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Can Hip-Hop Choreography Teach You Stage Combat?

Michael Catron teaching students stage combat at ITF 2023.

That’s exactly the question Michael Catron and Leo Yu-Ning Chang are planning to answer at their workshop “Beat It Up: Hip-Hop Dance X Stage Combat,” at the International Thespian Festival (ITF). Back at ITF 2023, the two met in a workshop session, and immediately hit it off, quickly finding themselves fight training between sessions.

“Everyone was taking pictures and saying, ‘You two are crazy,’ but I guess that’s why we bonded so well,” said Chang. “We seized that chance and saw there was someone who could teach [us] something.”

This year, they’re taking that willingness to learn and using it to develop an all-new workshop exploring their craft. EdTA caught up with Catron and Chang to discuss where the idea for the session came from, their teaching philosophy, and how theatre educators can set the stage to create similar lessons in their classrooms.

Why the Styles Work Together

Catron and Chang both bring decades of experience in their craft to the table. And while they’ve explored plenty of genres and styles, it was the historical significance and artistic narrative behind hip-hop that made it an ideal metaphor for blending the styles.

Originating in the Bronx during the ’60s and ’70s, hip hop was often an outlet for the Black community to express their frustrations and anger without the need for violence, a relatable connection for Chang.

Leo Yu-Ning Chang teaching hop-hop choreography

“When I was a teenager, I had that anger and didn’t know where to release it. This type of music came into my life, and I [learned] I could use rap and my physical gesture or movement… and feel that it’s cohesive to my heartbeat,” he said. “I felt like someone understood me, even though our cultures were so different and far apart.”

In the world of stage combat, it’s a sentiment Catron relates to as well. “Hip hop is an artistic response, a metaphor for the need for violence, which is also like stage combat — it’s not violence,” he says. “It’s a performance of an expression that causes people to consider the ramifications of violence. But in a good stage combat session, no one gets hurt, no one is afraid. It’s all performance, which in a lot of ways, hip hop is performance.”

Setting Mindset and Environment

For Catron and Chang, part of the process of designing this workshop has been understanding the requirements that make it a fun and conducive experience for all. The same way their first meeting led to learning from each other, they’re hoping to bring the experience to ITF attendees.

“Hopefully it attracts interest and enthusiastic participants who are looking to challenge themselves,” said Catron. “I’m not a dancer, so part of the workshop also terrifies me. It’s forcing me into a creative space.”

That balance between boundaries and discomfort is an essential component of their session. According to Catron and Chang, a challenge they often run into as teaching artists is encouraging students to move beyond their comfort zone. Whether it’s stepping into a new role, trying a different technique, or collaborating with others, pushing past discomfort is essential for growth.

Creating a safe environment has been a key aspect of their teaching philosophy. “We wanted to create a space that feels not just fun but also brave for everyone to learn together on the same playground,” said Chang.

michael catron stage combat workshop itf 23

A Stage Combat Teaching Framework

Whether you’re attending their session at ITF or looking to bring a similar learning environment to your classroom, there are a few steps Catron and Chang suggest using. On the stage combat side, Catron breaks it down into three non-negotiables:

  • You have to, or you don’t get to: Safety is paramount for experimenting with stage combat. Be sure to set the expectations and requirements to participate in any session, not just for their own safety but to ensure others feel comfortable too.
  • Here are the things we can do safely: Whether it’s a large Wild West big corral fight or a simple interaction between two characters, outline themes or moves students will be working with.
  • This is what you’re free to decide: Allow students to decide which ones they and their partners are comfortable with, and then I give them time to negotiate and build a scene together.

At the same time, it’s also critical for educators to understand the emotional factors that impact student experience in your class. “We’re always facing different students, and even if we’re teaching the same students day after day, we’re still facing their different emotions every day,” said Chang. “It’s important to have enough grace to understand each other.”

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