I interviewed Singaporean dance artist and educator Beng Hwee Tan, a master’s student at Soka University pursuing a degree in TESOL, to understand how he is holding up through the pandemic. We discussed some of his self-reflections, insights, and the advice that he would give to young pioneers in education today.
Hello, Beng! Thanks for accepting this interview! To start, could you share with us a little bit of who you are and the kinds of work you are doing?
Sure! I grew up in Singapore, lived in Southern California, and currently live in Tokyo, Japan. I’m pursuing a master’s degree at Soka University and engaging in hip-hop based educational research in language education. I’m also a b-boy (a dancer who engages in the hip-hop element of breaking) and have been an active member of the hip-hop dance communities in Los Angeles, San Diego, and Tokyo.
Through my work in hip-hop-based educational research, I aim to promote more inclusive and student-centered curricula. I also engage in work to ensure that hip-hop dance remains accessible to underprivileged communities as well as the communities who pioneered this art form.
What inspired you to pursue a career in dance?
I wouldn’t really say that I have a career in dance because I approach dance as a cultural form as well as a part of life.
Specifically, I have been actively engaging in research on hip-hop-based education during the past couple of years. A huge part of my inspiration came from my experiences as a b-boy in Southern California. My first teacher, B-boy Mirth, brought me to breaking jams in San Diego and Los Angeles, in which I was able to deeply connect with the culture and community. The community served as an empowering space for me and helped me cope with the discrimination I was facing when I first moved to the United States.
As I began to learn more about the heritage and culture of hip-hop, I felt that there was so much educational value in this cultural form. I would even say that a third of my education was in the university, one third was from societal experiences, and the final third was from hip-hop.
How did the ideas for your choreography come about?
I usually only do choreography for a specific project or performance because the foundation of all hip-hop dance forms is freestyle. Hip-hop is a social dance and is centered on expression, interaction, and connection. When I dance, I get ideas from everywhere, from my lived experiences, my encounters with others, and the struggles that people face in society.
Are there any personality traits or habits you think every leader should have?
Empathy. In terms of management, empathy allows a leader to better connect and work with members of a team. More importantly, however, empathy will completely shift the direction of a leader’s work. Leaders often hold influential positions in society, and, through empathy, leaders work not only for their personal benefit but also to direct their organizations towards contributing to the betterment of society.
Whose career inspires you and why? Who do you admire?
I would say a person who has been a source of inspiration recently is Bryonn Bain. As a youth, he was wrongfully arrested due to the color of his skin. However, he used the challenges he faced in life as a source of inspiration, which led to him becoming a professor, activist, and hip-hop artist. He also contributes to the betterment of society through his passion for hip-hop. In particular, he uses hip-hop and spoken-word poetry in the prison education system to help transform the lives of prisoners as well as raising awareness of injustice in the US criminal justice system.
What are some of the major challenges you face in your pursuits? What keeps you motivated to solve them instead of quitting?
I think one of the biggest challenges is the commercialization of hip-hop dance. In the US, there was commercial dance, but there were also communities and organizations that focused on culture and community. Outside of the US, commercial dance was wildly popular.
As a result, most people’s understanding of hip-hop is based on studio classes and choreographed performances, which do not necessarily provide a comprehensive sharing of hip-hop culture. Many pioneers that I have spoken with shared that it is important to learn about the lived experiences of pioneering communities as well as experiencing hip-hop culture in its original form in the United States.
Another issue is that, since hip-hop came from underprivileged youths who were struggling to find a platform for change in society, the centering on elite dance studios results in hip-hop no longer being accessible to the communities that founded it. While volunteering, I have met at-risk youths who were interested in dance but had no access to resources to learn.
In the US, I could connect with different communities and non-profits while carrying out my work as an educator and researcher. I was also constantly able to receive feedback from pioneers and scholars in hip-hop to stay on course. However, once I returned to Singapore, it became a huge struggle. I struggled to find platforms to continue my work and faced criticism about my sharing of hip-hop heritage and culture.
In terms of staying motivated, it has honestly been a huge struggle over the past year in Singapore. What really kept me going was my Buddhist practice. As an SGI member, I believe that “winter always turns to spring,” so I always hold on to the hope that there are no challenges that cannot be overcome.
If you were to start all over again, would you do anything differently?
I don’t think there’s anything I would change. I think every experience has contributed to my life in a valuable way. The difficult times enabled me to grow and better understand the struggles of others.
If you weren’t in this field, what career would you explore?
I don’t think I would do anything else. For me, passion and purpose are important in whatever I do, so I put a lot of thought into everything I do.
What advice do you have for youths who also aspire to become dance artists or educators?
I would say constantly having the spirit to grow and develop into a better human being. I believe that who you are as a person is reflected in your work, and the better you are as a human being the more your work will be able to positively impact society and the lives of others.
What’s next for Beng?
In the next couple of years, I plan to pursue a doctorate in education to contribute to the development of hip-hop-based education as well as education for global citizenship. I also hope to play a larger role in the dance industry to provide more opportunities for people to experience and engage in hip-hop.