Breathing (under)Ground again: The unofficial reopening of the SMU T-Junction/Underpass space
by Nah Dominic
Slowly, at first, and then surely in May 2022, the WhatsApp and Telegram messages, Instagram posts and stories trickled in: dancers (mostly across street dance forms) were returning to the Singapore Management University (SMU) underpass to practise movement. The notices stuck on the wall during the pandemic prohibiting dancers from practising (masked or unmasked) had been quietly removed. It had been almost 27 months since dancers could gather freely.
Famed alongside the Esplanade Underpass and the fourth and fifth floors of *SCAPE as freely accessible practise spots, dancers across street and contemporary forms have found themselves chope-ing [reserving] spots and trying to carve out enough sonic space to hear the music from their own speakers along the stretches of the SMU underpass for many years. I was first introduced to this underground hive of movers on a weekday evening in 2017, where a group of breakers (b-boys and b-girls) who were a mix of SMU students and working adults had gathered on a Wednesday evening for a session.
Since then, I’ve spent many weekday evenings taking in the scattered sounds of many portable speakers, filming my own practice sets and group cyphers, and just observing in awe – as I’m walking to 7-11 to get a hopefully discounted drink – of the many other movers in the same concentration of space underground that have gathered here. Cypher exchanges and mutual introductions led to new friends discovered, all facilitated by this common space with its high ceilings, colourful pillars and air-conditioning.
Then we had to hold our collective breaths, for about two years. Even so, it’s true that during this time there were still dancers at the Esplanade Underpass (mostly breakers and skaters, obscured by the barricading of the central atrium space) and the restricted (but nonetheless open) use of *SCAPE. Dancers turned to their bedrooms, living rooms, corridors, staircase landings, function halls, void decks, open-air spaces, corners and fringes of shopping malls and schools, all for a chance to catch a breath, to ground themselves in movement. Where possible, we gathered in groups (of no more than 5).
During the pandemic, I rarely met friends that I used to dance with at the SMU T-Junction/Underpass session spot. Breaking became a largely solo affair for me, with aimless late-night sessions outside a shopping mall near where I stay. I often wondered how it was like for all the other dances who frequented the same spaces. Some of us have almost stopped dancing because of the lack of common public spaces because the flexible rituals this space has afforded us could not be easily replicated elsewhere. Some must have persevered and trained hard at home, but others like me languished in relative isolation.
By today (08 June 2022), the collective breaths have returned in full force. It is getting crowded again. There are groups rehearsing and drilling sets for the upcoming Super 24 dance showcase competition in August: their choreographers troubleshooting on the fly, rewinding the same track over. A group of all-styles dancers have broken out in a cypher. Freestyle hip-hop meets locking meets waacking meets popping. I am meeting some of my adult friends who are hobbyist dancers like myself. Slowly at first, now surely, spontaneous meetings and fist bumps, exclamations of “eh haven’t seen you in so long sia” and “it’s great to be back” celebrate our collective return to the T-Junction, to the SMU underpass.
As the cont·act Contemporary Dance Festival 2022 opens in-person this June, so too we are moving and breathing (under)ground again.
Nah Dominic discovered breaking in 2013. Since then, he has been largely a hobbyist b-boy and hopes to continue dancing into old age. Previously, he performed an autobiographical dance-theatre performance dead was the body till i taught it how to move in 2018 at Aliwal Arts Centre, produced by Bhumi Collective. Presently, he is a PhD student at the National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University researching on secondary school students’ responses to ethical approaches of teaching Literature. He has also served as a dramaturg and reviewer for several dance and theatre productions from 2018 to 2021.