Street dance sweeps young Japan

by Eriko Arita

Staff Writer

The cool, wild and powerful movements of rhythm-heavy hip-hop dance are gripping the body and soul of ever more Japanese children and young people.

For several years there have been commercial lessons offered and hip-hop competitions held around the country. Since April, though, this pastime that has swept the world since emerging from African-American culture in New York in the 1970s has been included as one of the genres of the nation’s new compulsory high-school subject of dance. The other types of dance kids can choose from are folk and creative.

Yet ironically, considering that mainstream turn of events, popular hip-hop and other young people’s dance clubs are increasingly being driven out of business as police crank up their enforcement of previously overlooked laws and regulations.

On the other hand, hip-hop dancing is no longer just recreation — as it has become similar to a sport, with many hip-hop dancers loving to compete in contests.

One such youth competition was held for children and young people on Sept. 2 at a hall in the city of Fujisawa in Kanagawa Prefecture.

In the annual contest called Shonan-Fujisawa Dance Mix, which was first held in 1999, some 100 dancers performed in categories covering a variety of U.S-born street dances such as house and break dance as well as hip-hop.

The venue was packed with some 1,000 people, including parents of the competitors, their instructors and friends. With loud electric sounds throbbing in the background, the event’s two emcees, Mame and Riku, appeared on stage and announced the start of the event, which, they said, was being staged by a city organization “to promote the healthy growth of children.”

Mame explained that “judges will evaluate five elements of the performance: technique, expression, originality, costume and degree of perfection.”

Then Riku announced that the category for elementary and junior high school students had attracted 27 teams of entrants, and that 13 of them had made it through to this final.

To launch that category of competition, she shouted through her mike: “Now, we begin the contest and introduce the first performer: V-style!”

A pair of girls in khaki suits appeared on the stage and launched into an aggressive dance routine that included hip-hop’s basic “up” and “down” steps, which require dancers to lift the body upward and bend down in a manner that needs great flexibility in the knees.

Whereas the first dancers had come across as “tough girls,” a later act, called Shonan Shojo (Shonan Girls) and comprising four girls in baseball uniforms, was all smiles.

In contrast, a boys’ team named Dance Ranger not only raised clenched fists but were also a tad naughty in their movements, too.

However, the audience were more astonished by the youth category that followed, which was made up of high school students and dancers under the age of 30.

With age there had obviously come more self-confidence, as was evident from the start when R’s Crew took to the stage to fulfil their program pledge, which read: “We are a team who’ve taught ourselves on the streets. We want to win without difficulty.”

Certainly, R’s Crew’s five young men expressed themselves well through the accurate movements of their bodies, but it was the third competitor in that category, Be Quiet, a group of four teenage girls who overwhelmed the audience with their dynamic performance to a fast beat in which they stepped, squatted, raised their bodies and rolled.

After the youth category’s six teams had strutted their stuff, five judges repaired to a room and closed the door behind them as they discussed their scoring. When they emerged, the atmosphere in the venue became serious as all the dancers came back to share the stage.

“The winner of the elementary and junior high school students category’s grand prix is Dance Ranger,” emcee Mame declared before presenting the four beaming boys with a trophy.

Next it was the turn of competitors in the youth category to fill the stage and stand there looking tense as emcee Mame announced: “The winners of the grand prix in the youth category is … Be Quiet!”

Then suddenly the group’s four teenage girls erupted into happiness — and tears — before settling down to listen carefully as one of the judges, a professional dancer with the stage name Go whose resume includes working with top J-pop group SMAP, said Be Quiet’s performance was “perfect as a show.”

Speaking after the event, one of the Be Quiet girls, Chieri Hasumi, a first-grader at high school, said they’d chosen to dance to “Bass Down Low” by Dev, featuring The Cataracs, a song that was featured in the British movie “StreetDance 2,” directed by Max Giwa and released earlier this year. “We tried to show clear dynamics in our movement,” she said.

Another judge, a professional dancer who goes by the name of Hero, said he had judged the annual Shonan-Fujisawa Dance Mix contest for three years, and he’d noticed that the dancers’ standard has steadily been rising.

“The overall level of young Japanese street dancers is so high that some of them can compete on the world stage,” he said, adding that a pair of Japanese girls were runners-up this year in the hip-hop category of Juste Debout, a French event that’s one of the biggest international street dance competitions anywhere.

Just like those girls, hundreds of thousands of children and young people in Japan are now practicing hip-hop dance in studio classes and lessons at gyms. In fact, according to the national Street Dance Association, which was established in Osaka in 2009, there are now an astonishing 4 million street dancers nationwide.

This raises the obvious question of what’s driving this dance boom and where did it come from?

According to Junya Takahashi, president of Movement, a company that publishes a free magazine about hip-hop dance and music, the culture reached Japan from New York courtesy of the media in the 1980s.

At that time, he said that young people were dancing hip-hop on the streets in Tokyo — among them Sam, a dancer in the top group TRF, whose popularity peaked in the early 1990s.

TRF, which was signed to the huge Avex music and entertainment company and debuted in 1992 ahead of its first million-seller CD in 1994, comprised a singer, a DJ and three dancers. Around the same time, another top song-and-dance unit was the now-defunct Zoo. One of its dancers was Hiro, who now leads Exile, today’s most popular group of male singers and hip-hop dancers.

“In the 1990s, a lot of youngsters who saw the dancing of Sam and Hiro thought it was cool, so they began to learn it,” Takahashi said.

But it isn’t all about men, and among the current crop of hit-making female artists who feature hip-hop and other dances is Namie Amuro. Her first CD was released on Avex in 1992 and her dancing, songs and fashion sense have been inspiring many girls and young women ever since.

