Ashe! Ashe!

The Florida African Dance Festival in Tallahassee Celebrates 21 Years June 7-9

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Photo taken during a class at the 2017 Florida African Dance Festival.

“Ashe,” pronounced ah-SHAY, similar to “sashay,” and also spelled “ase,” is the Yoruba word for a West African spiritual concept of the life-force energy. Everything has ashe. Everything has the power to transmit and communicate ashe—and two very powerful forms of working with ashe are drumming and dance.

Thus, the Florida African Dance Festival, held in Tallahassee every June and hosted by African Caribbean Dance Theatre, positively rattles the walls with ashe as drummers and dancers from around the world gather to learn and teach traditional African rhythms, dances and cultural heritage. The festival runs next weekend, June 7-9, at Florida A&M University Developmental Research School.

You can find out everything you want to know about taking drum and dance classes, being a vendor, attending the Saturday night performance or contacting FADF on their website, fadf.org.

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Last year we attended FADF and saw this finale performance of Congolese dance-drummers. Suffice it to say they alone are worth a round trip to Tallahassee.

In 2017, we packed our bags and trekked to Tally for the three-day event, overestimating our endurance and registering for three hours of class on Friday and Saturday. We had five options for classes that Friday and chose Makaya Kayos’s morning Congolese class first. Makaya is the middle drummer in the photo above with the red band under his knee. He’s probably 5’7” and appears to be able to jump that high as well before tucking into a front somersault. After the first half hour, when all of us students were pouring sweat, thighs hammering from non-stop deep squats up and down a basketball court in a college gym, Makaya and the drummers gave us a much-needed rest and boost of hype with a mini-performance that concluded with the aforementioned jump-into-forward-roll move. The students erupted into hollers and applause, buoyed by the energy (Makaya has a LOT of ashe), and we finished the rest of the class in exuberant spirits and spurting sweat.

Following Congolese class, we took Ismael Kouyate’s Guinean class. Ismael returns this year to teach his Guinean class Friday morning and Saturday afternoon, and we can tell you first-hand that his class, like Makaya’s, is outstanding. If you go this year, make sure you take it.

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Marie Basse Wiles and Senegalese percussionists perform at the 2017 FADF Concert.

On Saturday morning, we lined up for Marie Basse Wiles’s Senegalese/Sabar class, and we’re not ashamed to report that we were in way over our heads. About ten minutes into class—so, right after the warm-up—we chose to make the class a “growth opportunity.” Grow we did by artful application of humility—and a few Band-aids to our “beginner’s feet.” Marie brought an intricate Senegalese wedding dance for the festival, and we happened to be in class with several professional African dancers who were simply stunning. For us, even when the dances are more advanced than our training, just being on the floor with the drummers and witnessing the elegance and athleticism of the advanced dancers makes us appreciate the legacy and technique of African dance.

We have to mention that among these dancers were a few members of Tampa’s Kuumba Dancers and Drummers including USF’s Dr. Kya Connor, who performed in the Saturday night concert, and founders Natalie and Myron Jackson. Kumbaa Dancers and Drummers usually represent the Tampa Bay area at the festival, and we are super lucky to have them in town keeping the traditional African dances and rhythms alive. They also hold an open community African dance class every Tuesday night. If you’re interested, check their website for information on the when/where/fees.

Pardon My French

On the neck of the foot? The bite of the donkey?

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Next Generation Ballet dancer Alexandra de Roos demonstrating échappé.

The French codified ballet under King Louis XIV by defining the five basic positions of the feet and setting a catalog of positions related to the “turn-out” of the legs in the hip sockets (i.e., the legs rotate out of the hips instead of facing forward). Placement, a.k.a. alignment, and lift, a.k.a. pull-up, became fundamentals that traveled with ballet when it spread to Italy, Russia, Denmark and finally to an American style with George Balanchine. The different countries put their own flair on the fundamentals and their major schools altered the basic vocabulary just enough to be super annoying if you study one school, like Vaganova, and then take class with a teacher from the Cecchetti school.

However, the basic language of class and choreography roots en francais, in French, from the founding school.

