The room is filled with so many shades of brown that span as far as the eye can see. And there is not a pink tight in sight because the shades of mahogany, ebony, and chocolate cover their skin. Minutes before class begins, they squeeze in some last-minute stretches. In the corner of the room fathers brush their daughter’s hair into a ballet perfect bun.
Parents laugh and catch up with one another while lending a helping hand. No screaming or yelling because they are far from dance moms.
A melodious voice by none other than Homer Hans Bryant kicks off the day welcoming the dancers into their home.
They are home and they are welcome at the Chicago Multi-Cultural Dance Center.
Meet the Instructor Homer Hans Bryant
It was in 1994 when Homer Hans Bryant first opened the Chicago Multi-Cultural Dance Center also known as the CMDC. Trained at the Arthur Mitchell Dance Theater of Harlem, Homer wanted to create a space where children of color felt welcome in the world of classical ballet.
“At my school, they come and they feel comfortable in their own skin”.
Ballet traditionally was seen as a dance style perfectly suited for the white body. Tall, slender, and fair in complexion. In contrast, black dancers were told they appeared too muscular or didn’t have the same poise and grace. You can ask Misty Copeland about her experiences with that.
Pink tights were the norm, even for the tiny speckles of brown girls in the room. However, Homer wanted to shake thinks up a bit by having his own policy on tights. “My rule says flesh. Whatever color your flesh is that’s what you wear” says Homer.
As a ballet disruptor, Homer didn’t want to force black kids into white norms. He sought to change the standard by creating a safe dance space at the CMDC.
The CMDC gets its name because they represent what cultural diversity is all about. Children of color don’t have to worry about sticking out like a sore thumb here.
Homer mentions “At my school, they come and they feel comfortable in their own skin”.
Dancers don’t have to look around a let out a sigh of relief when they happen to spot someone who looks like them. From the teachers, to their classmates, to the audience it is a very familiar environment.
Dancing with Soul
It is here where they have the freedom to move their hips, strut with sass, and drop it way down low. They may incorporate the rhythms of African drums with Tchaikovsky or Tango while on pointe.
“The fun is in the discipline and the discipline is in the fun”
These dancers already stand out from their dancing peers because they move with a certain type of soul. It’s that soul that you wish you could bottle up and allow it to manifest within yourself. When the beat of the music pulses with the rhythmic movements of the dancers, you can’t help but want to get up and move along.
The feeling is completely natural and is expected within the CMDC environment. It fits the picture perfect the vsion of Homer because he wanted to create an environment that allowed black kids to be unapologetically black. This means moving the way they want to move and dancing to the music they want to dance to.
The CMDC serves as a much-needed environment for Chicago’s youth. Instead of on the streets, these kids seek refuge in dance. Homer points that out by mentioning that “kids are always dancing. They are dancing in the street and dancing on the sidewalk. Put them in a constructive environment where they can get something out of it”
And Homer does just that by providing an environment that has both discipline and fun. He regularly recites his famous mantra “the fun is in the discipline and the discipline is in the fun”.
It’s A Hiplet WorldWhile ballet is the foundation of all dance, the CMDC specializes in nine dance forms. They teach classes in classical ballet, contemporary, modern, tap, jazz, African, hip-hop and Latin. However, it’s one dance in particular that’s taking Chicago and the world by storm, and that is Hiplet.
Originally known as ‘rap-ballet’ Hiplet is a fusion of classic pointe ballet, hip-hop, and ethnic styles of dance. The movement started in the early 90’s because Homer wanted to create an inclusive ballet environment for children of color.
Hiplet is for the dancer who according to Homer may initially think “I hate ballet it’s not for me” However, by creating arrangements and dances that reflect the black experience, Hiplet is indeed for them.
Homer began sharing clips of his Hiplet dance classes on his social media channels. The videos quickly gained popularity but not without attracting some haters. Critics have claimed that Hiplet is ruining classical ballet. Because they bend their knees into an outstandingly deep plié, they think that Hiplet ruins a dancers ankles.
However, what many don’t know is that Homer is also a licensed massage therapist who knows the body very well. He went back to school so he could help his daughter who has cerebral palsy and he took those teachings to the dance studio. Plus, Homer brings up a good point. There aren’t many critics calling for a halt on all gymnastic activities. So to the haters, leave it to the experts. The Hiplet dancers are in good hands.
Hiplet is not for those who lack dedication. Your average Hiplet dancer has undergone a minimum of four years of extensive ballet and pointe training. Let’s just say, you can’t just walk off the street and say you want to perform Hiplet. They perform rigorous exercises such as conditioning on the trampoline and they pick up pencils with their toes to strengthen their ankles.
