This Dance Is Not Our Own
“Valuing authenticity above all else,
Hip Hop has constructed itself as a culture
that is ‘intimately linked with what we actually do
as embodied, contextualized,
concretely singular individuals’.”
Laura Speers, Hip Hop Authenticity and the London Scene
Given the intimate introspection I needed to go through to present this essay in the most authentic and truthful form I could, I really struggled writing This Dance Is Not Our Own.
I had originally intended this to be an analysis of how the Hip Hop community here in Singapore navigates learning about their identities in the face of the global phenomenon that we know as Hip Hop. I wanted to question how much of our dance truly belongs to us, when Hip Hop is a culture that we have inherited.
However, in the past few months whilst writing and researching this essay, it became apparent that I was going through a much more personal journey. In Hip Hop, where an emphasis is placed on developing and presenting a strong sense of identity, it felt impossible to ask these questions externally without a level of introspection first. Why ask these questions of identity and authenticity in the first place? I needed to diagnose my own feelings in regards to my identity first.
In a discussion of identity and authenticity, it feels the “realest” to me to write from a self-examined perspective. To begin questioning my own authenticity, I must first understand how much of my identity as a “person” has been influenced by my formative Hip Hop experiences growing up as a “dancer”, how much of it has been contextualised by my understanding of the world, and how “real” I have been towards embodying my supposed “identity.”
It’s unfortunate to admit that this essay is unfinished - in a sense - as I am only able to discuss briefly the concepts of identity and authenticity in Hip Hop and breaking in Singapore from the perspective of a young Singaporean growing up in the local breaking scene, who is now questioning his place in the culture. Whilst still underdeveloped, this essay lives as a precursor towards my future works in uncovering further questions on authenticity and identity in the Singapore Hip Hop scene; maybe towards a day in the future when we can all finally say - with confidence - that This Dance Is Really Our Own.
Real Recognises Real
“Instead of flow for flow let's go show for show
Toe for toe, yo, you better act like you know
Too many MC's take that word 'emcee' lightly
They can't Move a Crowd, not even slightly”
MC’s Act Like They Don’t Know, KRS One
“Real recognises real”, or in other words, only those that know themselves to be “authentic” and “genuine” are able to recognise others that hold the same “realness”. It is a curiously resonant state that the Hip Hop community has structured for itself, where this recognition defines the person that you become.
I often wonder how much of myself was decided by someone else, and if the culture that I grew up in influenced me to become someone that I was originally not meant to be.
As I was growing up, there seemed to be some mutual sense of recognition towards the B-Boys that were “real” and those that were not. The “realest” were often the ones that were constantly representing, and putting themselves out there in the battle. It seemed to me that they had reached a level beyond, going past the need to prove themselves extrinsically, and had found an intrinsic sense of identity via their dance. We all seem to have an inner radar for what is authentic, but how do we navigate our Identities in relation to this?
I remember trying to mimic people that I thought were “real” when I was younger, I wanted to mould my identity according to them. From the clothes I wore, to specific mannerisms, much of it was learnt by following the older dancers in the Hip Hop community that I looked up to. But how authentic is that really? I feel like I spent so much of my time when I was growing up trying to prove myself as real, that I never understood what was real for me.
I think the reason why we are able to recognise those that are “real” and authentic, doesn’t stem purely from moves or an external showcasing of one’s “realness”. It’s because we see a vulnerability, the path that someone took to get to that state of authenticity. They have gone further, they’ve adapted the moves that were passed down and resisted the need to prove themselves extrinsically.
Even with close to ten years of breaking and dancing with the Hip Hop community, it’s no wonder that the question of whether this dance is really my own came about. I’ve not taken a path where I had to “prove my authenticity” or allowed myself to be vulnerable within my dance. I’ve never staked my claim and ownership of this dance like the “realest” B-Boys I watched growing up. There’s no way I could recognise myself as real.
I think somewhere, within every single member of the breaking community, is a little bit of imposter syndrome. The ones that are the most “real” are the ones that put themselves out there despite that. I think that’s why “real recognises real” is real, it’s because we all hold little truths and different pieces of our individual authenticity. Hip Hop propagates this by nurturing our individuality and puts us in a position ready for expression, to which other people can connect to from their own sense of authenticity.