Let’s be as plain as possible: ballet is hard. It’s a tough art form with an unforgiving technique that requires ballet dancers to be the most elegant professional athletes with (let’s face it) the best team uniforms. The bitter irony for dancers is that training until your toenails slough off results in a form that looks effortless onstage. Sometimes, it’s also tough for the person who has never studied ballet terms to appreciate the cool connection between the moves and their names.

We thought we’d put together a brief list of classical ballet terms with their English translations to give a little pro tip insight to our audience.

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Tendu. [Photo: STOCK4B | Getty Images]

Tendu – “to stretch;” when you see a dancer’s foot extend to point the toes, that’s tendu.pas de bourree

Pas de bourrée – “pas” means “step.” “De bourrée” means “of the bourrée,” which was a three-step 17th century French dance. Chances are, if you’ve ever taken a jazz, ballet or contemporary class, you’ve done pas de bourrée, though it usually sounds like padda bou-ray.

Two more that you may have heard whose spellings might surprise you are chassé (sounds like “shah-SAY”) and chainés (those “sheh-NAY” turns). “Chassé” looks like “chase” so that’s an excellent way to remember chassé is a step where one foot chases the other. “Chainés” looks like “chains,” which also serves as a foolproof mnemonic device for those rapid little turns that look like the dancer is drawing chain links in a line or circle across the floor.

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Pas de chat – this fun term means “step of the cat.” This jaunty leap mimics the quick, arching jump of a cat onto something. The idea here is to get both feet in the air with bent knees at the same time and land soundlessly with a touch of ennui, much like our feline friends.

Pas de cheval – again, another animal step. This one means “step of the horse” or “horse’s step.” The dancer extends from the knee à la Mr. Ed pawing at the ground, but more gracefully.

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Three sur le cou-de-pied positions: devant (pointed), devant (wrapped) and relaxed. [Photo: Dance Spirit]

Cou-de-pied – “Cou” means “neck;” “pied” means “foot.” The French named that area between your ankle and base of the calf “the neck of the foot.” You’ll often see dancers with their pointed toes placed delicately on this area.The bite of the donkey – This phrase is a perfectly apt description of what it feels like to hit a correct attitude (a position with one leg extended from the hip and bent at 90 degrees behind the other, with the knee HIGHER than the foot.) Try it, and you will indeed feel like a donkey is biting you in the derrière and/or low back. Ouch.

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Échappé – “to escape;” used to describe when the legs open at the same time. Admit it, that’s witty—the legs are getting away from each other.

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Pirouette – “to twirl,” “to whirl,” “to rotate.” This iconic ballet turn with the toes tucked to the knee in a shape like the number 4 literally means to rotate and to twirl and whirl. Excellent job summarizing the whole shebang in one word, nos amis français.

Naturally, this vocabulary list represents but a fraction of full joy that is the often literal, somehow simultaneously poetic names of classical ballet moves.

And, imagine the surprise of your friends when, at intermission, you can casually mention how impressed you were with the dancers’ placements sur le cou-de-pied and how much you enjoyed the sequence of pas de chevals.

Put your new knowledge to use when Ballet Nacional de Cuba returns to Morsani Hall on May 23 as part of a very limited United States tour.

Alicia Alonso: La Reina de Todo

Ella es la reina del baile. La reina de musica. La reina … de todo.

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Alicia Alonso, artistic director of Ballet Nacional de Cuba is such a superstar we gave her the Warhol treatment.

Ask Cubans “who is Alicia Alonso?“ and you will hear this short, comprehensive explanation: she is the queen of dance. The queen of music. The queen … of everything.

Alonso, born in Havana in 1920, possessed a gift for dance so profound, so prodigious that she and anyone who watched her early training knew she was a born legend. She became an instant star of American Ballet Theatre in the 1940s with searing portrayals of Giselle and Carmen that are still unequaled. She returned to Cuba in the ‘40s to establish professional classical ballet, and she did – creating one of the most rigorous, largest ballet schools in the world.

