Knowledge Matters blog

Behind the scenes at the British Library

13 October 2023

Untangling the History of Social Dance | User Stories


Choreographer Robert Hylton has used the British Library throughout his career to research the history of dance. As a Visiting Fellow at the British Library’s Eccles Centre in 2019, he explored the connections between street dance and the African diaspora. His book Dancing in Time: The History of Moving And Shaking was published by the Library in 2022.

When you walk into the foyer of the British Library, there’s an immediate sense of purpose. All kinds of different people are there to gain access to knowledge. Libraries are part of the human experience: they’re about trying to understand who we are; understanding the future through the past. 

I’ve danced since I was a child. When hip-hop came along, in the early 80s, I started copying the breaking and popping I saw on TV. On Saturday afternoons, I used to go and dance in a club in Newcastle called Tiffany’s. I grew up just outside of Sunderland, so Tiffany’s gave me more access to dance. 

In 1986, I left school, and a couple of years later I joined a UK jazz dance crew in Newcastle called Bamboozle, based at an organization called Dance City. We ended up performing at a festival at Newcastle Theatre Royal, on the same bill as Rambert and the Royal Ballet. Then I auditioned for the Northern School of Contemporary Dance and got in. After my degree, I was at the Phoenix Dance Theatre company as an apprentice, but after that, I went back to street dance. 


I travelled the world performing

I started doing hip-hop choreography and hip-hop theatre, sometimes mixing it with contemporary dance. Combining abstract, contemporary dance with popping and breaking got me a lot of attention. I got funding, and travelled the world performing for a few years. Then I started doing commercial choreography, for brands like McDonald’s, Foot Locker and Nescafé.

A friend of mine told me about an MA in Performance Arts at Northampton University, and I applied and got funding. I was looking at the vocabulary of popping. There are multiple different techniques, called things like waving, King Tut, scarecrow and dime stops, which you mix together when you improvise. 

I’m currently doing a PhD looking at the thought process behind popping improvisation. As a dancer, you carry with you the images that you see in books, videos or lived experience, and they become part of your own bookshelf within your body. When you improvise, you take this embodied knowledge into the real world – by dancing. 


I’ve always studied dance

In 2019, I did a visiting fellowship at the Library’s Eccles Centre. My project was called ‘Dancing in the Archives’. I started going to the Library when I discovered that some of the books I wanted to use for my research into the history of dance were quite rare or too expensive. I saw the fellowship advertised, applied and got it. It gave me a year and a half to look deeper into pre-20th century Black African diaspora dances. These eventually became present-day hip-hop dance, one of the most innovative forms of dance in the world. 

At the end of my Eccles Centre Fellowship, I wrote a blog post for the Library about my research. I sent it in just before the Covid lockdown started. I think the Library already wanted to publish a book featuring some of the dance images they had in their archives. There must have been somebody who saw my blog and said, I think he could do it. 

They sent me an email and I said yes. I hadn’t written on that level before, but I do like a challenge. I had to use my experience as a performer and choreographer to help the reader imagine themselves in the pictures. The book, Dancing in Time, becomes a more immersive reading experience because it was written by someone who understands dance. 

I’ve always studied dance. When I was a kid, I used to have a VHS tape next to the TV, and I’d record anything dance-related that I was interested in. I wanted to understand it and keep an archive of it. In the 80s and 90s, information about hip-hop and breaking was quite fractured. When the internet came out, all of a sudden you had access to more understanding about what it was. When you start working professionally and teaching, you want to get into research to make sure you have knowledge of dance vocabulary and history. Experimentation in choreography is built on research. 


Hip-hop is based on African diaspora social dances

Studying hip-hop takes you back to Jazz dance, which takes you back to Ragtime. Hip-hop didn’t really start fifty years ago; it’s based on African diaspora social dances, which when you go further back, begin in African dance, disrupted as a result of slavery. Through slavery, European partner dances and African-based dances were blended together. This is where dances like Lindy Hop and Tango come from. Jazz Dance: The Story of American Vernacular Dance by Marshall and Jean Stearns gives a useful account of the history of African dance. 

The dance illustrations in the Library’s collection are exceptional, and yet they were probably drawn from memory. The more we revisit history, the more we understand about ourselves and our culture. We can even find things that might have been missed the first time around. Usually, dances from the Black diaspora would have been described previously as primitive or exotic, when in reality the dance language is extremely sophisticated. Because of the nature of white hierarchy, important cultural knowledge would have been missed. Now hip-hop has to take up the task of relearning its history from a Black perspective. 

I think having a library is just as much a part of being human as having a cupboard full of food. It keeps us alive and healthy. With a cupboard full of food, you can learn different recipes and different ways to cook. If you have a library, you can learn different ways to think. It’s how we feed ourselves as human beings. 

As told to Lucy Peters