Asians Can Dance ~ Check out: JabbaWockeeZ, Kaba Modern, and Planet B-Boy

Curator's Note

One of my interests as a media scholar who is concerned about racial equality, supports activism, and loves dance is the relationship between race and genre. While the Western is thought of as a white American genre or the soap opera as a form of female narrative, what do you think when you put together Asian Americans and comedy?... Naw. Asians and dance? “What the h***?” as the director of the new documentary PLANET B-BOY ( astonished when he learned that some of the best b-boy dancers in the world are Korean. And he is Korean American. Just what is so fascinating or unusual about seeing Asian bodies gettin’ down? Music moves us. It can inspire us to move, to dance. We feel the primal rhythm of a beat and begin to bounce our head almost by instinct; the deep vibrations of sound (waves) that move through the air or the floor are both soothing and exciting. Music is felt or heard nearly universally. Without words, or a specific language, a song can transcend national boundaries and identity. One of the most well-loved films around the world is The Sound of Music (1965) – even children in a dictatorship like North Korea sing “Doe-a-deeyah” in classrooms with zero knowledge where the song came from but with full joy. If music can travel and be transposed from one place, voice, body, nationality to another, how about dance? More specifically, what are the ways that dance is racialized? This clip shows one of the performances by JabbaWockeeZ on the MTV series America’s Best Dance Crew (2008-). Last month, they won the competition. The members consist of Asian American men and an African American man although you don’t know who is who because they wear masks when they dance; their signature look is mime-like such that the bodies communicate meaning and furthermore, the individual ego is subordinated to a philosophy of collaboration. Of course, the masks also conceal the fact (initially) of their race. They are performing in whiteface, literally. So from the start, their dance engages a viewer conceptually as well as musically. What I appreciate about this clip, in addition to the superb and thoughtful choreography is that they are re-appropriating a famous Broadway song (“All That Jazz” from the musical Chicago) that appropriates Black culture, bringing it back to Black, if you will, and re-delivering ~ re-dancing ~ it with a style that belongs to men of color. These Asian male bodies are not in college or in the science lab, they are not doing martial arts. Rather, they are artists who through dance, challenge the performance of race, and even defy it in startling, innovative, and thrilling ways. If the dancing Asian male body performing freestyle or hip hop –a form associated with Black male bodies, voices, politics – is empowering, is it at the same time threatening? MTV has blocked the videos of JabbaWockeeZ; only a handful can be seen through MTV’s website (the YouTube videos previously available and seen hundreds of thousands of times have been disturbingly cut, and even the videos taped for the program at JabbaWockeeZ own website are unable to be seen). Why is MTV acting proprietary over this Asian American (dance) crew, if not financially, then somehow culturally?


Hi L.S., What a fascinating clip! I just got a tip from one of my friends to check out Planet B-Boy...and now I certainly will. It reminds me of that hilariously campy Chop Suey dance sequence in Flower Drum Song. Obviously very different - but I guess the parallel for me is the Asian body seamlessly inhabiting/performing other racialized dance traditions and by extension, perhaps, temporarily, other racialized bodies? Which brings up all those stereotypes of East Asians as imitators, inauthentic, etc. But I suspect this is going beyond that. Do you think this rides that thin line between appropriation and homage (of black music cultures - jazz, hip hop) or does that binary not hold in this instance? Asian dancers with white masks really complicate the notion of black/white binary too, no? Where is the Asian body in this sequence? Is there one at all?

Hi L.S. Great clip and comment! I also thought the adoption of the white mask was interesting. In later shows the masks change color don't they? They are playing with the idea of "black face" and ministrelsy so that you do wonder what is underneath. This was particularly a male practice although women such as Sophie Tucker practiced black face. What do you make of the fact that it was the all male groups that squared off at the finale? How does gender play into the expression of dance? This number from "Chicago" is now captured on film by Catherine Zeta Jones and Renee Zellweger and so their reinvention takes it one step further.

