Tokyo's street dancers and their high-rise dreams
When certain key Tokyo offices close down for the night, their grounds come alive with the sound of tinny iPod speakers, infectious laughter and the screech of sneakers on polished paving stones.
Their gleaming windows become mirrors, reflecting the moves of potential stage stars of tomorrow.
This is where Tokyo’s street dancers head to brush up their choreography. The base of the bell-bottomed Sompo Japan Head Office Building in Nishi Shinjuku, by day a sober workplace for insurance executives and Tokyo’s 23rd tallest building, is the most popular spot.
Here, scores of teens and 20-somethings gather in groups or alone, dancing not in the streets but the glow of security lights.
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A pastime for salarymen
“There are so few places to practice in Tokyo; studios are very expensive,” says Ryohei, 28, a salaryman who dances in his spare time to funk, soul, jazz and urban music, regularly entering contests with his four teammates.
“These days, the staff in some offices get angry with people dancing outside,” says Ryohei, who practices at Sompo Japan between two and four times every week. “So when you have a place like this where it’s OK to get together and dance, everybody goes to that same spot. As long as we’re thoughtful and don’t litter, the staff here don’t mind.”
Ryohei has no grand ambition beyond becoming a better dancer and winning a few competitions. On December 12 his team will compete in the finals of Grand Soul, a contest that pits 60 teams from around eastern Japan head to head.
Learning from a professional
Across town, dancers gather outside the Zero Hall cultural center, a short walk from the south exit of Nakano Station. Among them is Maki, a 27-year-old professional dancer who performs with various Japanese boybands (whom she declines to name) and teaches, as well as also entering tournaments with her friends.
“The first dance I ever saw was a street performance in my hometown, and it opened up a new world for me,” she says. “It looked fun and edgy, so I thought I’d like to dance too.”
Maki and her teammates create all their own choreography, and the members practice either together or individually at least three times a week in the evenings, after dancing all day for a living.
“You get used to rehearsing in one place; it becomes like your home, and you can just focus on practicing,” she says. “The reflective windows help too.”
Maki hopes to one day find fame with her hip-hop dance troupe, Significant Other, who will compete on October 11 at Female Trouble, a girls-only event at Club Citta in Kawasaki.
Maki says she doesn’t know the other groups dancing nearby. Although many of them might be rivals in the next big contest, she says there is no feeling of friction here on the street.
“It’s not very Japanese to feel that sort of rivalry,” asserts Masa, 23, who practices outside the Tokyo-to Jido Kaikan (Tokyo Metropolitan Children’s Hall) in Shibuya.
Masa and his friends Nishio, 27, and Ryo, 22, dance to hip-hop and work as dance instructors, though each also has a regular part-time job.
They use the space around the Jido Kaikan twice a week, despite declining conditions over the years. All the spaces close to the entrance have been cordoned off by staff, leaving little shelter when it rains and no windows to use as mirrors.
“But places like Sompo Japan are so popular that you don’t get much space to dance,” says Nishio. “If you want to spread out, this place is better.”
“Those places are away; this is home,” adds Ryo, who says his career highlight so far was dancing in a music video with jazz-pop duo Sukima Switch.
Many of the old established places have become unusable. A policeman CNNGo asks for directions to a onetime Ebisu hotspot politely explains that dancing in public is considered antisocial behaviour (when we eventually find it, there are just two dancers), while locations around Shibuya San-chome now lie vacant.
However, like most entertainment industries, dancing can be underpaid work, making it difficult to afford dedicated rehearsal spaces.
“Performing as a backing dancer for promotional appearances pays basically nothing,” says Nishio. “They think they’re doing you a favor because you get to appear on TV. You couldn’t pay the bills with that.”
Masa points out that dancers can make a good wage on a concert tour with a major artist, though opportunities are hard to come by; and instructing pays well. But it really comes down to passion.
As such, the boys continue to practice for their competition at the Circlo Desor Festa (tel. +81 (0) 9 8528 8545) in Mie-ken on September 11, chasing the limelight and perhaps future fame.