“Where Did All The Asians Come From?”: On Hip Hop Dance and Asian Identity
After stepping into the audition room for PhiNix Dance Crew, a college hip hop group in Chicago, my first thought was, “Where did all these Asians come from?” Growing up in the suburbs and attending a White prep school, I had little exposure to other young Asian Americans, let alone hip hop culture. The large number of Asian American dancers popping, breaking, waacking, and moving in a diverse array of styles astonished me. After joining PhiNix, I’ve had the chance to explore both hip hop dance, and the construction of identity through that dance.
Ever since the visible breakthroughs of crews such as the Jabbawockeez and Kaba Modern on America’s Best Dance Crew, Asian Americans have become a mainstream establishment in the world of hip-hop dance. The history began with Arnel Calvario’s founding of Kaba Modern at UC Irvine in the early 1990s after performing a hip hop choreography at a Filipino Cultural Night. Other Asian American urban dance groups in California soon popped up. And with the advent of video-sharing websites says Calvario, “Visibility and networking between Asian American dancers exploded not only nationally, but internationally.” Indeed, South Korean and Japanese break dance crews have become some of the best in the world.
Why are Asian dancers so good? Mike Song, a well-known choreographer and member of Kaba Modern, has a theory. In an interview with Audrey Magazine, he explains, “There are so many Asians who are forced to play instruments, so many, its so common, so part of our culture.” The practice of learning to read music “ties into our style… I feel Asian are so precise, and it goes along with the music training,” which “subliminally affects the way we approach dance, with so much precision.”
How does Asian American engagement with street-dance and hip hop shape racial and cultural identity? For one, urban dance challenges the stereotype of Asian Americans as merely passive and intelligent academic overachievers. Hip hop began as a subculture among marginalized black and Latino youth in the 1970s. Its dance forms are now used as an expression in opposition to the “model minority” myth, which functions to make invisible and exclude Asian Americans from mainstream American social life. As a community, Asian American dancers create their own artistic identities outside of dominant norms.
However, Asian American’s preeminence in urban dance is not without controversy. In the same manner as White Americans, Asian Americans have been criticized for appropriating hip hop from Black culture. Within the framing of historic racism and appropriation of black artistry, I believe the critique has merit. I personally cannot identify with “real” hip hop culture. I do not wear hip hop fashion, or pretend to be hard core. To do so would be inauthentic.
Yet my experience in PhiNix Dance Crew has shown me that hip hop eliminates boundaries and hierarchy much more than it creates them. It is inclusive and composed of a spectrum of diverse races and experiences, creating connection between individuals, other dance crews, and the larger community. Hence, for me, dance is a harbor and vehicle for individual expression. My body becomes understood and respected by others for its movement, liberated from its color.
Originally Published at The Wang Post. I’ve been contributing weekly content for them, which has been a great experience. This topic of hip hop and Asians is so interesting that you can take college classes about it! More stuff on Asian American culture and identity coming soon.