If you live in Vancouver and have been to Robson Square, you’ve likely noticed the dancers there.
On any given day or night of the week, you might find breakdancers on the ground spinning into power moves, house dancers working on fast footwork, or waackers studying and styling shapes. On their own, or in groups, on the ice rink or anywhere around it—dancers flock to this open public space in the heart of the city.
But why Robson Square? Of all the public spaces in the city, what makes this provincially owned location so conducive to dance?
Here are a few reasons why the area—on either side of Robson Street between Hornby and Howe—is a hub for street dance, a bit about how it all started and what this means for the communities involved.
Robson Square is right smack downtown. Granville Station on the Canada Line is just a block away, as are Burrard, Granville and all sorts of other bus routes that traverse the city. This means dancers from all over Greater Vancouver, even some from the burbs, can easily access the space. The elevator and cascading ramp on the south stairs increases accessibility.
The ice rink is a central focus in the winter but because of Vancouver’s temperate climate, and dancers can make use of the surrounding space year-round, taking over the rink when it has no ice, which ends up being three-quarters of the year. Japan-born Noriko Sato says house dance is especially suitable for dancing outside during winter because, “You’re always on your feet and jumping around to house music,” thereby keeping warm. Breakdancers, on the other hand, have to wait for spring when the rink’s smooth surface is no longer ice-covered.
A very practical reason why local street dancers have made Robson Square their base is because the public space is free. Unlike some other forms of dance, like ballet or jazz, which arguably need a studio, street dancing, by its very nature, doesn't require a studio all the time. Many street dancers come to the form later in life and need to practise in between formal classes but many admit that rental spaces in the city are at a premium and they don’t have the $20 or so it can cost for an hour.
“There are a lot of mid-range artists who don’t have the means to finance something when they don’t get anything back financially,” says contemporary dancer, actor, and martial artist Michael Demski, who stumbled upon dancers using the rink at Robson Square over a month ago when he first moved to the city. “They might not have the experience to apply for grants but they have the desire to explore, and you need space for that.”
Some street dancers are professional, being paid to perform and teach, as well as winning prize money from battles, but the majority do it because it is a passion.
Because they’re passionate, most dancers are happy to share what they know with whoever is around and asking. Several offer informal classes throughout the week.
“People just kind of take what they want to take,” says street-dancer Boris Khramtsov, who moved to Vancouver from Russia 16 years ago and has been frequenting Robson Square for the past eight. “There’s no charge for our class. I think technically you’re not allowed to do any money exchange by the provincial rules, so that’s one reason. We just do it for the love.”
Any dancer who leads classes at Robson will tell you they’re doing it to spread the love of their respective style of street dance. Taking a class in a studio in the city can also cost around $20 and for anyone who wants to be dancing most nights of the week, that expense adds up. These informal classes encourage inclusivity by making space for beginners to try dance at no risk, encouraging new dance enthusiasts by the dozen.
There’s no organized way to know about these classes—not even a Facebook group—other than by word of mouth. But presently, and according to Khramtsov, Tuesday nights are busy with hustle sessions, while Wednesday he and dancer partner Anthony Grapé lead locking. Thursdays also tend to be busy for the street-dance scene with Fridays and Sundays being dominated by the officially booked dance programs at the square, ballroom, and salsa respectively.
In addition to leading weekly classes, Khramtsov has organized the Vancouver Street Dance Festival in July for the past five years, but says he likely won’t be able to do it again next year because of the cost.
“There’s permits to figure out, insurance, fundraising to do,” Khramtsov says. “The space is not free when you actually rent it out...especially when you run [the festival] as a free event, it takes up a lot of my money and time.”
Robson Square is a provincially owned property and managed by Pace Group Communications. The public space costs money to maintain and there are fees attached to renting its various levels (see photo below for level differentiations). Not-for-profit organizations receive a discount over corporate entities, but costs for even a one-day community event can add up quickly. The daily minimum rate for a not-for-profit is $500, plus the hourly cost of security, janitorial services, and supplies, add at least another $225, without including insurance and event-specific costs like use of the stage.
Khramtsov says his three-day festival costs him around $2,000, which might sound reasonable but it’s a lot for one person to take on. Khramtsov admits to having great help and the festival is now finally eligible to apply for grants, but time becomes the issue as he and many other dancers at Robson have full-time jobs.
There’s just something about Robson Square.
“It’s such a unique space,” says Khramtsov. “For people, when they come from Montreal, they come from New York, they come from Europe, they actually somehow or other usually hear about it.”
The collection of segregated physical spaces and the more communal central point of the rink makes Robson Square a perfect hub. It was designed for foot traffic and human interaction back in the 1970s. According to biographer Nicholas Olsberg, architect Arthur Erickson wanted the space to represent the foundations of society: the law courts being at one end of the square, the art gallery at the other, with government offices to support the people throughout. UBC also now has a campus there.
