Culture

Fancy footwork: Japan's break dancers lay the groundwork for possible Olympic glory

by Dana Macalanda

Staff Writer

Roars cascaded throughout the Salle Bellegrave’s bleachers in the French city of Bordeaux earlier this month, filling the event space and reverberating into the virtual realm of shared (and reshared) stories on Instagram.

The Instagram videos are of a pony-tailed dancer clad in black, white and red torquing himself into increasingly tighter spins on his elbows and hands as his legs point skyward. It’s a performance that’s as breathless as it is captivating.

At the 22nd Pessac Battle Arena break-dancing tournament, 22-year-old Yoshiki Tomiyama, 18-year-old Sho Sato and 13-year-old Tsukki Iinuma — the dancer in the videos — secured second place for Japan behind Russia.

The tournament was the final event of the Vibration Urbaines festival in Bordeaux and took place in the month leading up to the International Olympic Committee’s December vote to officially determine whether or not break dancing will be included in the 2024 Paris Games.

A break dancer performs at the Vibration Urbaines Japan Cypher qualifier in Tokyo in July. | DAN SZPARA
A break dancer performs at the Vibration Urbaines Japan Cypher qualifier in Tokyo in July. | DAN SZPARA

Japan already looks to be developing some prestigious break-dancing talent, with 17-year-old Ramu Kawai becoming the first women’s champion at the Youth Olympic Games last year and Shigeyuki Nakarai taking the bronze in the men’s competition.

Vibration Urbaines is an international celebration of different aspects of urban and street culture, including rap and BMX. Sponsored by the Bordeaux government, the festival predominantly occurred from Oct. 29 to Nov. 3, although certain exhibitions began as early as Oct. 8.

“I think it’s a huge honor (to represent Japan),” says Sato from Nagano Prefecture, who just missed out on qualifying for the team last year. “I’m grateful to all the people involved who gave me this incredible chance, as well as my family and friends who have supported me.”

All three had been preparing for the Pessac Battle Arena since winning a July qualifier in Tokyo that drew break dancers from all across the country — Hokkaido, Osaka and Kyushu, among others — as well as Taiwan.

A break dancer performs at the Vibration Urbaines Japan Cypher qualifier in Tokyo in July. | DAN SZPARA
A break dancer performs at the Vibration Urbaines Japan Cypher qualifier in Tokyo in July. | DAN SZPARA

“I could really see the effort they put in and the ways in which they had grown since the Japan competition,” says Tomoyuki Okamoto, one of the organizers of the Tokyo qualifier who accompanied the dancers to France. “They were fantastic.”

Despite the team’s frustration at finishing second, the achievement is a testament to how far the art has come in Japan since it first took hold in the 1980s — thanks to the movie “Wild Style” — and a glimpse into what may be in store.

French organizer Teddy Harduin has overseen the Pessac Battle Arena for the past 20 years and has spent the last couple of years working with local organizers such as Okamoto on two summer qualifiers — one in Tokyo and the other in Kazan, Russia. Both qualifiers were part of an effort to uncover talent from two countries that Harduin sees massive potential in.

“I put a lot of emphasis on my footwork — a style thing I picked up from watching Russian break dancers — so I was really happy to battle against Russia in the finals,” Tomiyama says. “They definitely showed us up, though, when it came to the members’ individual creativity.”

Sho Sato (above) and Tsukki Iinuma compete at the 22nd Pessac Battle Arena break-dancing competition in November. | COURTESY OF VIBRATIONS URBAINES / PESSAC BATTLE ARENA
Sho Sato (above) and Tsukki Iinuma compete at the 22nd Pessac Battle Arena break-dancing competition in November. | COURTESY OF VIBRATIONS URBAINES / PESSAC BATTLE ARENA

In the final, Russia’s fluid combinations, seemingly inspired by wushu and contortionism, differed wildly from Japan’s focus on clean lines in terms of their footwork and crisp spins.

“Even though I was disappointed about coming second, it was still wildly fun,” says Iinuma, who is from Hyogo Prefecture and spent most of the round toying with gravity on his hands, elbows and head than on his own two feet.

While individual flair continues to define dancers, Harduin says the way “you carry your personal story, your culture (and) the place you were born” definitely makes a difference. Japan’s workaholic culture is often criticized, but Harduin points out that combining it with personal creativity is a monstrously effective combination.