There is dance; then there is The Dance. Alicia Alonso is The Dance. They are synonyms. The words might as well be Spanish-to-English translations.

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Like everything else, dance and audience expectations of dance morphed with the digital age, ushering in a new era of commercial dance guided by the “wow” factor of competition dance broadcast on television reality shows and through social media. Often, today’s young dancers and companies possess hyper-flexibility, video-game standards of leaps and tricks and operatic emoting that, while exciting, suits a needs-to-go-viral aesthetic that misses the mark with The Dance.

Insulated and isolated from America after President Kennedy’s 1962 trade embargo, Alonso and Cuba worked, lived, loved and danced unaffected by the technological revolution. She taught and choreographed in the enduring timelessness of one anointed by the dance gods to transmit the heavenly conversation between dancers and their audiences. As Martha Graham noted, “dance is the language of the soul.”

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So it is with Ballet Nacional de Cuba. When they dance, it is a conversation of souls unlike any other ballet company. Alonso, la reina de todo, taught them that.

Alonso’s signature ballet, Giselle, arrives at the Straz Center on May 23 as part of an exclusive, limited American tour. The last time the company appeared at The Straz was in October 2003, so it’s been a long absence. The stop here this month, orchestrated in part by arts benefactor, Straz Center namesake and Liberian ambassador-at-large David A. Straz, Jr., took three years of negotiations and diplomacy. Straz, known for his enthusiastic embrace of the historic Tampa-Cuba connections and love of the island’s culture, visited Cuba the first time in 2001, eventually working on behalf of the Tampa Bay area’s Alliance for Responsible Cuba Policy Foundation.

 

As an informal cultural attaché for Tampa, Straz hosted a dinner party in Cuba between the Straz Center Board of Directors and President/CEO Judy Lisi and Cuba’s then-deputy minister of culture, Rosa Teresa Rodriguez, and the government representative for Alonso’s Ballet Nacional de Cuba. Because Cuba has such deep artistic roots in West Tampa, Ybor City and parts of Tampa proper, offering the country’s premier dance company a home on the Morsani stage seemed logical and necessary.

“It’s really important to Tampa to have them here because of the number of Cuban people who live here,” Straz says. “The places are so close to each other; we should have good relations. Their ballet is some of the finest in the world,” he continues. “Everyone should take the opportunity to see them; this is a big deal for Tampa, and who knows when the opportunity will come back. I hope Alicia will be able to come.”

Alonso, now in her mid-90s and almost completely blind after losing most of her eyesight early in her career, made an express trip to the ballet to sit with Straz during his visit to Cuba last October. In the state box at Gran Teatro de La Habana for an evening performance by Ballet Nacional de Cuba, Straz experienced the “Alicia effect” when she arrived, bedecked in her signature red head wrap with matching ruby red lipstick. Because of her health, Alonso had not been able to attend any other performances of the season.

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Catherine and David Straz (left) with Alicia Alonso and Ballet Nacional de Cuba staffers at The Gran Teatro de La Habana.

“I was with Alicia for the final performance of their season. She came that night and sat with me,” he says. “When she arrived, the place exploded in applause, everyone was on their feet. Everyone in the country knows her. At the end of the performance, she stood up in the box and leaned into the railing with her arms outstretched – it was such a balletic gesture and even at her age, so marvelous. There she is, in all red, arms outstretched, to thunderous applause and a standing ovation.”

Alonso and Straz spent time after the show conversing at length in her dressing room with the help of translators. “My Spanish is poquito,” he laughs. “That’s the extent of it. But she is so important. I invited her to Tampa. She said, ‘it’s possible.’ So, we’ll see.” Although a visit by the prima ballerina assoluta, the highest and rarest rank for a ballerina, is unlikely, we would love to host the grand dame of dance in the vivid red backdrop of Morsani Hall, befitting her majestic and magical legend.

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Ballet Nacional de Cuba performing Giselle. (Photo: Carlos Quezada)

Ballet Nacional de Cuba performs their hallmark ballet Giselle on May 23 at 8pm in Morsani Hall. Get tickets here.

