Brian Tong is an Ottawa-born and raised hip-hop dancer. Now, Brian is the founder of Start Up Dance, a successful choreographer, creative director, consultant, teacher—the list goes on. Nickie Shobeiry sat down with him at the Wellington Diner to find out more about his life.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Apt613: Tell me about your childhood.
Brain Tong: I was born and raised in Ottawa! Born in Vanier, the red light district. I’m second-generation Vietnamese, raised with the mentality that everything is beautiful and you should not take things for granted. Growing up, we lived sparsely—my brother and sister and I slept in the same room until we were 14. We went to difficult schools, but we all persevered and became very successful. One of my friends is now a huge rap artist in the U.S. Another individual is now running a lot of programs in the downtown market—she went to the same school I did in Chinatown. There was a gentlemen who was next door to me who now runs a very successful nightclub downtown. Here I am with my own dance projects—all of our dreams came true.
Were you always interested in dancing?
It was something I did on my own. All it takes is one piece of encouragement from an adult—“that’s so cool, keep doing it!”—and as a kid, I kept going. I watched Michael Jackson on TV, and there was an Alvin and the Chipmunks remix of ‘Bad’. That’s when I first discovered him. I started mimicking his moves, learning his techniques. I’d dance in the washroom until Grade 3, because that was the only place that had mirrors! Then my boys, they started dancing, and they introduced me to Notorious B.I.G. As I grew up, it became more and more prominent that I loved dance. I danced with cardboard and a boombox on the streets. It was a negative environment, but dancing kept us sane. Little did I know there were drug-dealers or gangs because on the dance floor, that didn’t exist. They nurtured me a little bit, and I carefully got out of it. I found myself in a place where dance became more safe.
A youth outreach program found me after I founded a dance club in my suburban school. I faced a lot of racism. Everyone had Beamers, Mercedes—I wasn’t used to it, I started my own crew—made an outlet where I felt home. We went to a competition and one girl came up and said “You should really try out for this” and I took a chance and went. It was an outreach program called Culture Shock, and it turned my life around.
… all of our dreams came true. — Brian Tong
Who were some of your mentors?
The streets taught me. What took me away from the streets was when my mum decided to move away from the hood to Kanata where everyone had the suburban lifestyle. A teacher asked me what I do and I said dancing. They suggested making a dance club, and that was it. It changed my life. It took the bad energy and honed it into dance. I started break-dancing, started going to battles. I trained and the day came and I got my ass whopped. I had two choices: to quit, because it was so emotionally damaging, or continue. I decided to continue because I’d come so far.
What is it about being a dancer in Ottawa that’s unique?
[In Ottawa] you’re a family and treated like part of the community (no fame or fortune would make you any different). It’s assumed that there’s no defined culture, and it’s hard to define Ottawa at first glance, because the culture is still building in the spotlight.
How would you describe your style?
My style is definitely more lyrical. My go-to is R&B, very sensual and fluid. I’m emotional in my choreography, based on my lessons and teachings from Toronto. Shawn Desman was my favourite singer growing up. I’m influenced by Montreal and Toronto styles.’
In terms of choreography, what’s your process?
There’s the fundamentals: it starts with the ABCs. Your wrist roll, your point, your position. These are all letters. You know this stuff. Now piece together a word: wrist roll with a point. ‘B’ and ‘E’, which makes the word ‘be’. Dancing is the same thing. It’s a string of pieces, and you string more and more together until you get a sentence—choreography. Then there’s the musicality: kicks, drums, snares, high-hat, bassline, chords, chorus, synths—that’s another level, and I listen to it. You move accordingly. Even brushing your hair can be a dance.
You see the potential of dance in everything.
I see everything as inspiration. For example, it’s raining right now. I look at how people react: the wind is blowing, people are running. I look at their behaviour. Why are they yelling in traffic? How do they feel when they’re angry? Based on my choreography experience I can read the body. How do I show that feeling with my body? The tense arms, the tense eyes, the neck. The dancers I teach will recognise this in real life. They’ll see social dynamics: “This person is angry, we shouldn’t talk to them.” You can work with society and sense body language.
What’s your teaching style?
Mine is more of a father figure. If you disregard the rules, you will be punished. It’s like society—but that doesn’t mean that you can’t move things around and be creative.
Do you find it easy to discipline yourself in the way that you have?
We’re all a little distracted. I took Taekwondo and Karate, so I’m very focused, and I hold myself accountable. Accountability is huge in Asian culture, and I see it in other cultures, and I hope the other generations follow. My kids learn about accountability: if they don’t want to sit in my class, I give them an old-school Karate lesson. I make them sit at the wall and hold out two books. I make the choreography two times slower. If they drop the book before the choreography finishes, we re-start. I restart four, five, six times. Eventually the kid wants to dance, and I say, “You’ve made a choice. What’s your choice today?” and the kid says he wants to dance. At that point, he’s made a choice, and I say “I forgive you, come back.” And he starts dancing like crazy.
What have you learnt about yourself through teaching?
If I do things for the sake of finishing and going home, I’m not providing anything for the community. Everything I bring to these kids moulds them.
What have been some of your career highlights?
Recently it was Bluesfest. I was the co-choreographer and creative director for Ottawa artist, Maurice Moore. We were opening at Bluesfest and it was crazy! Being on the stage was hard work. You have to be on it. At the same time, I do multi-task a lot. I became a producer and an event planner. Bluesfest needed more visibility and marketing, so I created a VIP platform. I got the team form Bluesfest to work with me to get influencers, with a reach of more than 10 million views together.
Do you have any pre-performance rituals?
I’m nervous as hell! It’s just how my body is built. I know I’ll be fine but it’s just from growing up in a volatile place. How do I calm down? I just go through it. Once that first move starts, my heart rate slows down.
Tell me about an upcoming project.
I’m involved with Hip Hop International that’s coming to Ottawa the weekend of June 2nd. Dancers compete and it’s aggressive: one team competes against 50+ other countries to get that one medal. What you do with that medal doesn’t stop. The winner four years ago was Royal Family, who backed up Justin Bieber’s ‘Sorry’ video.
What advice have you got from your dancing that you think is relevant to people from all walks of life?
Accountability. If you say you’ll do it and you want it, do it.
Learn more about Brian through his videos on YouTube.