“The young people back then who liked those kinds of dancers are now married and have children. So, as parents they want to teach dance to their kids or let them learn it in schools,” Takahashi said, explaining one clear factor driving the current dance boom among children.

He also pointed to the fact that a number of hip-hop dancers have succeeded as instructors, as stage dancers with major singers or as choreographers.

“Hip-hop dance has developed from a trend to a culture among the general public,” he said.

In addition, a major influence on the popularity of hip-hop dance is that already-mentioned company, Avex. Along with its record labels, it also launched a successful dance-education business by opening a school in Tokyo in 2001, now followed by ones in other cities in recent years.

Yuichiro Sakai, director of content agent of Avex Planning & Development, a unit of the Avex record label, said that the company started the schools to raise future artists, and it also created a dance-learning program named Avex Dance Master.

“We wanted more people to learn the program, that’s why we began to dispatch instructors to fitness clubs in 2005,” Sakai said, explaining that the instructors must have passed the Japan Street Dance Association’s examination. The association was established in 2001 and most of its directors are Avex executives.

The number of students on its program has increased from an initial 800 in 2005 to more than 14,000 in 2012, according to Avex Planning & Development.

One of the Avex instructors, a 27-year-old who goes by the nickname Katu, said he began to dance hip-hop at age 15, after he found young people practicing it on the street at night as they watched their movements in the windows of closed shops.

“Around that time I couldn’t find a hip-hop dance studio to go to, so I learned from the dancers on the street,” said Katu, explaining that it was some years later before he found dance studios to learn and practice at. Now he teaches beginners lessons for teenagers at Tokyo’s Kameido branch of the fitness-club chain Renaissance.

In his class one day recently, 19 students were intently learning complex choreography to accompany a piece of music by Matt Cab titled “Touch the Sky featuring Verbal (m-flo.)”

Meanwhile, in another class there for younger children, an instructor by the name of Saki was teaching a class on manners and dance.

“My class is an hour long, but the students sometimes get tired of learning and sit down,” Saki said. “But I scold them and make them concentrate on practicing.”

The 28-year-old began her lesson with a warm greeting prior to 25 minutes of stretching and practicing “isolation” movements that involve using parts of the body independently.

Then, when it came to the lesson’s choreography segment, Saki told her students to remember the counts for each move. “To perform in an event you must remember the count, otherwise you cannot go on stage,” she said.

Although the students appeared to have serious expressions, one of them named Amika Hirose was quick to say how much she enjoyed it. Asked why she had begun to do hip-hop dance, the 12-year-old said, “I watched Exile on TV. They are so cool.”

Exile, which debuted in 2001 on the Avex label, Rhythm Zone, has been releasing million-seller CDs since 2003. The megahit group comprising two main vocalists and 12 dancers also has its own regular TV program.

Another student, Reina Yabana, 7, said she decided to learn hip-hop because her 9-year-old sister had been learning it at a gym and her dancing “looked cool.”

Reina’s mother, Yukiko Yabana, said that when her older daughter, Yuna, said she wanted to learn dance when she was 7, she took her to mean ballet, so she took her to a ballet studio.

Then, after her daughter pointed out precisely what kind of dance she was interested in, “I searched around and found this Avex dance program,” the 45-year-old housewife said. “I didn’t know much about hip-hop, but my daughter probably learned it from TV,” she said.

Interestingly, as Yuna learned hip-hop, her character changed, her mother said.

“She used to be shy,” Yabana said. “But after starting dance, she became lively and could raise her hand in class at school. I believe it was because of Saki’s lessons.”

Young Reina said she is already looking forward to performing on stage at dance events, and her mother added that though the monthly lesson fee is ¥8,400 per child it’s well worth it.

Meanwhile, in the background of the Education Ministry’s changing perception of hip-hop dancing from mere recreation to competitive sport, there appears to be a drive to improve children’s communication ability. In fact the ministry’s website said the introduction of dance is “aimed at enriching student communication through image-based expression and dance.”

Takahashi, the president of the Movement hip-hop magazine, echoed this, saying said that many children nowadays do not have sufficient face-to-face skills because they depend on using mobile phones for communication.

“But dance is an ‘analog’ thing,” he said. “It is becoming an important communication tool for children,” he said.

Hip-hop has, though, attracted the attention of numerous businesses besides teaching studios and courses, Takahashi said, pointing to companies making dance goods such as costumes as an example.

But everything in the hip-hop garden isn’t rosy, as long-time dancer Yuki explained in a recent interview in Movement magazine.

There, the veteran who learned hip-hop dance in New York and set up a company in Japan to organize dance events, noted that the majority of hip-hop dancers today like to dance but are not interested in other aspects of hip-hop culture such as the music and clubs.

“I hope the dance population will keep increasing and that they will enjoy going to clubs — but the content of hip-hop culture nowadays seems to be thin,” she said.

Hip-hop music and dance clubs are also struggling to survive because the authorities are moving to shut them down unless they have proper licenses — and those require various stiff conditions to be satisfied. Another downside issue is that competition among the increasing number of dance schools is becoming extremely intense.

“Just as small vegetable shops have been put out of business by big supermarket chains, small dance studios — some of them old and with a unique originality of spirit — may be overwhelmed by the fitness clubs,” Takahashi said.

But the 39-year-old magazine boss said he understands hip-hop dance has two sides — its culture and the businesses — and he will continue keeping an eye on both as he has since launching Movement in 2002.

“I just hope that street dance won’t be disappearing in the next 10 or 20 years,” he said.

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