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Dancing in the streets

by Arttu Tolonen

As trends wax and wane, street dance is becoming globally more prominent with each cycle. In Finland, it’s at the height of its popularity and making inroads into uncharted territory, both artistically and socially.

In 2013, vernacular dance styles born outside the dance studio environment are referred to as street dance and in Finland it’s the fastest growing area of dance. Hip hop dance styles and their offshoots fall into this category.

In addition to the rising popularity as a hobby, exciting things are happening in the professional sphere of Finnish street dance as it strives to stay true to its multicultural and social roots while making inroads into new territory, such as contemporary dance. In many ways it reflects a changing Finland.

The rise of the new generation of Finnish dancers happened in conjunction with the big international rap hype bubble in the late 1990s. With major labels providing loads of money for videos, Finnish breakdancers were all of a sudden in demand and gained a great deal of visibility.

I talked to two very different dancers about the past and future of their art in Finland. Both of them have done their share of dancing on videos and at rap shows but have since moved on to bigger things.

Young, gifted, black, female

Sonya Lindfors is a 28-year-old choreographer, dancer and performer. Her mother is Finnish and her father from Cameroon. She is a founding member of the Murha (Murder) arts collective and street dance crew Exhale, as well as Artistic Director and project manager for the UrbanApa urban arts festival. She is one of those people for whom movement was obviously a first language and she has a degree in dance. She has been doing it professionally for more than 10 years. Her roots are in jazz and street dance, but she studied contemporary dance.

“I think it’s a question of identity,” Sonya muses. “I feel I have a hip hop identity and attitude, so the material may be anything, like theatre or contemporary, but that identity is such a strong part of me, it always comes through.”

She didn’t always have an easy time at Theatre Academy Helsinki. “For a long time I felt like there was no room for me at the Academy, since the way I moved and choreographed involved street dance. I’m interested in the energy, the rhythm, the power of it. Eventually I realised I don’t have to try and suppress my roots and the fact that street dance is where I come from. It’s art if that is the way I want to frame it. Realising I don’t have to hide was so liberating.”

Sonya’s newest piece Noir? opened at the Zodiak Center for New Dance in Helsinki on 29 November. It involves three dancers and one ‘performer’, Deogracias Masomi, aka Gracias, a well-known Finnish actor and rapper of Congolese extraction. The three dancers are Sonya herself, Esete Sutinen and Ima Iduozee. Lindfors directed the piece, too.

The piece came about as a result of issues Sonya had been thinking about for quite some time. “I feel there’s a whole generation of Finns who look different coming up right now. And some of us are professional artists. Previously, the arts have been fairly homogeneous, racially. And they still are, but that is changing,” she says. “I feel it’s important that I as a young artist try to look at these issues. I’m totally Finnish, but I look different, so I often feel like I’m in between places.”

Questions of Finnish identity

She hopes Noir? will get people talking about questions of Finnish identity, what it means to be Finnish when you don’t obviously fit the traditional, perceived norm. And, most importantly, about the fact that there is no longer a norm. There can’t be. “I think it also deals with artistic norms, about how if you’re a white male, you’re an artist, but if you’re anything else, you get a prefix – I’m a young black female artist. That’s a mouthful.”

She especially hopes other artists, both those in her position and those who aren’t, will want to explore these questions.

“I think there has been a tendency lately, especially in the field of contemporary dance, to shy away from difficult issues,” she laments. “Or deal with them in an abstract manner. And this is where I think some of that hip hop attitude comes through. Noir? goes straight to the point: this is a piece about being black. Period. I wanted the piece to have balls!”

Sonya sees Noir? as a trial of sorts. “It’s really fucking personal. It involves my family, and in African culture talking about family affairs in public is not cool.  This piece is about identity, family, shame, experience… In African tradition you’re supposed to keep up a facade, so it seems like everything’s OK all the time. That’s it,” she states.

This aspect makes all four performers a bit edgy, apparently. “But it’s really liberating, too! Noir? deals with questions that none of us have discussed among friends, even though we all come from multicultural families. And now at least the four of us are forced to do it,” she explains.

B-Boy, real McCoy

Jussi Sirviö is a B-Boy, i.e. a breakdancer. Breakdance is an acrobatic style of dance and part of hip hop culture, along with rap and graffiti. He’s Finnish and hails from a small town near Jyväskylä in central Finland. When he was 11, he saw older kids breakdancing at a party. “By older I mean they were 12. They had taken a few lessons and knew how to do the worm, could spin on their back. Not much, but my 11-year-old mind was blown. And the girls were suitably impressed, so that sealed the deal,” he recalls. “There were 15 guys in my class of 30 kids and at one point 11 of them were into breakdancing… for a few weeks, anyway.”

Unlike all the rest, Jussi stuck with it. That party was the start of a long road that has taken Jussi, aka Focus, to more than 40 countries and sustained a 20-year career in breakdance, both solo and as a part of the internationally respected Flow Mo crew. He’s won first place in over 50 competitions, taught hundreds of workshops and judged at the biggest street dance events in the world. For the past three years he has also operated his own street dance school, Saiffa.

