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The (once) coveted French crocodile is chomping on China’s Gen Z market. Say what now? High-end yet accessible sportswear brand Lacoste was an official sponsor of the recently concluded season 5 of hit reality variety Street Dance of China and now sells wardrobe items inspired by the urban slash subcultural sport. So what’s the pull of China’s pop ‘n lock?

street dance

Lacoste gets an urban sports makeover. It certainly has more of a contempo beat than its usual tennis with a martini attire. Image via Lacoste’s Weibo account

“By tapping into the street dance show, Lacoste is able to rejuvenate the brand’s image in China and, more importantly, plug itself into the youthful community and paving the way for further engagement with the target demographic,” Dao Insights, a website publishing exclusive articles on and high-value case studies from the Middle Kingdom, wrote on November 24.

Since street dance (街舞| jiē wǔ in Chinese) was introduced to China some three decades ago, it has spread around the whole nation to become a full-fledged industry.

High Temper time to break it down.

street dance

Still from Street Dance of China, season 5. The French croc is ready to bite into young consumption. Image via Vogue.com.cn

How It All Got Popping

“Street dance” is the umbrella term for several social dance styles including, but not limited to, breaking, hip hop, locking, popping and house. These styles are all independent styles, each with their own history and foundation and each visually very different, according to London-based dance studio Elevate Arts.

After the country’s reform and opening up took off in 1978, breakdancing and hip-hop first spread in China in 1987 through the American breakdancing-themed musical movie Breakin’ (1984). The first wave of street dance in China was dominated by breaking. Zoey Kuang wrote in her November 2022 article From the US to China: A Cross-Cultural Exchange through Street Dance for The SAIS Observer, a newspaper written, edited, and produced by the students of the Johns Hopkins University Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS): “It is reasonable to believe that the Chinese audience related to the hyperphysical moves of breakdancing due to their similarity to kung fu and other Chinese martial arts moves. The early breakdancers, aka B-boys, in the U.S. even claimed their power movements were inspired by Chinese martial arts.”

But this first swell soon lost momentum as the country’s cultural atmosphere remained relatively conservative – “the older generations of Chinese people still had a very limited acceptance of American culture and were concerned that the negative perceptions [that come with] hip-hop culture could drag the youth down,” Kuang added.

In the late 1990s, a second wave saw some of the earliest Chinese dance crews breaking barriers in Guangzhou, capital of south China’s sweltering Guangdong Province. The early 2000s witnessed the emergence of several prominent street dance studios in Beijing in the early 2000s.

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Promo poster: When Lacoste met Street Dance of China, season 5. Image via Lacoste’s Weibo account

Locking It Down

Street dance gradually gained über-cool subculture status in China in the mid-2010s. But then came the show that brought down the house… the first season of Street Dance of China ( 这!就是街舞| This! Is street dance). Released in 2018, this dance/ reality show was first broadcast on major video platform Youku—just think “YouTube.”

The show presented a new format, inviting four celebrity team captains who then select their (professional street) dancers from all over China, each corresponding to a different dance style, and form four teams to perform group dance battles. In the end, one champion prevails. With its mentor line-up consisting of some of the country’s No.1 “popping” figures, ranging from Lay Zhang, Jackson Wang, actor and dancer Wang Yibo, performer and actor Jackson Yee, and so the list locks on, the show soon gained popularity amongst China’s post-95s and post-00s. Wang’s nonchalant mixing and matching of men’s and women’s clothing styles on the show always get the online conversation going as well, with many netizens posting pics of his latest show pieces on China’s popular Pinterest slash Instagram slash e-commerce platform Xiaohongshu (or Little Red Book)—just FYE (for your entertainment),

Along with this massive on-screen popularity, the number of registered dance studios in China grew from around 38,100 in 2017 to 66,900 in 2021, according to Kuang.

But what’s more, the show has proven to be about much more than just busting a move–or 20. At a time of geopolitical tensions pretty much off the charts, one trend that unfortunately continues to this day, “the fusion of foreign and Chinese cultures doesn’t take much; one guqin [a plucked seven-string traditional Chinese musical instrument] and two people will do.”

These were the words Mandopop singer Han Geng–one of the team captains for season 4—used to introduce a duet between Chinese choreographer Ma Xiaolong and French hip-hop dancer (Nicolas Monlouis) Zyko, RADII China, a website telling stories from the center of China’s youth, wrote in a 2021 piece called How Street Dance of China Strived for Global Unity. While Han’s team’s three-minute dance may have inspired the line, it also summed up the theme of the street dance variety’s season 4 as this was the first season to invite top dancers from all over the world.

The latest season (number 5) aired on August 14, 2022, drawing in 2.3 billion accumulated views on Weibo, China’s Twitter, with the grand finale’s hashtag hitting 130 million views on October 29. Zyko, who had to withdraw from season 4 for personal reasons, emerged as the ultimate victor this time around.

Stills, scenes and trending snippets from Street Dance of China, season 5. Image via Weibo News

Breaking Out

Street dance has evolved into a breaking subculture in China, with an average of 5 million cutting their teeth into the activity every year–teens across Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen being the main consumers, according to Dao Insights. Street dance competitions are expanding their reach, with more widespread publicity, while breakdancing is now even an official Olympic event. The International Olympic Committee’s pursuit of urban events to lure a younger audience will see street dance battles officially added to the medal events program at the 2024 Paris Games.

Jing Daily, aka the leading digital publication on luxury consumer trends in China, in September 2021 reported Street Dance of China was the Chinese reality show “with the highest commercial value in 2021 so far, attracting nearly 30 brand sponsors across the fashion, beauty, and fast-moving consumer-goods industries.” The report further added, “Street dancers make promising key opinion leaders [or influencers] as they not only embody creativity and discipline but also align with China’s plans to showcase breakdancing ahead of the 2024 Olympics.”

Urban sports like street dance draw in a wider following and better engage with a label’s target audience–who also happen to be the market backbone. Lacoste teaming up with Street Dance of China helped/helps the brand’s revival in the Chinese market as its once-prided “smart chic” design is losing appeal amongst the rising Gen Z consumer legion with the country’s fashion evolving into a more individualized and expressive style, Dao Insights divulged. Once deemed “old-fashioned” by Chinese consumers due to its limited style range and perceived as being for golf-playing men aged 50 and above, the partnership can help Lacoste infuse its exemplary elegance with a wild twist, drawing inspiration from contemporary subcultures.

And that is exactly what street dance in China is today. Its eye-popping and high-energy routines, from breakdancing to waacking, are being used as a way of empowering young people in their pursuit of carving out their own style.

FYI: Waacking is a form of street dance born in the LGBT clubs of Los Angeles during the 1970s disco era. The style is typically performed to disco music and is mainly distinguishable by its rotational arm movements, posing and emphasis on expressiveness. And Chinese youth, too, are showcasing a particular appetite for this groove. #staytuned

 

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again:

Sub is Super.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Featured image: Still from Street Dance of China, season 5 via Youku
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Elsbeth van Paridon
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