Artifact Intelligence

Students are using a rich array of original artifacts in their studies at Bryn Mawr

By Yi Gao                                                      

Learning with primary source materials is hot at Bryn Mawr College.

Working with authentic artifacts, rare books or archival documents fascinates students and generates interesting ideas. In recent years, the traditional, teach-centered classroom has become dynamic laboratory in which students can physically handle original materials.

Japanese prints, Quaker historical documents, pottery, sculpture and rare photographs are just a few of the items now available to students.

“Though professors have used primary sources in teaching for decades, it’s much more popular over the past four or five years,” said Marianne Weldon, collections manager of Bryn Mawr Special Collections. According to Weldon, special collections librarians have spent considerable time and energy improving the visibility and accessibility of the College’s collections and building collaborations with teaching faculty across multiple disciplines.

No. 2

This semester, Erin Schoneveld, Assistant Professor of East Asian Languages and Cultures at Haverford College taught her class Ukiyo-e: The Art of Japanese Print with Bryn Mawr’s collection of Japanese woodblock prints. Weldon assisted with her classes several times. Weldon said Professor Schoneveld thinks incorporating actual primary materials into teaching “fuels lively discussion and cultivates critical thinking.”

Bi-Co (Bryn Mawr College and Haverford College) faculty and students benefit from special collections of both colleges. Bryn Mawr’s special collections are more diverse and broad while Haverford is especially renowned for its Quaker collections and photograph collections.

Xingya Wang, a Bryn Mawr College senior student majoring French, said she took a war photography class at Haverford and had the opportunity to see some precious photographs of American Civil War.

“Their collection of war photographs is fantastic! Everyone was very excited! And it’s good that we (Bi-Co) share resources,” said Wang.

“Yes, I think our learning is more practical and interesting than when I was a freshman,” said Wang.

Many classes engage students with primary sources. On the other hand, students more actively use the college’s collections to do research. There are two important elements in the development of this trend.

No. 3

The first one is the digitization of special collections.

According to Eric Pumroy, Seymour Adelman Head of Special Collections at Bryn Mawr College, big libraries and institutions have been digitized their collections since the late 1980s.

Bryn Mawr College’s Special Collections, since it is a small institution with less funds, started establishing digital records of collections in the late 1990s. However, not until 2008 did Bryn Mawr begin making special collections accessible on the Internet to the public.

“It was a complicated work,” said Pumroy. First, Special Collections bought the collections management software called Embark. Second, librarians migrated the existing data to the new system. Then they cataloged the rest of the collections. Besides, collaborating with Swarthmore College and Haverford College, they established TriArte, a special database of 33,500 art and artifacts from Tri-Co.

For digitizing art and artifacts, librarians should not only enter information but also upload high-quality images. Pumroy said for some “special” three-dimensional objects, they need to produce 360-degree pictures.

No. 4

Pumroy said several digitization projects are still going on but 90 percent of the work has been done. Undoubtedly, the acceleration of mass digitization highly improves the availability and visibility of special collections. Faculty and students can search online, find the artifacts needed, send a request and get the objects to analyze in person.

Bryn Mawr College’s encouragement of experiential learning is the other major element. This change can be seen within the History of Art Department.

“I am happy to see that more art history professors incorporate practical learning” said Poppy Pu, a senior student majoring in art history. She said that when she was a freshman, she really wanted to take art history classes at University of Pennsylvania since some of them are taught in Penn Museum. “Though at that time in some classes we could saw authentic objects, we were rarely asked to do an independent research on the objects or to produce an exhibition” said Pu.

No. 5

Things changed over the past three years. In Fall 2015, Bryn Mawr announced a new Museum Studies Program which allows students to gain practical hands-on experience in Bryn Mawr Special Collections or even in museums in Philadelphia. Courses such as The Curator in the Museum and Contemporary Art in Exhibition provide students a full experience with primary sources. Thanks to the pilot program, every semester Bryn Mawr has several student-curated exhibitions on view in the Rare Book Room of Special Collections.

Pu said many upper-class art history major students use special collections to do their own research that is part of their theses. “It is amazing! Working with primary sources helps our studies a lot and makes them much more interesting,” she said. “I am a bit jealous of the freshmen. They can get this experience in their first year.”

Guide: All items are from the Bryn Mawr collections.

