Interview by Jonathan DeVore
Jonathan DeVore: Congratulations on your new book! First of all, can you recount how you became involved in the research for the book?
Sandra Kurfürst: Thank you, Jonathan! From 2007 to 2008, I conducted one year of ethnographic research in Hanoi for my PhD thesis. At the time, I was working on public spaces in Hanoi, and regularly hung out around the Lenin Monument at Dien Bien Phu Street and Ly Thai To Garden on the banks of Hoan Kiem Lake. At the time, I met a number of young people there who regularly assembled in the late afternoon hours to perform break moves, hip-hop dance, and popping. I began conducting interviews with young b-boys from the FIT and MiNi Shock Crews and young women dancers from Big Toe Crew. I was especially fascinated by these young women, their movement repertoire, and their fashion style. Whenever they arrived at the pavilion in Ly Thai To Garden, they would change out of their school uniforms – which were white blouses and blue trousers combined with a red scarf – and switch these for belly tops, XXL T-Shirts, and shorts or joggers. Having followed hip hop culture in Vietnam for a decade, I found hip hop’s diverse dance styles an ideal topic to study, as it combines my personal passion for hip hop with my longstanding interests in the anthropology of the urban and questions of socioeconomic transformation.
Jonathan DeVore: This continuity between your research projects nicely illustrates the observation that the questions we begin with in ethnographic research are rarely the same as the questions that we arrive at in the process. Can you describe how the questions and interests that your book addresses arose, and how these may have been transformed during the course of you research? Were there any key moments in your research that affected or even shifted your focus?
Sandra Kurfürst: Hip Hop comprises four practices of MCing (rap), breaking, graffiti writing, and DJing. Initially, I planned on examining all four practices and the interrelations among actors involves in these practices. However, once I began my research into rap and dancing, I soon noticed that there are some overlaps in the communities, but that rather distinct communities of practice have evolved around each practice. Some actors in Vietnam are very active in bringing these different strands of hip hop culture together, but, so far, there are only a few events that unite these different communities of practice. Then again, I found that the community of hip hop dancing was much more diverse than I had expected. The first dancers I talked to all differentiated between diverse styles, such as breaking, popping, locking, waacking, hip hop, and house dance. That is why I reconsidered my focus and decided to write about dance. From the start, I had been fascinated with how many young women engaged in hip hop’s different dance styles. Therefore, I chose a particular gender focus. However, one eye opening moment was a conversation with a woman locker who told me: “I don’t think it’s about young women, but about people who want to enjoy their life and develop themselves (…).” And that is how I got interested in the question of youth aspirations and visions of the good life under conditions of late socialism.
Jonathan DeVore: Speaking of late socialism, one dynamic that I found interesting in the book was the gradual transition over a period of years from hip-hop as a relatively informal practice, occurring in common public spaces such as the Lenin Monument, to a set of relationships that became increasingly professionalized, involving market exchanges. Some of the dancers you describe who became more prominent, for example, were able to establish their own schools from which they derived their primary incomes. Can you tell us more about processes of class formation, differentiation, and distinction among dancers in your research? More broadly, can you relate these processes to Vietnams’ transition toward “market reform, commodification, and consumerism, while officially insisting on socialist ideology and one-party rule” (p. 10)?
Sandra Kurfürst: When I did my research on public space in Hanoi between 2007 and 2008, I also interviewed b-boys and women dancers who were regularly meeting and dancing around Ly Thai To Garden. At that time, the dancers were either still in school or had jobs, and they did not have many economic resources. In 2018, the situation seemed to have slightly changed, as most of the professional dancers participating in my research held university degrees, and had gathered experiences in working in office jobs that were unrelated to dance. Some dancers, however, decided to quit their office jobs to open their own dance studios or to work as freelancers at different dance studios. Others owned their own fashion labels and combined their self-entrepreneurism with teaching dance classes. My study is not representative, of course, but from the conversations and interviews with men and women dancers alike, I gathered that most have urban middle-class backgrounds, and many of them grew up in Hanoi. Moreover, the relevance of consumption as both a status symbol, and marker of belonging to the community of practice, was visible and tangible. Indexes of distinction were comprised of street apparel, such as the German or U. S. sports brands Adidas, Nike, Vans, and so on, as well as other commodities, like photo and video cameras. Mobility was a further asset, as many dancers regularly travelled within Vietnam or the Southeast Asia region, which again requires financial resources and time. At the same time, the proliferation of dance studios in Vietnam’s major cities that offer children’s hip hop dance classes cater to growing demands by urban middle-class parents to provide their children with physical exercise and leisure activities other than gaming.
Jonathan DeVore: I see – so, parents want their children moving around instead of just sitting in front of televisions and computers! This actually relates to another question I wanted to ask you about: Embodied movements, gestures, and actions are notoriously difficult to represent textually, in the medium of an article or book. Can you describe the difficulties you faced, and the strategies you used, in representing the different dance forms you investigate—not only in the book, but perhaps also in other media, such as fieldnotes?
Sandra Kurfürst: Thank you. This is a topic that I struggle with to this day. Certainly, audiovisual formats are an option, and I would like to further pursue the question of writing dance in the future. As for fieldnotes: After taking dance classes, I recorded my sensations and experiences as well as student-teacher interactions in voice recordings on my way home. Listening to my own voice recordings later on, I particularly noticed my own shortness of breath after having trained with one dancer, named Mai. Also, the interview situations themselves were certainly sensory events. Whenever I sat down to transcribe interview recordings, or to write my field notes, I started humming and singing songs that my interlocutors had played for me on their phones. And I found myself searching the internet for tracks and videos they had told me about. A really fascinating format, to avoid simplifications involved in just describing what I saw and how I moved, seems to be autoethnographic performance. However, what prevented me from engaging in autoethnographic performance in the book were my English language skills. The use of different literary genres to express movement in written language is really appealing to me, but I would have to do so in my own mother tongue. In my teenage years, I used to write rap lyrics. So, writing in German would be one way for me to go.
Jonathan DeVore: I can certainly appreciate this challenge! And as I read your book, I also found myself looking up YouTube videos of the songs and music videos you cited! Perhaps a final question to conclude: Are there any interests or questions that remain open for you after writing the book?
Sandra Kurfürst: I keep wondering if, at one point, I could invite the women hip hop dancers to Germany for a performance in the city of Cologne. I think that would be a great opportunity to bring them together with Cologne-based dancers. Moreover, I would really like to meet them again – but due to the pandemic, I have not returned to Vietnam since 2018. At the time, when I got to know the women dancers, they were all at the end of their 20s – an age when women in Vietnam are usually married and have children. So, one question I did not ask, but which comes up again and again, is: To what extent does leading a dancing life have an impact on women dancers’ decisions to marry and have children?
I was also very glad to find queer dancers at dance battles. However, as battles are quite ephemeral events, and the dancers were not directly related to participants in my research, I did not have a chance to talk to them. But it made me wonder if queer performance, such as the style of waacking, helps to open up spaces for the queer community in Vietnam. The LGBTQIA+ community has become more active and more visible in public space, such as with the annual Viet Pride festival. So, I was wondering if dancing, and waacking in particular, may also be a way for them to create a community as well as to gain more public awareness and acceptance.
Jonathan DeVore: Thanks so much for talking with me, Sandra, and congratulations once again on Dancing Youth. I’ll look forward to reading your next book on one of these other topics!