He got to work mining his connections across the dance world, he said, and “called some in favors.” Rennie Harris University welcomed its first pool of applicants in early 2021.

The program is structured to allow students to take technique classes locally, with a list of qualified instructors near their homes provided by the school; students also meet virtually to take a rotating slate of courses online. Sessions cover hip-hop and street dance-specific injury prevention, pedagogy, theory and history; Harris’s contribution, a series called The Day Before Hip-Hop, traces the roots of the form back to the period of American slavery. The courses are taught by renowned dance scholars including Ayo Walker, Thomas DeFrantz, Charmaine Warren and Brenda Dixon-Gottschild, and hip-hop and street dance practitioners like Buddha Stretch, Pop Master Fabel and B-boy YNOT.

“Most people think that dance is just dance,” said Stephanie Sanchez, a graduate of Rennie Harris University. “And it’s not, it’s so much more than that — it’s research, development, where this move comes from. And that’s exactly what Rennie is doing with this program.”

On top of their course load, students attend multiday intensives called cypher sessions, with in-person dance classes and lectures. On the roster for the winter session, held in Boulder in December, were classes like Wake & Break, Tops & Rocks, Popping Combo and Can U Freestyle. (The spring session is in Miami; tuition covers the classes but students pay separate fees for travel, room and board.) The cypher sessions, named for an important hip-hop practice in which dancers (or rappers) gather to perform and cheer one another on — usually in a circle, taking turns in the center — bring students together in a community, a vital part of the Rennie Harris University experience and of hip-hop culture more broadly.

To earn their certificates, students are required to pass an extensive slate of assessments. These include teaching a mock class, taking a written test and participating in the cypher-end dance battle, which welcomes dancers from the area and offers a $3,000 grand prize.

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