Looking back on when I was growing up and struggling to find a place of belonging, I realise now that it was important to have had that experience of mimicking those that I felt were authentic. Without this I would never have began doubting my identity and owning my own truth. If to be “real” one is required to walk down a path of vulnerability and share that with others, I’d argue that in order to maintain a sense of an authentic identity in the long-term (in other words, to “keep it real”), one needs to go through a continual cycle of doubt and affirmation, over and over again. To be able to question ourselves, our individual truths and to doubt, change and grow. That seems to me like the realest “real” there is.
Growing Up With Breaking
“It’s bigger than religion, Hip Hop.
It’s bigger than my n****, Hip Hop.
It’s bigger than the government.
This one is the healer, Hip Hop.”
The Healer, Erykah Badu
It seems inconceivable to have navigated adolescence without breaking; to have been able to physically exercise much of the frustration that came along with growing up and discovering the world around me, and to fit myself into a bunch of other kids that were doing the same was much needed.
Until I was 12 or 13, I had rejected dance as effeminate - having grown up with aggressively masculine notions of what a young man should do; it may have been part of my societal misogynistic misunderstanding that contributed to that, but the dance club in an all-boys secondary school had turned into a B-Boys club, defying all expectations of what a dance club was or could be. It may have been that same frame that drew me into breaking.
I wore the name of “B-Boy” like a badge of honour, hoping to embody the traits that I admired; confidence, masculinity and resilience. If I held the name, could I become like these “B-Boys”?
It’s easy for me to say now that breaking, and by extension, Hip Hop, provided a sense of belonging that wasn’t present in other facets of my younger life; I suppose this must have rung true for others that had grown up in the scene as well. The sense of being part of a collective, social identity appealed, whether we were misfits or not.
I realise now that it wasn’t the love for the dance or the culture that kept me coming back to breaking, it was the people that surrounded me. In sharing the common expression of breaking, I found a people that I belonged to. My bonds and relationships with them were the most tangible and real to me at that point in time. And within the often chaotic messiness world of growing up, it was these relationships I held onto to give myself a greater sense of grounding.
It was also these relationships that I maintained. As life caught up with me and I began breaking less actively, I always look back fondly at those times, how we spent it skipping class to find a corner to dance on, on the ground floor of the red-brick clock tower.
However, to have held such a strong sense of identity from your formative years till adulthood does have its drawbacks. Because I had grown up with breaking as a core part of my Identity, I still seek to prove myself as a B-Boy. Perhaps I still hold the same feelings as when I was younger, insecure, shy, and unsure of myself; using my identity as “someone that is able to do the dance” is a way to mask these feelings. It helps, but it doesn’t feel genuine; and now that I barely break any more, it feels like a bittersweet past that is too far removed. The only way I can relive my times and identity as a B-Boy is through the stories I tell.
“Scared to death, scared to look, they shook.
Cos ain’t no such thing as half-way crooks.”
Shook Ones, Mobb Deep
My memories of my breaking roots are synonymous with the beginning of the questions of authenticity that I am only just beginning to explore. In seeking belonging, I lost a sense of what is truly authentic to me. There will always be parts of yourself that remain unintegrated and I think I will always seek a place of belonging, but I might never find it until I learn to feel at home with myself. I have just begun painting a picture of what I thought being a B-Boy meant, who I was as a B-Boy and slowly moving into my understanding of Hip Hop as a culture. The reality is that I have no actual practice or experience to back it up. If the measure of a B-Boy was by his movement, his practice, who was I? Who was the person behind my movement?
It is painful to recall the dichotomy of selves that I held as a teenager. I was holding two extremes, one where I believed I belonged in a place amongst my friends, sharing the culture of Hip Hop, and the other feeling like an absolute fraud for not being committed to my craft. I wonder if this feeling of being inauthentic would never have been felt, had I trained just a little harder.
If one decides to take the path of using movement as means of expression of identity - or any other similar somatic pursuits - dance can be scarily intimate. You will find yourself (eventually) at the limitations of your own physicality and it is here, on this fine line that the dancer resides. Pushing their body and technique, extending their identity and surrendering themselves completely to the fact that they’re a physical vessel allowing movement to happen. If it’s within this push-and-pull that a dancer decides to ground their identity, they must do so with commitment and conviction. If they don’t I think this is why many young dancers choose to leave dance (or even stop moving entirely) as their identity is invalidated.