Hip hop culture in central Finland and the US

For Jussi, too, hip hop was culture, the whole package: music, graffiti… They drove his best friend’s father crazy practising their rapping skills in the basement and even bought some turntables, but eventually only breakdance remained. This was all going on in the mid-’90s, so information was much harder to come by than it is now.

“We relied on a lot of hearsay, like stories told by older kids about stuff they’d seen. My dance instructor Mikko Ahlgren was an old-school B-Boy from the ’80s, and he gave us Beat Street and Wild Style to watch,” Jussi says. Coincidentally, both movies played a major role in my hip hop immersion in the 1980s and I mention this to Jussi. “Yes, it’s still the same classics. There’s a dance movie boom going on right now, but there really haven’t been any straight-up hip hop movies since those two were made,” he replies. “Until now. I guess a break movie called Battle of the Year just came out in the States.”

Pretty soon after getting serious about dancing in 1995, he and other breakdancers would travel to Sweden, where the scene was bigger than in Finland, and then on to Germany, where the spark of breakdancing had been kept alive all these years, even when the art fell by the wayside in the States as rap dominated.

“In 2004 we made our first trip to compete in the States. That was a big deal. We were just a bunch of white kids from Finland and our first battle was against the Rock Steady Crew! The same crew that was in Beat Street,” Jussi says in awe. “We held our own. Pretty soon we realised that we were pretty good. There were 80 crews from all over the world there.”

Back then the internet was still not quite as ubiquitous as it is today and it showed in the contest. “You could see big stylistic differences depending on what country the crew was from, so the Japanese and the Argentinians all had their own twist on B-Boying. Nowadays there’s more of a single global style in evidence. Information travels better and faster,” he says.

“The social aspect is now most important to me. Hanging out together in a ring and dancing. I feel like I’m trying to get back to the roots of the dance.”
Jussi Sirviö

Taking it back to the streets

Now, at about 30 years of age, Jussi has gone back to school to study cultural production, which he hopes will help him in organising and financing future endeavours and events: “There’s a change of generations going on in cultural organisations and I feel like this culture of ours will receive more attention in the future and hopefully be better understood.”

Unlike Sonya, he’s more interested in taking the dance back to the streets. “The social aspect is now most important to me. Hanging out together in a ring and dancing. I feel like I’m trying to get back to the roots of the dance,” he explains. “I’ve done some work in theatres, on stages, but the street-level stuff and teaching at my school, spreading the word, are what I want to do right now.”

Saiffa, the school Jussi and his friends run, provides a great platform for preaching the gospel of street dance. Saiffa has about 300 regular students, and the events and workshops put on by the school reach a much larger audience. The age range of the students runs from five to 35. The youngest teacher at the school is a little over 20 and the oldest 32. Teachers are recruited through the social networks of the teachers, many of whom have been active in the Finnish street dance scene since the mid-1990s. So they know pretty much everyone.

Music and dance, separate but equal?

In both dancers’ career trajectories, the connection between dancing and Finnish rap has been anything but direct. Videos for Finnish rap singles have provided both dancers with jobs and platforms for showing off their skills but neither has had any significant experience working with Finnish producers.

Ironically enough, the further Sonya Lindfors moves from the street dance scene and into the sphere of contemporary dance, the likelier she is to run into people from the Finnish rap scene. Many producers have collaborated with contemporary choreographers, among them Laineen Kasperi (Kasperi Laine), formerly of Kaucas and now a solo artist, and MattiP (Matti Pentikäinen), formerly of Ceebrolistics and now an international bass music producer under the moniker Teeth. In fact, Kasperi’s former comrade from Kaucas, Hannu Hauta-aho, aka Haho, is the sound designer for Sonya’s Noir?. Gracias is a relative newcomer to the rap scene but he made a hell of a splash with his debut album, entitled Globe, of world-class English-language rap (see review in FMQ 3/2012). 

Risto Roman, one of Jussi’s old street dancing friends, is now an internationally successful dubstep producer as DestoKimmo Laiho, better known as Elastinen, the prime mover behind Rähinä, which is Finland’s biggest rap label, started out as a breakdancer, too.

The social connection between Finnish street dance and rap is strong but the musical connection is weaker. So far. Rap in Finnish is one of the most popular forms of music in the country right now, dwarfing the street dance scene. Shows and videos have moved beyond traditional depictions of hip hop culture. As far as dancing at battles and shows, street dancers tend to prefer funk and hip hop classics to newer Finnish rap, most of which is probably a little too slow for dancing. But on the other hand, dancing is more of a universal language, so dancers don’t face as many hurdles abroad as rappers using their mother tongue.

Arttu Tolonen is a writer and musician from Helsinki. He caught the hip hop bug in the mid-1980s from a compilation cassette that had Grandmaster Flash’s ‘The Message’ on it.

The premiere of Sonya Lindfors' work Cosmic Latte on 15 May, 2018 at the Zodiak – Center for New Dance, Helsinki.

Featured photo: Uupi Tirronen