Cindy Cervantes, aka B-girl Emerge, remembers what it used to feel like to participate in breakdancing battles as a woman.
Throughout the 2000s, Cervantes would show up to events around Denver where “it was like one B-girl to sixty B-boys,” she says. “So there's a lot of expectation on you as a woman... And if there's another B-girl who comes in, it's like, 'Oh, you two have to battle because you're the only girls.'"
Elise Silva, another B-girl in the Colorado community, had similar experiences, and recalls how being one of the few women at breakdancing battles made her feel like she was on display as the token female. Sometimes, that feeling was coupled with demeaning statements like, “Oh, she’s good…for a girl.”
“It was hard to want to battle anybody assuming that whatever support you received might be disingenuous," Silva recalls.
But things began to change in 2009, when Cervantes was approached by Justine Sandoval and other members of Hip Hop Congress, a nonprofit, about starting an event to coincide with Women’s History Month.
“We wanted to do an event just for women,” Cervantes remembers.
That’s when she co-founded Queenz of Hip Hop, a yearly event in Denver that features breaking, emceeing, deejaying and other forms of hip-hop dance — all performed by women.
Now in its seventh year, the event has grown significantly from its first iteration — 150 people who crowded into Sigi’s Cabaret, an event space located in the basement of the Auraria campus’s Tivoli Student Union — to this year’s event, which will be held in the Driscoll Ballroom at the University of Denver on Saturday, April 9, and will feature artists from across the country and a few from outside the United States.
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Silva, who acts as a member of the planning committee and will be a judge for this year’s dance battles, calls Queenz of Hip Hop “a seminal event” in Colorado’s hip-hop community.
This year, the free event (donations optional) will feature multiple events and dance battles, including “1v1 footwork,” “2v2 b-girls” and a “Bonnie and Clyde” battle that matches male and female duos against each other. There will also be performances by local artists like Kalyn Heffernan of Wheelchair Sports Camp, Koo Qua, The Janes (a local female all-styles dance group) and LadySpeech (a 2015 Westword MasterMind).
Most important, Silva says, Queenz of Hip Hop is a way to encourage young women to pursue hip-hop performance, whether that be dancing, deejaying or emceeing.
"One of the things that's special about Queenz is that, because it is women-run, it is about women supporting other women, so there's not that hazing or competition.” Silva says. “It's a real feeling of dedication to bringing up the next generation of women and not putting them through the same discomforts or that feeling of tokenism that we had to go through."
Both Silva and Cervantes point to Asia One, a longtime performance artist who runs the hip-hop nonprofit No Easy Props and recently moved to Denver, as being one of the female mentors who has had a positive impact on young women in Colorado.
"It takes a different kind of woman to want to do this kind of dance, being that it's male-dominated and very physical,” explains Asia One. “But it also encourages women to come out of our normal comfort zones."
She gives the example of two of her students, Madi Mayhem and Bgirl Adore, whom she encouraged to participate in last year’s 2v2 Bgirl battle at Queenz of Hip Hop, and ended up winning the event despite being the youngest competitors. They'll be back this year to defend their title.
On a recent Tuesday at the BBoy Factory, a dance studio in north Denver, Madi and Adore are busy preparing moves for this year’s battle.
Both thirteen years old, they are rising stars in Denver’s hip-hop community, but they know that they have some tough competition heading into this year’s Queenz of Hip Hop. With teams showing up from places like Los Angeles and the East Coast (and Queenz also acting as a qualifying event for a larger competition in the fall called BgirlCity in Houston), Madi and Adore are excited, but nervous, about the moves they’ll be up against.
“It's so much bigger this year with people coming from all over, so I feel like the competition is going to be tougher,” says Madi. “But as long as we have fun, that's all that matters. I'm interested to see all the different styles that people bring."
Madi has been dancing since she was five years old, when she saw a group of breakdancers along Boulder’s Pearl Street Mall. She quickly moved beyond ballet, which she says “was lame,” and began performing to hip hop. Last year was her first time participating in Queenz of Hip Hop after Asia One, who teaches at BBoy Factory, convinced her to team up with Adore in the 2v2 breaking battle.
Adore was also introduced to breaking at an early age, because her father, Bboy Mars, is a well-known dancer in Colorado's hip-hop community. But Adore also remembers being influenced by the first Queenz of Hip Hop in 2009, which she attended when she was six years old.
"Usually the culture is all men dancing, so just to see women at the event who were good, it was inspiring to me," Adore says. "I remember thinking, ‘I can do that, I'm a girl too.’ It's not just men who can do it all, we can do it all too."
Recalling her first Queenz experience last year, Madi says that the event also has an effect on men who attend the event. “There were lots of men there, but I feel like they respected the women more because they could see that, 'Wow! They do cool stuff sometimes,'” she says. “I feel like they noticed us.”
This is exactly the effect that Asia One, Silva and Cervantes are going for.
"A big part of our mission is fostering leadership skills in women, and encouraging them to feel empowered,” says Silva.
This year the organizers have added additional events around the main Queenz of Hip Hop event. On Friday April 8, BBoy factory will host Cypher Adikts. There will also be a number of workshops on Sunday, April 10 at the School Of Breaking to follow Saturday's main Queenz of Hip Hop event.
Asia One, who will be teaching one of Sunday's workshops, says that she’s also trying to show young women that hip hop dance can be more than just one-hour-a-week studio classes, which she thinks is increasingly becoming the norm. "We're trying to bring in a mentality of community, and that what you're representing through dance has a long history,” she says. “Young people can gravitate towards that — being part of something larger than themselves."
Silva believes that is what has happened with Madi and Adore.
“It would have been easy for them to come into the scene, see that it is mostly dominated by men, and say 'That's not for me,'” she says. “But then to have mentorship and be able to form friendships with women in the scene, having those connections is what allows them to identify with hip hop and that it is for them."
Looking towards the future, Silva and Cervantes say that they will be applying for non-profit status, as well as working to grow Queenz of Hip Hop as an organization.
"Our goal is to do workshops year-round and bring up the next generation," explains Cervantes.
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This includes plans to expand on some of the performances that artists associated with Queenz of Hip Hop have already performed at, including the Dragon Boat Festival, Warm Cookies of the Revolution and PeaceJam.
Silva believes that as more women see other women breaking, deejaying, and emceeing, they will be encouraged to put themselves out there – even at events that continue to be dominated by men.
As compared to the past, when some women were afraid to participate in the hip-hop community, “maybe we can begin to accept ourselves more," she says.
Queenz of Hip-Hop Seventh Annual Jam is Saturday, April 9, at the Driscoll Ballroom at the University of Denver.