Wilson (centre) and Andi Putra (extreme right) tickle the audience with their "Gatsby" pose.
You may have no idea why terms like 'locking' or 'popping' inspire pupils of Yishun Primary School. But it only takes a few minutes of watching the school's Performing Arts Club show of how they 'pop' and 'lock' to realise the infectious power of hip-hop street dance moves.
A genre of modern dance that is constantly evolving and absorbing new ideas, hip hop features slick routines known as 'breaking' and 'locking'. It may appear fluid and spontaneous, but the dance demands discipline and concentration if the performer wants to make an impression and say it from the heart.
"The Performing Arts Club allows the students to express themselves through music," explained Mr Sahir Mohamed Tauhid, Head of Department for Aesthetics. This goal is evident in the elated faces of the young dancers as they freeze in their final pose and breathlessly take in their audience's reaction. "Dance is about the happiness we bring to other people," enthused Primary 6 pupil Patricia Ann Torres. "When we dance and people smile, that makes us happy too!"
Unearthing young talents
"When I was young, my sister played hip hop music. It was a great song and I just tried dancing - I couldn't stop myself." Recalling sheeplishly that his initial moves were appalling, Pri 4 pupil Wilson Tan added, "But when I joined the club, my dancing improved a lot!"
An appreciative audience at Khoo Teck Puat Hospital applauds the hip hop stars.
The club, too, has come a long way since its formation four years ago. "When we started in 2007, we did not even have our own dancers in the CCA and had to 'borrow' dancers from the other dance CCAs," recounted Ms Audrey Lim, teacher-in-charge of the Perfoming Arts Club. "But now we have a passionate core group."
But even in its nascent years, the club was already winning kudos from the crowds, with the young dancers bagging gold medals in two competitions in 2008. "At that time, the junior boys were very raw, very young and without stage experience," shared Ms Lim. "The judges were blown away by their size because they were all so small. But their flair for dancing came through as they enjoyed perfoming on stage and they came back champions!" This passion for hip hop continues unabated and every new batch of dancers have worked hard to maintain their standing in the top three in annual competitions such as Danceworks! and Street Bliss.
Taking care of the team
Every dancer takes pride in how he or she looks onstage, but they all know that it's the collective impression that counts. "Being a senior, I must ensure that the juniors can execute their moves properly," said Muhammad Hairee, a Pri 6 pupil. "Even though we have less time to practice our own moves, it's important to help each other."
Big hair, big moves and big smiles.
Ms Lim found it heartwarming that the team never neglects its weakest members. "The seniors guide the juniors like big brothers and sisters," she said. "Some of the students learn faster through peer coaching." As Wilson put it, "At first, I found moves like 'locking' difficult. But during the holidays, my seniors and I came earlier to school and we kept practising until I got it."
Peer guidance takes place on stage too. Andi Putra, a Pri 5 pupil, recalled peering anxiously at the audience during his first Danceworks! competition in 2010. "I was the only Pri 4 student among the Pri 6 seniors," he shared. "I started to shake and tried to breathe in and out. But my seniors said to me, 'Think of all your family members who are out there cheering for you'. So I just closed my eyes and threw away all my nervousness."
Learning values through dance
Staying on top of their game requires great discipline, as shown when the chattering kids snap into performance-ready mode at a signal. "Each of them knows that they need to be mentally ready and run through their steps before they go on stage," stated Ms Lim. "Some juniors came in thinking that it was going to be all fun but soon realised it's stressful to go for competitions, juggling schoolwork and being continually challenged to raise their game. At one point, it was a 'make or break' time for them because they were pushed to the limit. But just before the competition, they peaked and started being more confident on stage."
The students help each other fuel up before a performance.
Besides being quick on their feet, the dancers had to think fast as well earlier this year when they found themselves unexpectedly short of members before a show for the Singapore Youth Festival. "Down to six from eight dancers, they suddenly had to modify the dance formation for their performers," shared Mr Sahir. In December 2011, the club also created novel blends such as a modern dance cum angklung and gamelan ensemble for its performance in the International Children's Arts Festival in Kuala Lumpur.
Such tenacity and creativity have spilled over into the classroom. Andi explained that now he is game to tackle tough questions by solving them in different ways. "Even though I may get them wrong, I still get marks for the steps, so it feels like dancing, when you cannot just give up," he said. "They are able to translate that confidence into other aspects of their lives," observed Ms Lim. Now, the school is planning to expand hip hop beyond the club to more pupils through a modular CCA programme for children in Pri 1-4
But whatever direction the school or club takes, dance will remain a constant part of the pupils' lives. "Dance is a break for me," stated Patricia. "Everything just stops when the music starts and I just dance."