Despite having been introduced to it only fairly recently, China has developed a stunningly substantial fascination with urban dance in the past several years. From the onset of TV shows such as “Street Dance of China” and “Hot Blood Dance Crew” — which have garnered over 1 billion views each — to the opening of 11 new dance studios in 2018 in Beijing alone, the skyrocketing popularity of urban dance has infused multiple aspects of China’s mainstream culture. As China also begins hosting global dance competitions and platforms, it is quickly establishing itself as a hotspot of opportunities for international dancers.
What IS urban dance?
Urban dance is a rather fluid category of dance, influenced mainly by and associated with a wide variety of hip hop and street dance elements such as popping and locking, yet still defining its own distinct category. A significant facet of urban involves set choreographies and team performances, rather than individual freestyle and battle settings. Over time, urban dance choreographies have also absorbed features of contemporary dance, ballet, jazz, and more, brought in by dancers from all sorts of backgrounds.
The distinctive community and culture surrounding this unique dance scene finds a large part of its roots in Southern California. In the 1990s, a number of dance teams such as Kaba Modern, ACA, CADC and Chaotic 3 began to form on local college campuses, often in partnership with Asian-American student organizations. Frequently united by ethnic identity, these college dancers would later contribute to the “backbone of the community scene in California” and the “strong representation of Asian dancers within the worldwide urban dance scene,” according to Eli Sweet, co-founder of renowned Chinese dance studio Sinostage. Not only did these teams put together performance routines for on-campus club cultural nights, they soon became a haven for students to hang out, make new friends, and dance and relax together.
As the community dance scene proliferated, it engaged industry dancers attracted to Los Angeles for its entertainment industry. Performers and choreographers who came to audition for traditional roles such as celebrity back-up dancers became incorporated into choreography-based community dance teams. Soon, several notable dance competitions such as VIBE and Body Rock began to spring up as these groups sought more arenas to showcase their art outside of school events. Many of these competitions have gone international in recent years, opening new chapters in other countries.
“That was a big driver of the development of choreography culture,” Sweet says. “Put in the particle accelerator of social media, it allowed dancers to make their own content where they were the centerpiece rather than a background character.”
In 2008, the TV show “America’s Best Dance Crew” (ABDC) played a major role in introducing this relatively niche dance culture to larger audiences. Groups like Jabbawockeez, Quest Crew and the Kinjaz – winners and runner-up of Seasons 1 and 8 of ABDC, respectively – became household names, known for their knife-sharp moves and stunning performances. Not only did these teams continue to perform worldwide after ABDC ended, many created opportunities for others to discover and learn dance as well. The Kinjaz, for example, founded its own Dojo dance studio in Monterey Park in 2016, and has since opened more chapters internationally.
YouTube and other social networks have also served as important platforms through which industry, community and amateur dancers can share their art – and sometimes rise to fame in the process. “[Social media] has allowed dancers to make their own content,” Sweet says, “earning them fans around the world and creating an economic foundation for that cultural phenomena.”
O-DOG Kids’ stunning first-place performance at Arena China Kids 2019 proves age is just a number when it comes to dancing talent and virality.
As dance videos grow viral and their choreographers are invited around the world to teach, they become some of the most influential ambassadors of the culture. Age is of little significance: for example, eleven-year-old Chinese dance prodigy Amy Zhu skyrocketed to global attention for her hip hop skills when she was just eight, and has been featured on the Ellen DeGeneres Show as well as a music video by Sia, Diplo and Labrinth.
“Dance is able to catch and attract a lot of people because it is so enjoyable,” Zhu says. “I want to give other people this expression of enjoyment… When people watch dance, it is able to create a feeling of satisfaction.”
Zhu’s dance videos, which frequently garner hundreds of thousands of views across both Chinese and American social media sites, are a telltale indication of dance’s increasing global virality and popularity. In Zhu’s own words, dance often “tells a beautiful story” that draws all kinds of viewers in, no matter the medium.
From rapping to popping: Hip hop in the media
China is one of the latest of many to invest interest in the urban dance craze. For several years street dance and hip hop dance — the forerunners of urban dance in Asia — functioned mostly in China’s underground scene and in battles, only beginning to surface into the mainstream in recent years. “Three to four years ago, it was what China used to call ‘LA style’,” says acclaimed Chinese urban dancer-choreographer Apple Yang (楊麒). “Slowly it became urban, and then choreo, up to what it is now.”
