest accomplishment is the creation of the Hiplet Ballerinas, his professional performance company. Brittany Sowacke for WBEZ

The relentless pursuit of center stage for Black ballerinas

Homer Hans Bryant, the founder of Chicago’s Hiplet dance company, isn’t interested in reshaping dancers for Eurocentric ideals. He’s reshaping dance itself.

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Homer Hans Bryant taps out a rhythm on a conga drum, and a line of muscular legs shoot into the air. It’s rehearsal time for his professional dance company, and the dancers lie on the floor, warming, toning and strengthening limbs in preparation to defy gravity on pointe shoes.

Using his voice as a rhythmic instrument, Bryant fills in sounds: a smack of his lips, a hum, a click of the tongue. He issues corrections gently. To a dancer who needs to round her arms: “The world could use a big hug,” he says. To one whose shoulders have drooped: “Keep your heart light on.”

Homer Hans Bryant
For the past 32 years, Homer Bryant and his Multicultural Dance Center have called a basement studio in the South Loop home. Brittany Sowacke for WBEZ

Some dancers believe this rehearsal technique, called a floor barre, is the secret sauce for shaping Black bodies into classical ballet forms. But Bryant, 72, isn’t set on reshaping his dancers — he’s long been intent on reshaping dance altogether. For years, he has been fusing white, Eurocentric ballet with Afrocentric dance styles, from hip-hop to African to Chicago footwork. A dance that starts like Balanchine can end like Beyoncé.

Bryant began calling his dance genre Hiplet in 2005 (pronounced hip-lay, as in ballet), had it trademarked, and since then his professional company has performed all over the world. In August, WBEZ visited rehearsals in-studio as dancers prepared for a rare, two-night homecoming on Sept. 17 and 18 at the University of Chicago Logan Center for the Arts and a Sept. 24 showcase at Navy Pier.

“A lot of people don’t think magic can happen in a basement,” said Bryant. But magic has happened time and time again in the low-ceilinged basement studios of the South Loop building that houses Bryant’s Chicago Multicultural Dance Center and Hiplet.

Homer Bryant Hiplet ballerinas
Hiplet dancer Jayda Perry, 20, runs through ballet barre exercises in the studios of Chicago Multicultural Dance Company in August. Dancers have multiple rehearsals a week in preparation of a two-night performance in September at the University of Chicago Logan Center for the Arts. Brittany Sowacke for WBEZ

Bryant grew up on St. Thomas, in the Virgin Islands, and was sent by the island arts council in 1968 as a teenager on scholarship to the performance enclave Jacob’s Pillow in Massachusetts. Not far away, in New York City, Arthur Mitchell — – the first Black principal dancer in the famed New York City Ballet — had just founded the Dance Theatre of Harlem. Mitchell brought his dancers to Jacob’s Pillow, and by 1969, Bryant was studying ballet at Mitchell’s influential studio. As a professional dancer, Bryant performed alongside everyone from Eartha Kitt to Michael Jackson to Diana Ross.

He ultimately landed in Chicago as a member of the cast of a touring show and met famed prima ballerina Maria Tallchief, the first woman of Native American ancestry to achieve success on national stages and another bold name in Chicago’s dance history. Tallchief became his mentor and champion.

“She told me, ‘I know you are going to open a school one day,’ ” Bryant recalled, and when she closed her dance academy, passed on specialty flooring, ballet bars for training and costumes.

He started his own dance company in 1990.

Unlike most dance studios, which are awash in ballet pink, dancers at Chicago Multicultural Dance Center — and of course the members of Hiplet — are encouraged to wear tights and shoes that match their skin tones. That’s something Bryant learned from Arthur Mitchell — that “ballet pink” didn’t help dancers of color feel confident and strong on stage. Bryant shows his dancers how to use tea and dyes to turn that ballet wear into many striking shades of brown.

Similarly, over the course of a three-hour rehearsal, Bryant looks for quiet moments to draw out strength and confidence of his troupe, which spans the early 20s into the mid-30s.

Dancers with sore hips, necks and knees consult him during breaks to help manipulate tired muscles — Bryant, who went back to school for massage therapy and kinesiology after his daughter, Alexandra, was born with cerebral palsy, has a reputation for being able to quickly size up problem spots and help dancers alleviate pain.