Hello, Jane and thank you for your comment. That "unusual" scene in FLOWER DRUM SONG is perfect to bring up here. Right, it is somehow astounding to see usually petite and subdued Asian characters not only break into dance, but to perform through the lexicon of American dance styles ~ including square dance, the Charleston, and what could be described as spastic beatnick. The latter always evokes laughter when I screen the film. Why? Thinking of Shilpa's post yesterday, I think it is because of the notion of the "foreign body" pervades one's ability to comprehend that these Asian bodies are, indeed, occupying Americanness. When they don the black turtleneck and beret, the whole look of an Asian hippie is an oxymoron (for some, at least ~ remember Victor Wong who was featured in Renee Tajima-Pena's film, My America). This is why I think the dress of JabbaWockeeZ is brilliant, thoughtful, effective. Then, your question is intriguing: how do JabbaWockeeZ register as dancing Asian bodies if they are masked? They at once defy or short-circuit the process ~ the compulsion~ to denote a particular genre to a specific race (hip hop = African American), and at the same time, they perform as and for the underdog because while their faces (and skin color) are hidden while they dance, their racial identities before and after are revealed. I saw JabbaWockeeZ perform on Ellen; they started on stage masked and I observed the audience's relative silence in comparison to the wild cheers that the crew receives when they perform for fans who know ~ already have a read ~ on who they are, that is, a group of men of color from working class neighborhoods who are very close friends. Their class identities are as significant as their racial

Shilpa, Thank you for your observations. Yes, JabbaWockeeZ also donned red masks during the course of the competition, and I don't think that the color of the masks connote a particular race as much as they obscure the racialization of bodies while they dance. In building on my reply to Jane's comment, race, class, as well as gender (not surprisingly) matter in relation to genre(s) of dance: dance is racialized, classed, and gendered. You are quite right to notice that AMERICA'S BEST DANCE CREW became dominated by dancing male, not female, bodies. And that the female bodies which were appealing to the traditional scopophilic gaze did not win votes. I think it is partly because ultimately, this program was about a "battle" between competing "crews" who had to "dance hard" in the style of hip hop. And as my partner noted, it also could be because those who voted were mostly female viewers of MTV. The final three female dancers who remained in the competition were part of a crew of college students from UCIrvine called Kaba Modern. Kaba Modern is comprised of all Asian Americans, and while nearly perfect ("straight-A") in their performances, there seemed not to be room for two Asian dance crews in the finals. As angryasianman(.com) put it: "In the end, both crews put on the performances of their lives, but as I expected and feared, it was time for Kaba Modern to go home. But man, how awesome was it to see those two groups of (mostly) Asian dancers standing there next to each other, and seriously representing? It was bittersweet. Did Kaba and Jabba fans somehow split the vote? Does it sound too bitter to suggest that the competition might've been rigged? Was it too much for MTV to have two Asian American-heavy crews at the top?

Hi L.S: I also followed the finals of American's Best Dance crew and couldn't help feel emotionally involved -- rooting for both Kaba Modern and JabbaWockeeZ. Like Jane, the performances invoked both _Flower Drum Song_ for me and the Dong documentary _Forbidden City_. Although you differentiate between kung fu and hip hop dance, there is also a bit of Jackie Chan for me here, too. Perhaps it is the humor of their dancing and the way it so overtly manipulates the expectations and cultural assumptions of the audience. There is something powerful about seeing Asian bodies that are so obviously self-disciplined and controlled and at the same time free and explosive. It is as if they take the disciplinary mechanisms that tend to freeze and define those bodies and turn them on their heads (in this case literally). They are taking that gaze and directing it, using their bodies to make rather than reflect meaning.

Hi L.S.- I enjoyed your write up about this clip and the discussion thread so far. What also strikes me about this visually is not only covering the face, but also the hair, hands, and any other visible markers of race. Visually, though not in a music and dance sense, they remind me a bit of Blue Man Group, who appears to go great ends to conceal any easily identifiable racial markers like skin and hair. In this regard, they evade any easy classification, which appears to be why it is so perplexing that MTV is so controlling about their videos circulating. I would be very curious to learn more about whether this is about censorship, copyright, or some other type of social control.