Onward, Cavaliers

NGB’s Sugar Plum Fairies Get Sweet Partners in NYCB Principal Amar Ramasar and MCB Principal Renan Cerdeiro

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Amar Ramasar (L) and Renan Cerdeiro (R).

The word is out about the big ballet stars appearing in Next Generation Ballet’s Nutcracker, which features the George Balanchine grand pas de deux and New York City Ballet star Sara Mearns and former Miami City Ballet principal Patricia Delgado alternating the role of Sugar Plum Fairy.

But what about the man in tights executing the unbelievable sequence of leaps and mid-air turns? That’s her Cavalier—in the case of Nutcracker, the name of the role, but the word “cavalier” also refers to a ballerina’s male partner. His job is primarily to show her off and secondarily to wow audiences with a small but virtuosic solo, which is the case for Sugar Plum’s Cavalier.

NGB’s artistic director and former principal with New York City Ballet Philip Neal called in two friends who are rather well-known in the sphere of cavaliers—male dancers with the grace, chops and personality to match the sublime, extraordinary talents of Mearns and Delgado.

Often partnered for NYCB, Amar Ramasar and Sara Mearns perform together for Nutcracker on Friday and Saturday night.

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Amar and Sara Mearns performing together in Justin Peck’s ‘Rōdē,ō: Four Dance Episodes. (Photo: Paul Kolnik)

Watch them in an episode of People magazine’s short series American Doers: http://people.com/human-interest/amar-ramasars-journey-from-the-bronx-to-center-stage-at-lincoln-center/

Ramasar, a Bronx kid who saw a videotaped version of Balanchine’s Agon and decided on the spot to be a ballet dancer, hid his training at School of American Ballet, the school founded by Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein, from his neighborhood friends. Ramasar started late, at 12 years old, and found himself learning the basic steps in classes with five- and six-year-olds. Determined and on fire, Ramasar advanced quickly to graduate on time with his peer group. In 2001, NYCB invited him to join the company. Ramasar was cast as the Cavalier that year in their Balanchine Nutcracker, a must-do of the New York holiday season. He’s been a principal dancer, the highest rank, since 2009.

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Amar will play Jigger in the upcoming Broadway revival of Carousel and is also set to appear in the new dance film Meta. (Photo: Paul Kolnik)

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Amar, and other NYCB dancers, showed off their moves in a recent campaign for Cole Haan. Do you recognize any other dancer faces in the GIF above?

On the Thursday night performance of NGB’s Nutcracker, principal dancer for Miami City Ballet, Renan Cerdeiro, performs Cavalier with Patricia Delgado. Dancers from MCB tend to talk about what a family they have with the company, and you can see here that Renan and Patricia are close on and offstage:

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Renan and Patricia Delgado dancing together on stage (L) and off stage (R). (Photos from Instagram: @renancerdeiro)

Renan, born in Brazil, joined MCB as a teenager, landing solo rank at 18 years old. One of the first Brazilian dancers in MCB (the other was his lifelong friend Nathalia Arja), Renan instantly became known in the company as the dancer who has everything: looks, height, technical beauty and flawless musicality. Plus, he loves Broadway musicals and Disney movies, so he may be a perfect person.

When asked about his turn as Cavalier, Renan told us, “I can’t wait to share the stage with the talented students of Next Generation Ballet for their dazzling Nutcracker. The Nutcracker is a holiday tradition for a lot of families, and it always feels special to share this magical ballet with audiences year after year. It is also very exciting for me to be reunited with the exceptional Phillip Neal, having worked with him in the past at Miami City Ballet. It is a treat to have his guidance again.”

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Photo from Instagram: @renancerdeiro

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Renan and his cat, because we all love cats. (Photo from Instagram: @renancerdeiro)

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Photo from Instagram: @renancerdeiro

With Sara Mearns/Amar Ramasar and Patricia Delgado/Renan Cerdeiro appearing in the most-anticipated roles of the holiday season’s ballet tradition, we’re expecting a high demand for tickets to Next Generation Ballet’s Nutcracker. Make sure you get yours here  to see these stars performing with our exceptional pre-professional company directed by NYCB alum Philip Neal.

