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Breaking Through: Hit Show “Street Dance of China” Crowns 30 Years of Hip Hop Dance’s Rise

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The third season of dance battle TV show Street Dance of China comes to a close on streaming platform Youku this weekend after a run that has proven to be a phenomenon across the country. With massive stars such as Jackson Wang, Lay Zhang and Wang Yibo lending their influence and dance skills, the show has helped boost street dance from a fringe cultural offering to the mainstream.

But how did hip hop dance initially emerge in China?

Just like rap music, street dance has a longer history in the country than the sudden rush of hype-laden talent contests now putting under the mainstream spotlight might suggest.

The 80s: A Short-Lived Fad

The arrival of the 1984 Joel Silberg movie Breakin’ in mainland Chinese cinemas in 1987, during a time of cultural opening up in the country, caused a flurry of excitement for China’s youth. The style and movement of breakdancing as portrayed in the movie caught the imagination and inspired an entire generation of Chinese street dance enthusiasts, with 霹雳舞 or “thunderbolt dance,” as breakdancing came to be known in China, catching on with young Chinese people looking for something new to engage with.

This enthusiasm for breakdancing also influenced how hip hop culture was depicted in Chinese productions for the big screen, a year after Breakin’ had become popular. In 1988, the iconic film Rock n Roll Kids (摇滚青年) — directed by controversial fifth generation filmmaker Tian Zhuangzhuang and starring dancer Tao Jin — was integral in bringing a Chinese slant to the new form of creative expression that was taking the country by storm.

In many ways, it made sense that the hyper physical movements of breakdance connected with Chinese audiences, as in the US prominent early Bboys claimed that they took inspiration for their power moves from kung fu or martial arts. In Hong Kong in 1985, where the hip hop craze had caught on earlier, Donnie Yen displayed the connectivity between the two art forms in the movie Mismatched Couples, in which the martial arts master showed off his popping and locking skills.

In the same year that Rock n Roll Kids was released in China, Xinjiang director Guang Chunlan’s lesser known work Crazy Dancer (西部舞狂) focused on the craze in Urumqi. The movie features a bizarre selection of cultural references, including Michael Jackson rip-offs and inspirations from Bollywood movies alongside a ton of breakdancing.

Tao Jin, the lead in Rock n Roll Kids became an overnight superstar, later appearing in Chinese television’s biggest annual event the CCTV Spring Festival Gala in 1989 to dance and sing for the audience.

The film’s appeal went well beyond dance circles. Famous Chinese fans of the movie who caught onto the craze during the ’80s include arthouse director Jia Zhangke, award-winning actor Sun Honglei, and singer Luo Qi (also known as China’s first female rock star) who became obsessed with breakdancing and dropped out of school at the age of 13 to pursue her dream of becoming a dancer.

After the rise of breakdancing in China through the 1980s and into the early ’90s, the form started to fade from public consciousness however. The dissipation was in part due to a concern that the “negative” elements of breakdance and hip hop culture could affect Chinese youth — an attitude that would rear its head again in the 2010s.

While the history of Chinese breakdancing and hip hop does indeed stretch back to the ’80s, the development of the culture in its early years can be best described as a series of short-lived fads that failed to catch on in a meaningful and deep-rooted way.

The ’90s and ’00s: A Real Culture Emerges

With the rise in prominence of South Korean and Japanese pop culture in China at the end of the ’90s, as K-pop groups like NRG and H.O.T. became hugely popular in the country, breakdancing and hip hop dance also received a boost in relevance once more.

Around the late ’90s, some of the earliest dance crews in China were formed, with Guangzhou collectives Speed Crew and STO Crew founded in 1998 and 1999 respectively. In the early 2000s, crews like Zaha Sugar and Wujiawu (舞佳舞) Family in Beijing also emerged, the latter of which has since become known as one of the strongest promoters of hip hop dance in China.

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The main reason for Wujiawu’s lofty reputation is down to their founding the hugely influential dance contest KOD (Keep on Dancing) in 2004. In its first year, Keep on Dancing hosted over 100 contestants, with legend of US dance Skeeter Rabbit the referee. The following year, the competition welcomed US crews Electric Boogaloo and Elite Force as judges.

Similar to the influence of battle rap competition Iron Mic, founded by Detroit-born Dana Burton, KOD has been integral in maintaining and allowing an authentic culture of hip hop dance to flourish in China. It’s also since become one of the largest contests of its kind in Asia and one of the four major dance competitions in the world, along with Battle of the Year in Germany, UK B-Boy in the United Kingdom and Juste Debout in France.

