When it comes to breakdancing, there’s no one doing it quite like Konatsu Yamasa.
Originally from Japan but currently settled in Toronto, Yamasa is a b-girl who can never stop moving—literally. As a dancer, she’s constantly pushing herself to learn new tricks and routines when she isn’t busy with her other job as a Japanese teacher. She’s traveled around the world, competing in battles. Not even COVID has slowed her down, as she’s navigated studio closures by training in her living room in anticipation of the upcoming Red Bull BC One Cypher, a dance competition that will feature the top 8 b-boys and b-girls from across Canada. The dancers will compete in Toronto on October 7 for a chance to represent Canada in Poland at the global BC One finals.
Yamasa is also one of the featured dancers in Red Bull’s Dance City Guide, which showcases her dancing across different areas in Toronto from Union Station, to The Village, to Ripley’s Aquarium, taking viewers on a lively tour of the city. Directed by award-winning Canadian filmmaker Justin Wu, the video features several other dancers and creatives, including b-boy Onton, friends Jahmal Nugent, Belinda Kwan, Tiffany Leung (b-girl Tiff), Jayson Collantes, James Baley, and Alonzo Moore.
We caught up with Yamasa to talk all things dance, travel, and more.
Nice to meet you! How’s it going?
Good. How are you?
Good. Where are you right now?
I’m in Toronto. I’m at home. I just got back a few days ago.
Oh, nice. Where were you?
I was in Japan. I was visiting my family. Yeah.
Oh, that’s nice. How are they doing?
They’re OK. They’re doing very well. [The Olympics were] in Japan. Yeah, so it was a little bit busy there.
Yeah, I can imagine. So obviously you’re an amazing dancer from everything I’ve seen and heard. I was reading a bit about you, and so when you started breakdancing, you didn’t do that as a kid, that came later on in university is that correct?
I started in university. So [I was] 17 or 18.
Wow. And I guess what sort of prompted that? Was it your friends who got you into it when you first started?
Yeah. When I first started I was gonna do it anyway, because in high school I had a lot of friends doing dance. And then especially breakdancing was cool to see. Before, I was doing inline [skating] when I was high school. And then when I entered university I started breakdancing.
That’s so cool. How long were you doing that in Japan before you came to Toronto? You’ve only been Toronto for a couple of years, right?
Yeah, two or three years.
Why did you come to Toronto specifically? I mean, I know we have a very big arts scene here.
Toronto [was the place because] a work visa was easier to get. And then also, there’s a style of breakdancing, Toronto style, that was very cool. It was something I wanted to learn. So I came here for breakdancing.
Very cool. And how does this style differ from other types?
Toronto style involves threading and complicated footwork and legwork. So it’s not power moves. Like a power move is headspinning and flipping around. It’s not like that, it’s more interesting. And even girls can do it. It’s a really cool style.
You also do teaching on the side while balancing your dance career. How is it finding the time to do both?
You mean teaching dancing or teaching my Japanese language?
“If I stopped dancing I don’t know what [I would] do. So it’s kind of everything for me right now.”
Japanese, but I guess yeah, you teach dance too!
Yeah, I’m busy teaching Japanese. It’s surprising how many people want to learn Japanese and it’s also inspiring. It’s a very high goal to learn Japanese. The good thing about this is I can schedule my time. So I can try to keep my practice time. I can put my class in the morning or at nighttime. So it’s really easy to schedule and then easy to get my time to practice. And then also, it’s really good to have something else other than dance, so you can build both at the same time.
Definitely. I know you’ve obviously put so much of your time and energy into practice, every single day I imagine.
Yes, I try. I try to practice every day.
I guess, how would you describe what dance means to you?
It’s kind of everything. It keeps me healthy and active, and then also it’s motivating. If I stopped dancing I don’t know what [I would] do. So it’s kind of everything for me right now. And then I meet friends at the sessions here, so I can’t imagine my life without dance right now. Dance is everything. I can go travel to different countries for dance events. I don’t go to countries with no events. I go for dance. Always the main thing is dance.
Do you have a favourite place or a favourite memory from a place that you’ve been that you’ve danced internationally before?
My favourite trip was Singapore. Every year there’s a big dance festival. It’s called Radical Force. It was very fun, there’s a battle, there’s competitions. I entered a competition with friends there, a Japanese friend. And then I also entered a two v. two competition with my husband. We made finals and it was very fun. Singapore is such a good country.
I’ve always wanted to go there. So, you also you met your husband through dance. What is it like like getting to dance with him and practice with him? And I guess compete with him too?
When I came here, he was a teacher [and] mentor. Yeah. After we got married and nowadays, we are really good practice partners and partners for competition, too. So we know each other well, and we tell each other, “Oh, we have to fix this one. We have to improve this part.” I really appreciate him because it’s really good to have him. I don’t think I [could] dance at this level, where I am, without him.
That’s so sweet.
Yeah, he’s helped me a lot.
Is there anything that you really enjoyed learning from him?
Dance-wise, he taught me a lot of Atlanta style, because he’s in that scene, and then he has a lot of Toronto style. And there’s a crew called Supernaturalz Crew, and I ended up joining the crew last year. And then he taught me all that history and then the dance style.
