Can Street Dancing Battle Away Ethnic Divisions?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Dance is helping youth in a divided society come together.
By Hae Thaw Htet and Emily Fishbein
Myanmar was a latecomer to Southeast Asia’s street dance explosion. During a half-century of oppressive military rule, expressive arts and anything seen as Western-influenced were tightly censored. When the country began emerging from isolation in 2011, street dancers also came out from the shadows.
In 2012, a few dancers living abroad convened to organize the First Jam, Myanmar’s first street dance competition. When SIM card prices fell a hundredfold in 2014, the floodgates opened — not only to social media, but to YouTube, and hence, a world of hip-hop. Street dance offers a window into the creative minds of youth who have come of age in a time of transition. In a society where ethnic, religious and socioeconomic divisions persist, hip-hop is also serving as a unifying force.
In Myanmar’s largest city, Yangon, street dancers converge nightly at a bustling intersection under a highway overpass and organize regular battles around the city, such as the one above, where dancers Thant Zaw and Teddy face off.
Kaung Yar Zar Lin (above), who goes by Falcon, was among the first to practice under the overpass. Falcon began listening to hip-hop as a migrant worker in Thailand, where he moved at age 16 after losing both parents. He returned to Yangon to join the First Jam in 2012 and decided to stay. “My friends would call me: ‘Hey, brother, let’s go!’ And whether we had money or not, we practiced, practiced, practiced,” says Falcon. Seeing the next generation of street dancers emerge is “one of my dreams come true,” he says.
One of this new generation is up-and-coming break dancer, or b-boy, Thant Zin Htike (above), who goes by Ko Htike. From the country’s Buddhist majority, Ko Htike says street dance has opened his mind toward people from different backgrounds. “When I was young, I would use [racial] insults, but not anymore … In dance, race doesn’t matter. I realized that all people have good and bad in them.”
When b-boy Hla Moe (above), who goes by Drak Pis, first showed up under the overpass, he says he felt out of place as the only Muslim dancer. “A lot of people describe us [Muslims] in a derogatory way, but I try not to get angry,” he says. “I focus on improving my dance skills.” His training paid off; in addition to winning battles, he was once invited by a Buddhist monk to perform at an event.
Moe Thant Htet (above) says he most admires Drak Pis among the b-boys, for his dedication and creative style. “When we combine our moves, it’s so awesome,” he says.
Shin Moe Eain (above), who goes by Colette, was one of Myanmar’s first female dancers to emerge after the political opening, and the first to battle, in 2014. Today, many females have entered the scene, but stereotypes persist. “[People] think of girls dancing in clubs. I always start with, ‘No, I’m not that. I dance hip-hop and waacking,” she says. Colette credits the censorship regime and late internet access with inadvertently prompting creativity among Myanmar’s street dancers. “I didn’t know what hip-hop dance was, but I was already grooving,” she recalls. “We had to come up with our own style. We have our own flavor.”
Street dance helps Lin Ko Ko (above), who goes by Disko, cope with family difficulties. “Sometimes I get really angry. At that time, I don’t have any friends but the dancers,” says Disko, who counters his troubles with humorous moves, inspired by traditional Myanmar comedy. “When I hear the music, I can’t stay still,” he says.
Swan Thi Htet (above), 15, has practiced popping and animation since he was 10. He now organizes monthly “junior” battles to encourage other young dancers. He draws inspiration from the sights, sounds and textures in the world around him — rustling leaves, a ball being thrown, glass breaking.
Sang Naing (above) is the only b-boy from conflict-torn Rakhine State. Though social tensions have flared between some ethnic Rakhine and the Bamar ethnic majority, Sang Naing says his friendship remains intact with other dancers. They’ve helped him find a job to support his family, now displaced, and have offered him a place to stay after sessions that take place a two-hour bus ride from his apartment.
Thaw Zin Min Oo (above), who goes by Fan Lay, hasn’t seen his parents for eight years. Often the first to arrive and last to leave practice sessions, he says b-boying “keeps me from falling astray.”
Moving to Yangon as a teenager from near the China border in Shan State, Win Aung Hein (above), who goes by James, found that he could express his “heartfelt emotions” through hip-hop. Now a full-time dancer, emcee and event organizer, he aims to share hip-hop culture, and particularly its foundational concepts of peace, love, unity and having fun, with Myanmar’s youth.
When B-boy Phyo Zin Tun (above), who goes by Bzy, injured his shoulder, he began improvising as a DJ during street sessions using an app on his phone. He has since upgraded his equipment and, this year, DJed for the First Jam, which now attracts dancers from around Asia.
Khin Mon Thu (above) began dancing while living in Brazil. Returning to Yangon two years ago, she started teaching street jazz and other styles she had learned and, last year, opened a studio. Living abroad, she met many who had not heard of Myanmar, let alone its dancers. “I want to help Myanmar’s dance community improve, so the world knows us,” she says.
Teddy (above) practices popping and animation — at one moment isolating his muscles in robotic jerks, the next vibrating head-to-toe or waving like jelly.
EZ dances krump, his expressions and movements evoking rage. He connected with Teddy in the moments before a two-versus-two street battle; now inseparable, they are among the fiercest duos in Yangon’s battle scene. Although Teddy is Muslim and EZ is Christian, according to EZ, “We’re not of the same religion, but we’re of the same mind.”