‘The Way We Keep Dancing’: Break beats & buildings
The desecration of 5 Pointz came suddenly one night in 2013. Paid men, at the behest of a real estate developer, painted over the graffitied murals that adorned the walls of this Queens complex. A gross, white layer of gunk was slathered on top of the colorful tapestry of aerosol paint that had occupied the façade of those buildings (a literal whitewashing, if there ever was one) for years in order to make way for luxury developments.
The next day, when it became clear what had occurred, there was shock. Then, there was mourning.
5 Pointz was a sacred site in hip-hop culture. Second only to 1520 Sedgwick Ave—the Bethlehem of hip-hop, where the culture was born—in importance, 5 Pointz was considered a sort of graffiti Mecca.
B-boys, b-girls, taggers, graffiti artists, emcees, DJs, all the tribes in that community known as hip-hop would make pilgrimages to that site; to witness one of the great visual displays of that culture birthed in the Bronx, but now firmly established all around the globe.
Overnight, that site had been defiled, violated by one Jerry Wolkoff, the owner of the buildings on that site.
Hip-hop is a culture born in a moment of ecstasy. From a breakbeat comes a joy that defies the horrors of economic flight, urban neglect, and racial oppression. Yet as it has grown: the forces of capital greed have sought to appropriate this culture, and in many ways it has done so successfully. It has made some fabulously rich, but most—including most who pioneered the culture—have received nothing.
It’s this tension that provides the main narrative thrust of The Way We Keep Dancing. The film, directed by Adam Wong, is a sort of sequel to the 2013 film The Way We Dance (a film about a Hong Kong dance crew that drew comparisons to the Step Up franchise).
I say “sort of” because The Way We Keep Dancing bears a strange relation to its predecessor. This sequel doesn’t occur in the same universe as The Way We Dance. Instead, in the universe of The Way We Keep Dancing, the original film The Way We Dance already exists. And rather than follow the characters in the original film, we follow fictionalized versions of the actors who played the characters as they deal with the success of The Way We Dance. Meta, right?
Much could be said for the self-aware stance of the film. It’s in many ways a film about filmmaking–about the exploitation and self-denial that can easily accompany it, as well as an interrogation of “dance films” as a genre.
But to get caught up in Wong’s clever self-reflexive maneuvers would be to ignore the earnestness that lies at the heart of the film— that seems genuinely interested in understanding how hip-hop can live in capitalism without losing its soul.
Narratively, the film follows its characters as they piggyback off the popularity of the original film. They are asked to serve as the faces of a “neighborhood revitalization program” (read: gentrification program) by a developer seeking to monetize the Kowloon Industrial District where they congregate and create. It’s an inversion of 5 Pointz, in which the hip-hop culture of the neighborhood would be glorified as a marketing play—saved from destruction, but gutted, rendered hollow and toothless. They agree and put on smiling faces as they are photoshopped, airbrushed, and projected on screens throughout the city advertising the new developments. Their old friends, however, aren’t too happy to see their former crewmates cavorting with the developers, cops, and authorities that continue to harass them regularly as they try to practice or perform (the ripples of the 2019-2020 Hong Kong protests can be felt throughout this film). Accused of inauthenticity and rejected by their peers, the characters struggle to determine their path forward. Ultimately, they’re faced with the decision to either go on selling themselves and their art to this project, or rebel.
The filmmaker’s love of hip-hop comes across clearly in this film. I was skeptical at first. So many films about dance and hip-hop participate in the complex of whitewashing and appropriation that The Way We Keep Dancing so clearly depicts. That the film goes out of its way to highlight the politics of hip-hop, to feature voices often overlooked in these kinds of narratives, shows that it certainly cares about its subject, and is aware that it may be complicit in the systems that seek to exploit this culture. And in a moment when breaking— newly accepted into the 2024 Olympics—is undergoing its own existential search to discover how to build a system of livelihood without selling out the culture, this film’s earnest questioning felt much needed.
I will say that those looking for a more typical dance film may be disappointed. The dancing in this film is fairly sub-par. Whether this is intentional or not remains unclear to me, but regardless, it feels important that the only time you see any breaking is in New York, and isn’t done by any of the main characters (who mostly stick to choreo or popping & locking). Additionally, the interpersonal narrative of the characters felt rushed, and at times, plainly confusing. I often found myself asking why characters were acting in this way, wondering if I had missed something important in this, or the original film.
But at the end of the day, I didn’t mind all too much. Because after almost a decade of breaking, of immersion in the hip-hop community, I was happy to see a film that felt like it actually understood the challenges facing the culture, that understood that the culture I love and owe so much to is fighting for its place in a world that demands exploitation as the table stakes of existence.
Moreover, it understood that despite these obstacles, hip-hop would make it— as it has time and time again.
Rating: 4 / 5
The Way We Keep Dancing was the opening film to the 2021 Pacific Arts Movement Spring Showcase.