LOS ANGELES — Hip hop culture expressed through music and dance is often associated with the black and Latino cultures in the United States. The youth of these cultures may have started hip hop more than 40 years ago in urban New York, but it has now become mainstream, with Asian Americans finding a prominent place in hip hop or urban dance.
Whether it's dancing freestyle in a cypher or dance circle, or a carefully choreographed routine, when these dancers move their bodies, something magical happens, said Philippine urban dancer Michelle Salazar.
“My first mentor, he said dancing is like touching the face of God. That’s just how I feel,” said Salazar.
Some call it hip hop, others -- urban dance. It’s no longer just associated with African Americans or Latinos. Philippine American Arnel Calvario is one of the pioneers of Asian American urban dance. When he was growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, he saw other Filipinos as well as African Americans and Latinos dancing in the streets of his neighborhood in southern California. In junior high, he said he surprised some African American girls who saw him dance.
“They’d verbally say that 'I’ve never seen an Asian guy dance like that,' you know. That was a pivotal moment for me. In one sense you can be kind of offended by that," explained Calvario. "It kind of felt like I needed to do something about that.”
In college, in the early 1990s, Calvario incorporated this uniquely American dance form into a Philippine culture show. He formed the dance company Kaba Modern and started a phenomenon where Asian American dance companies began emerging throughout universities in southern California.
“It quickly spread to the Chinese associations, the Japanese, Vietnamese...it was a really interesting time because within a year, it spread so fast,” he noted.
Lorenzo Perillo is teaching a class in hip hop dance at Cornell University this fall.
“It’s kind of like something that is seen as foreign to a particular culture and saying no, it’s not foreign, it’s actually something that we all do, we just don’t consider it; we just haven’t shifted our paradigm yet,” he said.
African American Dineytra Lee’s paradigm shifted when she auditioned for a hip hop dance crew.
“I go to the audition and I see nothing but Asians and I’m like, 'what’s going on there.' It’s literally a legitimate culture shock,” she said.
What Asian Americans saw in their community for years was not represented on television until recently with dance competition TV shows where predominantly Asian American urban dancers exploded into mainstream media.
“It was never so prominent as it is now. Now we’re all over," said Calvario. "And in these dance shows we did dominate.”
This not only breaks traditional American stereotypes of Asians being either martial artists or nerds. Vietnamese Chinese American Kan Dang said the prominence of Asian American urban dancers in the media helps older Asian immigrants see dance differently. “You normally wouldn’t tell your parents you dance cause they feel like it would be a distraction from your studies, but now I think it’s accepted," Dang explained. "That it’s like a good stress reliever or a time to meet people in school.”
With social media, hip hop dance no longer belongs to any particular minority group. It has spread globally with dancers around the world expressing themselves through this form of movement.