EXCLUSIVE: Retired Miami City Ballet Principal Ballerina-Turned-Teacher Patricia Delgado Talks Sugar Plum Fairy and Dancing in Nutcracker at The Straz

Lauded principal ballerina Patricia Delgado retired from Miami City Ballet this year after an extraordinary career with the company that began when she was 16 years old. An exquisite technician and breathtaking artist, Delgado gave soul to MCB, and arrived at The Straz last summer as a guest artist (along with Balanchine great Edward Villella) for the NGB summer intensive. It was our privilege to catch up with her to talk about her upcoming role with Next Generation Ballet’s Nutcracker.

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Photo: Gio Alma

CAUGHT IN THE ACT: How was your first experience dancing Sugar Plum Fairy? What did it mean to you as a dancer to finally have arrived in this prestigious role? What does it mean to you at this point in your career?

PATRICIA DELGADO: I remember the first year I had the opportunity to perform as the Sugar Plum Fairy with the Miami City Ballet. I was extremely excited but way too nervous! I was young! I was still in the corps de ballet and loved getting to perform in snow and flowers every single show and every now and then get to do lead Marzipan. I couldn’t believe I would get to dance the grand pas de deux. It was very emotional for me because I had grown up doing the children’s roles in Miami City Ballet’s The Nutcracker, and all of the ballerinas I idolized so much had mesmerized me in this role for so many years. It was such a big deal for me. I remember working very hard and rehearsing a lot and still feeling very nervous! I have to say that even though my first show felt like a huge emotional achievement, it wasn’t my best performance at all.

I remember my partner and I were both new in the role, and we were very shaky. Now, looking back … I was just very young and inexperienced. However, what reassured me and helped me to stay calm and happy was knowing that I would hopefully get to work on it every single year since it is such a tradition. Every year when Nutcracker season strolls around, I’m excited to see how far I have come from the year before. I take note of how I learn artistically to interpret the music on a deeper level or approach the technical elements with more finesse and confidence. The other perk of dancing The Sugar Plum every year is trying the pas de deux with so many different Cavaliers. Each one I have been fortunate enough to dance with has shown me the pas de deux from a uniquely different perspective, and I love exploring that!

This year, I’m beyond words excited to get a chance to dance with principal dancer from the New York City Ballet, Gonzalo Garcia*, for the first time. He has been a dream partner of mine for a long time and to get this opportunity means the world to me. When I watch him dance, he makes me want to work harder and harder at being a better dancer and getting to feel his passion on stage will be such a treat! He is such a giving partner. I feel incredibly fortunate.

Watch Patricia dance in this new music video for the National’s “Dark Side of the Gym” with Justin Peck, who also directed the video:

CITA: What do you bring to the interpretation of the Balanchine choreography that you feel like is “yours”?

PD: What I love about this version is how incredibly musical it is and how beautifully the steps show off the music. Balanchine is just the absolute best! I really get lost in the mystery and luscious adagio quality of the pas de deux. What I just completely adore about the variation is how sweet it is. I imagine all of the little angels around me having conversations with me and sharing little secrets with me that just fill my heart with flutters of joy.

CITA: Will you talk a little about what you are looking forward to most about working alongside the Next Generation Ballet pre-professional company? Philip gushed about what great examples of professional dancers you all are, and he mentioned that you would all be great with the younger dancers.

PD: I’m so excited to be dancing alongside the Next Generation dancers because this past summer, after teaching for a week at the summer intensive, I was just blown away by the talent, work ethic, dedication and the positivity of all the students. I left Tampa rejuvenated and completely inspired by so many young amazing dancers. They fueled me! To share the stage with them is an honor, and I cannot wait to get the chance to see them light up on stage.

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Patricia working with a student during Next Generation Ballet’s 2017 Summer Intensive.

CITA: What are you eager to see, do (or eat) during your stay in Tampa? You know we have the best café con leche and Cuban sandwiches (sorry, Patricia!, we know Miami is strong in these regards).