Item 1. Color woodblock by Katsushika Hokusai. Title: The Great Wave, from the series 36 views of Mount Fuji.

Item 2. Artist: Utagawa Kunisasa (1786-1864) Title: View of Hodogoya, from the series 53 Stations of the Tokaido Road, ca. 1838.

Item 3. Polychrome Glass Aryballos (Oil Flask), Greece/East Mediterranean, 6th Century BCE.

Item 4. Bronze Bust of Napoleon. Artist: Achille Collas, (1795-1859) after Antoine-Denis Chaudet, ca. 1838-1859.

Item 5. Portrait of M. Carey Thomas, President of Bryn Mawr by Frank C. Benning (1893-1983), 20th century.


Lights? Camera? Action?

The travails of a student filmmaker

By Steve Lehman

Ethan Grugan is making a film. All he’s missing are actors. And a script.

And a camera.

Grugan, a sophomore film major at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, had a great plan: create a short movie in the style of famous director and actor Charlie Chaplin, where Chaplin and fellow early cinema star Buster Keaton would be the main characters.

But who would play the famous filmmakers? When and where would they film? And who would be behind the camera?

On a rainy Sunday morning in his university’s dining hall, Grugan explained the complex and nuanced saga of the writing, directing, and editing of this film. He just hasn’t done any of it yet.

Monday, March 19th

Gabrielle Miller, Adjunct Professor of Film at St. Joseph’s University, assigns a creative project for her course “Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin.” In the class, students from a variety of disciplines study the two seminal filmmakers and their influence on the history of cinema.

The task seems simple enough: create a film in the style of Keaton or Chaplin. Black and white, mostly silent, and a healthy dose of visual gags should do the trick.

Grugan gets excited and starts to form a plan. In the earliest stages, the film begins to take shape in his mind. The next steps: storyboard, script, actors, and crew.

Thursday, April 5th

The class doesn’t meet too often, due to frequent snow days and the professor being occupied with her own TV pitch. Grugan, however, doesn’t mind having a professor who’s busy doing real film work. “It’s pretty cool, but also a little stressful.”

Grugan plans to film in two weekends. The premise: Charlie Chaplin trying to get Buster Keaton to smile.

Keaton will naturally be played by Grugan himself, a 6-foot-2-inch former rower with broad shoulders and a big smile. Two of his classmates agree to play Chaplin and hold the camera, with Grugan directing.

Millie, Grugan’s new poodle puppy, will be the film’s MacGuffin. What’s a MacGuffin? “It’s like the briefcase in ‘Pulp Fiction,’” according to Grugan. “It’s a plot point that you don’t see that much, but sort of drives the whole thing.”

Later, the budding filmmaker is quick to display a picture of Millie on his cell phone: she’s a puff-ball of curly black fur, small and adorable.

“She’s my little stinky MacGuffin,” he says proudly.

Wednesday, April 11th

Everything falls apart.

The filming is planned for the upcoming weekend, but Grugan’s classmates can’t come and the script and storyboard aren’t finished yet.

Grugan also comes to the realization that Relay for Life, a charity event where participants stay awake for 12 hours straight doing games and activities to raise money for cancer treatment and research, is being held this weekend as well. That makes things a bit more complicated.

The new plan: get background footage and work on the plot. In other words, film some scenes without actors and try to coordinate the schedules of three over-worked college students. Everything will be fine.

Sunday, April 15th

The big weekend is finally here…

And it’s pouring. Rain whips through the grey campus of the Catholic university as students run from building to building, their umbrellas useless in the wind. Grugan, of course, can’t film in these conditions. Not only that, but Relay for Life knocked him out for most of the weekend.

“It was definitely worth it,” Grugan says of the event, but “I was probably a little bit too ambitious thinking that I could stay awake for 17 hours straight. And film a film.”

After starting at 7 p.m. Friday night and going until the wee hours of Saturday morning at the charity event, it took him most of Saturday to recover. He slept until 2 p.m., but “wasn’t functional until about 7.”

“You know those days where you’re like ‘Oh, it’s only 17 hours.’ Yeah I get those a lot.”

Instead of filming in the rain, he explains over coffee and breakfast sandwiches the plan moving forward.

If he were to be filming today, it would be footage of two of his dogs, Millie (the puppy) and Oso (an adult), running around his house in Bala Cynwyd. This would serve as background for the real footage that would include actors.