Some of the country’s best dancers have come through the competition, such as Huang Jinxing, often referred to as the first Chinese street dancer and also the star of 2019 film Step Up China. RMB Crew out of Beijing and Xiao Jie, who became a street dance icon after his performance with Peking Opera performer Qiu Jirong at the Spring Festival Gala in 2017, have also participated in KOD.

Another driving force behind the growing popularity of hip hop dance in the early ’00s was the emergence of a new wave of Mandopop idols such as Jay Chou who were inspired by the moves of K-pop stars. Around the same time, the emergence of a new and burgeoning hip hop music culture, with the likes of Hi-Bomb, Dragon Tongue Squad and Yin Ts’ang, also helped raise awareness of breaking and hip hop dance among Chinese youths.

Related: 

The History of Rap in China, Part 1: Early Roots and Iron Mics (1993-2009)

The ’10s: Hip Hop Dance Hits the Mainstream

In the mid-2010s, KOD launched their World Cup series, which saw the competition cover eight different countries over the course of seven months. The brand has grown immensely through the years, adding a variety of different competitions under their umbrella, such as the female-focused All Star Lady.

Spurred on by such developments, US dance crew Kinjaz — widely seen as the best dance crew in the world — opened up a dance dojo in Chengdu in Sichuan province in 2017. Collaborating with Chinese urban dance brand Sinostage (home of dancers such as Apple Yang), the establishment of Kinjaz Dojo was further proof of the growing international interest in China’s dance scene.

Throughout the 2010s, street dance in China began to add more localized elements. According to Chen Min’s paper “The Development of Hip-Hop Dance Culture in China,” this was by no means a new phenomenon — Chinese instruments such as the zither had been used to provide musical background from the start of street dance culture in the country. Yet the appearance of folks like Xiao Jie at the Spring Festival Gala in 2017 and a dancer from the Wa ethnic minority group from Yunnan province in variety show Street Dance of China‘s first season, have built on the blending of Chinese cultures and the US-created dance form.

In 2018, the Youth Olympics in Buenos Aires introduced dancesport, with the Olympic committee trialing street dance ahead of an appearance in the 2024 Olympics. Chinese dancer X-Rain competed, finishing eighth out of 12 participants. Danny (Wang Shenjiong), the founder of Shanghai-based Caster Studios, was the coach of China’s dancesport team at the 2018 Youth Olympics and welcomed the inclusion of the sport, saying, “Through the Olympics we will take the competition to the most professional and highest level.”

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Around the same time, the infamous hip hop music crackdown in the aftermath of the first season of The Rap of China saw blowback against rappers such as PG One, whose controversial song “Christmas Eve” was called out by the Communist Youth League for including explicit lyrics about sex and drugs. As The Rap of China and similar shows’ futures appeared in doubt, streaming websites Youku and iQIYI turned to street dance variety shows Hot Blood Dance Crew and Street Dance of China. While Hot Blood Dance Crew lasted for just one season on iQIYI, Street Dance of China has steadily built appeal, with its current third season its most successful yet.

The launch of these two shows precipitated a real breakthrough to the Chinese mainstream for hip hop dance, helping a bunch of veteran dancers reach a totally new audience and gain media exposure in the process. Key members of crews like Wujiawu, Zaha Sugar, RMB Crew and more have made appearances on the shows since their inception.

Related: 

After the “Hip-Hop Ban”, Chinese TV Turns to Street Dancing Shows

The drive in investment into the culture around street dance has also resulted in movies like Step Up China. The film, in which “Youths from different social classes in China learn what it means to be a family when they come together to form a dance crew,” had a budget of around 17 million USD.

But it’s not just having an impact on-screen. According to China Daily, there were a total of 8,000 registered dance studios in China in 2019, attesting to the continued growth in interest in the form.

In the latest season of Street Dance of China, some of the most famous singers and actors in China, such as Lay Zhang, Jackson Wang and Wang Yibo, are featured as judges. Both Lay Zhang and Jackson Wang are part of K-pop groups (EXO and GOT7 respectively) and, as Lay Zhang has said before, use dance as “a weapon.” Their participation in the show, as well as their prominent use of street dance in their music videos and performances, show the continued interest and importance of the form in modern Chinese popular culture.

Charting over 30 years of history in the country, the popularity of breakdancing  fluctuated through varying levels of popularity in the 1980s and early 1990s, before gaining a real following and planting cultural roots near the end of the 1990s. With a bunch of celebrity fans, globally-renowned dance competitions and the possibility of a dancesport event at the Olympics in 2024 — not to mention this weekend’s star-studded grand finale of the third season of Street Dance of China — it seems that hip hop dance is only set to increase its popularity in China in the coming years.

Bryan Grogan
    Bryan is RADII's Culture Editor. He is a Shanghai-based writer and editor with an interest in culture stories with a social bent. He can be found at a music show, usually with pint in hand.