Photographs by Jennifer Poon | @jennnpoon
Words by Louisa Luong
The Sydney street dance scene is relatively young, known for its easy-going attitude and tight-knit community. Over the years, dancers from every corner of the world have come and gone, momentarily bringing with them a piece of dance culture from home. Each and every one of these international influences make up Sydney street dance, and despite struggling to find its own identity there is no denying its upward trajectory. ‘Making Moves’ aims to document the voices of dancers whose transitory presence has left an enduring mark on our city’s street dance identity.
From as far as Korea and Japan to as close as Perth, when three dancers are asked what kind of dancer they are, they each hesitate before answering. There’s an unspoken rule that as much as labelling is important, there’s just something you can’t define. Because dance is more than movement to rhythm or melody, it’s a form of shared energy, steeped in history and culture. An expression that transcends all language barriers. Eventually, they tentatively classify themselves as hip-hop dancers, but there’s one thing for sure: these people certainly can’t be put in a box.
Hip-hop dance started in the late 1980s/early 1990s, around the same time Leo Lee was in high school in the rural town of Pohang, Korea. He may be soft-spoken but his bold curiosity for life has seen him through being a full-time dancer in Seoul and a corporate suit in Sydney. To every street dancer though, Leo is one of the most respected hip-hop dancers in this city. With a reputation that precedes him, it’s no surprise that the way he speaks about dance and hip-hop is not unlike a tale of romance.
“Hip-hop was a new trend when I was young. It had only just been introduced, so we were all curious about this new thing. I started dancing in high school by imitating celebrities and their dances, but I got more serious when I saw all these videos about New York dancers. During that time, New York dancers influenced East Asian countries. Japan started first, and next was Taiwan because it was once a Japanese colony. And because South Korea is so close to Japan, we started to get influenced too. The hip-hop I know is the early 80s of New York dancing, but Japanese dancers are always so good at preserving culture. As time passes, all these different cultures of dance start to die. That’s what happens, because dance follows trends. But Japan is very good at learning culture; breaking it apart, changing it to a Japanese way, and keeping it. Back then, Korea was strongly influenced by late 80s to early 90s hip-hop Japanese dancers. That’s what we see as the hip-hop era, because we lived that era, and that’s how we respected that culture.”
“Sometimes there’s a lack of understanding of what dance is, what the culture is. People like to say that hip-hop is unity. It started from parties in the Bronx and Brooklyn where Hispanics and African-Americans would come together. That’s what started hip-hop music and dance: A mixture of different movements, the sharing of energy, and the unification of different cultures based on what was happening in that hood. Nowadays, hip-hop is worldwide. Because of Youtube and different events, dancers so easily share their energy with others to make their own art. I think that’s what is happening at the moment. It’s still moving but it’s not completely moved. It’s still changing.”
From classical ballet at three years old, to hip-hop at thirteen, Arisa Tani has danced nearly all her life. Originally from Kochi, Japan, she moved to Sydney three years ago and has since been teaching, battling, and training to find her own unique style. More than ten years of hip-hop dancing has left her torn between respect for the old and charms of the new.
“90s hip-hop — mid-90s hip-hop — that’s my area, it’s how I started dancing hip-hop ten years ago. But last year I started getting really into new hip-hop. All that swagger; it’s more towards actual New York street dance, which I think is cool. At the same time, I also feel unsure because 90s hip-hop culture is really against new hip-hop because it’s a such a different vibe and people complain that new hip-hop doesn’t respect foundation. Old and new hip-hop clash, they don’t like each other. I have a deep respect for 90s hip-hop, but at the same time, I was conflicted. I kept asking myself, “Should I like this?” And then my friend said to me that although the two styles are so different, it would be cool to be the first one to start integrating them. I mean, my teacher who taught me 90s hip-hop still listens to new hip-hop songs, but he doesn’t dance to it. I’m still not sure if I should be doing this swaggy kinda thing because I feel like I’m disrespecting 90s hip-hop. Change is always hard, and I still don’t know whether I’m doing the right thing.”
“A lot of hip-hoppers I know from here are also in-between styles though. We always share music so we kind of got into new hip-hop not because swag dance is cool, but because hip-hop music was changing, and we changed with it. Hip-hop’s always evolving, it’s always changing. Before, it used to be this high-pitched hip-hop and then it moved to 90s, really dope hip-hop, and now it’s this swaggy kinda feeling. Because the music is always changing, our style is always changing too. Some people want to stick with one era, which is cool, but at the same time I feel like hip-hop should always change because that’s what it is. It’s good to appreciate one era but if you’re 100% sticking to it, that’s not accepting hip-hop for what it is.”
Dancer. Creative. To Paven Gill, the two are one and the same. After moving to Sydney from the sunny shores of Perth, he speaks fast and with passion about the evolution of street dance, from hip-hop to urban choreography, and the internet’s potential in breaking down labels.
“We’re living in a generation of artists. Because of the internet, kids nowadays can look up how to use an MPC and make beats, it doesn’t need to be this thing you can’t do anymore. Everyone is unstoppable now, if they put in the work, because we have everything at our fingertips. I don’t think we should settle anymore. People can’t continue doing the same things they did 20-30 years ago, we need to find ways to integrate the goodness of technology and what we have. Ten years ago, there was no iPhone, five years ago, no Instagram or Snapchat, and now these things completely rule our lives. With technology, we’re going to break down labels. Back in the day, if you were a hip-hop dancer, or this dancer, that’s what you were. Now, because we have so many different inputs, it’s not like you’re ‘this’ or ‘that’ anymore. You’re just a creative.”
“We need to understand why we dance and the history behind it in order to push forward in the right direction. Old hip-hop’s blaming kids who live in a world that’s teaching them shortcuts — to find the quickest way there and not give a fuck about anything else. I don’t think uploading or sharing dance videos is the problem. The problem is shortcuts and bad intentions. In terms of dance, you should dance for yourself. But I think there comes a point where most people need to think about their contribution to future generations. We need to work really hard to find different avenues of technology that visually improve the art form, while also giving a live experience that people can physically feel, and grow from that. There’s this specialness of something being live and in front of you that we need to keep, no matter what.”