“When I met hip hop, it was young, and I was young, and we met each other and we grew up together. It opened doors for me. It became the center of my world.”

Dena Rizzo is not your average dancer. While many people know Dena as their beloved dance teacher or the quirky hip-hopper on the Showstopper Dance Convention faculty, others know her only for a joke episode on Bob’s Burgers or worse, not at all. The first to be inducted into the Showstopper Hall of Fame at Showstopper’s 2023 West Coast Finals in Anaheim, California, Dena has a long story, one bigger than random (and misrepresented) clips of a dance video she did in the 1990s. We sat down with her for a first real look at that story and to introduce you to an artist many know as the “Queen of Hip Hop.”

“I started taking dance when I was like 7,” Dena recalled. She remembers drawing as her main hobby, to the point that her mother would send her outside to play and lock the door because she wouldn’t go out otherwise. “At seven years old, [my mother] was like ‘Dena, we’ve got two choices here: we can do dance or art.’ I was like, ‘Mom, I’m already an artist. Did you see this?'” (She shared she could only draw Charlie Brown, Snoopy, and eyeballs.) An already accomplished artist to her 7-year-old eye, Dena decided to try dance. “Back 100 years ago when I started, the horse and buggy days you know, you had to take ballet,” Dena joked. “It was no question. I grew up taking tap, ballet, jazz—we didn’t have what was called hip hop then. It wasn’t a thing [in dance studios]—and I even twirled baton which was interesting. My mom wanted me to do it all, so I did it all.”

A dancer that has always prided herself on finding what’s unique about her and her students’ styles, Dena’s earliest memories of dance are bedroom practice sessions. “I would practice in my room. I would practice my dances for dance studio, but I’d practice me, Dena stuff, as well.” “Dena Stuff” was often inspired by her love of TV shows like Soul Train. (She is proud to share she did not miss a single Saturday episode of the 1970s music variety show.) Dena told her mother she was going to turn her passion for dance, her brand of dance, into a career. She had scholarships for Columbia College and Coker College for dance, but Dena found herself working for her father in souvenir shops near the ocean in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina while running her own dance studio instead.

Despite “doing it all” as a kid, Dena was never very technical. She didn’t want to open a ballet studio. Her studio was one where students could learn dance but also express themselves, their stuff, and Dena was doing the same thing. “What was so great about it, having my dance studio, I was really able to create from my own mind,” she shared. This is where Dena’s unique teaching style emerged.

While she was in Myrtle Beach, the musical documentary Breakin’ (1984) came out. Dena was inspired by the street dance depicted in the film and wanted to learn how to do it. She ended up finding two dancers to teach her over the next couple of years. She took her new dance moves to clubs in Myrtle Beach. This eventually became Dena’s connection to Showstopper’s founder Debbie Roberts. Dena met Debbie’s son Adam at a club, and Adam told Debbie that Dena Rizzo (who had started her professional dance career teaching breaking at conventions) was local to Myrtle Beach and eventually put them in contact. Debbie was hosting a workshop at her home for dance teachers from around the United States. She invited Dena to talk to these teachers about bringing hip hop and other street dances to studios. After that, Dena became a household name at Showstopper events.

“Debbie turned me into somebody I never thought I could be. I never saw myself standing on a stage like that, teaching hundreds of kids.” Dena always prided herself on reaching every kid in a class, particularly the ones that didn’t seem to be getting the material. “I’m going to make sure I reach that kid,” she said, “because I was that kid.” Teaching on such a large platform was a turning point for Dena, being known around the country by young dancers who looked up to and wanted to learn from her solidified her love of dance and her commitment to it as a career option.

One of the truest markers of Dena’s style is her interest in seeing dancers express themselves and succeed. Before she was Showstopper faculty, Dena’s students competed at Showstopper competitions, and she remembers seeing them take the stage and anxiously waiting for judges’ feedback after the competition. “You look back on the people you touched in dance, and they all went on to have great careers,” she said of her former students who went on to dance in commercials and for companies like Peloton, DanceMakers Inc., MTV, and more. “They’re all great dancers that went on to do great things.”

Coming up during the golden age of mainstream hip hop, Dena was ahead of the curve, learning and creating studio hip hop at a time when it didn’t really exist. Hip hop was a cultural phenomenon that was drawing attention for being a distinct, group performance style that is conversational, upbeat, and even competitive. Dena saw in this creative freedom and excitement that some dancers may not find in traditional styles of studio dance like ballet, tap, and jazz. “Nobody can be judged. For what?”

Dena says she comes from “old school” hip hop, specifically upright dancing like waving, popping and locking, and gliding. As hip hop evolves, Dena hopes to see those old school moves that emerged with house dances and street dance battles continue to be part of the choreography. “I watched it change. I sat there and watched hip hop and contemporary get married…It just blew everyone’s mind because that I was I was doing from the jump, not being a trained dancer…[Hip hop] is different [today]. I would say it’s really intricate.” 7-year-old Dena practicing “Dena stuff” with her dance class knowledge and her Soul Train dreams had tapped into what would become the most popular style of dance.