It is hard to admit how much imposter syndrome penetrated my psyche as a young dancer. We, as B-Boys, put our bodies on the line in the circles of fire, to prove our worth, to represent our crews and our beliefs. Your entire identity is out there for the world to see, and you are vulnerable. I think this is why many shy away from breaking, other performing arts, or even creative expressions in general. The feeling of never being good enough, in the face of an audience. It is heartbreaking thinking about the friends that I have made along the way, that lost their love for dance, due to feeling some form of inadequacy.
Returning To The Scene
“As we enter
Come now, we take you on the biggest adventure
Must be dementia
That you ever thought you could touch our credentials
What's the initials?”
As We Enter, Nas & Damian Marley
The office space I currently reside in is directly above one of the longest-running B-boy session spots, Esplanade Underground. In the year or so I've been working here, I've actively avoided this space. It is with the deepest shame I admit I was never the most hardworking B-Boy. It was an evening after working on a draft of this essay that I found myself compelled to return to this space. Call it field research if you will. I had a childhood friend there, a B-Boy named Wesley. The first feelings I recognised as I entered the spot was that I felt out of place. There was so much undigested shame and guilt, to which I felt like I had to be an active member of the scene to feel welcome. There were new faces that I didn't recognise, and old faces that were shocked to see me.
The breaking scene beneath Singapore's famous durian building started even before I started dancing, possibly even before I was born. Over the years I've been lucky enough to bear witness to many changes in the dance scene, but the physical space of the Esplanade and the fact that it is a space for B-boys new and old, as well as home to other subcultures (BMX cyclists, skaters and foreign helpers etc.) has never changed - apart from the fact that earlier this year the management installed air-conditioning.
I remember my younger days staying out late in this space (to the dismay of my parents). We danced in our school uniform back then, and I'd go home with my white shirt and shoes stained by the dust.
I took my time with my movement, trying to get back into old muscle memories, but I wasn’t feeling it. For a place that I had spent so much of my teenage years, a place that was filled with people I once called my own, it didn’t feel like home any more. There was a sense of shock upon realising that. I didn’t stay long. In fact I hurriedly left under the guise that I wanted to go home and continue this very essay, but I knew, deep down I wanted to ignore the intensifying feelings of inadequecy that I felt.
Perhaps instead of "This Dance Is Not Our Own", I should have titled it "This Dance Is Not My Own".
As I left, I swore to revisit the next time I could. Not as a researcher or a writer, or a dance-filmmaker, but as a B-Boy. Perhaps I may regain my identity. Yet, a month or two after, I’ve yet to step back into the space, still fearing and having to confront those feelings of out-of-placeness.
Compromise On Identity
“The badder you seem, the more lies you tell
The more lies you sell, and by surprise you fell”
Full Clip, Gang Starr
To question one’s own authenticity requires one to be truly vulnerable. It is an arduous process of reevaluation of one’s identity whilst breaking down each part of yourself and figuring out if it aligns with the person that you are seeking to be. It is painful to come to terms with the person that you were, and it’s even more agonising to realise that you may not be who you really think you are.
In a highly competitive scene like breaking - with its emphasis on the battle culture - the ability to introspect is often compromised, due to the need to role-play. Lest you get burnt. The process of introspection becomes one of extraspection, where your sense of self is derived from external factors; the judges, the audience, and the person you are battling. Your moves, your style, your flow, all these parts of you, you lay them out in a battle, replying and counterattacking. If dance is the hidden language of the soul, B-Boy battles are conversations of identities.
To be authentic is a survival necessity, we need to know our sense of self is real in order to be able to navigate the world. Your connection to self is like the gut feeling of all gut feelings. All decisions are based on who you are. Yet your sense of self is going to change, and so we begin seeking the feeling of authenticity via the externally validating rules within the culture.
Hip Hop reveres it’s Original Gangsters and has the utmost respect for them; combine this with the Asian work culture of hierarchy and we exist in a community where seniority is key. The amalgamation of Hip-Hop/Asian hierarchical structures and this gate-keeping of terminology and language around your identity – I knew you was Hip Hop before you knew you were Hip Hop – could enable us to form new models of self that better suit our identity within Hip Hop.
