Cypher Celebration centers hip-hop and Black dance practices

September 27, 2021

a group of people stand in a circle while a man handstands in the middle

USC students Cypher outside USC Kaufman | Photo by Carolyn DiLoreto

The USC Glorya Kaufman School of Dance will host its very first Cypher Celebration on October 6 and 7. This event will bring the cypher, an integral part of hip-hop where dancers gather in a circle and take turns freestyling, to a performance stage. Lecturer Amy O’Neal serves as performance culture liaison for the USC Kaufman hip-hop faculty and is organizing this event.

According to O’Neal, the room will be lit up like a club, with people already dancing in the space. “In the hip-hop community it’s already a social situation when you enter the space, so we’re creating that vibe,” she said. “The students don’t get to choose any music, there’s a DJ that I’m working with to curate the night and it’s going to be totally spontaneous.”

The audience will be in a circle – sitting or standing – as the dancers take turns freestyling. “For people who have never been to something like this, know that you have permission to verbally affirm what’s going on and to be an active witness,” O’Neal said. “This is not a passive, sit back and be quiet thing; the audience has to give energy to the performers to feed off of.”

An educational moment

Lecturer O’Neal uses cyphers in her hip-hop and improvisation classes as a learning tool. Cyphers also serve as a space for dancers to process various aspects of dance such as music, timing and movement.

“It’s a meditation practice of showing up for yourself and being present. When you add this extra element of the lighting, people and this environment, it’s going to up the ante, so how do you stay centered in it,” O’Neal said. “I think it’s going to be such a beautiful educational moment for the students to build their confidence in how they bring their improvisational skills to a performance environment.”

Cyphers are a large part of the BFA training at USC Kaufman, and this event aims to highlight that. Wyeth Walker (BFA ‘22) and Nina Gumbs (BFA ‘22), both fourth year dance majors at USC Kaufman, cypher with their cohort regularly in their classes and on their own time.

“Cyphering has really changed how I perceive dance, how I learn dance, and how I respect energy when I’m learning dance,” Gumbs said. “It’s really powerful to come back at the end of the night and just process, not completing a task but just authentically sharing. I don’t think I would be the type of dancer that I am now if I didn’t have cyphers.”

a group of people stand in a circle dancing

USC students and faculty cypher at Open Floor 2019 | Photo by Mary Mallaney

Bringing cyphers to the stage

The dancers spend a lot of time in and out of class building the improvisational skills required for cyphers, yet these skills are rarely showcased. Bringing cyphers to the stage allows the audience to get a deeper look into the dancers’ training and lives.

“I think this event is a great way to show another side of the dance grind. Instead of the ‘we grind for one performance,’ we are constantly grinding for the love of the work,” Walker said. “We’re not always working towards a performance of certain choreography set to certain music. Our dance life is cyphering and sharing with each other.”

The audience will make up the circle of the cypher, so the dancers will feed directly off the energy from the audience members. This will create a more active audience-performer relationship, different from the usual USC Kaufman repertory performances.

“In this case especially, there aren’t cues for you to clap, so don’t wait until the end, give us what you’re perceiving. Cheers, smiling, dancing, actually feeling like you can enjoy yourself,” Gumbs said. “We give you permission to enjoy yourself and to feel like you’re a part of it, we feed off of energies, and you’re not invisible. In this case we really can see you.”

The New Movement

The Cypher Celebration increases hip-hop representation in performances at USC Kaufman as part of The New Movement. The faculty at USC Kaufman are in constant conversation about placing equal focus on all dance forms, whether that’s in the classroom or on stage.

“Hip-hop is an equal part of the curriculum to ballet and contemporary, and we were realizing that we have to be representing that on every level of what we do as a school. We have to set that precedent,” O’Neal said. “The mission of this event is to center Black social dance practices and hip-hop practices in a performance offering because it’s such a huge part of our curriculum.”

A hip-hop celebration

Overall, this event celebrates hip-hop dance practices as well as the BFA students’ work. It will showcase the dancers’ improvisational skills and the community building that cyphers offer.

“The practice of cyphering is so important, not only for the development of each dancer’s artistry, but for the building of our community. We wanted to have an event like this that was a celebration of being together again,” O’Neal said. “I am so excited to give our students this opportunity, and I’m so excited to watch them. I see them in class, I know how incredible they are, and I want everybody else to see that side of them too.”

Cypher Celebration will take place Oct. 6 and 7 at 7:30 p.m. at the Glorya Kaufman International Dance Center. Click here to reserve tickets.

By Hannah Doerr