Teaching was always Dena’s passion. She likes dancing with others, sharing moves, and passing dance around between passionate people, but she did briefly work in commercial dance, dancing and choreographing for movies and music videos. Dena’s first professional audition led to her appearance in Black Knight (2001), choreographed by Paula Abdul. She would later work as a professional dancer for MTV and VH1 as well. Ultimately, commercial dance wasn’t for Dena. She liked to bring age-appropriate hip hop (since many hip hop videos feature adult content in some form) to young dancers, providing CDs with clean versions of popular songs to her students along with moves and choreography that made sense for kids.

“I still look back on my career and say ‘”‘Wow.'” Even after decades of dance, Dena’s career can feel fleeting. But she’s decades into her 15 minutes of fame.

One, not so “wow” moment of Dena’s career was the viral popularity of clips from a hip hop dance video she made in the 1990s. Well, sort of. Dena worked to produce a hip hop dance instruction video that would eventually have success around the world as a female-led hip hop education video. In 2016, clips from the promotional trailer for that tape went viral out of context. Missing the rest of Dena’s taped class and heavily featuring the now iconic phrase “That’s hip hop,” an edit of Dena’s video took the internet by storm. Surely this brought a lot of joy and laughter to lovers of internet memes and viral content, but this entertainment came at Dena’s expense.

The cover artwork for Street Style (1997)

“It really devastated me. It started messing with my self-confidennce,” Dena shared with us after nearly a decade of wanting to avoid anything related to the video. The video that went viral featured the beginnings of several segments in Dena’s instructional tape, Street Style With Dena Rizzo (1997) (the full tape is not online) and was remarkably 90s in its design and setup (that bright, silly, energy). “When it came out, I was so proud of it,” Dena said, laughing now about some of the choices they made in the script and shooting styles.

The segments highlight only basics or random steps that are part of Dena’s program, making it appear as though, to her, hip hop was a few aesthetic choices that haven’t aged well. “I remember sitting, judging [at a dance competition], and thinking to myself, ‘Is somebody going to see my name as a judge…look [me] up and that video pop up, and they look to me like I have no clue, discredit me?'”

What really cemented the negativity surrounding the video (mainly calling into question whether or not “Hip Hop Dena” can dance) was a 2017 episode of Bob’s Burgers which features a character named Shelly. The character and her role in the episode mock Dena’s video, from her outfit to her style and the “That’s hip hop” catchphrase. Online conversations about the original video and the episode created a cloud of negativity made of seemingly endless comments about a dancer they had never met and whose career and story had never been published online.

Today, the audio from Dena’s video has racked up hundreds of millions of views on videos across TikTok from dance to fashion, and the comments around the video are changing. “Hip Hop Dena” has become a pop culture moment that many look at with an endearing eye rather than a critical one. Videos of hip hop dancers in blue tracksuits invoke Dena while performing modern hip hop. Creators post “Hip Hop Dena” skits that don’t punch down, but instead focus on Dena’s enthusiasm, and finding commenters that remember Dena the dance teacher or convention favorite isn’t difficult.


its giving hip hop Dena🧍🏻‍♀️energy brought to you by red bull 🪽 #dance #coloradodance #fyp #beginnerhiphop #getlow #throwbacksongs #hiphopdance

♬ original sound – Nooshka

“We love Mama Rizzo,” one user commented on a TikTok titled “POV: Dena Rizzo was your Hip Hop Teacher.” “MOOD!!!! I have always taken her classes at Showstopper and she’s literally the best,” another wrote. In another snapshot of Dena’s influence, a man sent her an email last year sharing a short film he made about his elderly father’s journey with Parkison’s and how Street Style With Dena Rizzo became a part of his movement exercises. For a dancer that most have never gotten the chance to know, Dena is pretty well known.

Today, Dena does projects here and there, but her main role in the dance world is as a dance competition judge, providing feedback for dancers at Showstopper Regional and Finals events. She does choreograph for studios around the country, but she has gotten more picky about how she spends her time since her hip replacement surgery in March 2023.

In 2023, Dena—the dancer, the teacher, the choreographer, and yes, the pop culture icon—was surprised to find she was a special guest at the West Coast Finals in Anaheim, CA. After judging thousands of routines over the course of the week, Dena was honored for her 25-year career with Showstopper and a decade of dance before that. The Showstopper Hall of Fame honors instructors that have had a lasting impact on the dance world through education and art. “I was completely flabbergasted. I have to stay humble, and it just broke me down,” Dena said. She was so surprised she left the stage without her trophy and had to go back for it.

“It’s not a job to me. It’s a lifestyle,” Dena said of her relationship with dance. “It’s something that you share with others. You want to give them what you view as dance.” She is excited to see people who have similar feelings about dance and teaching honored in the Showstopper Hall of Fame in the future. “It comes from a place in your heart. It has to.”

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Veronica Good has been with Showstopper Magazine since 2016. When she isn't keeping you updated on the latest trends, she is at home with her many pets or probably playing The Sims 4. Veronica has a BA in English and an MA in writing from Coastal Carolina University. She is also a writer of fiction and poetry, and her work can be found in Archarios, Tempo, and Scapegoat.