Grugan uses salt and pepper shakers to explain how he’ll film Chaplin and Keaton. Gesturing with the two plastic cylinders on the table- which represent the two characters- he demonstrates that the best method is to film each scene from multiple angles to create a 3-D effect in the editing process.

He’s still trying to figure out a rain date for filming. “She [the professor] still hasn’t told us when it’s due… so that would be helpful to know.”

Even after the storyboard is turned in and the filming is finished, Grugan will have to edit the final product into a cohesive five-minute movie.

“Or we might just scrap it,” he says simply, after spending the past hour explaining the filming process, his plan, and the steps needed to finish the project. If he doesn’t end up filming, he can always just explain his ideas to the class verbally… just like everyone else.

As it turns out, the actual assignment was to describe to the class, out loud, what film you would make, if you were to make film. But actually making one? That’s optional.

And in the class of 25 students, how many other people will be making actual films? “Oh it’s just me,” Grugan says cheerfully. “You can just describe it, but I don’t see the fun in that.”

Grugan also reveals that, once he does establish a filming time, he doesn’t actually have access to a camera from the film department because it’s not an official class project. Technically, it’s just an oral presentation.

He’ll use his iPhone instead.

Suddenly Grugan remembers that he has to go to play rehearsal this afternoon. He sips a blueberry smoothie as he looks off into the distance, thinking about all the time he doesn’t have.

Despite playing a cop with four lines in the last scene, Grugan found out last night that he has to go to all four hours of rehearsal. He’s not sure why.

After breakfast, Grugan pulls up his YouTube channel to talk about other videos he’s made. Besides class projects, he also likes to make highlight reels for Philadelphia sports teams. His film about the Eagles has almost 500 views.

“All my videos combined don’t even hit that,” he says as he checks the views of his other movies.

“Holy shit!” he yells suddenly, almost spilling the large purple smoothie he had been drinking. A surprise: his Sixers pump-up video reached over 1,000 views in just one week.

Grugan can’t believe it. “Holy shit. Okay. Holy shit,” he says as the number sinks in. He puts his phone down on the table and looks out at the rain lashing against the window.

After a tough week, finally, some success.


The Smuggled Dumplings Caper

How a Bryn Mawr student gets food from her home in China

Caught by Customs

By Yuqi Zha

On her long flight from China to the United States, Alice Tang, a rising senior at Bryn Mawr College, had a nightmare.

In her dream, she was walking past the Customs Check at the JFK International Airport, New York, with a heavy 28-inch piece of luggage.

Her face was covered with a pair of dark purple sunglasses and a cotton mask. Her strange appearance drew the attention of the officer at the U.S. Customs.

Tang got nervous and walked faster. Despite praying thousands of times in her heart, what she tried to avoid finally happened—a customs officer approached her and asked her to stop.

“Excuse me Miss, passport please,” said the officer.

Tang handed her passport over.  The sweat in her hand made it wet.

“What’s in your luggage?” The officer looked at her bag with suspicion.

“Just…clothes, cosmetics and books,” Tang almost shouted, trying to cover her fear, “nothing special!”

“I would like to inspect your luggage. Follow me please,” said the officer.

As the officer was going to take the luggage from her hand, Tang took her luggage and ran with all her strength towards the exit. But, she could not escape.

Ten seconds later, she was dragged into the most horrible place in the U.S. for international students and immigrants, the so-called “dark room”—the reception room of U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

The travelers on the same flight with Tang looked at her sympathetically while she was screaming, “No! You can’t take the spirit of home away from me!”

This was how Tang described her nightmare to her friend, Amber Lin, as the two stepped off the plane.

It was the seventh time Tang had flown from China to the U.S., returning from her home to the college after vacations. Like in her dream, her luggage was loaded with food from home.

“You still have a chance to throw them away after you get your luggage but before you enter the Customs Check. I can help you with that,” said Lin,  also a rising senior at Bryn Mawr College and the best friend of Tang, who always traveled with Tang.

“No way!” refused Tang without a doubt, “That dream was stupid! Who will wear a pair of sunglasses and a mask? You should be as normal as possible.”

“Okay…God bless you,” sighed Lin.

“I have succeeded six times. I won’t fail,” said Tang firmly, like a warrior who is going to the battlefield.

