"Ready? Let's take it from the top!" a choreographer yells from atop the library steps. Below her, on U.C. Berkeley's Sproul Plaza, a massive congregation of dancers—comprised almost entirely of Asian bodies—breaks into an intricate hip-hop routine. Running into one of these dance groups is an everyday occurrence at U.C. Berkeley. But it's 10 p.m., the air is bitingly cold, and dancing on concrete is a recipe for shin splints, so it's surprising that the dancers are still giving every beat their all.
After the San-Diego-based Jabbawockeez won the first season of America's Best Dance Crew in 2008, the Asian American presence in hip-hop dance has been impossible to ignore. You can see clips of these crews on YouTube, throwing it down at famed Los Angeles dance studios like Playground or Millennium. College hip-hop groups like U.C. Berkeley's AFX or CalPoly Pomona's Barkada Modern are proliferating across the West Coast. L.A.'s Sean Lew, a dancer of Chinese and Japanese descent, made international waves as a finalist on NBC's second season of "World of Dance." And Asian American centered choreography-based hip-hop competitions like Fusion and Body Rock seem to grow by the year.
When it emerged in the post-industrial South Bronx of the 1970s, hip-hop's amalgam of rapping, DJing, graffiti writing, and breakdancing brought together the city's Black and Puerto Rican youths in a city ridden by fires, gang wars, and economic blight. And while the art form has always been a space for community-building and resistance, its significance within Asian American youth culture can be a bit harder to parse.
In countries like Korea and Japan, young people have been practicing the art form for decades. Hip-hop dance first touched down in Korea in the 1980s, when American music was banned in the country but youths in Itaewon and other cities near military bases started tuning in to American TV. (Some accounts suggest that American soldiers actually introduced breakdancing to local youths.) In 1992— henceforth known as "Year Zero" of Korean breaking—a Korean American promoter named John Jay Chon brought a VHS tape of an American breakdancing competition to Seoul dance groups, spurring crews and battles to pop up like wildfire.
Over in Japan, hip-hop dancer Crazy-A began the long-running tradition of breakdancing in Tokyo's Yoyogi Park in 1984. As the leader of the Rock Steady Crew Japan—a hip-hop and breakdancing collective associated with New York's legendary Rock Steady Crew—he went on to found B-boy Park in 1998, an annual Japanese hip-hop festival that acted as a catalyst for the Japanese B-boy scene we know today.
In many Asian countries, hip-hop rose to popularity as a form of self-expression and resistance, sometimes in the face of colonialism and oppressive regimes. "Any country that's been colonized can relate to the ideas of hip-hop," said photographer An Roug Xu, who lives in New York and spent five days in Seoul with the city's elite breakdancers this November. "Hip-hop was created so you could feel like you belonged, and that's what these B-boys found. It's sort of like a religion for them." But the contemporary boom of Asian Americans in hip-hop seems born out of a different impulse—one of finding belonging and connecting with others who share your unique experience.
Community is at the core of these contemporary Asian American hip-hop dance groups, so it's no surprise that this movement was born out of collegiate cultural clubs. Arnel Calvario, a Filipino American college freshman at the University of California, Irvine, started the first of these groups in 1992: Kaba Modern. Calvario had spent his childhood attending L.A. cyphers, battles, and jams with family members, and had been dancing in them since middle school. "I was actually born the same year that hip-hop was created, so my entire childhood was surrounded by it," Calvario said. "I was a fan of the cypher, but I was definitely on the outside looking in."
When he joined Kababayan, the Filipino cultural club on campus, the group's president, Calvario said, wanted to focus solely on traditional dances. Calvario argued that hip-hop was an integral part of the Filipino American experience and ended up creating a whole new group. Rather than focus on battles and rivalries between different crews, Calvario wanted to make Kaba Modern feel like a family, drawing on what he describes as the Asian ideal of respecting elders to form leadership structures dancers were meant to respect.
The concept resonated. Soon after, UCI's Chinese cultural club formed its own hip-hop faction. Then the Vietnamese group followed suit, and the Japanese one. Within three years, Calvario said, the movement had blossomed from two groups on campus to 20. Through the 90s, Calvario recalled, club promoters in Irvine started booking dancers at their public events to draw bigger crowds. Eventually, he and his friends realized they could start their own hip-hop dance competition. So in 1995, they created the Southern California hip-hop dance competition VIBE—one of the first competitions of its kind to center Asian American dancers. Today, it's one of the biggest hip-hop competitions in California, drawing dozens of teams and hundreds of spectators to its annual battles.
For young Asian Americans just starting out in hip-hop dance, though, these collegiate dance crews can provide a much-needed avenue for connecting with others who can relate to their experiences while expressing themselves through movement. Some dancers start following these teams as early as high school, where they may even form their own competitive groups.
Better known by her stage name Sosupersam, Samantha Duenas is a Filipina American dancer, musician, and DJ who grew up dancing in the studio and at lively family functions. Born and raised in LA, she always found the city's dance scene to be relatively diverse—until, that is, she enrolled at UCSD, where it skewed extremely Asian American. But for her, these mostly Asian American groups provided a sense of familiarity.
"I think I went into college knowing that a lot of the big dance teams I wanted to join were going to be founded in Asian American cultural groups, so I didn't think much of it," Duenas said. "A lot of people I enjoyed dancing with throughout my childhood and in high school were also all cousins or friends of cousins that were all Filipino American or Asian." She said the tight network of friends she formed in collegiate choreography groups followed her into her career, helping kick-start her work as a professional backup dancer. She still draws from that community when casting for her own live shows today.
