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Breakdancing Phenom MiRi Park Spins the World Right Round

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(Photo: Martha Cooper)

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MiRi Park has a BFA in modern dance, but she never took a single hip hop class at her university. She also has a BA in journalism and an MA in American Studies. So how did she end up teaching hip hop dance at Steinhardt School of Education’s dance program, winning the role of Alexi Darling in Broadway blockbuster musical “Rent,” winning the Air Guitar Championship, and becoming one of the world’s premier b-girls (for those not in the know: women who breakdance)?

Has your first love always been dance?
I started dancing seriously at 10 years old. Having grown up feeling like I never fit in anywhere, it was the first time I ruled the roost and felt completely in my own skin and present. It was an escape for me — I put on makeup and a costume and went onstage, and all the insecurity went away. I sought out dance and music, this place I could go to and not worry about my looks or skin color. I felt like if I could relate to other people regarding music that we could dance to. I went to college and really fully immersed myself in understanding modern dance.

How did you get into hip hop dance, which is now your primary medium?
When I came to New York, I still didn’t quite fit in in dance. Even with a dance major background, there was still something missing. I felt this separation and distance. DanceSpirit magazine asked me to write this article about b girls, and I met this guy named Breakeasy (a.k.a. Richard Santiago) and he’s been my mentor. I went to his practice sessions at McCarren Park in Williamsburg. Hip hop is really this culture where you’re expected to be an individual, and not to bite anybody’s style. This is totally where I belong.

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Breaking is just one element of the total culture that is hip hop. Tell those not in the know about the different elements of hip hop culture that are vitally connected to breakdancing.
Hip-hop culture propagated that there are 5 styles. There is funk style popping and lock and breaking, emceeing and rapping, turntabling and deejaying, writing and graffiti, and then some people would say how you rock it, a lifestyle thing. It’s basically just a mindset in which you structure your life. Everything I do has something to do with the dance aspect of things. My closest friends are my b-girlfriends. My network is based on hip hop.

What other kinds of dance do you do, African, salsa, etc.?
African, salsa, yes, also house dancing, voguing, whacking.

What are voguing and whacking?
Voguing is related to what Madonna does in her “Vogue” video, represented in the Paris is Burning documentary, and done by Benny Ninja and Willy Ninja, who created new extreme poses for voguing. Whacking is about living this fabulous identity of a screen siren. It’s a little bit dancier with less posing, and is a west coast style. You can see it in the movie Break In.

What is your life like these days? Jetting from location to location performing?
I just got hired for the Broadway show “Rent” as Alexi Darling. I will also be teaching as the dance captain for anyone who joins the tour. It will be 14 weeks. I also teach hip hop dance at NYU and am the program coordinator for the oral history MA program at Columbia. I did an oral history of b-girls in 1990 and my thesis advisor started the oral history program at Columbia.

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(Photo: Martha Cooper)

How is it teaching at NYU?
I have been teaching for three years now, and the students say they never thought they could do these dances, had no reference for hip hop before, and even though they don’t think they’ll major in it, it makes them have a lot of fun and will always do them at parties. I expect people to take a chance and have fun while they’re doing it.

What can you teach or perform at corporate events?
We can bring a spectacular show with my all female group Fox Force Five. We can also bring b-boys, as we know and work with a crew.

At corporate events, party dancing is the best activity. It is a stepping stone for someone who doesn’t have any background in hip hop dance. Pop culturally, it is the easiest reference, and it came out of a social context. We are not facing the mirror in a line, but facing into a circle, then breaking down into groups and exploring different types of dances, including ones they want to bring in that they’ve ever done in their lives, at parties. Then we do a combination of what they bring and what I teach them. Hip hop dance is the art of improv manifested to particular music. They get to improv within a structure. It happens time and time again that I’ve seen the quietest people light up and completely participate in ways you would’ve never expected.

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(Photo: Martha Cooper)

It’s unusual to see female breakdancers, much less an Asian female breakdancer.
I grew up in a small community suburb listening to hip hop in the ’90s. I thought it was something to consume, but didn’t understand the culture or why I connected so deeply with it. It turns out when my dad immigrated to this country, he was also extremely connected to Motown culture and had a huge record collection.

When I was learning breaking at McCarren, it was predominantly male, Spanish and black with a sprinkling of Asians in 2001, all different ages, all different backgrounds. At those practices was the first time I felt completely in my skin. It’s no secret there’s a stereotype of Asian women so it was kind of a benefit at this point, not a bad thing to be an Asian female. There’s a weird thing of Japanese people coming over to New York learning to dance. Academically, that’s the kind of thing I find really interesting because there’s still a lot of discussion about why these things started and became so popular. I started my masters because why I was so interested in these forms. I grew up in upper middle class suburbs but thrived in an art that is traditionally working class and black.

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(Photo: Daragh McDonagh)

How was it performing your winning air guitar routine on Conan?
I poked fun at the Hello Kitty type, demure Asian female. It happened to strike a chord, no pun intended. It was quite interesting to be able to do comedy with a message even if people didn’t understand it. That’s what I appreciate about comedy, is that the things that are truly the funniest are also the most intellectual. I actually started taking improv in the fall. I incorporate it and laugh at myself. When you’re doing these dances, you feel ridiculous if you’ve never done them before, so you have to laugh at yourself.

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(Photo: Daragh McDonagh)

What’s valuable about learning hip hop dance?
Even though I grew up dancing, I didn’t grow up tumbling. By the time I was a senior I was known as the one who was afraid to go upside down. I’d had a few bad experiences growing up and had a total mental block. I didn’t start professionally breaking until a year into the experience. I was performing in modern pieces, going back to school, had a severe injury in school, and was hampered by those things. When I was injured, I had to ask, does this mean I’m still a dancer and an artist, even when I can’t walk? More than an actual skill, you just learn a new way to learn your life, which is more valuable than anything else, learning to approach something. I was raised Korean Zen Buddhist, deep in the understanding of meditation and dancing my whole life. You learn to beyond survive and not have any fear.

What’s next for hip hop dance?
House dancing is an evolution of top-rocking that you do before you hit the floor in a breaking sequence. Tap, modern dance, lyrical – those are the next step in street dance culture.

Below is a video of MiRi’s b-girls performing at Lincoln Center in the We B-Girlz Battle.

highlights from We B*GIrlz Battle at Lincoln Center in 2006

For more information about MiRi Park, contact BONGARBIZ at info@bongarbiz.com or (914) 734-1177.

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