Tension Between Individuality, Cultural Heritage, and Social Identity in Dance

by Taryn Cheng

One of the hottest television shows of the summer was NBC’s World of Dance, hosted by Jennifer Lopez, Ne-Yo, and Derek Hough. The elimination-style dance series elevated many local dance communities onto a commercial platform. It particularly shed light on dancers of various cultural backgrounds, highlighting how culture shapes the creation of art. For Kinjaz, an all male, all Asian dance crew, it was apparent in their costuming that their identity is largely a compromise between a “social world, the milieu in which [they] belong, and [their] own individual desires.”

Hip-hop culture has always been associated with rebellion, freedom, and being “cool.” Kinjaz certainly caters to this. They often wear high-end sneakers, a baseball cap, and sweatpants. In fact, they have their own line of street wear complete with t-shirts, bomber jackets, hats, and windbreakers. However, their cultural backgrounds also influence the nuances of their clothes. For example, Kinjaz often wear an adaptation of changshan, a traditional Chinese dress shirt, samurai-esque shoulder pads, or a facemask associated with Asian culture. In a sense, both sides of the dichotomy represent a larger cultural group and individuality; while fitting into a hip-hop culture, Kinjaz bring their own flare via an Asian heritage. However, while fitting into an Asian culture, they defy traditional Asian notions of conservatism and because their identities are rooted in a movement fundamentally about noise and protest. Ultimately, Kinjaz do fit into ideas of what is “cool” by American standards while still identifying with their Asian heritage as well as the athleticism of the dance community.

My own experience has followed a similar storyline. Aiming to defy Asian stereotypes of a quiet, academic-obsessed, I joined a competitive hip-hop team my freshman year of high school. While I actively try to follow societal fashion trends, I still strive to stay unique and show that I identify with a particular group: dancers who are both athletic and artistic. For example, instead of wearing sandals or boots with this outfit (and I did contemplate wearing heeled Chelsea boots), I instead opted for Nike sneakers. Growing up, my physical appearance and race often dictated how others assumed what my character would be like. Because my clothes are a large outward display of who I am internally, while I try to dress with current trends, I consciously strive to convey individuality via an athletic aesthetic that states I am more than just a stereotype.

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