Her experiences of the past three years had made her a professional “smuggler” of the spirit of home—the homemade dumplings and rice dumplings made by her grandparents, in a well-packaged heat-preserving bag with ice packs. She was ready to face the same challenge and risk everything for her love again.

       * * *

The kitchen at Tang’s home in Nanjing, China, was crowded with raw food materials: shiitake mushrooms, black agarics, reed leaves all soaked in water, sticky rice soaked in soy sauce, salt and sugar, two giant pieces of pork shoulder and streaky pork on two separate cutting boards. It was the busiest day for the grandparents of Tang—two days before Tang’s flight to the U.S.

It was 8 a.m. A burst of rapid and crisp sounds coming out of the kitchen marked the beginning of their complicated work. Chengjian Hu, the grandpa of Tang, was chopping the pork shoulder for the meat filling of the dumplings. He first cut the meat into thin slices, then into strips, then into very small cubes. Finally, he picked up two knives with both of his hands, hitting the cutting board swiftly and accurately, as if he was a professional drummer hitting the drum with two drumsticks. This awe-inspiring drum solo lasted for half an hour and produced a big bowl of perfectly cut meat mash.

It is not very common for Chinese people to make the meat mash by hand anymore, because they can easily get machine-cut meat mash at any supermarket or food market.

“Our little Tang is a picky gourmet,” said Lihua Chao, Tang’s grandma, with a warm smile. “She can tell the difference between machine-cut meat mash and handmade meat mash. She said the handmade meat mash tastes much better. So we insist on making the meat mash by hand.”

Tang, who was packing her luggage in her bedroom, replied with a playful grin, “The handmade meat mash has the magic taste of love.”

Tang’s parents were too busy to take care of Tang. Therefore, after the birth of Tang, her grandparents moved to live with them. It is her grandparents who prepared healthy breakfast, sent Tang to school in the morning, picked up her from school and cooked a delicious dinner in the afternoon every day in Tang’s childhood.

“I can’t live without the food my grandparents cook,” said Tang.

* * *

While Hu was preparing the meat mash, Chao was cutting the streaky pork into thick strips for the rice dumplings. She soaked the strips in soy sauce, salt, sugar ,and spices.

“To make the perfect rice dumplings that I like the best, the correct piece of streaky pork with exactly 40% fat is the key,” said Tang while peeping at her grandparents’ work, “Could you imagine the meat, saturated with soy sauce and spices, melting on your tongue?”

As Chao started to fry the pork strips after an hour, the alluring smell of meat and spices quickly filled the whole house.

Tang popped her head into the kitchen and asked, “Grandma, may I have a piece of pork strip? They smell so good!”

“Your small greedy cat”, Chao patted on Tang’s forehead, “Go play your computer games. Don’t mess around in the kitchen.”

Tang had a hard time tearing away and she kept looking to the direction of the kitchen while playing on her computer.

“Oh my God, I am going to be drowned in my saliva,” complained Tang helplessly.

  * * *

At the end of the day, around 5 p.m., the heat-preserving bag was filled with 20 rice dumplings and 30 dumplings. The rice dumplings were made with soy sauce soaked sticky rice and fried streaky pork, packed in reed leaves and wrapped up with cotton thread. The dumplings were made with the mesh of pork shoulder meat mixed with minced shiitake mushrooms, black agarics and salted egg yolks, packed in hand-rolled dumpling skins.

“This…whu…is…Hea…whu…ven!” panted Tang, as she gobbled a hot dumpling just out of the pot.

“Impatient gets hot bean curd,” said Chao accusingly, as she filled a bowl with hot dumplings and put it under the air conditioner to cool them faster.

It is a Chinese saying that means haste makes waste.

Half of Tang’s luggage was filled with the heat-preserving bag along with other snacks.

Tang put the luggage, which was so full that it might burst open any time, on the weight scale and was desperate to find that it was 28 kg, — 8 kg more than the limited weight of international flights.

“Oh no, why does it happen again?” squeaked a panicked Tang.

Of course, it happened every time.

After struggling for an hour, Tang managed to lower the weight to 22 kg.

“I am sure it will be ok,” said Tang, exhausted.

She gave up a couple dresses, cosmetics, and books, but the half with food remained completely untouched.

    * * *

“Passengers on flight Cathay Pacific CX888 from Hong Kong to New York, you can claim your bags on carousel 1 in Terminal 8,” said the baggage claim announcement.

