Black female dancers dancing in a circle under a tent.

Dancers gather at the 2022 Cypher Summit. (Photo/ Hannah Doerr)


Dance summit showcases women in hip-hop

The sisterhood-themed Cypher Summit — presented by the USC Kaufman School of Dance and USC Visions and Voices — will mark Women’s History Month with dance performances and a party.

February 20, 2024 By Rachel B. Levin

When hip-hop/street dancer Tiffany Bong was first learning to pop, lock and whack in California as a teenager in the 1980s, she often found herself the only girl in freestyle dance circles — known in the hip-hop world as cyphers — that she frequented.

“The hip-hop dance scene was definitely male-dominated,” says Bong, assistant professor of practice at the USC Kaufman School of Dance. “I feel like I danced like a man because I was taught by men.”

As Bong racked up championship titles — including Hip Hop International’s world locking champion, R-16’s North American locking champion and Los Angeles’ international waackpunk/pose champion — uplifting women in hip-hop became part of her career journey.

In 2000, she was a founding member of the Syrenz, an all-female dance crew that has performed with high-profile recording artists such as Justin Bieber, Usher and Rihanna.

“We formed a group because we wanted to show sisterhood,” Bong says. “We wanted to show what we could do.”

On March 2, Bong will lead the Cypher Summit Block Party, which celebrates sisterhood in hip-hop. Presented by USC Kaufman in partnership with USC’s arts and humanities initiative Visions and Voices, the event will include all-female hip-hop dance performances, dance battles, a panel discussion and a “sisterhood cypher” and dance party.

The summit coincides with Women’s History Month and comes on the heels of USC Kaufman’s celebration of hip-hop’s 50th anniversary in 2023.

“Women have been innovators, leaders, organizers, pioneers and creatives of hip-hop dance culture since the beginning,” Bong notes. “It’s important to recognize that — because most of the time they have been taken out of the story, or less featured or highlighted.”

Women have been innovators, leaders, organizers, pioneers and creatives of hip-hop dance culture since the beginning.

— Tiffany Bong

Stepping into the spotlight

Tiffany Bong jumping in the air behind a gray background.
Tiffany Bong, assistant professor of practice at the USC Kaufman School of Dance, will lead the Cypher Summit Block Party, which celebrates sisterhood in hip-hop. (Photo/Cheryl Mann).

Bong has taken on leadership roles in hip-hop ever since she formed her first dance company at age 16. She’s the executive director of UniverSOUL Hip Hop, a multicultural group of socially engaged dance practitioners she founded in 2014 with a mission to bring community, justice and joy into communites through dance programs, performances and productions. In 2018, she established Kaufman Connections, a program that sends Bachelor of Fine Arts students from USC Kaufman to teach hip-hop dance to students at 32nd Street Elementary School, adjacent to USC’s University Park Campus.

Also in 2018, Bong founded the Cypher Summit as a biennial forum for hip-hop dance leaders to gather and discuss topics that are important to the community. The first summit centered on the challenges of integrating hip-hop, a community-based art form, into academia. The 2022 summit was themed around sisterhood — and it was such a powerful event that Bong knew she had to plan a sequel this year.

“It felt like the conversation was just starting,” Bong recalls. “We’re building off of that momentum.”

This is the first year Bong has collaborated on the Cypher Summit with Visions and Voices. “The collaboration allows us an opportunity to envision the summit in new ways,” Bong says. The dance performances and dance battles are new additions.

Julia Ritter, dean of USC Kaufman, notes that the summit has gained prominence nationally as it has matured. “Tiffany has taken the Cypher Summit from an idea to a respected biennial event that captures the attention of artists from all over the country,” Ritter says. “She is excellent at bringing people together and challenging them to dig deeper into embodied, historical and theoretical inquiry.”

Scheduled to perform is the Ladies of Hip-Hop Dance Collective, an all-female, New York-based group that foregrounds Black women. Bong notes that Black women’s contributions to hip-hop dance, while formidable, have too often been minimized.

“They have been the caretakers and tradition bearers, the leaders and pioneers,” Bong says.

Also appearing is Nefer Global Movement, an all-female group led by USC Kaufman artist-in-residence Toyin Sogunro, a trailblazer in house dance, a social dance with roots in hip-hop. In 2011, Sogunro and her partner, LaTasha Barnes, became the first female team and first American team to take first place in the world championship for house dance in the Juste Debout competition.

Break Through Hip Hop, a USC dance team led by students and advised by Bong, will also perform. Though Break Through Hip Hop is not an exclusively female group, their summit performance will include only female members.

“I think that [the summit] has a special place in all of our hearts as dancers,” says Anna Keough, a sophomore majoring in business who co-directs Break Through Hip Hop. “It’s celebrating our history. I think that it’s just going to be a really amazing experience and opportunity for us. We get to showcase some of what we work on.”

The summit has a special place in all of our hearts as dancers. It’s celebrating our history.

— Anna Keough

Keough is particularly excited to watch the freestyle dance events at the summit, which will offer a contrast to Break Through Hip Hop’s choreography-based work. The freestyle dance battles will be two-on-two, with each duo consisting of a USC Kaufman BFA student paired with a community-based dancer. Passion from Versa-Style Dance Company and Crystal Jackson Singletary from THECouncil are among the community-based artists participating.

The competition will spotlight the women’s skills and showmanship. “Some of us have been in the background so much,” Bong says. “This is a moment to step forward and really claim our space.”


Coming full circle

Though many of Bong’s first teachers were men, she recalls looking up to Soul Train dancer Damita Jo Freeman, who regularly appeared on the show in the early 1970s with Don “Campbellock” Campbell, the inventor of locking.

Freeman will join the summit’s panel discussion in conversation with Michele Byrd-McPhee, who leads Ladies of Hip-Hop, krump dance pioneer Marquisa “Miss Prissy” Gardner and others.

“We wanted to create a space for intergenerational voices,” Bong says, adding that female hip-hop dance legends like Freeman deserve to be recognized and introduced to younger dancers. “Their stories need to be shared.”

Fittingly, the Cypher Summit will close with — what else? — a cypher. All attendees can join the circle and show off their freestyle dance moves.

For Bong, the cypher won’t just be an invitation to party, it will serve as a sacred space to celebrate sisterhood.

“There’s something special about women that we bring [to hip-hop] when we create safe spaces for women to really shine and share who we are,” she says.