Some Dance Terms You May Hear in Hip-Hop Class
An “and count” is a half beat in the music. A whole count is one full beat.
Break it down
When a teacher refers to breaking down the choreography, they mean demonstrating the moves slowly and showing the separate elements as much as possible. This helps students understand how to achieve the desired movement. If you’re confused by a move or a part of the dance where a lot of things seem to be going on at once, you may wish to ask your teacher if they can break it down.
Your teacher may ask the class if you want to add on to the choreography or clean, or say, “Let’s clean.” This refers to cleaning up the movements and making them more accurate and precise, rather than incorrect or sloppy. If a routine is challenging and the class doesn’t seem to have a solid grasp of the moves taught thus far, the teacher may make a judgment call to hold off from teaching more choreography toward the end of class, and instead clean.
Combination, or Combo
At some point, you’re likely to hear a routine referred to as a combination, or combo for short. This is a term more commonly used in 90-minute technique-focused classes in styles such as ballet. Traditionally, such a class begins with stretching, then progresses to practicing moves across the floor (individually or in short series). Finally, the instructor teaches a longer series of moves combined and set to music: a combination, or in other words, a dance routine.
Most hip-hop dance instructors teach the movements in a piece of choreography in sets of eight counts. Each count is one beat in the music. Each set of eight beats is an eight count. Where an eight count starts and ends is not arbitrary, but can be heard in the rhythm of the music.
Your focus is where your eyes are looking while you dance. You’ll work with your focus very little, if at all, in most beginning hip-hop classes. But in more advanced classes, it’s a major element of dance. So especially in beginning/intermediate classes, there are teachers who’ll ask you to change your focus at times. For instance, you may look down or to the side during a movement. If you’re making a sweeping gesture with one arm, your focus may follow your hand.
Freestyle is dancing without choreography (such as you might do in your bedroom, at the club, or, um, wherever the mood strikes you). To give you a chance to be more self-expressive, a teacher may give you one or a few counts in the routine to freestyle before moving back into the choreography. Experienced dancers often freestyle to the beginning of the song in class while waiting for the start of the choreography. This helps them connect with the music, which improves their dancing.
(see also Marking the routine)
Dancing full out means performing the routine with full energy and effort. Usually, this term is used to clarify what the teacher wants when the class is switching back and forth between marking the routine and dancing full out.
A groove is a large, rhythmic dance move performed using your entire body, such as you might see people doing when dancing at a party. By contrast, isolation moves use only a single part of your body. In the case of finger-tutting, an isolation could be as small a movement as extending or contracting your finger.
(see also Tempo, Dance Sign Language: Half-time)
When a teacher refers to doing the routine half-time, they’re going to slow it down to half the speed of the actual tempo of the song. Some teachers will have you do the routine half-time to counts, and some will use music.
Hold means to wait and not move during whichever count the teacher is referring to.
An isolation is a movement that involves isolating a single part of your body and moving it, while keeping the rest of your body still.
In hip hop, the default level is plie (your knees are bent). But you’ll straighten your legs some of the time, and may also go up on your toes (on releve) or down on the floor. If the teacher asks the class to pay attention to levels, they mean how high or low your body is while performing the movements.
(see also Full out, Walking the routine)
As your teacher goes to switch on the music, you may hear them say, “Let’s mark it,” or, “This is your mark.” This means they want you to do the routine at full speed to the music, but with smaller, less energetic gestures instead of the full movements.
Often, the purpose of this type of marking is to help you get the correct timing of the movements with the music. Making smaller gestures saves energy and allows you to focus more clearly on hearing the timing in the song. This is especially useful with routines where you switch back and forth between dancing to the beat and dancing to the lyrics, or you dance to other sounds in the song.
When teaching choreography that requires more than usual exertion to perform, sometimes the teacher will have you mark to conserve your energy so that you’ll be able to give it your all when you perform at the end of class. In this case, just bring your energy level down a couple notches. Whether you want to perform the movements fully (or close to it) or make your gestures smaller is your judgment call. Do whatever you find best helps you learn and reinforce the choreography.
Sometimes teachers will say, “Let’s mark it half-time.” This is refers to walking through the routine slowly to counts. The main purpose is to refresh your memory and check your accuracy, so it’s ideal to perform the full movements, just slowly (except perhaps large jumps, getting up and down from the floor, and other moves that are hard to slow down or take so much energy they may distract you from marking). “Let’s walk it half-time” means the same thing.
Choreographing or dancing to sounds in the music other than the beat, such as the lyrics or a sound effect, is termed musicality.
Pas de beurre
This is a French dance term borrowed from ballet. If you hear “pas de beurre” (pah de boo – ray), it’s a cue that three alternating steps are coming up. One leg will cross the other during the steps; walking straight ahead isn’t a pas de beurre. The steps may be either left-right-left or right-left-right and may go in any direction, so you’ll still need to watch your teacher to know what kind of pas de beurre to do.
Your ability to learn (“pick up”) the movements in the dance accurately and remember them is called your pickup.