“The two biggest countries right now are very different, but good in their own ways,” Harduin says. “Japanese are crazy.”

Crazy seems to be a shared sentiment across older break dancers.

A world turned upside down: A break dancer performs at the Vibration Urbaines Japan Cypher qualifier in Tokyo in July. | DAN SZPARA
A world turned upside down: A break dancer performs at the Vibration Urbaines Japan Cypher qualifier in Tokyo in July. | DAN SZPARA

“How old is he?” Daiki Ebi asks one of the mothers at Spincrew Dance Studio in Tokyo’s Sengoku — a little over 10 minutes’ walk from Sugamo Station. It’s after 7 p.m. and a class of elementary school-age kids — two girls and two boys — is working on head spins.

The kid in question is appallingly good and has what looks suspiciously like a six-pack. “Third year of elementary school,” comes the reply.

“Third grade? I wasn’t doing anything like this in third grade,” Ebi says.

At 33, the organizer of the Vibration Urbaines Japan Cypher qualifier is a trilingual fountainhead of break-dancing knowledge who is quick to offer insight into how much the Japan scene has changed since he first encountered it.

Ebi remembers seeing break dancing for the first time in Nagoya, but it wasn’t until he moved to France in 2002 at the age of 15 that it would take over his life in the best way. Six months into his first year there, a group of dancers saved him from being mugged; coincidentally, this would be the same group he’d later join after his teacher asked him to pick an after-school activity and Ebi chose break dancing.

A break dancer performs at the Vibration Urbaines Japan Cypher qualifier in Tokyo in July. | DAN SZPARA
A break dancer performs at the Vibration Urbaines Japan Cypher qualifier in Tokyo in July. | DAN SZPARA

“I learned dance and French at the same time,” he says. His crew’s annual participation in what eventually became the Pessac Battle Arena in 2004 also helped pave the way for his current role as a bridge between France and Japan.

Now based in Tokyo and working in information technology full time, Ebi devotes off-hours to the dance community and designed the July 13 qualifier with the intent of giving dancers a shot at proving themselves in the international arena. He explains that dancers typically compete as teams, meaning that stronger dancers don’t always end up winning because their team’s skill levels aren’t balanced.

Although the purpose of the qualifier was to form a team of three representatives, Vibration Urbaines Japan Cypher tried to circumvent the issue of the same preset teams always winning by splitting the tournament into three individual categories — “power move solo battle,” “b-boy solo battle” and “under 21 b-boy solo battle.”

As for how things played out in France, Tomiyama was initially worried since it was the trio’s first time working as a team.

“However, every member had a lot of fire in them,” he says, “so the time we spent battling was really enjoyable.”

Sato says the group’s strength is its diversity. “I think we came together as an interesting group,” Sato says. “Not only do we hail from different age groups and regional backgrounds, but our styles and ideologies are also unique.”

“Japanese kids are crazy,” Ebi says, but it’s a statement that praises the evolution of break dancing in Japan just as much as individual skill. Both Ebi and Okamoto are from a generation of dancers who considered studios, instructors and the ability to afford either as unfathomable luxuries.

Okamoto says the government’s introduction of hip-hop classes into school curriculums in 2012 is what led to an image overhaul for break dancing and an explosion of studios to meet demand. Spincrew Dance Studio is one such space. Okamoto owns the studio and opened it partly to create teaching opportunities for full-time dancers who were struggling financially.

This also made it possible for kids to start learning from younger ages compared to previous generations. While Okamoto and Ebi started dancing as teenagers, Issei Hori, the first Japanese break dancer to win the Red Bull BC One World Finals tournament in 2016, won the title at 19 and has been dancing since he was 6 years old.

A break dancer performs at the Vibration Urbaines Japan Cypher qualifier in Tokyo in July. | DAN SZPARA
A break dancer performs at the Vibration Urbaines Japan Cypher qualifier in Tokyo in July. | DAN SZPARA

Likewise, the Pessac Battle Arena is by no means the Japanes trio’s first international battle. For perspective, Iinuma, a first year in junior high school, has already spun his way through 26 overseas tournaments as well as scores of domestic competitions.

