2 years ago, I was having a vacation in Cape Town, South Africa. The city was surrounded by the blue ocean where you can see sharks, and a cliff like mountain where you can easily hike up from the city. The scenery was just magnificent.
One night, we were drinking and having fun in the backyard of the hostel. That was when Chainsmokers just came out. Hop on my favorite - All We Know, and entertained the crowd with some moves. People were cheering, beer on one hand, stars covering our heads. What a wonderful night, I thought. Then, it happened. This girl from the Netherlands started saying about black people and about their talents. She believed that blacks have innate ability when it comes to dancing.
It was positive racism. Hooray black people.
At the time, I was slightly offended as a non-black dancer. Second, I knew intuitively from my dance experience that this was not true. I grew up with many black dancers. Some are good some are bad. Just like any other guys. Come to think of it, it's offending for the blacks too who've put so much effort into their practice.
But, no amount of telling could convince her.
So today, I want to approach this from an empirical way. I will have a look at the best dancers and see how many of them are black.
What do you think? Are black people actually better at dancing?
What do people think?
First, is this bias actually there for everybody?
While doing a brief study on science literature. I found this study - "‘Cross-cultural’ practices: interpreting non-African-American participation in hip-hop dance" from 2010:
Most dancers see hip-hop as African American in its origins. But while novices often speak of an inherent or learned authenticity among blacks, experts rarely express racialized views of the dance's contemporary practice. Experts' views are shaped by personal ability, exposure to dancers whose ability is not racially patterned, and exposure to others who accept their skill.
It is basically saying, the more foreign you are from the dance scene, the more they view black people as inborn dancers. They have innate talents so to speak. This finding aligns with my initial speculation.
It also says that this stereotype does not hold true for practicing dancers. Obviously. Just ask a random black person on a street to show you a moonwalk. He would just run away from you. That's what ethnic bias is essential. When you put into a practice, you know how ridiculous that sounds.
Since this black-people = great-dancer myth only holds for the general public, we can fight this by exposing what's happening in the scene.
The fight is on: Public Bias vs Real Dancers.
If it was 5 years ago, I would have finished this here by concluding "because my experience says so".
But wait a minute. Who cares about your stupid experience? You might say. And you're right. No amount of arrogant convincing is enough to challenge the intellectual readers' minds.
Luckily, I grew up. An old man has picked up a little trick here and there in his sleeve. I learned how to do a little researching and math trick.
If all great dancers today are racially diverse, we win. We can say dancing is for everyone, and anyone can be equally good. If they are all black, we lose. We lose against the stereotype. Of course, there's nothing wrong with individual black persons being amazing at dancing. We are only talking about the collective.
Let's go slay the public bias.
Who are the black people?
First of all, we have to define who black people are. I know, it's politically sensitive. I don't like labeling people by racial colors. But if the wrong stereotype exists, you have to spot them somehow. This will rely on my eye judgment. When the face appears in the video, and he/she looks darker than Barak Obama, that person is black. Obama is only half white, and I will overgeneralize definitely. But most people are fine calling him a black president so I will go with that popular opinion.
I dumped all else into "Others" categories to keep our list tidy. They can be East Asian, Arabic, Latino, etc.
Street Dance Only
When I Googled "are black dancers actually better", many results were about how few black people exist in ballet. That's a separate issue we won't tackle here today. People conceptualize dancing into broadly 4 categories: streetdance, ballet, latin and ethnic tradition. This blog focuses on the street dancing like hiphop. And I'm sure, it is what my Dutch friend was talking about too.
The issue at hand is about dancer's racial diversity in America and Europe. And most videos I've watched before are held at these places. Having said that, some of the dancers counted might come from other places. That's ok. We live in an online age where everybody can look up any dancer. It is more of the exposure issue. What kind of people are we seeing as dancers? How much are we seeing them? If they are that good to appear in front of global audience, they are fair representatives of great dancers of our humanity.
To find the best dancers in the broadest fields, I will use 3 categories: YouTube choreography dancers, international championships, and American TV.
How many hours do you spend time watching YouTube?
Surely, it's a platform we cant live without now. Getting a dance inspiration from there is no exception. If you are not checking out dancers on YouTube, you're not learning.
So this is the place we first have a look.
I used the term "dance choreography", and look up videos in Incognito. I removed the ones with "new" tags to focus on the quality and popularity factor alone. Also, the list only includes 1 video per channel to prevent the bias sampling from that particular studio location (Kyle Hanagami, Tim Milgram, and Matt Steffanina are definitely the popular choreography channels right now. But I counted 1 video from each studio. But you guys should still check them out. They are amazing.)
Relying on the YouTube algorithm, I picked up videos from the top 10. Most videos go by 1 choreography performed by multiple dancers multiple times.
Here's the breakdown of ethnicity.
Most of the studios turned out to be based in Los Angeles. (others are Paris, Seoul, and Algeria, but rare). And they were all hiphop genre, choreographed to top chart pop songs.
Even though LA is overrepresented, those guys on the videos are what YouTube algorithms and consumers (pretty much everyone) think of as best dancers. The sample is good representatives for our purpose.
What do you think? There're a lot more white than black. Others account for a fair number as well. There were many Latino and East/SouthEast Asian in that group. Before rushing to the conclusion, let us proceed to the other two methods.
This section steps away from the beginners' category, and dives into the underground. These people are the experts of the experts. As far as skills and techniques go, nobody comes even close to these guys.