This is a French dance term borrowed from ballet. Most of hip hop is performed in plie (plee – ay), meaning with the knees bent. It’s a good idea as a hip-hop dancer to learn to pay attention to whether your teacher’s legs are bent or straight as they demonstrate a movement. This is essential to the dance style.
This is a French dance term borrowed from ballet. Releve (reh – leh – vay) is when you go up on your toes while dancing. This isn’t nearly as common in hip hop as plie (bending your knees). In some classes, you’ll never go on releve.
(see also Dance Sign Language: From the top)
Take it from the top means to start from the beginning. It’s one of the most common things you’ll hear in class.
The “top” usually refers to the very beginning of the routine. However, occasionally confusion is introduced when a teacher asks to “take it from the top” but means the top of the section of choreography the class is currently working on. Especially for our readers who are non-native English speakers, it may be useful to know that the very beginning of the routine can be distinguished as the “tippy top” or “tippity top.” If in doubt, you can ask your teacher if they mean the tippy top.
Many instructors will also communicate to you to “take it from the top” by gesturing, in which case it’s almost certain they mean the very beginning of the routine.
(see also Half time)
Tempo is the pace of the music: how fast or slow it is.
In hip-hop class, usually the tempo is fast. If the teacher says, “Let’s take it to tempo,” this means that you’re going to do the routine to counts, but at full speed. This is done to prepare for dancing to the music, so the speed won’t come as a surprise and throw people off. If you’re practicing to counts and the teacher says “That’s tempo,” they mean what you just did was at the pace of the music.
Occasionally, the tempo is slower than people think. This is especially likely to happen when the tempo speeds up or slows down during parts of a song. After watching the class dance, the teacher may say, “Don’t rush,” or “You have more time than you think you do.” This means people are dancing too fast in an effort not to fall behind, and are out of sync with the music. Try to listen closely to the song and match your movements to the tempo.
(See also Dance Sign Language: From the top)
The “tippy top” or “tippity top” means the very beginning of the full routine, as opposed to the top of the section of choreography the class is currently working on.
Many instructors will also communicate to you to take the routine from the tippy top by gesturing.
The point where one eight count ends and the next begins is referred to as a transition. It’s the movement you use to get from “eight” or “eight and” to “one.” Teachers tend not to demonstrate transitions, which makes them a common source of challenge for beginners.
(see also Marking the routine)
You may hear your teacher say, “Let’s walk it half-time.” Walking the routine half-time means performing the movements at a slower speed, without the music. Its purpose is to refresh your memory (if people are starting to forget the beginning of the routine), or to help clean up the routine by going slowly enough that you can see clearly what the movements are and whether you’re doing them correctly.
To better focus, you’ll want to conserve the energy you put into your movements. However, unlike marking to the music for timing, it’s best not to go to shorthand movements, as this will prevent you from checking your accuracy against what the teacher is doing.
In dance, a window is the space within which a person can see their reflection in the mirror. To learn a dance, it helps a great deal to be able to see what you’re doing and whether your movements are correct. So try not to block another dancer’s window. It’s important to be aware of the people around you, especially behind you, and try to stagger your lines so everyone can see.
Dance Sign Language
(see also Glossary: Take it from the top, Glossary: Tippy top)
Instead of speaking, your teacher may tap the top of their head with an open palm to indicate that you are about to practice the routine from the top. When a teacher uses this gesture, start from the very beginning of the dance.
If your teacher turns the music on and gets in place to lead you, but forgets to tell you where to start, watch to see if they tap their head. Often, when they realize they forgot, they’ll gesture for you to take it from the top even if that wasn’t their original intention. It’s the quickest and clearest way they can communicate without having to stop the music and start over.
Sometimes a teacher will ask where students want to take the routine from. If you want to take it from the top, rather than straining to be heard, you can catch your teacher’s eye and tap your head.
In case of desperation, catching your teacher’s eye at any time and making this gesture can be an effective distress signal to communicate your need to take it from the top. However, this should be done sparingly. The gesture is rarely used when a teacher hasn’t requested feedback. The teacher may be glad to oblige, or may choose not to for any number of reasons, such as that they want to finish teaching the current eight count before they go back and review.
(see also Glossary: Half-time)
Some teachers make a “T” shape with their hands that may be familiar as a timeout signal in sports. Don’t run for your water bottle—this doesn’t mean it’s time for a break! In dance class, the “T” symbol indicates that the teacher is about to review the routine half-time; that is, slowly.
If you’re feeling a little lost, the “T” gesture can be a very helpful signal to look out for. Use it as a cue to focus your attention, because the teacher is about to show the movements slowly, giving you a better chance to catch on.
If you hear the word “tempo,” that means things are about to speed up again!
If your teacher is one of those who uses the “T” symbol, you can catch their eye and make this gesture yourself to let them know that you’d like to review the routine half-time. The teacher will use their judgment regarding the pace the overall class is moving at, so don’t feel brushed off if they don’t acknowledge your request. Rarely are all the students in a class at the exact same ability level and learning at the exact same speed, so teaching is a constant balancing act.