As Tang ran towards carousel 1, she shouted in Chinese, “My dear rice dumplings! My dear dumplings!”

Lin panted, “I hope our bags have arrived successfully.”

Their travel this time didn’t go smoothly because of the bad weather. Their flight from Shanghai to Hong Kong was delayed and they missed their next flight. Therefore, they had to stay in Hong Kong for a night and caught the same flight the next day. It is easy for bags to get lost or delayed in this kind of situation.

“I can’t bear to lose them,” Tang groaned, as she watched bags coming out on the carousel anxiously.

“Were the rice dumplings and dumplings the only things you care about in your giant luggage?” said Lin, rolling her eyes.

“If I lose my clothes, cosmetics, stationaries or books, I will feel sad,” said Tang, thinking about the question seriously, “but if I lose the spirit of home, I will die!”

“So yes! They are the only things I care about,” said Tang, confirming herself.

Lin walked to the other side of the carousel to check the bags there, knowing that it was not possible to persuade Tang to throw the dumplings and rice dumplings away before they entered the Customs Check.

“All right, the seventh time,” muttered Lin to herself.

* * *

Tang was walking past the Customs Check at the JFK International Airport, New York, with a heavy 28-inch piece of luggage.

Tang merged into the flow of international students, returning from home all over the world to their campuses in the U.S. They had different colors, different cultures, and different languages, but they all brought with them the expectation and love of their family in some forms.

One officer at the Customs Check looked at Tang. She looked back with a polite smile.

No one paid special attention to her.

Twenty meters, ten meters, five meters. She walked not too fast, not too slow, keeping the pace with other students around her.

Tang walked out of the exit of the baggage claim hall. She made it!

“See? Easy enough!”said Tang proudly while waiting for the pickup service, “I never fail because I am doing something sacredly. It’s the spirit of home!”

Lin looked at her overly excited friend, sighed and smiled.

There will be an eighth time.


The Hackathon at the Museum

Contestants gather each year to create apps for the Museum of Art

By Sean Woodruff

Visiting the Philadelphia Museum of Art often feels like stepping back in time. Its galleries are filled with 2,000-year-old ceramics, 100-year-old paintings, and statues crumbling with age.

But in a backroom of the museum, the environment feels more like a Silicon Valley startup than a 142-year-old fine arts institution.

A dozen people sit in front of computers, their screens a flurry of movement. If you look closely, you can catch glimpses of paintings by Monet and Degas as the programmers toggle between windows of complex code. The coders are here as part of the museum’s Hackathon, a six-week long competition to design innovative new apps that integrate technology with art.

The team that comes up with the best app will take home a grand prize of $2,000.

“It’s really about finding new ways to connect people to the art, and finding new ways to connect with each other,” says Ariel Schwartz, Associate Director for Interactive Technologies at the museum.

According to Schwartz, the program been a big success so far. What started as a small weekend event three years ago has grown to include almost 100 contestants.

Today, the museum is hosting a “Hacklab”, where the teams can test out their apps in the galleries and collaborate with museum staff.

Snacks and soda line the tables at the edge of the room, but they are left mostly untouched. The coders are too busy discussing plans with their teammates and tapping away at their keyboards.


Lacy Rhoades furrows his eyebrows. An app developer by trade, and a recent Philadelphia transplant, Rhoades thought the Hackathon would be a great way to get to know people and contribute something to his new city.

But his team has been struggling to come up with a workable idea. The biggest challenge, he says, is walking the line between engagement and distraction.

“I don’t want our app to be too game-like,” he says. “I don’t want people’s eyes to be glued to a screen.”

Earlier in the afternoon, Rhoades spent some time exploring the museum, which gave him the inkling of an idea. He was struck by how much of a personal relationship he felt with certain galleries.

“After I walked through the museum, I felt that I was changed, but also that the museum was changed in a way too. I want to catalog that feeling,” Rhoades says. “I want to create a collective virtual memory for the museum.”

Rhoades envisions an app that can track people’s journeys throughout the galleries. “Imagine seeing the virtual footsteps of people who have walked here before,” he says.

Visitors will also be able to publicly tag and comment on art pieces they feel particularly connected to. This way people can look at the app and get a sense of the history of personal connections within each gallery.

He’s excited about his idea, but he rubs his eyes as he thinks about the work left to do.