Hiplet Ballerinas
A member of the Hiplet Ballerinas rehearses for an upcoming show. Dancers perform in pointe shoes that they dye to match their skin tone, something Bryant learned from influential Dance Theatre of Harlem founder Arthur Mitchell. Brittany Sowacke for WBEZ

“You’re only as good as the leg you are standing on,” Bryant tells his dancers during one particularly challenging sequence, alluding to the energy that must be transferred to one limb when the other is in the air. But there’s an underlying message: Practice. Stay on your leg. Evolve.

Hiplet Ballerinas
Ballerinas may be in the name, but Hiplet showcases a formidable crew of male dancers who perform moves rooted in hip-hop and urban street style. From left, Brandon Avery, 32, Angelo Robinson, 30, Reece Denteis, 32, and Ben Marshall, 28, rehearse for a breakout moment in this season’s touring show. Brittany Sowacke for WBEZ

If the first hour of rehearsal is about strength, and the second hour is dedicated to classical ballet, the third is where the company really shines — and that’s street dance. Choreographer Blair Christian, who has worked with the hip-hop megastar Missy Elliott and excels in the style of Chicago footwork, joins rehearsals for a work-in-progress she’s setting on the company.

There’s a lot of laughter and a surprise shift to the theatrical when Christian asks the dancers to improvise several counts like they are walking down a Chicago street. One male dancer pretends he’s spraying graffiti — another immediately takes on the role of police officer and hauls the artist off stage.

Hiplet dancers
Bryant (right) shakes hands with a dancer Ben Marshall, 28, after Marshall learned a new dance in less than 30 minutes. This season will be Marshall’s first performing with the troupe. Brittany Sowacke for WBEZ

That’s one of the things the dancers appreciate: Or, as dancer Brandon Avery, 32, describes the open-door choreography policy, “A true layering and bringing together of dance styles. All of us have our different things that we do” — from pointe, to hip-hop, to juke, to dancing in heels — “and a big part of our rehearsal process this time around is to create a space where we are in unison. We want people to see the validity of the ballet we’re doing, the contemporary urban style we’re doing, and the validity of it combined.”

The approach also keeps the dancers — who are paid for rehearsal time and performances — fluent in multiple movement styles, which is helpful for helping them landing side jobs in concert tours, music videos and the like. One of Bryant’s many goals is financial stability that would afford the members of his professional longer-term contracts so they wouldn’t have to seek outside work.

Practice. Stay on your leg. Evolve. True words even for a dance patriarch. “There’s a new generation of dancers, and we need to see where things can go,” Bryant said. He looks across the basement in deep appreciation. “Oh my God, they can do it all.”

In 2016, the world saw a viral video of Hiplet dancers, and things took off. The company was invited to perform in theaters from Stuttgart to Tokyo, featured at Paris Fashion Week, moved crowds to their feet at NBA games and TED talks and impressed Simon Cowell on the TV show America’s Got Talent.

Homer Hans Bryant
Bryant’s studios aren’t just filled with dancers. Often the hallways are buzzing with their family members, and Bryant likes it that way. Brittany Sowacke for WBEZ

Company member Allison Harsh said it’s not unusual for the boom and bass of a Hiplet number to whip audiences into yells and cheers. “For people used to seeing dance in a theater and being quiet, it’s a unique experience,” Harsh explains, “more like watching a music video.”

The September Chicago performance is designed to tell the story of Hiplet from creation to its evolution. It takes place during a city-designated “Year of Chicago Dance” that has particularly focused on the region’s Black dance legacy.

Hiplet
Hiplet Ballerinas in performance Shawna Sarnowski/Courtesy of Chicago Multicultural Dance Center

“He created (a company) for us, for Black and brown people — really anybody — but so we could have a place to get the same training that someone up North would,” said Brandy Ford, 29.

Ford is one of two mothers in the company and remarked how common it was at rehearsals to see kids from the youth program watching awestruck from the hallway door. “I didn’t really see the impact that Hiplet had until I started bringing my daughter around a lot more.”

“She comes to rehearsal with me, and she says, ‘Mommy, I want to be like the pretty ballerinas,’ ” Ford said. “When I was growing up, I never saw a Black ballerina. I knew there were Black ballerinas, but I never saw it.”

If you go: This is the first in a series of stories about Chicago-area artists working in studio. Hiplet Ballerinas perform Sept. 17 at 7:30 p.m. and Sept. 18 at 3 p.m. at University of Chicago Logan Center for the Arts, 915 E. 60th St. Tickets are $35. The company also performs Sept. 24 at Navy Pier at 6 p.m. Find more information here.

Cassie Walker Burke is WBEZ’s external editor. Follow her @cassiechicago.