PD: Tampa is such a booming city. I love the location of the Straz Center along the river and in such a developing part of downtown. I can’t wait to go to Ulele, one of my favorite restaurants. Also, it’s my first winter living in NYC after living my whole life in Miami, so I’m very much looking forward to the sun and the warmth which I miss this time of year! I’m also looking forward to spending time with Philip and the amazing teachers at Next Generation Ballet.

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Patricia teaching during Next Generation Ballet’s 2017 Summer Intensive.

Patricia Delgado performs Sugar Plum Fairy during the Thursday night performance, and Sara Mearns performs Friday and Saturday nights.

Meet Patricia in this video with her sister, Jeanette, as they talk about performing with MCB:

 

*Due to a recent injury, Gozalo Garcia will not be appearing in Nutcracker. However, we are excited to announce that Miami City Ballet principal Renan Cerdeiro will perform with Patricia Delgado as the Cavalier.

EXCLUSIVE: Ballet Star Sara Mearns Talks Sugar Plum Fairy and Dancing in Nutcracker at The Straz

New York City Ballet principal dancer Sara Mearns recently starred in The Red Shoes on Broadway and in George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker® for NYCB. Beloved by young ballerinas and a superstar onstage, Mearns is also a face of Guerlain perfume and Cole Haan. She works with many dance organizations to inspire people to love classical ballet as well as prevent injuries. It was our privilege to catch up with her to talk about her upcoming role with Next Generation Ballet’s Nutcracker.

CAUGHT IN THE ACT: Describe your first experiencing dancing Sugar Plum Fairy … what did it mean to you as a dancer to finally have arrived at this prestigious role? What does it mean to you at this point in your career?

SARA MEARNS: I remember the first time I performed Sugar Plum. I danced it with Stephen Hanna who was already a principal, and I was a soloist at the time. Fortunately, I had done some pretty big roles like Swan Lake, Faust, and Western Symphony to name a few. I sort of had a sense of what it would feel like out there, and I don’t remember being nervous at all. Stephen took great care of me. That was in 2006. Since then, I have had my shares of ups and downs in my career and particularly with Nutcracker. Personally, the holidays are a strange time for me, and I’m always very exhausted at the end of the year after so much dancing. I had a bout with stage fright last year during Nutcracker that took me away from the stage for a bit, so now I’m back and feel much more confident. I try to go out there and think about all the little kids and aspiring dancers watching. For most people, it’s the first ballet they’ve seen, and I want to make it special for them, so it’s not about me anymore. No matter how good or bad the performance is, the kids are just seeing the ballerina role they want to be some day, and it makes me so happy that I can be that for them.

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CITA: What do you bring to the interpretation of the Balanchine choreography that you feel like is “yours”?

SM: I recently got a compliment/comment on my interpretation of Sugar Plum and it was “unconventional”… and, yes, I will most certainly take that as a compliment! I don’t want to look like anyone else, and that is what’s brilliant about Balanchine’s choreography. Every ballerina can look completely different and have her own take on it, But, the steps and musicality is clearly Balanchine. The pas is so perfect that I could never imagine doing another version. The build-up is just right, and it has the audience on the edge of their seat the whole time. It never gets old hearing the excitement of the audience at the end. It’s so beautiful.

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Sara Mearns photographed at the 1896 studios in Brooklyn. (Photo: Pari Dukovic)

CITA: Will you talk a little about what you are looking forward to most about working alongside the Next Generation Ballet pre-professional company? Philip [Neal, artistic director for NGB and former NYCB principal dancer] gushed about what great examples of professional dancers you all are, and he mentioned that you would all be great with the younger dancers.

SM: As I said before, more than any other time during the year, the Nutcracker is about the children and creating a magical world that they will fall in love with. I love going to suburban schools all over the country and sharing my experiences and my dancing with others. I was in their shoes a long time ago, so I want to give back and show them what they can achieve if they work really hard and stay true to themselves. Can’t wait to meet all the students in Tampa! Also, Philip is a dear friend and a role model of mine. I was so lucky that I got to dance with him in NYCB. I learned so much from him as a colleague, friend, and teacher. He is a true light in the dance world.

