Becoming a dancer is a dream that many people long for, even a dream of mine. The unfortunate reality is, not many will make it. With dance growing in popularity, different opportunities are made available in TV shows, movies, tours. However, the chances of acquiring one of those opportunities is not the same for everyone. Being a dancer in the industry is already difficult; being an Asian dancer is even more difficult. There are only a lucky few who have made it big as an Asian dancer. The purpose of this essay is to understand how popular culture portrays Asian dancers in the media. Particularly, what are the stereotypes associated with them and how they are being used in TV shows or movies? To investigate further in details, I will analyze different sources from the media: the TV show Glee, the TV show America’s Best Dance Crew, the movie Step Up 3D, and a research “South Asian Dance in Britain: Negotiating Cultural Identity by Dance” by Andrée Grau.
Throughout my childhood, I had always thought that dancing was for females because most of the time I would relate them with ballet dancers. When I first started dancing, particularly breakdancing, I would be afraid to show people my talent, especially to my family. My parents thought that it was odd at first, thinking this was one of my phases. My brother is into sports and played football throughout high school. He had hopes of me to play like he did, but when he found out that I danced, he made fun of me like how big brothers joke around with their siblings. I can relate to the character Mike Chang (played by Harry Shum Jr.) in the TV show Glee.
Glee, produced by Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk and Ian Brennan, is an American musical comedy-drama that was first aired on Fox network on May 19, 2009. The show focuses on William McKinley High School’s Glee club, the New Directions, competing on the show choir competition circuit, while its members deal with relationships, sexuality and social issues (glee.wikia). Considered to be the best dancer with a Pop-and-Lock style, Mike Chang was first introduced as a football player on the McKinley Titans, but eventually decided to leave the team to join the Glee club. He never allowed himself to dance outside of his bedroom prior to joining Glee for the fear of being made fun of. I think this is because he wants to fit in with his football teammates by trying to stay “cool” and not show anybody who he really is. Despite how media typically portrays jocks as bullies, Mike appears to be much less cruel and more sensitive than his teammates. Like many Asian parents, Mike’s father has high expectations of him getting perfect grades in school so that he can get into Harvard. The show shows him to be knowledgeable from his participation in the school’s academic decathlon club. His father is not fond of Mike dancing because he thinks it’s a distraction and will affect his studies. What was really interesting to me was in episode “Hold on to Sixteen”, it showed Mike winning his father’s approval by his performance. Although the show used typical Asian stereotypes to represent Mike Chang, he did not follow the typical Asian route.
In February 2008, Randy Jackson produced a new hit dance competition show called America’s Best Dance Crew (ABDC) on MTV. ABDC is an American competitive dance reality television series that features dance crews from all around the United States (america’s_best_dance_crew.wikia). In season 1, two Asian crews took America by surprised: Kaba Modern, UC Irvine’s very own hip-hop dance team, and the Jabbawockeez (with one African American member), originating from San Diego, California. Kaba Modern was eliminated in week 7 placing third, while Jabbawockeez and Status Quo advanced to the finale.
In the following clip of the live audition, Yuri Tag was asked by Lil Mama if her parents were more supportive of her since they made it to the final decision. This is much like the situation of how Mike Chang’s father was not supportive of him. Yuri’s parents attended the show to watch and support their daughter perform live.
The next clip shows a little more of her parents.
I can picture how Yuri felt when her parents became fully supportive of her dance. It’s hard to change someone’s perspective, especially your parents since they have more life experience than you do. Many Asian parents left their country to come to America to find a better life. My father left Vietnam to try and create a better future for us. He left his family, friends, everything to come to America with no money. From there, he endured hardship for many years before he was able to make something of himself. That’s one reason why Asian parents are strict with their children so that we won’t have to go through what they went through. I could also see this as a marketing ploy by playing that clip on the show. People with emotional stories help gain more viewers which then produces more money.
The Jabbawockeez, with their mix of various urban dance styles, became season 1 winners of America’s Best Dance Crew. They gained a large fan base throughout the show because of their unique styles and their use of masks.
“We want you to experience Jabbawockeez as a group and not just follow or be fans of one individual person. There’s no lead dancer in our crew. Our philosophy is that when you watch us perform, you have to watch us as a whole… When we put [the masks] on, it’s not about who we are or where we came from. We’re all one.”
-Jeff “Phi” Nguyen
These masks have become iconic all around the world. You will instantly think of the Jabbawockeez whenever you see the mask.
Much like how Kaba Modern has an interesting background story, Jabbawockeez does too. Just before the show was released, Gary “Gee” Kendall, a member of Jabbawockeez, passed away. Producers can capitalize on this story and use it to attract more people to watch the show.
Since winning season 1, their popularity sky rocketed and everyone wanted them. The Jabbawockeez have been in many commercials, movies, tv shows since then. They are probably the most successful Asian dancing group to actually make it big in the industry. Now they even have their own show in Las Vegas, where seats are usually sold out.
