by Rebecca Rhodin
Hip-hop music sprang from the city, but today it’s a citizen of the world, says Duane Lee Holland.
“Every place you go has been affected by hip hop,” comments the Montgomery County Community College adjunct instructor. “You can’t turn on a TV show or walk down the street without a reference to the culture.”
Soon that street may be far away, indeed, when Holland travels as a “diplomat of dance” to Russia, Belarus and the Ukraine for the U.S. State Department.
He will journey in March with Illstyle and Peace Productions to perform hip hop and teach in a cultural exchange called DanceMotionUSA. The program is produced by the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM).
“They are using the performing arts as a tool for foreign policy,” explains Holland, 35, of Devon, who began his dance career 18 years ago with the first hip-hop theater dance company, Philadelphia’s Rennie Harris Puremovement.
“The arts allow people to talk about things in a way that isn’t aggressive or argumentative,” he says.
“Although not versed in Russian, you’re speaking the language of dance. Through dance, you’re a linguist.”
According to BAM, the DanceMotion program builds on former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s vision of “smart power” diplomacy, which embraces the full use of diplomatic tools to create opportunities for greater understanding.
The “diplomats of dance” start conversations and build lasting personal and professional connections, says Assistant Secretary of State Ann Stock, on BAM’s website. She calls it “cultural diversity in motion.”
Holland agrees that a cultural exchange creates a softer environment in which to face contentious issues like race and sexuality and create social awareness.
“It helps the people to know that there’s a world outside of their own home or town. It broadens their minds,” he comments.
How appropriate, then, that the words “hip” and “hop” themselves, derived from the Senegalese Wolof language, Hip means “knowledgeable” and Hop “movement.” According to Holland, “I’m a knowledgeable mover of a knowledgeable movement is the definition of Hip Hop.”
Rooted deeply in Africa, the hip-hop genre is said to have developed in New York City in the 1970s, where deejays stretched out percussive breaks in popular music and inspired the birth of breaking (B-boying or B-girling). Subject of much debate, it also encompasses rap, DJing and graffiti in an evolving culture that reaches far beyond those elements.
Hip-hop dance such as Puremovement reflects the energy and dress of street culture: rhythmic and gymnastic with breaking woven in.
Puremovement attributes to hip hop “a unique ability to express universal themes that extend beyond racial, religious and economic boundaries.” Last year, that company performed with DanceMotionUSA in Egypt, Israel and the Palestinian territories of the Middle East.
Though tensions aren’t as thick in Eastern Europe, Holland still confronts the possibility of issues as “a black man going to Russia,” where not everyone may be open to people of color.
“It’s very common that you’ll be stared at,” he says. “But then, it’s not like I’ve never had people stare at me and try to touch my hair. Even here in the United States. That’s how it is. Fear is an ugly thing, a stifling situation.”
On the other hand, Holland’s background uniquely prepares him for the challenge: First, there is the realism and encouragement of his mother, whom he describes as his hero. Then, there is the fact that he has already traveled to 10 countries, as a gymnast when he was a teen.
“How many people do you know who can hold themselves up with one hand?” Holland muses; gymnastics requires mental, as well as physical mental effort. Holland was the first 8yr. gymnast to score 58.6 out of 60.0, and was featured in “Faces in the Crowd” in Sports Illustrated. From 1990-1994, Holland, was a member of the United States Junior National Gymnastics Team. In 1996, Holland injured himself while training for the 1996 Olympics.
A broken wrist in high school opened several other doors — into a dance studio, a professional dance career, and then into education.
“I’ve been involved academia for the last five years. Professional experience is a huge aid to my teaching,” says Holland, whose resume lists scores of schools such as MIT, Duke University, Stanford University and UCLA where he has shared his knowledge. At MCCC, he has taught the fundamentals of hip hop and also modern fusion.
Feeling increasingly compelled to pass his knowledge on to a younger generation, Holland is working to solidify himself in academia. He is hoping to obtain a masters of fine arts at the University of Iowa.
“As a student of life, I’m always adding to my skill set,” says Holland. “I am extremely blessed to do what I do.”