CITA: What are you eager to see, do (or eat) during your stay in Tampa? You know we have the best café con leche and Cuban sandwiches.

SM: I’ve never spent much time in Tampa! So, I’m looking forward to eating and seeing all new things. As you know, we don’t get much time there due to our schedules, but we will cherish the very little time that we have. Thank you for having me!

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Sara Mearns and Philip Neal, artistic director of NGB, at Philip’s final performance with NYCB.

Sara performs as Sugar Plum Fairy in the Friday and Saturday night performances of Nutcracker. Thursday night, Patricia Delgado performs Sugar Plum Fairy, and we will profile her in next week’s blog.

To get a glimpse of Sara in action, watch this one-minute clip of her with her partner, Amar Ramasar, who will be dancing with her in NGB’s Nutcracker. Here, they dance Balanchine’s Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet:

The Wild Style of Japanese Hip-Hop

About ten years after the birth of hip-hop in the Bronx, the art form found its way to Japan when young Japanese artists encountered the music and saw breakdancing in New York, taking what they saw back to Japan.

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Wild Style is regarded as the first hip hop motion picture.

In 1983, the film Wild Style, a seminal hip-hop documentary capturing the four pillars of the culture (graffiti, breaking, emceeing and DJing), screened in Tokyo. The kids who saw the film—though few—lost it, immediately embracing the colorful, unfettered, athletic expression of triumphing outside of a social system of conformity, illusion and oppression. A young man named Hideaki Ishi saw the film, and, in a matter of time, the world would come to know him as DJ Krush. DJ Krush, Toshio Nakanishi and Hiroshi Fujuwara are mostly credited with establishing hip-hop in Japan after Wild Style and during trips to New York in the early 80s.

As it did in the United States, hip-hop exploded in Japan, especially in the Harajuku neighborhood, ushering in a new generation of baggy-clothes-wearing, rapping, blinged-out kids speaking truth to power and exploring this urban, urgent expression of creativity.

“Many people assume that Japan is too ethnically homogeneous to provide a meaningful home for hip-hop,” said Dr. Ian Condry, a professor of Japanese culture at MIT who wrote Hip-Hop Japan: Rap and the Paths of Cultural Globalization, via email with us.

“When I began my research in the mid-nineties for what eventually became my book, many Japanese elites in the recording, radio and music magazine industries expressed similar doubts that young Japanese emcees would ever succeed,” Condry explained. “However, in nightclubs throughout Japan, local hip-hop artists proved that the seeming homogeneity of Japan in fact disguised deep-seated divergences among economic opportunity, gender inequalities, and even racial discrimination — for example, against Korean-Japanese and so-called ‘outcaste’ groups who continue to be stigmatized. In the end, hip-hop in Japan developed in the local language and taught local audiences about new ways of thinking about how to ‘represent’ one’s ‘hood, battle for one’s posse and speak in thoughtful, entertaining ways about struggles that people of all stripes in Japan face.”

Since certain breakdancing moves borrowed from Asian martial arts moves, b-boying (breakdancing) was already somewhat recognizable in Japan. Breaking took off as the first major influence of African-American hip-hop. Japanese b-boys and b-girls got really good, really fast.

For a look at b-boys in Japan now, here’s a compilation of Issei, who won the Red Bull BC One in 2016:

Emceeing and rapping caught on after breaking and DJing, and really extraordinary graffiti once lined the Yokohama Graffiti Wall, which, sadly, was painted gray in 2010 by the Japanese government.

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Photo from the Yokohama Graffiti Wall. (flickr: DiscoWeasel)

Want to check out current Japanese political rappers? “You might consider Anarchy and Shingo Nishinari,” said Dr. Condry. “For women, try Rumi, Miss Monday, Co-machi, and Hime.”

The influence of Japanese hip-hop conveys in the upcoming performance of SIRO-A in Ferguson Hall on Oct. 19. SIRO-A merges dance crew moves with technology and DJing to create a multi-media, special effects spectacle. Want a sneak peek? Check it out: