Nguyen Thi Hong Hanh, 20, vividly remembers the first time she saw a Vietnamese girl properly dancing hip hop. “She danced like a black girl,” she exclaims of her now friend, dance teacher Truong Thi Minh Hong, also 20.
Photo: Richard Harper
The pair are members of a HCM City-based hip hop crew named Destiny Family. The group gets together to practice four times a week for two hours at a time.
By their estimates, Saigon has at least 40 similar crews of varying abilities. Destiny Family has more than 50 members, but only 13 are girls.
Lina “Speed” Tran, 18, says Big South Crew—the group she’s part of— has the same problem. She is the only female dancer among the 30-strong crew. There used to be five girls, but they didn’t have enough time to commit to practice.
Popular culture is helping to put the spotlight on the girls who have immersed themselves in the hip hop life.
The movie Saigon Electric follows a traditional ribbon dancer named Mai as she moves from the countryside to Saigon and discovers hip hop along the way.
She becomes friends with a street-savvy dancer called Kim—played by real-life HCM City-based hip hopper, Quynh Hoa.
As the film depicts, hip hop is a complete lifestyle for its devotees. Lina points out that the culture comprises several elements—fashion, music, dance and activities like skateboarding. For her part, she wears skate shoes, a cap and bling whether she’s dancing the robot-style popping or locking she enjoys most or not.
The girls from Destiny Family consider the dance form, at least, art. “It’s absolutely art,” RMIT student Hanh enthuses. “It’s street art.” She adds that it is also a mode of self-expression. For example, Hanh krumps—a more powerful and aggressive style of dancing—when she’s angry or upset. She finds just the act of dancing can lift her out of a bad mood.
As hip hop is relatively new in Vietnam, it is difficult for followers to look in-country for inspiration. Instead, Destiny Family uses African-American hip hop legend Buddha Stretch and his group Elite Force Crew as its inspiration.
Even though Buddha Stretch was popular in the 70s, the girls gush about the instrumental role he played in developing the hip hop scene in the States; that he danced back up for Michael Jackson in the video clip for ‘Remember the Time’. They call him the “Father of Hip Hop” and say that to dance hip hop well, its history needs to be understood.
Lina says that hip hop is slowly gaining acceptance here. She says, in the past older people especially had trouble embracing the culture. “At the beginning, older people didn’t understand what we were doing. They thought we looked freaky,” she says. She adds that her parents were a little reluctant to let her join the crew at first. Their perception was that the hip hop scene was dangerous and full of gangsters. Hanh’s parents had similar concerns. She says her mother believes that the dance moves she performs are too suggestive.
“My mum says that girls should be gentle, they should be elegant. She says, ‘If you want to dance, why don’t you dance ballet, or rumba?’."
Her retort: “That’s not me.”
Both Lina and Hanh concede that, physically, males are better equipped to dance hip hop. They have the strength to pull off tricks that the girls need to practice much more to make. Hanh doesn’t let this get to her, though. In fact, she thinks that girls are just as capable, if not more.
“The girls [in our crew] are more hard working and they show more passion. If we have the passion, even if a move is difficult, we can still do it!”