“I’m a bit of a procrastinator,” he says. But admitting that seems to give him a renewed sense of urgency and he turns back to his computer screen.


At the next table over, Yilin Wu lets herself subtly smirk. “We have a great idea,” she says. She speaks quietly, but without mumbling—she deliberately enunciates every syllable.

Their app, called Art Mind, is a recommendation system that will match people with works of art that they will enjoy.

“It’s like Tinder for art,” she says, “It will help you find the works of art you’ll love.”

The app will show visitors 10 works of art before they enter the galleries. People then swipe right or swipe left depending on whether they like each piece. Based on those preferences, the app will use a complicated machine-learning algorithm to build a custom museum tour for each person.

Even more impressive is that the algorithm learns over time. So the more that people use the app, the better it will get at recommending art.

If Wu’s team has time, they also wants to implement a forum feature, so that people can start discussion threads about each art piece.

But even if they don’t get a chance to implement that feature, Wu is confident that her team will make it past the preliminary judging round on May 16th.


Another team sits in the corner, deep in discussion. They are debating the best layout for their user interface. Rob Mruczek strokes his bright orange beard, which almost seems to glow underneath the fluorescent lighting.

His team has integrated their app with the music streaming service Spotify to create a social network based on music and art.

“The idea is that people can share songs that they associate with specific works of art,” Mruczek says. Other people can then vote on those songs, creating a crowdsourced playlist to pair with each artwork.

One benefit of a music focused app is that it encourages people to look at the art instead of down at their phone.

The app also provides a way to bring a piece of the museum back home with you. Now, once you listen to a particular song, you can think back to the work of art you saw while listening to it at the museum.

Mruczek scrolls through the app they have built so far with satisfaction. It looks polished and professional.

“Music and art are both really personal, so we thought it would be great to combine the two,” he says.


Schwartz, the organizer of the Hackathon, beams as he walks away from the clatter of keyboards and back towards his office. He’s proud of the way the Hackathon has grown, and is inspired by the contestants’ imaginations.

“We never know how fresh minds will attack the challenge, and we’ve been rewarded every year with approaches we’ve never thought of,” he says.

With so many innovative and ambitious projects, it’s hard to know whom the judges will award the $2,000 grand prize.

But the judges aren’t the only ones to select a winner. On May 25th, the five finalists will have the chance to showcase their apps to the public. Museum visitors will then get to choose the recipient of the $500 People’s Choice Award.

Regardless of who wins, Schwartz thinks that everyone involved in the Hackathon is important. To him, it’s not just about the final product, but about community building and creativity.

“We’re turning around the thinking of what a museum does, and should do,” says Schwartz. “It’s really exciting.”


The New Ballet

New forms, new varieties step away from traditional ballet

By Anika Varty

Barefoot dancers run on stage to meet each other in distinct groups. They step precisely to the dramatic instrumental music. These performers are not limited by the rules of one specific style. Instead, they are just dancers, expressing themselves through movement and mesmerizing an audience.

Dancers and choreographers have always been protective of style. Being able to communicate the style of dance you are going to perform can be helpful: Dancers want to know about the company they are auditioning for. Performers want to know what choreographers are looking for. Audiences want to know what they are paying to see.

But what happens when pioneers of dance blur the lines of style?

While new styles of dance have always stemmed from changing and fusing existing genres, choreographers and artistic directors throughout the United States have recently been intentionally bending genre. For many, doing so lets them express fresh stories through movement.

Here are some of the latest examples:


Perhaps one of the clearest examples of marrying two seemingly conflicting styles is Hiplet, which combines classical pointe technique with urban dance styles like Hip Hop. One of the main intentions behind developing Hiplet was to make Ballet more accessible by using music that is familiar to audiences who might not otherwise attend Ballet performances.

“In order to stay relevant with young people, you have to do what they’re doing now,” says Homer Hans Bryant, the creator of Hiplet.

The Chicago Multi-Cultural Dance Center (CMDC), the birthplace of Hiplet, focuses on empowering people through dance. Because the center is also a dance school, this goal means working to accept any student with talent, regardless of their socioeconomic background.

Homer Hans Bryant

The creation of Hiplet has helped CMDC with enrollment and popularity. Bryant says social media has played a huge role in spreading the style. With 136,000 Instagram followers, he’s probably right.