Hello Shalini and Leilani, thanks for sharing your thoughts. On one hand, JabbaWockeeZ can serve to "reflect" cultural references or Asian histories as Leilani points out, and on the other, Shalini gives an example of "deflection" in Blue Man Group (who I saw in Chicago when I was at NW, sorry we didn't cross paths there but glad we are doing so here). It might seem like an easy answer, but I think JabbaWockeeZ's brilliance is that they operate both ways, as unraced, and as Asian American men/men of color who are hip and cool. And that depending on how one positions her/himself as they watch a performance, the members' of the dance crew Asian American means more, i.e., is a matter of cultural pride, or instead, they are simply dudes who can dance. As for the question about MTV's control, I should say that all the video clips from AMERICA'S BEST DANCE CREW were blocked or moved to MTV's own website. (The great powers at In Media Res were able to re-post this clip on YouTune ~ let's see how long it lasts.) And In an off-line conversation my non-academic, non-Asian American friend and I had about this piece, she asked if there is significance in their videos being blocked because MTV does that with most of its stuff. It's a good and fair question. My response was that I don't believe in conspiracy theory (and either, b.t.w., does angryasianman). Rather, a couple of points: a) while MTV's legal control is fine albeit a little jerky, MTV exhibits and expresses a great deal of social control in cultivating taste (which is ideological, of course). Remember, once upon a time, MTV segregated African American artists/music videos to the late-night program schedule. At the same time, b) I am appreciative that with the handful of (okay, now I can count on two hands) Asian American recurring characters on prime-time television that MTV in RANDY JACKSON PRESENTS AMERICA'S BEST DANCE CREW had 12! However short-lived, the "main characters" of this MTV program were Asian American. It was thrilling ~ to see Asian Americans on television and to see them do-their-thang. Final note, going back to Jane's comment about seeing dancing Asian bodies in FLOWER DRUM SONG, I want to bring up a kind of analogy that I make when I teach the film to the "unruly" body. Whereas Kathleen Rowe used the term "unruly woman" to describe someone who takes-up-space, similarly, I think what is shocking and empowering at the same time about seeing Asian bodies dancing is that they are taking up a whole lot of space in doing so. One literally has to look out and move out of their way. I do so, gladly.

"...JabbaWockeeZ’s brilliance is that they operate both ways, as unraced, and as Asian American men/men of color who are hip and cool. And that depending on how one positions her/himself as they watch a performance, the members’ of the dance crew Asian American means more, i.e., is a matter of cultural pride, or instead, they are simply dudes who can dance." Though I feel somewhat unqualified for discussion on these matters as a young, unlearned (Asian American) undergrad student, I think this is central to understanding how the younger generations view race. As with Better Luck Tomorrow, and Harold and Kumar, neither the protagonists nor the plotlines are caught up in the question of identity. Dropping the pretensions, race is, for myself at least, and, I feel, for many of my age group, a "bonus." The primary thing that make the JabbaWockeez or Kaba Modern attractive is not that they are Asian, not that they are Asian dancers, but that they are very, very good dancers in the first place. The other two categories are given or lent importance after their skill in dance has been proven. If this has already been stated, in different wordings above, or is not particularly interesting, my apologies. I just wanted to leave my comments because I'm a big fan of many of the groups on America's Best Dance Crew, not just Jabba and Kaba. Regards, Brian Kung

I truly enjoyed your note about the JabbaWockeeZ's. While there were several interesting points you discussed, there is one that intrigues me more than the others, that is the visibility of the face covering. The first time I witnessed a JabbaWockeez performance I was in complete AWE! It was if every move was synchronized to mimic the music. I did consider the possible reasons for wearing mask. At first I thought the mask was just apart  wardrobe and costuming. However, when I learned that they the "members consisted of Asian American men and an African American man I instantly realized that the mask was more than a costume but it is incorporated into their performance as a statement of identity.
Furthermore, when I discovered there are no leaders of the group, but  "every member has a vision of the Jabbawockeez and expresses it during rehearsals" (, made me realize the purpose of implementing "white face masks" is to 'inspire us to move, to dance [and] feel the primal rhythm of a beat'. Without the use of mask as you so eloquently put it, would cause a distraction among viewers.

Again great note, thank you for sharing. Take a peek of this clip.

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