Encompassing a multitude of urban dance forms from breaking to crumping, and from popping to jerking, street dance is a thriving movement with both a strong amateur community and a robust industry of professional artists. Since the launch of social media and web video technology, street dance has had an artistic renaissance. No longer relegated to local street corners and individual club scenes, street dancers have fully exploited new media outlets to share their moves with a global community eager to see and learn more.
In this three part series we will discuss:
- The artistic effects of media sharing on the development of street dance forms.
- How media sharing is changing the value proposition of street dance.
- What the concert dance world can learn from street dance in the video age.
Pt 1: The artistic effects of media sharing on the development of street dance forms
In October 2009 a crew of young Oakland street dancers uploaded a video on YouTube that showed four of them meeting on a street corner in the rain. The music was solemn and reverential, and their moves were graceful and emotional. Unlike most street dances, these dancers weren’t battling it out, instead they were paying tribute to a brother who had died on that street corner, and expressing their grief the way they knew best, by dancing. Unbeknownst to them, this video would put these artists on the international map and set the course of their careers.
The crew is TURF FEINZ, and they were filmed by their long time friends and collaborators, the Oakland-based video production company, YAK FILMS. Within a few weeks the video had gone viral in Europe, spreading from Germany to France, then to Brazil, Russia, and Denmark. Ten months later, the video took off stateside and today it stands at 3 million hits and counting. YAK FILMS have gone on to produce a weekly video series cataloging the street dance from around the world, and TURF FEINZ now has their own internationally recognized dance style called Turfing. Among other things, YAK FILMS puts out a very popular series of street dance tutorials taught by rising talents. Here is one on how to do the wave taught by Chonkie from TURF FEINZ.
In street dance, the goal is to be seen as the biggest, baddest dancer out there. One of the ways to do that is to coin a new move or a unique style that everyone tries to copy. Street dance choreography is generally made in a competitive environment, with dancers literally battling each other. The more their moves are copied, the better bragging rights the originator has. As moves get copied, each imitator tries to put their own stamp on the choreography, resulting in many mutations and variations on the original. With the advent of YouTube and online video sharing, this evolutionary process has gone into overdrive. Now a single video can be seen by millions of viewers worldwide in a matter of days or hours. When a street dance video goes viral, the choreography will be copied by hundreds if not thousands of other dancers and tweaked each time. These imitators will post their own videos online, and if even a couple of these go viral again, it starts a new wave of mutations. In this way, street dance forms are evolving at a breakneck speed. If an evolutionary biologist were to study street dance, they would be astounded at the rate of new moves, genres, and styles being made all the time. The developments in this form are growing at an exponential pace. As a result more has happened in street dance in the past five years than in the 30 years prior.
Chris Anderson, the curator of TED conferences, mentioned the phenomenal growth of street dance in his TEDtalk “How web video powers global innovation.” Anderson presented his theory of “Crowd Accelerated Innovation” to explain the rapid evolution occurring in many cultural and scientific sectors today. The way street dance spreads is a perfect illustration of the three components that make up “Crowd Accelerated Innovation.” First you need a CROWD of people that share a common interest, then LIGHT or clarity need to be shed on the crowd so that they can all see each other, and lastly you need the DESIRE to excel. Street dance was already a global movement when YouTube appeared, but the light that web video was able to shed on dancers everywhere from rural villages to inner city street corners enabled dancers to reach for greater recognition and influence on a scale never possible before. Anderson says that “Crowd Accelerated Innovation” is a kind of positive feedback loop where the more light that gets shed on the street dance movement, the more people desire to become dance stars in their own right and join the ranks of the crowd.
Jon M. Chu, filmmaker and creator of the popular web series, The LXD (The Legion of eXtraordinary Dancers) spoke of the new renaissance happening in street dance in his TED talk by saying, “Dance has never had a better friend than technology…Dancers have created a whole global laboratory online. Kids in Japan are taking moves from a YouTube video created in Detroit, building on it within days and releasing a new video, while teenagers in California are taking the Japanese video and remixing it to create a whole new dance style.” Chu speaks from experience as the director of the blockbuster hit movie, Step Up 2: The Streets and his latest success with The LXD, that was cast entirely through YouTube audition videos. Chu believes that what is happening right now in the “underground” street dance community will resurrect the popularity of dance to its status during the Golden Age of movie musicals. Once again kids will grow up with dance heros like past generations had with Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly and Michael Jackson.
What is immediately apparent when watching TURF FEINZ’s video is that the dancers are well versed in many dance techniques including ballet, jazz, and modern, as well as street dance forms like breaking and locking. In an interview for the Bay Citizen, YAK FILMS director, Yoram Savion said that YouTube has been important in the development of TURF’s signature style. “The dancers would come to my office and watch YouTube videos,” Savion said. “They’d watch everything. Once we even saw a random video of 1950s jazz dancing in Chicago that the dancers would incorporate into TURF.”
As street dance continues to garner devoted fans on YouTube, and new moves spread like wildfire across the internet, big media industries are taking note of it’s rising popularity. Street dance professionals are finding plenty of demand for their work, and an entire indie dance/film industry is rising up around the culture. YAK FILMS is an example of how one production company got its start by specializing in urban street dance. In the next segment of this series, we’ll examine how the video age is effecting the commercial potential for street dance giving it an economic edge over other many other dance forms.