The style began with a Ballet technique created in the early 1990’s called “The Rap Ballet.” Dancers performed popular dances like the running man en pointe, set to rap music. As artistic director at the time, Homer Hans Bryant began toying with different Hip Hop movements, and eventually developed and trademarked the Hiplet technique.

“When you think of classical Ballet, it’s ethereal. It’s usually white people doing this beautiful stuff on the tip of the toe. They become like robots,” says Bryant “Here you have some kids of color, with strong classical Ballet training and a lot of street funk.”

After spending a year posting videos of dancers in class practicing Hiplet, Só Bailarinos shared a video on Facebook. Soon after, BuzzFeed produced a video covering the Hiplet™ story. Good Morning America soon called to bring Bryant and some Hiplet dancers onto the show.

CMDC is still the only contemporary Ballet school that teaches Hiplet, though the technique has become a worldwide phenomenon. CMDC regularly receives calls from studios and dancers across the United States, and says they are working to share the technique with as many dancers as they can.

Ultimately, their goal is to develop a professional Hiplet company, which will go on tour to share the unique technique.

CMDC is also hoping to begin certifying dance instructors to teach Hiplet. Doing so will hopefully protect dancers from the potential risks of Hiplet. According to CMDC, dancers must have very strong knees and ankles to safely practice Hiplet.

Kun-Yang Lin/Dancers

Kun-Yang Lin/Dancers (KYL/D) is a contemporary dance company based in South Philadelphia. KYL/D often presents work questioning national identity.

“I think KYL/D is a great example of a professional contemporary dance company which has strong Eastern influences,” says Katie Moore, Business Development Manager of KYL/D.

By drawing on Eastern philosophies and simultaneously calling on contemporary styles, the company challenges the limitations of identities through its work.

Kun-Yang Lin/Dancers

Artistic Director Kun-Yang Lin continues researching throughout Asia to bring a personal and multicultural approach to his work. The dancing that KYL/D creates produces a hybrid performance of Eastern and Western cultures.

“We’re definitely contemporary, but I don’t like the word fusion,” says Moore.

“Yeah, because sometimes we go to a restaurant, and we hear ‘oh this is Chinese fusion.’ So we feel that oh this is not authentic Chinese food. But I think we are doing very authentic work, we’re just very contemporary. We don’t define ourselves by any specific style,” says rehearsal director, Lingyuan (Maggie) Zhao.

“I think the most important thing, is to make that connection,” says Zhao. “Kun-Yang is always telling us that movement is similar to language: it’s how you communicate. I think we are not really focusing on one certain language, because our purpose is to make that connection.”

The KYL/D dancers are skeptical of the word “fusion” because it might imply that they are losing aspects of each style and influence that they call on. However, the company is actually focused on communicating authenticity. By not being bound to a concrete style, KYL/D hopes to present the authenticity of their dancers through Kun-Yang Lin’s choreography.

“With Kun-Yang’s style, it’s a whole new way to dance,” says KYL/D dancer Liu Mo. “You just have to find out who you truly are and be you on stage. At that moment, you don’t have to think about if it’s classical movements, it’s just the way you communicate and move.” The dancers at KYL/D focus on being their real selves as they collaborate to create authentic pieces of art.

“It’s not about memorizing. It’s not about my brain. Dance is visceral,” says Lin, noting the importance of recognizing dance as a physical form of storytelling and expression. An immigrant himself, the space between east and west and the space between innovation and tradition are consistently significant themes in his work.

KYL/D calls on influences like Buddhist and Taoist ideologies to shape its performances. Lin’s choreography weave movements from tai chi and chi gong as well as shapes from calligraphy and meditation practices throughout their work. Paired with cross-cultural research, artists in KYL/D hope to use dance to integrate the body, spirit, and mind through dance.


BalletX is Philadelphia’s premier contemporary Ballet company. BalletX presents original choreography aimed at broadening the boundaries of classical dance, hoping to make its performances interesting to all audiences. Ballet has always been seen as a form of high art, and working to develop the style into something that captivates diverse audiences means bringing tradition and history into this contemporary moment.

The company was founded by Christine Cox and Matthew Neenan in 2005. Cox now leads the group as Artistic and Executive Director. Promoting explicit experimentation while requiring impeccable technique, BalletX consistently pushes boundaries of classical Ballet.

According to the company, “these contemporary pieces challenge BalletX’s dancers with the innovative possibilities of Ballet in the 21st century.”