The sheltered zones within the square are inviting for dance, acting as shields from Vancouver rain as well as creating areas that can feel semi-private.
“I think because it’s underground yet still has light, it’s sort of private in a way,” says Demski. “It allows people to work without being scrutinized. People can come and go.”
Demski also says the boards around the rink act as a divide from the pedestrian public, establishing the dancers’ space. This invites onlookers to stop and watch without feeling like they’re gawking, bringing the often studio-confined practice of dance out into the public. UBC students whose classes look out onto the square get a more direct experience, as dancers outside often use the windows as makeshift mirrors.
Coquitlam-based street-dancer Jesse Kim credits the architecture for supporting general interaction. He notes how features like the cascading stairs actually physically invite people in, down and into the space. “It’s very aesthetically pleasing,” says Kim. “I think that just calms people.”
And for dancers, Kim says: “It’s outdoors so we don’t feel like we’re in the gym; we’re outside, we can enjoy the sun, step in and out and just chill out. It’s also a really nice place to work at night.”
A few dancers commented on the pleasures of dancing outside at night. Who wouldn’t love dancing under the stars?
Incalculable benefits to the local street-dance community
The impact Robson Square has had on the street-dance community in Vancouver is hard to measure. But for over three decades now, it’s been the spot in town to practise.
“When breaking resurfaced in the early '90s we would practise anywhere we could find a spot,” says local street-dance pioneer Jheric Hizon, who credits his colleague Nelson "Nellyrock" Cortez for finding the space. Back then, their crew was called "Wild Style" and, according to Hizon, they were second-generation B-boys in the city. “All I remember is that every time we would practise at the ice rink, we would get chased out by security. First, because they thought we were fighting, in actuality we were practising battle rocks against each other. Second, we were using their electricity illegally, so we would end up getting kicked out. But we kept coming back.”
Security guards today are a lot more lenient; they know the dancers aren’t up to mischief and if the music volume escalates they just ask that it be turned down. Electricity remains an issue, however. This past winter the government sealed all of the outdoor electrical outlets to "discourage unauthorized use that may be potentially unsafe", according to a communications manager from the province's Ministry of Technology, Innovation and Citizens’ Services. Electrical connections are available to groups who have booked the space. Dancers now bring their own battery-powered stereos.
“The space wasn’t always like this,” says Kim. “More people have come, a lot more people.” Kim started coming to the square over 10 years ago as a breakdancer. He now spends more time popping and is getting into animation. (The differentiation between street-dance styles is for another feature, but know that there’s a whole umbrella of terms that grows by the day and all have a unique and sometimes contested history.)
Kim also says there are more partner dancers using the space—even traditional Japanese dancing shows up from time to time. Khramtsov confirms this observation: “In the last three years there’s tons of partner dancing. It’s grown more varied,” he says, referring to not only partner in street dance known as hustle, but also zumba and ballroom too.
The proximity of a huge variety of dance styles in Robson Square also promotes a cross-pollination, and not just in street. Exchange between the dancers is part of the community ethos. “If I see people, even hip hop of a different genre, I can ask, ‘Can you teach me, or I can teach you a step?’” says Sato, who stumbled into dance 10 years ago and now organizes house dance events for the community. This social aspect makes some feel like Robson Square is a second home, but it can also mean some pros have to purposefully stay away to not be interrupted while working through new steps or practising to improve their own skills.
The street-dance scene would probably be a lot more isolated and segregated into its genres and locales if it weren’t for this space. Street dancer Anthony Grapé says if the space were ever to be shut down, he’s not sure the dancers from White Rock and Surrey would make the trip: “They’d probably just stay where they are, but who knows?”
Surprisingly, there is no one organizing factor bringing the community together, like an organization or some kind of organized social network. It is the organic space itself that attracts, an almost old-fashioned concept these days.
The greater community
As much as Robson Square is important to the dance community, it brings a human element to the heart of downtown that can’t be argued and should not be undervalued.
“Even if you’re not a dancer, it’s amazing to just sit on the steps and see the conglomeration of different dances and artists in that space, each invested in their craft,” says street and contemporary dancer Antonio Somera, who finds there aren’t enough places like Robson Square that successfully bring together the broader community.
And it truly is inclusive. That’s a main reason dancers like the outdoor space so much. People walking by stop and question what’s going on and are invited to join in, despite a lack of experience. Vancouver is said to be a difficult city for newcomers, but Robson Square, and all its various dancing, offers a site to meet friends any day of the week. The one caveat: you have to be down to dance.
Come on down! A list of some of the organized dance at Robson Square this spring and summer:
Robson Square Summer Dance Series
Free ballroom lessons and shows open to all levels, no partner required.
Fridays throughout June 24-September 2.
Sunday Afternoon Salsa
Husband and wife team of Stephen Dancey and Jennifer Dancey offer free salsa lessons and dancing as an extension of their Dancey Studios.
Sunday afternoons throughout July 3-August 28.