PRINTER’S ROW — Homer Bryant and his dance company have been quietly making history for 31 years from the lower level of Dearborn Station.
Bryant works seven days a week out of a tiny office packed with photographs and keepsakes in the Chicago Multicultural Dance Center. The 72-year-old was born in the Virgin Islands and made a name for himself with the creation of hiplet — hip-hop meets ballet — over decades in Chicago.
The pandemic hasn’t been easy for Bryant’s company, hurting enrollment and drying up donations. But the setbacks haven’t dampened his spirit: Hiplet has reached global prominence, and Bryant is fielding invitations from far-flung places for his troupe to perform as he gears up for the summer session.
On a busy Friday afternoon, Bryant was thriving amid the controlled chaos of his work. Ballet star Eric Underwood was visiting from the East Coast to lead Bryant’s students in a class, and clusters of students warmed up in a rehearsal room.
“Sometimes I hit myself like, ‘Wow,’” Bryant said.
Bryant became interested in dance as a youth, using it as a way to impress pretty classmates, he said. He eventually dedicated his life to the art, accepting an invitation from Arthur Mitchell when the icon invited him to train with the Dance Theater of Harlem.
One of Bryant’s crowning achievements came in 2005 with the invention of hiplet. He was working with UniverSoul Circus, and the company wanted one of his performers, Tova, to do an aerial dance, he said.
The dancer “comes and starts doing the Dougie and the Running Man, and this lightbulb goes off in my head: ‘hiplet!’” Bryant said.
Bryant trademarked hiplet in 2009 to keep the copycats at bay, but every so often he gets a call from someone telling him about an unaffiliated studio offering hiplet classes. Sometimes he calls his lawyer to handle it, he said — other times, he calls, pretending to be a prospective student to bust the culprits, who end up scrubbing any mention of hiplet from their websites soon after.
Bryant has entertained the thought of branching out across the United States, but he wants to make Chicago the epicenter of hiplet.
“If people can travel to New York to train at Ailey or the American Ballet School, they can come here,” Bryant said.
He is confident they will.
Bryant’s troupe just wrapped up a successful 12-city tour, and the buzz from the dancers’ 2021 appearance on “America’s Got Talent” is still heavy.
Two hiplet dancers, Nia Towe and Taylor Edwards, are still high from the experience.
“I didn’t understand the magnitude of AGT until after we were on it. I work in the school system, so random people from work would recognize me. People are obsessed with that show,” Towe said.
Simon Cowell was the group’s harshest critic, but the troupe managed to win him over with a menagerie of moves performed en pointe, Edwards said. They were eliminated during the deliberations, but the group made a lasting impression, and their agent has kept them booked and busy since.
Towe and Edwards practically grew up at the Chicago Multicultural Dance Center, they said. Now they’re instructors, training the next generation of hiplet ballerinas and providing them with the same love and support they received as students.
“It feeds me. It’s almost like instruction is your training. You’re teaching them what you’re really teaching yourself,” Towe said.
Still, a lack of financial support continues to burden the company.
Over the pandemic, nearly half of Bryant’s students left the school, leaving him with around 125 pupils. Some students returned and left again because they felt insecure, while others had parents who changed jobs or they lost family members and could no longer dance. One of Bryant’s teachers lost eight relatives due to COVID-19.
Some donors have also been reticent to give during the pandemic, Bryant said.
“We’re not the Joffrey Ballet. I’m a little Black man in a basement,” Bryant said. “If Joffrey gets a half-million dollars, I get $25,000 or $10,000 or $15,000.
“The sad thing is that my white counterparts will get all the money for bringing in one or two Black kids for diversity, and I’m not getting any money for anything. No one’s looking at a Black-owned organization like that.”
The center’s board of directors also dissolved, so Bryant is working to assemble a new one. He hopes that with all the new faces coming through the doors to check out the studio, some will want to stick around and be a part of it.
It’s that kind of open-door policy and steadfast belief in diversity and inclusion that has made the past 31 years possible, Bryant said. He believes in a world in which anyone who wants to dance should be given the opportunity to do so.
“Hiplet is multicultural and accepting and genuine. It’s going to be everywhere,” Towe said.
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