Even Japan's hip-hop street dancers have to take exams
BY LOUIS TEMPLADO STAFF WRITER
Street dancers learn the moves they've been assigned to perform for the exam. (Louis Templado)Yoshihito Aoki (Louis Templado)Haruki Uchiyama dances before the camera during his exam. (Louis Templado)
You see them everywhere, working on their dance moves in front of mirrored office windows and at train stations in the early morning hours. Shouldn't these kids be at home studying? Actually, they might be doing just that--hoping to earn a license to chill.
Japan likes to do things its own way, even when it comes to hip-hop dance. From Sept. 23 through 25, more than 2,000 young dancers have been putting their skills to the test at nationwide exams administered by the Japan Street Dance Association.
"The purpose of the test is to give dancers an objective measure of their own skill. Instead of just dancing for fun, it also gives them a goal to strive for," says Yoshihito Aoki, president of Avex Planning and Development Inc. The company, part of music industry giant Avex Group Holdings, held its first set of tests last year. On its roster are nearly 120,000 students--more than 70 percent of whom are elementary school age--in more than 120 affiliated schools and studios nationwide.
The idea behind the five-tiered qualification system isn't just to test the mettle of children dreaming of dancing behind the likes of Lady Gaga. The company foresees a demand for professional dancers and instructors here in Japan and, if things work out, throughout Asia.
Street dance, for example, has just joined the curriculum at Japan's 40,000 public schools, beginning this year with the first and second years of elementary school. It will reach high schools by 2013, when the subject "contemporary rhythm dance" becomes an elective.
Just as recorded music sales are tumbling, live tours are on the rise, giving dancers more chances to perform and pursue a career. Japanese hip-hop dancers have performed behind Beyonce, and some were set to join Michael Jackson's comeback tour before the King of Pop's unexpected death in June 2009.
Japanese dancers' top-notch skills easily overcome any expressive difficulties, Aoki says. Like Japan's animation and culinary schools before them, dance academies might eventually pull in students from nearby Asian countries.
Hip-hop hasn't always had a wholesome image in Japan--the point of the music and the dance, after all, is to strike an outlaw pose. Yet its reputation has changed over the past 15 years or so, with no small role played by artists in the Avex Trax stable such as Namie Amuro, Ayumi Hamazaki and TRF, with their dance-heavy routines.
"It's a generational coming-of-age," Aoki says. "The parents of today's students grew up with street dance. For them, it's familiar, not threatening, and they're happy to have their children do it."
Nearly all the dancers taking the exam, to judge by the attendance at the Avex Artist Academy in Harajuku on Sept. 23, are girls or young women. Mothers wait outside. The test itself is organized like a game of Dance Dance Revolution, with the added feel of a NASA physical.
First, in one studio, an increasingly complex set of steps are shown on a video screen, followed by timed periods for students to memorize.
Next, the students are moved in groups of six to another studio, where they take turns performing the routine they've just learned--to a bank of video cameras.
Students danced before live judges last year, according to Aoki, who adds that the switch to via-video judging is an attempt to make the exam more equal.
Live judge or video made little difference to 12-year-old Haruki Uchiyama, who rated his own performance a disappointing 58 percent.
"I was too nervous and couldn't find my groove," he says. "But I felt that the test-stress was a good thing, and it was a good experience to dance in front of a camera, because that's how it will be in real life."
His dream, he says, is to bring his hip-hop to the United States.