Hip hop culture as a whole has burgeoned recently in China due to the wildly popular reality competition TV show “Rap of China,” produced by iQiyi. Simultaneously, however, heavy government censorship has taken a large toll on rap’s flourishing in mainstream culture, with broadcast regulations severely limiting song lyrics, song topics and even the people who can appear on the shows due to their “moral values.”
In the wake of “Rap of China,” street and urban dance have risen up to satisfy people’s hip hop interests, notably through TV programs like “Street Dance of China” (produced by Youku) and “Hot Blood Dance Crew” (produced by iQiyi and directed by Che Che, the same director of “Rap of China”). As dancing involves no writing of lyrics, these shows have a slightly easier time dealing with China’s hip hop constraints, although restrictions on tattoos, clothing styles and song choices on broadcast still apply.
Encompassing but not solely consisting of the slightly controversial hip hop styles, the urban dance scene in China has – despite media regulations – translated well from television into people’s everyday lives via mainstream media, dance studio classes and “street” culture in general. “I think about five to six years ago, the Chinese general public viewed street dance as… not really something that could earn money,” Yang says. “But nowadays, there are even more variety shows, TV programs, dances, that are slowly popularizing dance and its culture. More and more, dance is becoming something people can rely on as a profession, and there are more people who are willing to let their kids to learn and experience this dance.”
Concept videos like this one, directed by Larkin Poynton and featuring dancers from all over Asia and America, often embody beautiful messages that demonstrate the diverse styles of urban dance.
According to Yang, the rising trends in dance parallel the development of music in China as well. “The music styles are continuously becoming more and more individualistic, more modern, which has fostered dance into becoming equally more and more unique,” she says. As a two-time participant on the TV show “Hot Blood Dance Crew,” Yang greatly enjoyed the experience and the chance to contribute to popularizing urban dance and culture. At the same time, however, these TV programs tend to learn toward old-school and hip hop styles more; urban dance is not yet quite as widely known, according to Yang, but is slowly gaining prominence and popularity.
“I believe urban is just a wider offering for the audience as a whole… transcend[ing] cultures and styles due to its ever-evolving nature,” says Chinese-American dancer-choreographer Jawn Ha, a member of the Kinjaz as well as the dance groups GRV and Mos Wanted Crew. “Not being bound to any particular style or music genre, urban has made its way to the public eye at a much faster pace than many foundational styles ever could in the past.”
Ha, who competed in 2018 on “Street Dance of China,” has choreographed and taught dance extensively in the United States and internationally before appearing on the Chinese show. “My experiences teaching and traveling in China have always been very welcoming and exciting because of the hunger that the students have,” he says. “Both culturally and opportunistically, the Chinese community is ready for anything they can get their hands on in terms of dance and the elevation of the art/sport. The US may be a bit oversaturated with teachers and artists of the like, so the demand isn’t as evident back home as it is in China.”
Street Dance of China allowed contestants to showcase their diverse dancing skills in a wide variety of performance and battle settings.
A significant factor contributing to the mainstream success of urban dance is in their branding and mass marketing. For example, as evidenced by the judges’ panels of Chinese dance shows, the genre’s chosen representatives include celebrities with already large Chinese and/or international fanbases such as current and former K-pop idols Jackson Wang, Lu Han and Huang Zitao, Taiwanese actor/singer Show Lo and TFBoys band member Jackson Yi. Indeed, as one of the stars of “Street Dance of China,” Jawn Ha has also helped usher dance further into the mainstream through a wide variety of commercial work. Following his national-level fame on the show, Ha has collaborated with major brands such as KFC, H&M, Bulgari and Fortnite. The potential of the dance market as a mainstream cultural commodity, which continues to unlock all sorts of advertisement and endorsement opportunities, has helped further push urban dance and choreographers into China’s spotlight.
From LA to Chengdu: inside China’s dance spaces
Dance studios in China serve as far more than just a space for learning choreography: often they are also pioneers of encouraging cross-border and cross-cultural dance interactions. Sinostage, a globally distinguished studio with locations in Chengdu, Beijing and Shanghai, has been one of the major trailblazers of the urban dance rise in China. Eli and Koko Sweet, who co-founded Sinostage in 2014, also collaborated with the Kinjaz to create Arena Dance Comp, an international dance competition/camp held annually in China, Singapore and Los Angeles. The continent-transcending relationship between these international dance hotspots is just one of many that has birthed numerous dance resources, choreographies and stepping stones of progress for the urban style.
People of all ages and backgrounds take classes and learn choreography together at the Kinjaz Dojo China x Sinostage studio, which are usually uploaded online afterwards and viewed by audiences across the globe.
