Hip-hop zooms into schools

by Tomoko Otake

Staff Writer

The CD player is switched on and a mellow male voice singing a pop tune fills the hot and humid school gymnasium, seeming to soften its ambience like a breath of fresh air.

On stage, a woman in an oversize T-shirt and baggy pants calls out through a wireless mike to the roomfull of excited students kitted out in their sports gear: “Okay, let’s dance to the music now! Forward/ forward/ side/ side/ zoom/ clap/ zoom/ clap.”

“Forward,” “side” and “clap” — no problem understanding, there. When it comes to “zoom,” the kids — who are dancing with their feet wide apart and their arms out at their sides — instantly swing their right arms round like a boxer trying to land a big punch. Then the next moment, they clap, punch again, and clap.

Even though the song, “Hero” by the popular all-male song-and-dance pop group Exile, is relatively slow-paced, packing in two punches in a couple of seconds seemed quite a challenge, all the more so as this was the first-ever hip-hop dance lesson for most of the 75 second-graders in the gym at Tachikawa Daihachi Elementary School in western Tokyo.

At the mike running their one-off hip-hop lesson was 47-year-old Nobuko Kikunami, a dance teacher with a private studio in Nerima Ward, Tokyo. Together with her 19-year-old daughter Saya, a serious dancer who competes in hip-hop contests in Japan and abroad, Kikunami was dispatched to the school by the Osaka-based Nippon Street Dance Studio Association (NSSA).

As strange as this may seem, calling in private-sector dance-school instructors is becoming increasingly common in Japan’s public schools these days — as is the training of school teachers by such instructors.

This was made necessary by an education ministry revision to the school curriculum, which made dance education mandatory at public junior high schools (7th- to 9th-graders) starting in April. The ministry’s move, as it explains on its website, is “aimed at enriching student communication through image-based expression and dance.”

Although the schools are given a choice of creative dance, folk dance or “dance with contemporary rhythms,” including hip-hop, most have opted for hip-hop — even though many teachers must learn from scratch dance routines whose origin has less to do with stuffy classrooms and more to do with the backstreets of the Bronx in New York City.

Now, though, five months since the compulsory dance lessons at junior high schools began, more and more elementary school teachers are feeling the need to prepare their young students by introducing hip-hop in their gym classes as well.

For the current fiscal year running through next March, the ministry has set aside ¥250 million for local boards of education to pay for the use of outside dance instructors at public schools — though that budget has to cover money for teaching budo (Japanese martial arts) as well, since that also became mandatory at junior high schools from April. For the next fiscal year, the ministry is planning to beef up its dance/budo education budget to ¥302 million.

Meanwhile, the NSSA has, through tie-ups with corporate sponsors, been able to offer free hip-hop dance workshops to students in public schools in addition to being hired to take classes there.

Such support, both financial and technical, is a blessing for teachers like Tomoko Kurouzu at the Tachikawa school, who says she had no previous experience of hip-hop before attending an NSSA workshop in August that was exclusively for school teachers. Kurouzu, who’s 45, said she was eager to absorb as much know-how as she could from Kikunami that day, though she had to busily divide her time between mimicking the pro’s moves and videotaping them.

“I think (hip-hop) is a lot of fun for the kids, and for us teachers it expands the variety of dances we can teach,” explained Kurouzu, noting that students in other grades are currently practicing synchronized gymnastics and eisa-bushi, an Okinawan folk dance.

As well, Kurouzu pointed to another reason why elementary schools are moving to introduce their students to hip-hop. “I think students at junior high schools (if they hadn’t been exposed to hip-hop at a younger age) would be so fixed in their thinking by then that, if they didn’t fancy it, they would never want to try it.”

At the Tachikawa school, the pre-adolescent kids showed little hesitation or shyness, and Kikunami’s constant encouragement helped, too. In fact, some of the youngsters were so smitten by the veteran instructor that they hung around even after the bell rang to let them know the next class had started.

Indeed, Kikunami was masterful in her handling of students and her use of simple words to explain dance moves — such as gū and pā, which everyone knows from their use in the popular game of rock-scissors-paper (gū-choki-pā).

“Unlike students at our studio, these kids are not necessarily interested in hip-hop,” Kikunami said. “I try to flatter them as much as I can, to motivate them.”

Kikunami went on to say that she feels just as strongly about instilling a sense of good manners and respect for the teachers — something you would not normally expect from a hip-hop dancer abroad.

“Hip-hop suffers from an image problem,” she said. “If you talk to serious hip-hop students, you’ll know they are incredibly hard-working and earnest.”

“Stand up! Attention! Bow!” Kikunami hollered out to the students when her teaching session drew to a close. “Let’s exchange greetings cheerfully! Arigato gozaimashita! (Thank you very much!)”