“When I was younger, I wanted to break dance as well. I really like the culture,” says Akira Hasegawa, whose 12-year-old son, Koga, competed in Vibration Urbaines Japan Cypher. “I am happy that my son is dancing and meeting people from different ages. He has the chance to communicate with older people and I think that is a good experience and great for his mind.”

Koga started dancing at the age of 8 and was first drawn to it because the moves reminded him of Spider-Man.

“It was difficult to learn dance (in France and Japan before hip-hop became popular),” Ebi says. “The moves also weren’t great at the time, so it was better to dance in the streets and learn from others. You could also make friends.”

Okamoto remembers a smattering of studios operating in Tokyo and Osaka before then, but that certainly wasn’t the case in Kochi Prefecture, where he grew up. There were no break-dancing teachers, and in the pre-internet age that meant learning from or alongside teammates and pooling money to buy VHS tapes of dance videos if you were lucky enough to live near a store that carried them.

From left: Yoshiki Tomiyama, Tsukki Iinuma and Sho Sato celebrate after winning a chance to represent Japan at the 22nd Pessac Battle Arena break-dancing tournament in France. | DAN SZPARA
From left: Yoshiki Tomiyama, Tsukki Iinuma and Sho Sato celebrate after winning a chance to represent Japan at the 22nd Pessac Battle Arena break-dancing tournament in France. | DAN SZPARA

Overseeing a team of young dancers at this year’s Pessac Battle Arena was “a surprisingly refreshing experience” for Okamoto. “They take note of a lot of things that my generation just doesn’t notice,” he says.

Nowadays, detailed feedback from a teacher who is both a professional dancer and able to articulate instructions clearly may sound like a given, but dancing outside with friends surely can’t be that bad. This is where break-dancing culture deviates from other forms of dance.

Learning a dance sequence at an institution like the prestigious Bolshoi Ballet Academy in Moscow must be challenging on a number of levels, but it’s not quite the same as working on basic techniques, freestyling and developing a personal style with no professional guidance while simultaneously keeping an eye out for cops or drunks spoiling for a fight.

Okamoto and Ebi say that police officers in Japan are typically more likely to ask break dancers to refrain from dancing because of noise complaints. French officers, by comparison, are usually more likely to beat or arrest dancers despite it being easier to find places to practice in France.

“The start of break dancing was more about gangs and fights in the U.S.,” Harduin says. “One day that changed and they decided to stop using weapons but keep the dance, the energy and the fun. Keep the fight, but in a positive way.”

Ebi says although it’s adorable to see kids flop around on a mattress and try pulling off windmills in a studio, it’s very different from the public’s typical reaction to teenagers and tattooed young adults gathering near train stations after dark. This has spawned a wider debate about whether the culture and social context of break dancing will be compromised if it’s recognized as an Olympic sport, as well as arguments over whether it’s even a sport to begin with.

Ebi, Okamoto and Harduin believe the necessity of moving and adapting to the music makes it more of a dance, even if they acknowledge there are elements that justify it being called a sport. However, they’re more interested in inspiring younger dancers to understand the origins of break-dance culture that represent choosing self-expression and respect for one’s community over violence.

A break dancer performs at the Vibration Urbaines Japan Cypher qualifier in Tokyo in July. | DAN SZPARA
A break dancer performs at the Vibration Urbaines Japan Cypher qualifier in Tokyo in July. | DAN SZPARA

“A lot of people ask me, ‘What do you think about my dance? Do you think I can win?'” Harduin says. “But my vision was more like, OK, I’m going to explain to you that you can lose. You can win, but it’s important that you understand why you do it. I don’t want to see kids going the wrong way or being unhappy. When you dance you need to be happy because it’s an expression of yourself, your words (and) your soul, so you should always be happy — no matter the results.”

Tomiyama, Sato and Iinuma may ultimately dance for different reasons, but they were united in their bid at winning the Pessac Battle Arena by the same basic love of break dancing and promotion of its culture.

Okamoto believes the team’s performance in France reflected this self-belief.

“I think we succeeded (in terms of creating opportunity),” he says. “These three young competitors left their mark on the world competition, and I think they’re moving onto the next challenge with new goals in mind.”

Only time will tell if their next challenge will be the 2024 Paris Olympics.

Mariangeles Dejean and Paul Dargan contributed to this report.