Meet one of the most important enthusiasts, pioneers and masters of Vietnamese hip-hop. Words by Vu Ha Kim Vy

 

Big Toe, a hip-hop dancing crew, was formed in November 1992 with five members led by Vu Van Tuan, mainly performing at student proms and bars. For personal reasons, some members left, causing Tuan to look for replacements. That was when Nguyen Viet Thanh, aka Liont, became a member of Big Toe.

 

They stayed together for six more months before officially splitting in 1993. However, Liont, with his enthusiasm and passion for hip-hop, reformed the crew with completely new members in the same year.

 

Two decades later, Big Toe is one of the leading hip-hop dancing crews in this country. A representative of Vietnam in international hip-hop battles, when it comes to the burgeoning hip-hop scene in this country, their influence has been pivotal. It’s all thanks to Liont.

 

Live to Dance

 

Liont first learnt about hip-hop as a form of expression in 1992 when he went to a student prom. At the event, many types of dances were brought to the stage.

 

“I was really impressed by one group out of the five,” he recalls. “The way they danced was so different compared to everyone else. They made waves and they were popping, all in sync with the music in the background.”

 

Curious, Liont asked one of the crew members what this was. He was told it was called breakdance. Yet the crew member himself “didn’t actually know what they were dancing.”

 

Intrigued, Liont started practicing his first hip-hop movements. Then, taught by an older friend, he officially went on stage at the end of 1992.

 

“At first I started with waves and breakdance power moves,” he says.

 

Although hip-hop was formally recognised as an art form in Vietnam in 2011, Vietnamese parents would hardly encourage their children to make it a career choice. Liont’s family didn’t stop him, but explained that he needed a real job and his passion for dance should be just for fun.

 

In 2000, he tried to quit hip-hop and found himself a job, but after a week he went back to dancing. Even when his mother built a hotel and wanted him to be the manager, it didn’t work out.

 

“I realised those places were not for me and decided to follow my calling,” he says.

 

Liont is now the top captain of Big Toe above three branch crews categorised by gender, age and type of dance. He has also worked as a judge in international competitions in Canada, Italy and the US, and acts as a dancing teacher to many young Vietnamese.

 

When the Going Gets Tough

 

Apart from dealing with his family, Liont says other difficulties he encountered included how to get more people interested in hip-hop and how to maintain the crew.

 

“Hip-hop is a street-art form and culture, so the best way to spread these dance moves is to take it back to its natural place,” he says. “So I often performed in public places, such as parks, football fields and cultural houses.”

 

Another problem he encountered were the frequent conflicts between members of his crew. People who follow hip-hop usually have big egos, Liont says, as everyone wants to show they have more ability than everyone else.

 

“As the leader, I always have to manage the relationship of the members and create a comfortable and enjoyable environment,” he explains. “Everyone has strengths and weaknesses, the most important thing is to learn from each other, not to create hatred or jealousy.”

 

Under his leadership, Big Toe has won many prominent awards, including fourth place in the Southeast Asian Hip-Hop Competition in 2005 and 2006, in the top 16 of Floor War 2016 — European Hip-Hop Competition, champion of Vietnam Battle of The Year (BOTY) 2009, fourth in Asian BOTY 2009, Best Showcase and in the top eight of Floor The Love 2010, champion of SEA BOTY 2010 and champion of R16 Southeast Asia 2010.

 

They have also been running hip-hop classes, such at 25 Thai Thinh, Dong Da, Hanoi and Savico Long Bien (7 Nguyen Van Linh, Long Bien, Hanoi) for kids; and the studio at V+ Mall (505 Minh Khai, Hai Ba Trung, Hanoi) is the first institute teaching professional hip-hop combined with Latin and contemporary dance.

 

“With this structure, we are able to train dancers to their full strength, and provide them the knowledge and culture of hip-hop, so they can participate in national and international competitions,” says Liont.

 

“It also makes parents feel more comfortable,” he adds. “That means they will give spiritual and financial support to their kids, making a strong future for hip-hop in Vietnam.”

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