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Thursday, April 24, 2008

Mainstream embraces street dance

Popularity of Dance Alive competition shows phenomenon no longer underground

Staff writer

Jumping to a heavy rap music soundtrack, Taisuke Nonaka kicked out his legs and launched into a one-handed helicopterlike body spin that had the crowd and the judges whooping and waving their fists in appreciation.

Dance Alive in Tokyo's Ryogoku Kokugikan
Taisuke Nonaka performs a back flip during the semifinal of the break dance category at Dance Alive in Tokyo's Ryogoku Kokugikan on Sunday. Below: Yoshie (front) boogies to victory over Gucchon in the final of the event's freestyle category. YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTOS
Dance Alive in Tokyo's Ryogoku Kokugikan

His enthusiasm was irresistible, and it was enough to win him the break dance category in one of Japan's biggest street dance competitions, Dance Alive, held Sunday at Ryogoku Kokugikan in Tokyo.

"Irresistible" might sum up Japan's street dancing phenomenon itself. Over the last few years, the well-established genres of break, hip-hop and house dance, along with the newer styles of robotlike popping and locking, have enjoyed a surge in popularity as a generational change sees the once underground culture gain mainstream acceptance.

"This is our first year to hold Dance Alive at a major venue like Kokugikan (the hallowed home of sumo) and it's our first year with a major sponsor (Nike)," said event organizer Kantaro Kanda. "The street dance world is hot now."

The dancing was hot, too — especially as Sunday's event was the culmination of a long series of heats through which more than 10,000 dancers had been whittled down to 48 finalists in six categories: freestyle, hip-hop, house, break, universities and kids.

In the break dance final, the yellow-haired Taisuke (who performs using his first name only), squared off against a bandanna-clad dancer named Fly, and each took turns performing rapid-fire sequences to two songs.

"That spinning move was an original of mine," Taisuke said after taking the championship.

"The judges appreciate originality, and seeing completely new moves can help unsettle your opponent, too," he explained.

Among the other categories it was the kids who attracted the biggest reaction from the 4,500-strong crowd. Children as young as 10 displayed astounding discipline and precision in their snappy routines that combined all styles of dance from break dance to hip-hop.

Their efforts were enough to impress people in high places.

When asked to name the day's highlight, Bruce Sone, a professional dancer from France and one of the event's judges, answered immediately: "The kids!"

"All the Japanese dancers are highly skilled technically, but the kid dancers are amazing. In France the kids who are dancing like this are basically just playing."

That professionalism is no accident. Jazz, hip-hop and break dance are now popular as extracurricular activities for school-age children, and many new schools have opened in the last two or three years to cater to the demand.

One of them is ETC Dance School, whose total number of students has quadrupled to 4,000 in the last two years.

"We will open our sixth branch in October and we eventually hope to have one school in each prefecture," ETC President Toshiyuki Niki said.

Niki explained that young parents, who themselves grew up with rap or hip-hop, don't consider the dance to be the realm of "delinquents," as their own parents might have.

Interestingly, this growth is setting Japan and Asia apart from street dance's original home in the United States.

Kareem Glover, a 29-year-old dance teacher, has recently moved from New York to Hamamatsu, Shizuoka Prefecture. Having traveled to see Dance Alive, he said, "Events like these, they don't happen in New York. It's Japan and Korea, Taiwan, China — where the dance is taken seriously and respected — that are now holding up the hip-hop scene strongly."

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