Culturally Defined dance studio’s founder Chris Wong didn’t take his first dance class until he was 20 years old.
Wong moved to Canada from Hong Kong when he was 12. He had trouble fitting in culture-wise, and also had to deal with his parents separating as they moved. “It was definitely a situation where there’s a lot of, for lack of better words, teenage rage, or just a little bit of anger going on,” Wong says in a phone interview with the Straight. “So I got into martial arts, which was a good outlet for it, but in some ways it ignites it a little bit.”
He attended a dance class with one of his best friends, Stu, who suggested it as a way to try something new and practice self-expression. The majority of the class were semi-professional dancers and Wong got, in his words, “pretty destroyed,” but it inspired him to keep going.
He began weekly classes and immersing himself in street dance and hip-hop culture—particularly the ways in which dance can be used as a tool to resolve conflict.
“It has to do with the poverty that was going on in New York and all over the States, and people looking for ways to escape and resolve conflict that would usually be resolved with violence,” he explains. “A lot of the culture of dance came from people just finding alternative ways to express themselves—that’s how dance battles came to be.”
Learning all of that helped Wong understand the conflict in his own life and how to channel that energy elsewhere. “It went from a hobby to becoming something that I just basically needed to keep my life in balance,” he says, eventually making the leap from student to teacher.
While teaching, Wong discovered the misconception that successful dancers needed to be young and have a lot of free time. General classes, with their one-size-fits-all, drop-in settings that focus solely on choreography, can be discouraging to new dancers.
“People will go to these classes and then they'll be like, ‘Well shit, I'm never gonna get good at this unless I spend a ton of time doing it or I grew up doing it,’” he says.
This led him to create his own company. It started as a place for younger semi-professional dancers, but five years ago it shifted to provide a space for everyday adults to pursue dance. Wong changed the company’s name to Culturally Defined—operating out of spaces across Vancouver, without a home base of its own. “It’s cool because the company and its demographic has kind of grown with me,” Wong adds with a chuckle.
Now, the studio provides a variety of classes that can easily fit into people’s schedules and let them approach learning in an accessible way. In his 10 years of teaching, Wong found that many large-format choreography-based classes don’t have time to address certain skills—prompting him to create skill-based courses.
“Now, we can do very intentional classes—people can come and be like, ‘Hey, I'm gonna be in this class because I want to learn how to have better footwork. I want to learn how to connect with music better. I want to learn how to pick up choreography better,’" he says. There are classes to focus on the process and help people navigate these things, like remembering choreography, even when performing in small groups.
“Adults learn different—we learn different from kids, it's just the way it is,” Wong continues. “But whatever it is, we're still very capable of learning—it's just the methods and how we approach it.”
One of the programs, signature progressive training, lasts four months and wraps up in a showcase. Recent shows include a Top Gun-themed performance, and another called You Got Served. This summer’s event will be a tribute to iconic Super Bowl Halftime performances, from Prince’s sexy swagger to Katy Perry’s meme-tastic Left Shark.
Wong started searching for a permanent space about three years ago, and was set to sign a lease when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. The team decided to put everything on hold for a couple of years, but recently acquired a space in Mount Pleasant: Culturally Defined’s first permanent home, affectionally named the CD Clubhouse.
Juggling multiple practice spots for almost a decade was tough on the team. “Some days, I’d be carrying lights and speakers to like four or five different locations—it was quite terrible, to be honest,” Wong shares, noting that being picky about sound systems made it especially difficult at times.
“Having this space, finally having a home for all our dancers, has been insane,” he says, breathing a sigh of relief. “Even though it’s a new space, I didn’t want it to feel new to them, and from week one, literally, we were all saying how weirdly comfortable we are, that it feels like we’ve been here the whole time.”
The new studio is exactly as he envisioned it. “As you walk through, the entire space is basically highlighted with the history of everyone that’s been in the company,” he says. “Our entire bathroom is [covered in] photos.”
The history of Culturally Defined, and its community, is on those walls. It reminds Wong that some people have stayed with the company for the whole decade it’s been in operation.
“We have people that have been there since day one, that have consistently been a part of the community,” he says. “I've seen them get into university, meet their boyfriend, get engaged, get married, and have two kids. The most rewarding thing is seeing those people come in, and seeing them on the wall, and then their kids are coming to some of the classes to watch—it just helps remind me how much dance is meant to stay with us forever.”
Culturally Defined’s next showcase, Culturally Defined presents Halftime Show, takes place on June 17 and 18 at Fortune Sound Club.