In life, he’s a really prepared person. He has to be perfect. So for me, I am not, I was really immature before. So he kind of made me kind of mature, because you always need to prepare for something, in competitions [and] even in life. So I learned from him to be prepared.
That’s fair. I’m sure a lot of the studios and places have closed because of the COVID lockdowns. Were you able to find a space to keep training? How was it trying to navigate that?
I think we were kind of shocked when the studio and everything closed. I was very sad. But we found a way to practice in our living room.
“I try to not hold back my style. I try to put everything out there, on the dance stage, then I feel good.”
Yeah, there was furniture, like a couch and a TV. There’s a table that we got rid of. It was good enough to practice, luckily. Yeah, we practice in the living room every day.
That’s very lucky. I feel like a lot of people, if you’re in a small apartment or something, there’s just no room.
You mentioned that you’ve done dance battles in Toronto—what happens if you win?
I’ve won a couple times. I mean, it’s awesome, and then at the same time, you get really motivated and because it’s like, “I can’t lose anymore because I’m on top right now and I don’t want to go down.” The first few years, I couldn’t even make pre-rounds. Then I trained harder because one thing that changed for me was I lost and I was so sad. And I was struggling, I needed to win. I trained so much. And then when I finally won, it was awesome. And at the same time, it’s like “Oh my god, I have to train harder.” Which is good.
Sometimes, even after I won, I wasn’t satisfied with my dance. With winning, it’s all dependent on judges, right? If I didn’t do my dance the way I wanted to, then I don’t feel well. I try to not hold back my style. I try to put everything out there, on the dance stage, then I feel good.
I feel like it’s kind of like that perfectionist thing you’re talking about. You’ve been doing it for so long now, you could probably do it in your sleep if you wanted to.
At Complex, we love sneakers over here. Do you have a favourite pair that you like to dance in?
I finally found my favourite pair. I was shooting with Nike and they gave me many shoes to try on. And I found the best one was Nike Zoom Air Fire. I don’t want to wear thick shoes because it’s not going to be comfortable dancing. So I got those shoes and they’re not thick and and they’re very fresh. [They’re] all white. And they’re a little bit cushioned, so if you jump around you won’t hurt your knees. If you wear Air Max, they’re very high shoes; I’ve sprained my ankle before so I can’t really wear high shoes. So the Zoom Air Fire, that was the best for me.
That’s good to know.
I usually try to wear all white shoes.
I love white shoes, they look good with everything.
So I heard Red Bull is going to be doing the BC One Canadian Cipher, and it’s going to be the top eight b-boys and b-girls from across the country, and they’re going to compete in Toronto. Are you competing in that?
I’ve been waiting for that. I’ve been waiting for many years. It was [last] in like 2016 or 2017, so I’ve been waiting for that.
Wow. So this whole time you’ve been preparing. Is there anything specific that you usually do when you’re training for something this big?
I’m usually getting ready for the next battle. So for me, the next battle is this weekend. It’s going to be a big competition for the Olympics. So I usually train for the battles, but with the pandemic there were none. So I was building my stamina, my control, and building more skills. And then there were still online battles, so I try and do [those].
“Don’t be afraid to go travel to different countries and show your style. And then even those online battles, don’t be shy, just enter. I think that’s the thing, of course, you have to train harder and then you have to work harder, but you need to show your effort.”
How does that work if you do it virtually? Do you just film yourself dancing?
Yes. Because sometimes you film yourself, sometimes you’re already connected [online] then you show my your dance on the screen. I like that better. I don’t like to film, because you can film 100 times, right? Yeah, that’s not fair.
Yeah, you just have to be in the moment. I know a lot of people across the whole like arts industry have been doing virtual stuff, but I never really thought about doing a streamed competition like that.
So many people didn’t like it. I didn’t like it. But I think I will say it’s better than nothing. It’s at least a chance to make something. It keeps you connected to people too. Yeah.
If you had any advice to give to any other b-girls or up-and-coming dancers trying to make a career out of dance, what would you say?
Don’t be afraid to go travel to different countries and show your style. And then even those online battles, don’t be shy, just enter. I think that’s the thing, of course, you have to train harder and then you have to work harder, but you need to show your effort. By showing the styles, then people are gonna know how much effort you spend on your style. So I think just go show yourself. And then each country, any country, once the border is open, I can’t wait to go to all the countries and to make friends to let people know about myself, and my husband, and what we got.
Do you guys have a specific place you want to go next?
Yeah, I want to go to the U.S. for sure. And then a European country. Then for Asia, I want to go to Taiwan. There’s a big break scene.
Because there’s so many different styles from each place that you can go, do you learn the new techniques to incorporate them into what you already do?
Yeah, you go abroad and you share stuff. I share my style, they share their style, and then I bring it back and then make something else. That’s why I like traveling. It’s imy favorite thing. And then you can make friends too.
Oh, that’s good. Is there a particular like b-boy or b-girl that you really look up to?
My favorite b-girls [are] Body Carnival. They’re Japanese. There’s a b-girl named Ayumi and one named Narumi. They’re a lot older than me, but they’re still winning all the jams and competitions [across] the world. [They’re] kind of legends for me.