Anthony Lee, one of the leaders and co-founders of the Kinjaz, likens this collaboration to “planting a seed of momentum [that] opened up the floodgates.” When Lee first came to China in 2014 to meet up with the founders of Sinostage, he had no idea what to expect, other than several stigmas in the past regarding poor hosting experiences in China. “I had never been to China before,” he says. “But I’m Chinese-Vietnamese, so a part of me was wanting to just explore even though there were a lot of red flags about the Chinese dance industry. I was really fortunate that I [was there] at just the right time, right place, with the right partner.”
This fortuitous meeting between the Kinjaz and the Sweets established a strong shared ambition across both parties: cultivating urban dance culture in China. The next time Lee returned, he would also be bringing back his friends, other notable dancer-choreographers like Pat Cruz, Bam Martin and Mike Song. “In that time frame I had already talked to Koko again,” Lee says. “I was like, ‘we gotta build the culture up there,’ we gotta do it the right way. One, the entire Western dance urban culture needs to come out here and share. Two, China needs to also do things the right way, so that people continue to want to share.”
Arena Dance Comp, which has been running for over four years now, was born in the wake of these conversations. But to Lee, there needed to be an even stronger “portal” to convince Western teams to “make the trek over” to China. The Kinjaz had crowdfunded their Dojo studio in Los Angeles, which was already globally recognized and visited. What was needed now was a way to establish a similar base where the same credibility and network could be transitioned to in China. There were high expectations — the founders hoped to appeal to Chinese as well as international dance communities, with the awareness that China was completely foreign territory for most Western teams. At the end of many long hours of planning, research and crowdfunding, the first Kinjaz Dojo China was finally opened in Chengdu in 2017.
“It was a huge, ambitious investment for us to make sure that the Dojo become a place you would want to go to… a hub for dancers around the world,” Lee says. “It wasn’t just like, let’s see how many students we can bring to the door. We’re literally at the edge, the crux of a new age, fueled by social media and generation technological advancements. Everybody’s gearing for opportunities, especially a fresh market. We just happened to be there, not just at the right time but with the right people.”
When East meets West in the dance world
The fruits of the Kinjaz’s and Sinostage’s collaborations is a testament to their success at achieving their original aim: bringing urban dance to China’s attention and adoration. Since 2017, both studios in China and the United States have burgeoned, welcoming thousands of international dancers and choreographers each year.
Against a backdrop of increased globalization and media exchange, the outputs of the urban dance scene from America have gained incredible traction among young Chinese people in particular. “A lot of the trends come out of Western culture and society… breaking through the firewall… and this art is just being vomited in [Chinese people’s] direction,” Lee says. “They have so much to fall in love with, and they become fans of the culture, and then you see a bunch of fans just literally popping up everywhere. People are learning off of YouTube… and it’s becoming this trendy thing.”
Perhaps the fact that the US urban dance scene features numerous Asian Americans partially explains its breezy transition into China. “When we’re doing choreographing industry work in America… nine out of ten times, we’re being hired in order to target the Asian demographic,” Lee says. “That’s what the brand looks like to America. But when we go choreograph in China or Korea or Japan, the higher invisible wall of us being just Asian is thrown out the door and [people] are just looking at artistry and talent.”
Asian American prominence in urban choreography perhaps has been an indicator from the start that China was fated to fall in love with dance. The growth of the genre on a national level, from television programs to studio classes to dance-related slang being used in everyday settings, shows no signs of stopping. At the same time, the channels of dance between the East and the West are continually being strengthened and widened through cross-country choreography collaborations, classes and competitions. Though its seeds were planted in China not so long ago, dance culture has proliferated across the nation and begun to overflow into numerous other spheres. Dance has always been a two-way street: the contributions of dance in China have also begun to pour back into the US, from where it drew much of its initial influence.
In an era of socioeconomic globalization, where the Sino-American relationship is frequently at the forefront of international attention, urban dance has created a warm cultural exchange between two countries that transcends political and diplomatic affairs. Studios across the United States and East Asia are essential havens for teamwork, personal growth and creativity, where all other characterizations of one’s identity are disregarded in the name of dance. Such is the seemingly paradoxical urban dance culture — radically individualistic yet inherently, inevitably collaborative.
Perhaps Apple Yang describes this curious, nation-transcending synergy best: “There are definitely differences between the East and West; different cultures and teaching methods, modes of thinking and thought processes, exposure to different people.
“But when everyone is standing in the same place, then the music begins to play — when the dancing starts, we are all one and the same.”