The amount of training and dedication that goes into this craft is sure to silence the mouths of the haters. Regardless, Homer continues to share Hiplet with the world, why? because he can.
Because They Can
Hiplet certainly has more fans than haters. Because of this new genre, enrollment at the CMDC has went up 35%. The Hiplet ballerinas have already racked up over 500 Million online views. Plus, they’ve been featured in major outlets such as Good Morning America, CNN, and Refinery29. They also took their pointe shoes to the runway for Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week where they walked with the legendary Diane Von Furstenberg. By the way, this all happened in just the past few years.
“We do it with soul and with pure heart, simply because we can”
It was at the annual “Because We Can” benefit when I saw for myself these dancers in action. The title of the showcase is based on the unapologetic nature of Homer and his dancers. Regarding that soul that CMDC has Homer shares “we do it with soul and with pure heart, simply because we can” This was clear throughout the duration of the program.
Words simply cannot describe the joy I felt watching the CMDC dancers perform. It was my first time going to a ballet where I saw more than 3 dancers of color. Plus, for the opening number they were clothed in African garb. They took us straight back to the motherland through dance.
Based on my conversation with Homer and my own personal research, the mission and purpose of the CMDC became clear. Even as a bystander in the audience I felt at home.
The village that uplifted these kids were able to see all the hard work and dedication that goes into the CMDC. One of the pieces was even choreographed by a former student and students danced alongside their teachers. Plus, let me just say that the entire show was just all great fun. You couldn’t help but dance or bob your head in your seat.
They were unapologetically themselves simply because they can.
A Chicago Icon
Each evening on the news, we are constantly inundated with negative stories impacting Chicago’s black youth, but with the CMDC there’s hope, there’s joy, and there’s peace at 47 W. Polk Street.
“I don’t think there’s any other school, or dance school that’s empowering as we are when it comes to diversity”.
When reflecting on his proudest moment with the CMDC Homer shares “I don’t think there’s any other school, or dance school that’s empowering as we are when it comes to diversity”.
The CMDC is a place of acceptance and family. All students can come and be who they truly are.
For 27 years, the CMDC should rightfully claim it’s place as a Chicago icon. “We are a Chicago cultural icon and the city needs to recognize that and take us on as that”.
Homer has certainly left an oustanding legacy. Because of his teachings his dancers have went on to perform with Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Alvin Ailey, and The Lion King on Broadway. Lady Gaga even received two private lessons at CMDC.
He’s also trained many notable Chicagoans such as Sasha & Malia, Cheryl Burton & Gaynor Hall. My sister even mentioned to me how one of her friends from college trained at the CMDC.
When I asked him about the best compliment he had ever received, he mentioned to me how he’s also receiving notes and emails from those impacted by the CMDC. As always, they thank him for the discipline and recite his famous mantra “the fun is in the discipline and the discipline is in the fun.”
He shared one story of how a young man would wait for his girlfriend three times a week at CMDC. He would just sit and watch Homer teach in awe of his passion and discipline. Fast forward to now that same man has enrolled all three of his daughters in dance class.
This is just one of many stories of the people who have been impacted by Homer Hans Bryant and his impact continues to spread.
The Future is Bright for CMDC
“there is no box. I do not think outside the box, I think to the horizon and to the sunset and to the sunrise”.
This is only the beginning for the CMDC. It is Homer’s dream to one day have his own Hiplet Ballet Company where he auditions dancers from all over the country. Imagine a world where you can see a Hiplet Nutcracker or a Hiplet Swan Lake.
There are no creative boundaries and the possibilities are endless for Homer. He says “there is no box. I do not think outside the box, I think to the horizon and to the sunset and to the sunrise”.
For now, the CMDC is at the basement of the Dearborn Station Building. However Homer has big dreams for his dancers. He shares “we need to be above the street where people can look up and see these beautiful black kids”. With the help of generous donors and continued support throughout the nation, hopefully this vision comes true much sooner than later.
With a tremendous 27 years under their belt, the future is certainly bright for Homer Hans Bryant and the dancers of the Chicago Multi-Cultural Dance Center.
An incredibly sincere expression of gratitude for Homer Hans Bryant for sharing his story with me. The CMDC is always grateful for funding so if you want to support their programs head to CMDCSchool.org
Learn more about the Hiplet Ballerinas at HipletBallerinas.com Also check out the video below for even more Hiplet!
*Photos Credit The Chicago Multi-Cultural Dance Center.