Revealing Hip Hop Dance’s Potential

An Interview with Kim Sims-Battiste


Kim Sims-Battiste is the executive director of Culture Shock Oakland, a hip-hop dance organization dedicated to innovative performance, artist development and community enrichment. In this interview, Kim shares the power and potential hip hop has to foster community across many realms.

Kim Sims Battiste


Can you give a little bit of background on Culture Shock and your role in the organization?

Culture Shock is an international dance company with many different branches. It was founded in 1993 by one of my best friends, Angie Bunch. Originally, it was set up as a performance team for Nike. Back then, hip hop music and dance were just coming to the scene, so we were literally pioneers of bringing hip hop dance to the commercial realm, as well as introducing it to the fitness realm. Culture Shock is also a non-profit that does outreach to the community; we open up opportunities for youth to be a part of our organization, regardless of money or where they are from.  It’s all about community and dance, and how hip hop brings it all together.

Where do you most commonly derive inspiration for your work? From personal, social or political matters (or a mix)?

Most of my choreography comes from a place of “feel good.” I like using songs and setting choreography that make me feel good, because then I know I can relay it to the other people dancing with me or the audience watching. It’s really a matter of just putting the hip hop culture out there in a positive light so it can be appreciated by all types of people.

How have you seen hip hop evolve over the past 25 years?

It doesn’t look anything like it used to. When hip hop first came out, it was the artists speaking to their struggles. It was about what was going on in their lives. One thing I like that we took from the old school is telling a story with dance. We can take a song and make up any performance to it depending on the message behind it, or it can be part of a larger message. That message might be a socioeconomic picture we’re trying to paint, it might just be “Hey watch us dance and see what we can do,” or it might be about the musicality or words of the song.

One thing I don’t like that’s evolved in hip hop is when the artists don’t show their knowledge and appreciation of where the whole culture of hip hop started. Another thing I don’t like is how the “N” word has become common in the culture. I don’t believe anybody should be saying it, especially if you’re not black. Now people consider the word to be a part of hip hop culture that anyone can partake in. The “N” word has nothing to do with hip hop. It has everything to do with the people who are using it and what it really means.

Is it important to you that your work is viewed with the recognition that you are a black female, or do you see those lenses as problematic?

I don’t see those lenses as problematic at all. The way hip hop has evolved, there are so many more women representing the art form than when it first came out. Before, pioneers like Queen Latifah and Lady of Rage had to be strong and definite about their words. To others, they often came across as angry black women. Now, women are more respected. We can take this art form and turn it into something great just like a black man can.

Kim Sims Battiste image by Move Media Photography

Image by Move Media Photography

What changes do you perceive are necessary in the dance world in order to achieve better representation of voices?

I think hip hop dancers should be in a ballet class just as much as ballet dancers should be in a hip hop class. Just as ballet has a history, culture and dialogue, so does hip hop. I’m really big on foundations; if you want to be good at something, you have to invest in it. With hip hop, you have to invest in the foundations before you can call yourself a hip hop dancer. With any dance form, you have to really know it before you can call yourself an artist of it.

It seems like hip hop more readily translates to commercial venues than other dance forms. Do you think that’s a strength or weakness?

Both. Hip hop has become so streamlined, which gives everybody the right to feel like they can, for example, say the “N” word. Someone can listen to hip hop music in their hood and feel like they can relate, but they can’t relate to what an artist is saying who actually comes from the hood. But it does put hip hop in a spotlight we weren’t in 15 years ago. It used to be a new idea to put hip hop artists and dancers in front of a corporate organization or event. Nowadays, we get called in for corporate events I never would have expected. They’re looking at it as an energetic group of dancers getting down to a hard core beat, but I doubt very seriously that they’re listening to the words or the meaning behind those words. That being said, it does at least open their eyes and promote respect of the form.

What do you hope is your contribution to the dance world?

Back in the day, a bunch of us took hip hop and turned it into a cardio fitness form to bring it to a more general audience. Hip hop is now often used as a work out. That was a big turn for us. The fitness industry, like everyone else, was expecting the words to be horrific and full of cussing. Once they saw the artistry behind it, their appreciation became stronger.

Right now, I want to take my branch of Culture Shock here in Oakland beyond being a good dance troupe to becoming a household name where people can come to learn and dance. It’s an organization that gives back to the community and enriches the body from head to toe.

We also have an afterschool program called Urban Ed 101 where each student has to work out using elements of the Presidential Physical Fitness Test before they can dance. Back in my day, we couldn’t graduate from high school if we didn’t pass the Presidential Physical Fitness Test. Now, half the schools in Oakland don’t even have a PE class, much less any measure of physical fitness. That’s why we’re trying to introduce our after school program to the larger Oakland district. The kids in our program have to practice the requirements of the Presidential Physical Fitness Test for 30 to 45 minutes before they can dance. Dancing becomes their reward.

So my contribution is reaching out to the greater community by using hip hop as the driving force. It’s a powerful medium.

Kim Sims Battiste image by Move Media Photography 2

Image by Move Media Photography


To learn more about Kim and her work with Culture Shock Oakland, click here.