This is also the reason why in Singapore we are constantly trying to find better words to represent who we are within the Hip Hop scene; this is apparent in the way we used to put the two H words after nearly every style that we were experimenting with at the time (Lyrical Hip Hop, Girl’s Hip Hop, Street Jazz etc.) In the context of teaching dance, accurate terminology helps build the foundation of the style you are going to teach, and as much as we can, I think that we should try to align our teachings of the style as close to its foundations as possible, which we learnt from the OGs before us.
This is why there was such an uproar in Singapore over the term “Urban” in 2020. The discussion on accurate terminology is something that, as an observation, it seems to be worth fighting over and burning each other for. But why wouldn’t you? If you are teaching something and then someone renames it, it suddenly destabilizes you. Your sense of identity is misaligned. I think we all seek a way to belong and represent Hip Hop in our own way that is respectful to the bigger spectrum and history of Hip Hop culture. This is a process of understanding and re-analysing ourselves, towards a more honest way of speaking about our movement.
Convergence Of Identities
“Now you caught my heart for the evenin'
Kissed my cheek, moved in, you confuse things
Should I just sit out or come harder?
Help me find my way”
Find a Way, A Tribe Called Quest
My roots as a B-Boy has bled into my external explorations as a dancer. Over the years I explored mainly Contemporary, House Dance, and began taking movement cues from somatic techniques like the Feldenkrais Method and Alexander Technique. Yet, I hold the same stance, the same figure and ultimately it ended up with me being a weird amalgamation of all styles, never settling on one. I changed so much and what I did wasn’t breaking anymore. Heck, I’m unsure if it is even me moving anymore.
I’ve yet to address the feelings of shame upon entering the Esplanade. Over the years, I think I have selfishly allowed myself to make the excuse that I was "busy with other things" and I couldn't break like how I used to. It was a part of growing up. Like how you outgrow the things that made you comfortable. Yet the presence of shame suggests that the culture is something I still want to hold onto. Shame is a self-conscious emotion. I was conscious of the self I used to inhabit. My more recent work - as a dance filmmaker - has been a way for me to avoid this shame. To avoid the fact that this person that I grew up thinking I was, wasn't who I thought I would be. I'm re-evaluating my sense of self.
If my sense of self is based on the past, then who am I now? My current role and full-time job as a dance filmmaker is – to be very frank – avoidant.
I am too afraid to call myself a dancer and filmmaker, to take the limelight away from the people that I love that I will never be as good as. To take away from the actual filmmakers who I studied under and went to school to receive my diploma for. It’s like I’ve slotted myself in a weird crevice in between two worlds that I loved, yet I feel out of place in each one.
Perhaps one day, through my work, I may create a world in between this crevice, for others like me, that feel slightly out of place, and are as multi-dimensionally confused as I am.
Is This Dance Our Own?
For us Hip Hop practitioners in Singapore, the question of authenticity is always followed up with a question of identity; who are we in this culture that we have inherited and how much of it is our own? I’ve yet to discover the answers. I’ve touched lightly on my own feelings and struggles, how I felt growing up with breaking and fighting imposter syndrome. But through it all though, a line kept repeatedly coming to my head, “How can it not be your own?” It is impossible to think of Hip Hop in magnitude without discussing each of its elements DJ-ing, Emceeing, Graffiti and the whole range of influences that Hip Hop has left on the world. Each have their own divergent subcultures, and each community has been influenced by its own traditions. To adhere to its roots isn’t real. Hip Hop changes with its context, and zooming into Hip Hop reveals an intertangled web of individuals with their own felt experience of the culture. This Dance Is Not Our Own, because breaking is more than my own experience of growing up as a B-Boy, more than Singapore’s scene and perception of the world, but the experience of every single individual in the culture. It is our collective identity which makes This Dance Our Own.
Commissioned for Ink Cypher, November 2021
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Brian Toh Xun Hao is a dancer and filmmaker from Singapore who grew up as a young B-Boy surrounded by the local breaking scene. The inspiration to write This Dance Is Not Our Own stems from his own personal questions of identity and his own place in this culture that we call Hip Hop.
Through this reflective essay, he hopes to be able to probe on ideas of authenticity and draw parallels between the Hip Hop scene in Singapore with the rest of the world. Brian is currently exploring movement as a means of somatic introspection and dance from a theoretical perspective. He also is a host with the Interintellect and freelance writer.