I tracked back champions from 10 years ago (except Summer Dance Festival, which started in 2013). Their candidates also lean heavily from Europe. But they are also arguably the most famous and respected street dance competitions where anyone regardless of your nationality can enter.
A number of blacks are overwhelming. That was true in most genres except ub a breakdance category. Redbull BC winner was scattered in the ethnic representations. A great majority of black counts come from Summer Dance Forever and Juste Debout, where a majority of winning dancers were French.
An interesting note; a great number of Japanese and South Koreans is counted in the others' category. There might be something cool going on down in the far east.
American TV Shows
The championship gears towards underground dance battles. Now, let's talk about the mainstream. This is all Americans.
The shows have to be about street dance and semi-professional. No "Dance Moms" or "Dancing with the Stars" reality shows. We want sweating hardcore dancers. I also skipped on So You Think You Can Dance, even though it's a great show. They focus too much on contemporary.
I ended up picking America's Best Dance Crew as our representative. The show ran form 2009 to 2015, and there were 8 seasons. It's all street dance with a mix of hiphop, funk, and breakdance.
The number looks similar to our first choreography search, except we have many more in others. Most of them were East and South East Asians. It could be because black people go for individual expressivity and those Asian folks are better in circles and in coordination. After all, a crew dance is all about precise syncing down to every second.
Time for Conclusion!
Ok, it's time to count them all. Ranging from championships, to popular video choreography, ending in the mainstream TV. Are black people actually better at dancing?
How would you interpret this number? First of all, there are way more black dancers than I initially thought. Considering they only represent 12% in US population (whites are 72%), it's a BIG number.
So my Dutch friend was right after all. Blacks are over represented in dance space. This is what happens if you actually punch in the numbers. I have to swallow a bitter pill.
But wait a minute, it's not that many compared to "others" groups. It is not like black dancers dominate the entire scene. if you see the dance crew of 10, you'd expect 3 black, 3 white, 4 others. Kinda mixed huh?
Let me elaborate the findings in more specifics.
Diversity in Dance Studios
As seen from the YouTube choreography case, people who go to dance studios are fair representatives of that community. They have more or less all kinds of racial groups.
Studios are the first place people look into when they become curious and want to learn about dancing. That means the ethnic bias is not stopping people from getting their first foot on the door. Dance studio is for everybody: from students, after work office guys, professionals. It doesn't matter if you are rich or poor. I am actually quite happy about this finding.
Things start to look different at the national and international competitions. At the top level, those guys are more or less full-time dancers. They practice day and night, and make living out of it. I'm sure these people make enough money through workshops doing global tour as well.
Those guys are almost all non-whites.
If you want to make a career out of anything, you need to be exceptional and put in an insane amount of work from childhood. The role model you have in childhood matters a lot. Social pressure is another. I believe it is the same reason why so many professional basketball athletes are black. If all white kids want to become the president of the United States, the president would be likely white. If all black kids want to become professional basketball players, basketball players would be almost always black.
Breakdance as Mainstream
As someone who's started off with breakdancing, I can sympathize with this point.
When it comes to hiphop, house, locking, and popping, black people dominate. It's especially true in an individual free-style improv. The only exception here is breakdancing.
My speculation is that breakdancing has become enough popularity to attract all kinds of races from around the world. It is now mainstream. That's what pushes people from different backgrounds to participate, creating an ethnically heterogeneous community. Who can resist that temptation of a guy spinning in their head?
Streetdance for Racial Minority
What do you think of Vietnamese? Pho?
Wrong! Think of them as exceptional dancers!
Throughout the research, I found so many South East Asians. That was especially the case in the videos filmed in US. That's astounding considering they, as a racial group, only account for less than 5% of the total American population. They are like invisible superman dancers that's keeping the dance scene afloat and vibrant. This piece of knowledge is definitely a gap in our culture. We need to start building this positive stereotype.
Lastly, regardless of which racial groups dancers belong to, it seems that streetdance will always remain popular for ethnic minorities in whichever nation. I believe that has something to do with its counter mainstream attitude. The root has no reference to race explicitly but implicitly builds up in potential dancers' psych.
Except these People
Except brown people. I could count only 1 person in the entire process. That seems weird thinking they represent as big of a racial group. Do they hate dancing?
That's not true. I was in a South Asian dance group back in university. Being the only non-brown in the group of 32 people, I was breathing their culture. And, it was such a surprise to me, how vibrant their dance community is. What was surprising was their heat was completely invisible to outsiders. It was not rare to find dancers who started practicing since 7 or 8, similar to how parents send their kids to ballet school.
The only difference is they take pride in their traditional dance. Their degree of dedication is not comparable to any other major ethnic groups. So, they end up not coming out much to the street dance scene.
Respect to Black Culture
Before closing the post, I need to pay extra respect to the black community.
You can name all kinds of street dancing from hiphop, house, popping, locking, waacking... In all street style genres, the forerunners like Elite Force, The Lockers, Electric Boogaloos are almost all black. There's no innate ability that turned them into the formidable dancers. Instead, it's the black culture that was particularly unique in 1970s, 80s, and 90s in US, that made them revolutionary. We need to pay deep respect for those originators.
Now, time has shifted a little. Originated in small neighborhoods of America, the dances have spread out across the globe from France to China making it an international phenomenon.
Today, the scene is becoming diverse more than ever. It's everybody's thing now. We need to push this new reality into the mainstream. Personally, I would love to see everyone participating equally regardless of your racial background.
I'm talking to you the majority white:p