This summer we chatted with breaker, mover and shaker, MN Joe Tran about his life as a break-dancing Teaching Artist and crew member of BRKFST, as well as some of his influences and how to “break” into the scene. Pun intended. Read all about it in this Artist Spotlight and make sure to see him and his students perform on October 16th at McDonough Recreation Center in Saint Paul.
Hey Joe, thanks a lot for taking the time during your busy summer to chat with us. Can you tell us a little about your background and what art form you teach and perform?
I am a second generation Vietnamese American. I teach and perform breaking both locally and internationally.
When did you become interested in breaking? Who were some influences?
I first became interested in breaking when I was 13 years old. I went to slide tackle someone and got up from the ground in a fancy way. Another student asked, “do you breakdance?” and I said, “yes” without knowing what it was exactly. It took off from there. My main influence at the time was my cousin that started teaching me. And quite honestly, the attention I was receiving. It felt really good to be acknowledged for doing something no one else around me could do.
What do you see as the #1 lesson breaking can teach someone?
I think the #1 lesson breaking can teach someone is the attitude of “doing-it-yourself.” There weren’t any studios teaching it when I started and I didn’t meet a mentor for a couple of years. Breaking is about creating something from nothing. It’s about making the most of what you have and feeling confident in yourself. All you need is your body and the music. It’s also about realizing not only your creation and expression, but recognizing other’s as well.
In addition to teaching, you also perform as part of the group BRKFST. Is there anything you gain from performing that you don’t from teaching?
Starting out, none of us ever thought we would be dancing professionally for an audience. Performing with BRKFST allows us to demonstrate, live, to the youth that they can fulfill their dreams with dedication and hard work. In contrast to teaching, we hope that the audience receives a visceral experience. In addition to our educational shows, we also get to perform at various theaters throughout the Twin Cities. In these contexts, we get to share our nuanced experience of what it’s like to be involved in the breaking and hip hop culture.
You’ve taken part in a number of break competitions all around the world. What are those like? What’s your favorite part about them?
I’ve been to several events overseas from France, England, Amsterdam, Belarus, Estonia, Italy, Japan, Poland, Canada, Colombia and the USA of course. The level of competition is very high at these events. Oftentimes, I am not the only international person invited. I compete against the best. While these events are big, I’ve found that there is always a supportive local scene, big or small, everywhere. Everyone starts out the same. My favorite part about traveling besides the competition, is experiencing each country’s dance scene. From what they eat, where they practice, and their general lifestyle. It’s humbling to see where some of my favorite dancers came from. And it gives me hope that no matter your background, you can reach for success. It’s also humbling to receive respect from strangers in different countries. You never know who you can inspire. Winning is just a bonus.
You’ve recently started a workshop series working with youth at McDonough Recreation Center in Saint Paul. How is that going? Any other new projects you’re working on?
The workshop at McDonough Recreation Center is going well. It always gives me a good feeling when a student realizes they can learn something as difficult as breaking. At first glance, breaking looks impossible, but once they give it a few tries, they start to get the hang of it. It’s especially awesome to see students create their own combinations after they’ve learned some basics. Outside of teaching, BRKFST and I are working on a show with Kaleena Miller Dance at The Cowles Center for March 2019!
You joined the COMPAS back in 2016. Why did you want to be a part of COMPAS? How’s it going so far?
I wanted to be a part of COMPAS because I believed in the mission of spreading creativity and art to the youth. By being able to perform and teach at schools and community centers, I have the opportunity to inspire and encourage children to create, have fun, and be confident in themselves through dance. I wish I had COMPAS when I was a kid! While it can be a challenge sometimes, I have been enjoying myself and hope the students are too!
How do you practice creativity each day?
I practice creativity daily by being curious about as many things as possible. I like to ask “what if” and “why” about any situation. I let my mind make up the most ridiculous scenarios. I find this to be a humorous way of looking at life, and opens up possibilities that I may have not seen before. Kind of like the way a comedian comes up with material. By thinking deeply about something no matter how mundane, nuances become clearer, and that’s where the humor lies. I approach my dance in the same way — anything is possible and everything is worth exploring.