Many people thought that the show was set up when they announced Status Quo was the No.1 Vote from viewers over Jabbawockeez and Kaba Modern. In an article written by Kat Nguyen where she attended the live viewing, she said,
“When Status Quo was announced as the No.1 vote-getter from viewers and were safe from elimination, my jaw hit the floor. Are you kidding me? That loud eruption of cheers that you heard on the show tonight? Didn’t happen. When the announcement was made, there was light applause. People around us were confused and shocked. There was booing. And chants of “Recount! Recount!” Of course, that was noticeably absent from what aired on TV.“
From a marketing perspective, it would make sense to keep Status Quo. Maybe the producers wanted to have a West Coast versus East Coast finale? Or maybe they didn’t want two Asian crews to make it to the end because it wouldn’t please their viewers? Having two Asian crews in the finale could bring up controversy about not having an “American” crew because the show is called America’s Best Dance Crew. This could leave a bad impact in the media for the show. Even JC Chasez, one of the judges on ABDC, said that seeing Jabbawockeez and Kaba Modern go against each other was the biggest and greatest competition on the show yet, maybe even surpassing what Status Quo and JabbaWockeeZ might do in the finals. If the show was actually rigged (which we’ll never find out), then that makes me angry because they are stripping opportunities that Kaba Modern had worked so hard for because of their race or where they came from.
The movie Step Up 3D, produced by Jon M. Chu, was created to show the world the styles of dance that you don’t usually see. In a scene from the beginning of the movie, we are shown Kid Darkness (played by Daniel Campos) battle Moose (played by Adam Sevani), one of the main characters. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kPbyhvdPITM In this clip, we can see that Kid Darkness ended up losing to Moose. It showed him getting “burned” judging by the crowd’s reaction. We can also see that Kid Darkness had no dialogue, in fact, none of the Asian dancers have any dialogue in the movie. It’s interesting to see how Moose was shown to be a “hero” and Kid Darkness to be the “villain”. I felt like they used Kid Darkness to buff up Moose’s character because he was one of the main characters in the previous movie, Step Up 2: The Streets and people recognize him more. I would expect Kid Darkness to have at least one line in the movie but he did not. In the scene of the last battle, I only counted about 3 Asian dancers: Kid Darkness on the black clothed team, Cable (played by Harry Shum Jr.) and Jenny Kido (played by Mari Koda) on the red clothed team.
All of them are background dancers except for Kid Darkness. He gets a little more center screen time from 5:52 to 6:04 and 6:43 to 7:03 in the finale. After the battle is over, they practically aren’t shown anymore. It’s interesting to see how Asian dancers are portrayed in this movie. They are often times put in as background or supportive characters, never the main role. Audiences typically expect a Caucasian to play the main character in the movie. Producers deliver that expectation to generate more money. However, by giving the role of a background dancer to an Asian, it is a step towards a chance to be casted as a main character. Here is an interview with Harry Shum Jr. where he talks about how we shouldn’t give up and just keep trying even with the little opportunities.
Those small moments may be just enough for a producer to spot their talent and land them a role for other projects. Daniel Campos was able to get casted in a couple of commercials by Microsoft after the movie.
Him and Harry Shum Jr. are two of the few Asian dancers to be successful in the field.
In the research of South Asian Dance in Britain in 2001 by Andrée Grau, he carries out a study on the British South Asian dance phenomenon to see how the role of the profession plays in British cultural life. To study this, he looked at the impact of globalization on South Asian dance in Britain, the relationships of race, gender, class, education, training professionalism and the issues of creation of dance forms and genres generally and particularly South Asian dance. South Asian dancers in the UK have been primarily females that can’t make a living from their dance practice. However, a number of men are making a strong mark, but the number of women still dominate over men. These dancers devote all of their time to dance and are often resentful towards those who don’t fully commit themselves full time. There are studies that have shown that the middle class and upper class receive more attention and access to resources than the lower class. In terms of funding, South Asian dance gets less than 2% of the overall dance allocation. These dancers are at a situation where “they have not yet made the work, yet they have to sell the tour” to be able to survive. Although it’s been more than a decade since the research was written, it takes great persistence to be a dancer; I don’t know if I could make it in their shoes. Not being able to be famous and scraping doing what I love doing, I don’t know if I would.
Being an Asian dancer in the industry is difficult. Often times you would be struggling to receive a role in a project. Even if you do land one, majority of the time you would be in the background or a supportive character. Producers can use you in any way they please, including attaching stereotypes to your character to make more money. There are fewer opportunities because you’re a dancer, and being Asian also doesn’t improve your chances. Like Harry Shum Jr. said in his interview, “Just stick to it, and go against the grain sometimes when they say you can’t play this, keep doing it. Create it yourself if they don’t let you do it,”.
Mike Chang Biography
Grau, Andrée. “South Asian Dance in Britain: Negotiating Cultural Identity Through Dance”. 2001
Picture of Mike Chang
Kaba Modern Live Audition
Kaba Modern Week 1
Picture of Jabbawockeez mask
Jabbawockeez Live Audition
Nguyen, Kat. “Robbed: Kaba Modern on America’s Best Dance Crew”. March 20th, 2008
Kid Darkness versus Moose
Step Up 3D Final Battle
Harry Shum Jr. interview
Microsoft Surface commercial
Microsoft Surface commercial #2
Picture of Daniel Campos
Picture of Harry Shum Jr.