Growing up in Kanagawa Prefecture, Jessica “JJ” Rabone had little interest in learning about Western culture. Born to a Japanese mother and British father, she rebelled when her parents tried to speak to her in English. As for living abroad, that was something that never crossed her mind.
Things changed, however, when she started taking dance lessons at the age of 17. Wanting to be able to communicate well with her American instructor, a teenage Rabone took English more seriously and was soon able to comfortably hold a conversation. At 21, she decided to head out to the U.S. on a three-month tourist visa in order to learn more about dance “from the best.” Within two weeks of her stay, she knew there would be no coming back.
“I passed an audition to dance for Sho-Tyme (real name Ray Johnson), a famous dancer and choreographer who’d come to Japan from New York,” says Rabone, as she describes the events that led to her decision to visit the U.S. “As I could speak English, I assisted him (in Japan), and watching him upclose inspired me to broaden my horizons. In Japan, I was mostly being taught by people who learned techniques from American videos. (Going to the U.S.) was a chance to go directly to the source to see, and possibly work with, the people who choreographed those videos.”
Rabone was blown away by the dance routines she witnessed in Los Angeles. She also felt the studios had more of a laid-back atmosphere than those in Japan.
“Life, in general, seemed more relaxed,” she says. “People there care about themselves, and I mean that in a positive way. Back home, people would often ask if I was tired or had I gained weight, things like that. In LA, everyone’s so focused on their own lives, they tend not to notice others and that’s something I find more comfortable.”
Moving to America also meant Rabone could step out of the shadow of her older sister, Rebecca, the TV personality better known mononymously as ‘Becky.”
“I tried to work in the entertainment industry in Japan but was told by an agency that they didn’t need ‘another Becky,'” she recalls. “That’s not me anyway. I was confused at first, but soon realized I would probably always be seen as ‘the younger sister.’ That was the reality. I didn’t think, ‘now I need to escape.’ That wasn’t my reason for leaving Japan, but, given the circumstances, things worked out well.”
Rabone quickly settled into her new environment, though admits the tardiness and capriciousness of the locals took some getting used to. Everything else, though, she loved. In her first three months, the Kanagawa-native spoke only English as she didn’t want to become part of the Japanese cliques she saw at studios.
“I left home for a reason and didn’t feel it would benefit me if I stayed with people speaking Japanese all the time, so I told them I was British,” she says with a smile.
In 2007, Rabone’s second year in the States, she entered “So You Think You Can Dance” (SYTYCD), a nine-time Emmy Award-winning TV series in which dancers compete at open auditions to try and make it through to finals in Las Vegas. Lacking belief in herself, she failed to make an impression and subsequently exited at the first stage. The experience damaged her confidence further and for years afterward, she couldn’t bring herself to go on the program again. But in 2015, something felt different.
“I’d reached a point where I’d stopped thinking about the show,” says Rabone. “I was then freestyling in my room with music and a style that you see on the competition. I googled to find out when the auditions would be and saw they were in three days. My friend, who works on the program, told me to go for it. I still didn’t believe in myself but something inside was telling me I had to try. Getting through the first stage to face the judges was the most nervous I’ve been in my life.”
If Rabone was feeling anxious, she didn’t show it. An energetic and confident-looking performance was well received by the judges including producer Nigel Lythgoe who compared her to singer, actress and choreographer Toni Basil, one of Rabone’s mentors. She continued to impress throughout the series, making it through to the top 10. Unfortunately, she fractured two ribs while dancing and it ended her chances of winning. “I don’t have any regrets,” she says. “SYTYCD was the first show I watched when I arrived in the country. It was a dream to get that far.”
After the series finished, Rabone joined the SYTYCD Live! tour, performing in around 70 cities. She also danced for Paula Abdul, who was a judge on the show. One of her most recent projects was with esteemed director Michel Gondry on the promotional video for the Chemical Brothers track “Got to Keep On.” Other notable artists she’s worked with down the years include Pink, Katy Perry and Eve.
Though she always enjoys being on stage with big names, she says the traveling can take a toll, and these days she prefers to stay put in LA, focusing more on choreography and teaching. Her JJ’s Classes incorporate a variety of styles and are open to students of all ages and levels.
“I like teaching because it means I can tell people what to do,” says Rabone with a laugh. “I do groups and privates, such as couples preparing for a wedding. It can be ballroom, jazz, hip-hop — any genre. I’m strict and make sure parents are aware of that in advance. I’m doing it out of love and respect. If their kids can’t handle that, then don’t come. I like them to be precise, which reflects my Japanese background, yet also want them to express themselves freely — something I’ve learned from being in America.”
Enjoying life abroad, Rabone has no desire to return home indefinitely, however, she visits Japan often. In recent years, her profile has risen here thanks to various TV appearances including a profile piece about her on Nippon TV’s “Jinsei ga Kawaru Ippun no Fukai-i Hanashi” (“Profoundly Satisfying Stories About a Life-changing Minute”) earlier this year.
“In the past, I would sometimes have people come up to me who would recognize me as Becky’s sister,” Rabone says, reflecting on some of her visits to Japan. “Recently I’ve had people approach me to ask if I was the dancer they’d seen on TV. It’s a small change, but one I appreciate.”
Name: Jessica “JJ” Rabone
Hometown area: Kanagawa Prefecture
Key moments in career:
2001 — Attends her first dance school
2006 — Visits America and then joins Sho-Tyme’s group Stylz Play
2015 — Makes it to the top 10 contestants of “So You Think You Can Dance”
2018 — Takes first acting job, a commercial for Lexus Japan
2019 — Is profiled on the Nippon TV show, “Jinsei ga Kawaru Ippun no Fukai-i Hanashi”
Words to live by: “Life is good. I can and I will.”