Historically born out of the margins, hip-hop has always been a refuge for people who consider themselves outsiders—those who don't necessarily feel like they fit in, or who battle oppressive circumstances. Given America's long history of racial discrimination against Asian Americans, it's unsurprising that we feel such a deep connection with hip-hop—no matter how far we might be from where the form came from.
"Hip-hop as a form was this space in-between that almost mirrored the hyphenated experience of being Asian American: being Asian or American—but not really being one or the other, and trying to find identity," said Dr. grace jun, a professor of dance at the University of California San Diego whose work focuses on race, gender, and class representations in movement. Jun grew up during the rise of hip-hop in the 80s and 90s, something she says continues to influence her work as a performer and choreographer. "It provided a space to be other yourself, unconfined by the stereotypes of my own culture, which has this whole list of problematics. It allowed [me] to expand, figure out who I was, through an expression of the body that's not attached to the Asian American body."
Still, some Asian American hip-hop dancers say they've faced skepticism, both from other communities and within their own. Ellen Kim, a Korean American dancer and choreographer born and raised in the Bay, said she struggled with feeling like she needed to prove her worth while dancing in majority Black and brown spaces growing up.
Kim never studied hip-hop at a studio—she picked it up through music videos and community members—but she started dancing more seriously after she joined a dance team in high school. There, she often found that she was the only Asian in a room of Black, Latinx, and white bodies. Teachers and team members sometimes mocked her in rehearsals, she said, but her desire to escape a difficult home life and passion for dance outweighed the embarrassment. "I used to get made fun of all the time," Kim said. "I think they took my shyness as being standoffish since I was just so timid and shy. But when I danced, I wasn't." Now, she travels the world performing and teaching workshops. "I was living my life when I was dancing, but when I came back home, I was a different person," she said of her adolescence. "I think that when you're contained like that as an Asian American and you find something like hip-hop, it changes your life."
The Internet is another factor contributing to the proliferation of these groups. Before YouTube, the only way to learn was going to battles and cyphers in person. But with more and more individual dancers, studios, and crews broadcasting videos—and sometimes even step-by-step tutorials—on social media, you can start learning from the comfort of your own home. For many Asian American hip-hop dancers, especially those in predominantly Asian American choreography groups, this greater access raises a question: Is it right for us to claim an art form that isn't our own?
For Jillian Roberts, managing director of New York's Mint Dance Company, which features a multicultural cast of dancers, hip-hop is meant to be shared: "People have a lot of freedom within hip-hop culture because it's such a culture of sharing and celebrating as a group—it's not a singular art form. As an African American, it's pretty natural for me to feel connected to hip-hop. But it's been really cool on Mint specifically to understand how my Asian American dance friends connect so closely to hip-hop, and how their status as people of color, but non-Black people of color, puts them in a really cool, unique relationship with hip-hop."
But according to Dr. Imani Kai Johnson, an assistant professor of dance at the University of California, Riverside who specializes in the African diaspora, global popular culture, and hip-hop, the answer is a bit more complicated: "A lot of students I meet [in choreo teams] really don't know much about hip-hop beyond what they learn in studio classes," she said. For Dr. Johnson, practicing a historically Black and African diasporic art form like hip-hop without paying homage to the foundations of that culture or delving into its history (she cites the example of calling yourself a breakdancer when you don't know Ken Swift) can quickly veer into disrespect.
"When it comes to Black people and that kind of global anti-Blackness, there is a fundamental history of exploitative engagement with our cultures and cultural practices," she said. "Acting as if well, because I love this [art form], I'm clearly not [appropriating] and therefore don't need to think hard about [it]—that's problematic. Cross-racial or cross-ethnic participation in hip-hop is not necessarily an appropriative act. But if you're not even remotely aware of these histories of exploitation, the ease with which you can appropriate, even without that intention, is fully there."
As an Asian American practitioner and teacher of hip-hop dance, Dr. jun constantly grapples with those very questions in her work: “I'm hyper, hyper-critical when I'm teaching about appropriation, because we think, if we have access, it's OK. But you can get deeper into issues of colonialism—if you have access, does that give you permission to take something? Without really understanding the implications?”
With the Internet, it's easier than ever before to practice hip-hop without ever connecting with the communities who created it, bypassing the discomfort that arises when we confront difficult questions about what it means to use somebody else's culture for our own self-expression. But how do we bring that insight to an actual dance practice?
At Mint, Roberts told me, dancers start with foundational hip-hop lessons: Team leaders incorporate foundational movement drills as class warm-ups, hold regular group discussions about the meaning of the team's training and choreography, and invite specialized guest choreographers to teach unique styles and the history behind them. Roberts said that when she teaches, she'll point out who she learned a certain move or style from—and that she encourages students to cite their sources as well.
"As long as you're citing your sources and pointing out what's a personal creative adaptation or innovation [versus moves that are not your own]—I think a person of any culture can respect themselves and their artistry, but also not be disrespectful to the people, culture, and history that made way for you to be innovative," Roberts said.
As the face of dance grows increasingly diverse, Dr. Johnson said, knowing the history of the art forms we practice is crucial. What we learn from that history can manifest in all kinds of ways, whether it's educating fellow dancers on foundational B-boy figures or publicly calling out anti-blackness or racism within the Asian American community.
Creating community and finding release in hip-hop are beautiful things—but that doesn't excuse us, as Asian Americans, from engaging these conversations or finding ways to offer respect. There's an endless amount of work that can be done to help honor the communities at its origins, starting with the knowledge that Asian American hip-hop dancers only exist because hip-hop culture does too.