Matthew Neenan Ballet X

BalletX shows tend to attract younger audiences than the more classical Pennsylvania Ballet. While the technique BalletX dancers use is deeply rooted in traditional Ballet, the movements, costuming, and music can be quite experimental.

BalletX and the Pennsylvania Ballet live on opposite sides of Broad Street. They print ads in each other’s programs. These two Ballet companies keep the style alive in Philadelphia. The Pennsylvania Ballet keeps tradition alive in familiar tutus, while BalletX remixes convention to transform the genre. Both companies share the same general goal of creatively and artistically telling stories through dance, but the way they approach this task differs greatly.

Though all of the BalletX dancers are classically trained, performances are anything but traditional. The company pairs traditional costumes with modern movements, or complements familiar classical music with unexpected costuming.

Rhythm N Motion

The trend of fusing genres together has spread far beyond professionals. Unhappy with the lack of classes offered in underrepresented styles through their dance department, students at Swarthmore College established a dance group called Rhythm N Motion (RnM) in 2002. RnM focuses on highlighting styles primarily from the African Diaspora.

At first, the group focused on styles like Umfundalai, Hip Hop, and Salsa. However, in recent years, the student-run group has been performing more and more pieces that call on multiple influences.

“Bending genre lets choreographers pursue our group’s mission through their work,” says Artistic Coordinator Arianna Bernas. “For a lot of dancers, we can learn about different styles and call on our peers’ strengths by working on these fusion pieces.”

RnM has grown into a Tri-College group, welcoming members from Bryn Mawr, Haverford, and Swarthmore Colleges. The group organizes a showcase each semester, and often hosts workshops open to any student in the Tri-College Consortium. In the last few semesters, more student choreographers seem to be combining multiple styles in their pieces. RnM recently presented a piece that fused Bhangra and Hip Hop. They have also performed multiple pieces that showcase both Contemporary and Umfundalai vocabularies.

Rhythm N Motion

Although current members remain committed to the original mission statement centered on promoting underrepresented styles of the African Diaspora, current members say that some alumni have resisted fusing traditional African styles with contemporary western vocabularies. According to current dancers, some previous members of the group worry that bringing in western styles, even through fusion pieces, risks straying from RnM’s mission.

Because the group was established by students of color who could not find the tools they needed to tell their stories through dance in their department, identity has always been an important part of RnM.

Bernas says that bending genre lets choreographers and dancers call on their own identities and experiences.


Each of these dance groups has faced backlash for pushing against the constraints of tradition. Challenging classical dance styles receives criticism for many different reasons.

Many ballerinas have criticized Hiplet, claiming that the style is dangerous for the dancers. Because classical Ballet focuses on extensions and straight lines, a lot of dancers assume the bent knees and distinct posture used in Hip Hop will leave Hiplet dancers at risk of knee and ankle injuries. However, Bryant has noted the risks of trying new things en pointe, and only teaches Hiplet to students who already have strong Ballet technique. So what is the backlash really about?

Naming dance styles and keeping them distinct maintains the elitism present in western high culture. Because so much of blending genres serves to make styles like Ballet more accessible, artists committed to broadening their audiences are often working to bring aspects and aesthetics of specific dance styles from high culture to pop culture.

The Bigger Picture

Many choreographers and artistic directors working towards fusing styles do so to broaden their company’s audience or to push dance to hold narratives previously silenced by the confines of distinct styles. Both of these aspirations serve to modernize classical styles to keep them relevant to both audiences and dancers. Dance has always been a method of storytelling, and challenging strict distinctions of genre seems to highlight stories some artists are now trying to share.

Basically, we love putting things in boxes. We love having concrete definitions so that we can understand things by classifying them. Whether we are talking about people, places, dogs, or food, labels help us separate things into groups.

Dance is no different: for years, we have looked at styles of dance as concrete limitations of what each discipline can be. Each time a new style is born, we are quick to name it and define it.


Creating these labels lets us think about new styles in terms of existing ones. Strict definitions comfort us; we know what’s what and can name anything we see. We can easily communicate our likes and dislikes, and dancers can explicitly state their strengths and weaknesses.

But dancers who are bending genre ask that we think about dance more broadly as a form of communication. Strict rules of style can make storytelling less authentic and force dancers to focus on limitations instead of storytelling.